I’ve been sharing some of what I’m learning from Raine’s The Land of Saddle Bags and he includes a small section on Mountain Songs. I was particularly interested in this section for acouple of reasons. I’m a fan of Bluegrass Music and I’ve had the occasion to argue the point that while Bill Monroe may be nicknamed “The Father of Bluegrass Music”, the music is actually as old as the hills – or at least as old as our occupation of these hills. I am also interested because despite my very, very limited talents my family historically was quite musical and passed many idle hours “making music”.
James Watt Raine certainly validates my “old as the hills” argument simply by including this chapter in his 1924 book. Bill Monroe was just thirteen when this book was published and while he was undoubtedly already pickin’ his mandolin, he wouldn’t be playing publicly until the early 1930’s and would sign a recording contract in 1936 along with his brother Charlie. Now, I don’t want to minimize either Mr. Monroe’s great talent or his contribution to Bluegrass Music. Certainly this modern genre of music is called Bluegrass because of Monroe’s band. Before Bill Monroe, mountain folk just called it music. Mountain folk who’d left home might have called it Mountain Music.
The Land of Saddle Bags presents seven traditional ballads – for Mr. Raine asserts that “ballads are the poetry of primitive people” and he seems certain these were the songs originally brought to Appalachia. Only one, Barbara Allen was really familiar to me. He also mentions:
Lord Thomas and Fair Elender
The Two Sisters
The Gypsy Laddie
The Green Willow Tree
The Demon Lover
Come all ye Fair and Tender Ladies
We may not recognize these particular songs, but we all know that we hear the twangs of Scotland and Ireland in so many of our folk songs. Now, I have to confess to you that I tried to prove this point by looking at lists of traditional Irish and Scottish music and I’m afraid I didn’t know many – or any – of the songs listed there either.
My Hixson ancestors lived in the Sequatchie Valley, walled in by great mountain ranges on both sides, this idyllic valley seems like something from a storybook. And in fact, the family lived on subsistence farms and had very little contact with the outside world. So they had to make their own entertainment. In fact, they entertained most of the valley as they made music every Saturday night and folks wandered in through the evening to visit and enjoy the show. The whole family took part playing homemade instruments and utilizing God-given, raw talent.
Of course today that valley has a four lane highway crossing it and allowing residents access to better jobs and most all of the conveniences and entertainments of the world. The same is true on the Plateau and even in the Smoky Mountains. So has our music survived this invasion – or the expansion of our horizons?
Certainly the popularity of Bluegrass music around the world would seem to attest that old-time, mountain music is relevant even today. And, as I said before, it isn’t hard to pick out the old-world sound even in many of the songs penned in the twenty-first century. The musical talent petered out of my own family so we lost the tradition of jamming together, but I was so excited to see that it lives on in the family of a fellow-blogger.
Tipper Pressley blogs at www.blindpigandtheacorn.com and in 2010 she wrote a series of articles spotlighting Appalachian music. You can read it here, and I think you would enjoy it. She personally remembers her family sitting around the kitchen with their instruments and in fact, they continue the tradition, as you can see in this little video which includes her children playing along. Of course they had radio influences well before she was born, but there was then and is still a very traditional element to their music - playing songs they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. This family is in western North Carolina and I always enjoy reading her thoughts and kind of comparing our two mountains.
There are certainly differences between our Cumberland Plateau and the great Smoky Mountains but there are also an awful lot of similarities – and music is one of them. Tipper wrote an article about Gospel Music in her spotlight series that I closely identify with. She talks about the hymns of her childhood and how she is moved by them far more that our modern praise music. She writes:
“The lyrics of those old gospel songs I grew up with lend themselves to the culture of Appalachia-not that they all were written here-most were not. But the strong recurring themes of God, Jesus, love, the cross, faith, death, blood, hell, rivers, long roads, toiling, snares, mountains, lights, rejoicing, happiness, joy, better times to come, dark valleys, and loved ones calling come-fit perfectly in the mindset of most folks born and raised in Appalachia. I would go so far as to say the manner in which they were written-the words used-strike a chord with the language of Appalachia. Maybe in the same way the isolated nature of the Appalachia region played a role in the continuity of our dialect-it also aided in folks holding on to the hymns and sacred songs of our past.”
As Mr. Raine points out in his book, the old music was largely preserved, as were so many of our cultural elements, because of our extreme remoteness – just as Mrs. Pressley points out. In some of the songs, he theorizes that words have been lost so new words were put in place – and what else would you do if you had no point of reference for the song? Also, some words slowly change – like a ship’s carpenter becoming a house carpenter because there was no ship-building going on in the mountains. But still we have the melodies, and still we sing the songs of our ancestors – the songs of the old country.
My cousin lives in Scotland now and regularly contributes to a newsletter for the St. Andrews Cross Society. She usually shares it with me and I love it – I’m drawn to the history of that country. Is it just the Hollywood presentation of Braveheart, the beauty of the countryside and age-old architecture? Or is there an ancestral nature? As I read James Watt Raine’s book and see how much of Ireland and Scotland we’ve preserved in Appalachia, I begin to wonder if history is leading me to identify with the highlanders.