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US Appalachian Region Featured at Smithsonian Folklife Festival - 2003-07-08

At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the nation's capital, the cultures and crafts of Mali, Scotland, and the American region of Appalachia were featured this year.

The Appalachian region of the United States is the birthplace of American country music, and you can be sure that at the Appalachian part of the Festival, visitors hear a lot of music, including bluegrass.

"The Irish and the Scots, when they came to this region, brought their music with them," said Larry McPeak, who is with the group the VWBoys. "Their fiddle tunes and everything and associated with that. It's just has progressed over the years that it's kind of a culture now in the Appalachian Mountains and regions to play this type of music. It goes back hundreds and hundreds of years to when the Scots first came over and it just evolved from there."

Another one of the VW Boys, Tim Green, says he painted a mural on the side of a building in Bristol, Tennessee, to honor the heart of the Appalachian region and its country music.

"I moved to Bristol from Roanoke, Va. in 1974 and I learned about the Carter Family being from right down the road," he said. "I learned that they and Jimmie Rodgers became the first superstars of Country Music and they had recorded their first records in Bristol in 1927 along with the Stoneman Family and others."

While you are bound to hear a lot of bluegrass music from the VWBoys and other groups, don't mistake it with old-time Appalachian Music… whatever you do!

Dwight Diller is a practitioner of what's called Old Time Appalachian Music and it predates Bluegrass by about a century.

"The other thing is that Bluegrass is a stage music. It was born on the stage and that's where it belongs," he said. "It's not a home and hearth music. This is home and hearth and it doesn't really fit sitting here and playing in front of people like this. People try to make it into a show music, but it is not that."

In addition to the Irish and Scot influence, African Americans have had an impact on shaping the sound of the music. That includes everything from the Blues to the songs of the Appalachian rail workers.

Charles W. White is manager of the Buckingham Lining Bar Gang, a group from Virginia that is demonstrating railroad work at the Festival. He says that because of their songs, the rail workers would know when, where and how to and construct the railroad lines. The person who had to keep all the men working together had the title of "caller."

"So he would sing out this cadence, a two or three line ditty, and these men would respond to it," he said. "On taps they would get together on it, [synchronized to the music] they would know when every man had to heave on that bar."

Native Americans have also had a large impact on Appalachian culture.

"When I was growing up on the reservation, I was used to finding tourists everywhere…," said Lloyd Arneach, a member of the Cherokee tribe who grew up in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Most of Mr. Arneach's stories have been passed down for several generations, although a few are from his own experiences.

"…I was a young teenager and I was walking up the path to my uncle's home and I saw this naked lady sunning herself on this large boulder by the path. I just stopped dead. She was lying on her stomach and she suddenly became aware of me. She raised her head up and glared and at me. I just turned around and walked back down the path. Not a word was spoken," he said. "I still smile when I think about that day, because she was a truly beautiful lady. She was probably the best looking Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake I have ever seen."

Festival goers can also taste the regional cooking of Appalachia. Chef and agricultural entrepreneur Harvey Christie used the makeshift kitchen on stage to cook some of mountain favorites. Over the years, he's prepared many unique dishes including bear and possum. He even has a recipe from Appalachia called, "beer can chicken."

"Open the beer can… Once you have it, take that beer can and stick it up inside the chicken like this…," Mr. Christie said.

Mr. Christie hopes that people enjoy and appreciate Appalachia and its unique and sometimes misunderstood culture.

"The Appalachia that I grew up in and the Appalacia today has changed, in a lot of ways for the good and a lot of ways for the bad," Mr. Christie said. "People love to come to the country, because there's trees, and there's cows, and there's streams and there's beautiful mountainsides. And then they love it so much they want to buy some of it. So they buy some of it and then they put in a house. Then their friends they told in the city they come build a house. Soon there's no big open fields left. The farmers are finding it simpler to sell an acre of land for $20,000 than to spend the next ten years trying to make $20,000 off that piece of land. And that's something we need to change."

It's the hope of Mr. Christie and other presenters at the Folklife Festival that tourists and visitors come away with a newfound respect and understanding for Appalachian culture.