Accessibility links

Country Music's Roots Seem Healthy


American country music - in its various forms - has grown into a multi-million dollar industry with fans around the world. As an art form, it has crossed over into the mainstream of U.S. culture. But, for all the commercial success of the present day, its origins were humble. Those roots are still very much alive, as Malcolm Brown reports from West Virginia.

It is a far cry from the venues played by country's biggest stars. But if you want to trace the music's roots, the West Virginia State Folk Festival is a good place to come.

The town of Glenville has hosted this event since its inception in 1950, as a way to preserve and celebrate the region's traditional culture.

Besides the bands, entertainment includes square dancing and the chance for everyone to play in jam sessions, which form in a motel parking lot.

Traditional instruments, like dulcimers, can be heard well into the night as complete strangers and old friends play together.

In this part of the U.S., music is part of the social fabric. One festival-goer, Charles Salisbury, grew up with it. He says, "Many people play it. They don't play it professionally but they play in family gatherings and stuff. About any reunion you have, you're going to have this kind of music, if it's in this part of the country."

West Virginia is in Appalachia - a mountainous eastern region, settled in the 18th century by immigrants from Europe, many of them from Scotland, Ireland and England. Along with the settlers came their culture.

Well-known fiddler Joe Dobbs says Old World tunes survived in the mountains of Appalachia and were handed down from generation to generation.

"When I was a kid, we always heard a tune; can I play just a little of it?" he asks as he picks up his fiddle. "See, we call that 'Uncle Joe', but it's really 'Miss McCleod's Reel", which is an Irish tune. So, the people who settled here brought the music with them."

Instruments on the walls of his music store reflect the various influences, which blended to create the Appalachian sound. They include the Irish fiddle -- and the banjo, which came with the slaves brought over from Africa.

Naturally, the immigrants also brought their singing traditions - especially ballads. Over time in Appalachia, a style evolved. Singer Ginny Hawker, who plays with husband Tracy Schwarz, calls it a "lonesome mountain sound." "It attracts people because it's real music. It's about real thing and about life close to the bone and I think those things have a universal appeal. So, I don't see it dying out."

Aficionados credit the relative isolation, imposed by the Appalachian landscape, for preserving the music.

Joe Dobbs says the region acted as a cultural reservoir, from which the traditional sounds could be re-exported during the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. "For some reason, these people stayed in these mountains and they kept playing the tunes and still do, especially after the folk revival. It's more popular now than ever."

The evident youth of some players at the folk festival suggests that Appalachian music does indeed have a future.

XS
SM
MD
LG