Writer Mary Woodbury finds deep resonance in the music of Rising Appalachia, who draw on the rural landscapes of her family, and whose musical fusion offers ideas of resilience and community in the face of change and loss.
2,235 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes + 18 minutes video
Mary’s post is contribution to our Gifts of Sound and Vision series: where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change.
The challenge: Are there publicly available video or audio pieces that help us to explore the environmental or climate change issues that most interest us as artists, curators, researchers or activists? They might be documentary, abstract, fictional, natural soundscapes, spoken word, music or anything else which uses the power of film and sound recordings to reveal or create the experience of change, of movement or moment in time, space, place, consciousness, connection, emotion…
Mom was born in a log cabin in Francis Holler in Brinkley, Kentucky, a small, sleepy town in the Appalachian hills. Her dad and mother never had an education past the 4th grade nor ever learned how to drive a car. They lived off the land and probably rued that Pappaw had to work in the coal mines to earn money (he later had a carpentry business) or that the little crick in their front yard was really just a sewer pit.
My memories growing up consisted of hanging with family and climbing the mountains around my grandparents’ holler and picking wildflowers in sunlit meadows.
We went back there a few years ago to remember it all. Mountains nearby had been strip-mined. The cliffs rising up on one side of the dirt holler were gone. Their little summer waterfalls and winter icicles were gone. The log cabin where my mom was born was gone. The old lady’s house at the end of the holler — where we used to pick black walnuts — was gone. Seemed like even the mountain was gone or at least started further back than it had due to road expansion. My mammaw and pappaw and dad and an aunt and uncle are gone too. But Pappaw’s old house was still there. Time is a cruel enemy when you experience loss like that, not just of people you love but of the wild you lose along the way. And, if you live long enough, these losses start accumulating to the point it’s like phantom limbs and the ache lives long in the heart.
480 million years ago — when the Appalachian Mountains formed during the Ordovician era, Laurentia’s landmass put the Scottish Highland and Appalachian Mountains in the same mountain range, which explains their physical similarities. Who could have foretold that the Scot-Irish folks would migrate across the Atlantic as well? We went to Ireland with my mother a few years ago, and she still talks about how it uncannily feels like home.
The Appalachian mountains extend from southeastern Canada down to central Alabama. But there’s also the cultural region of Appalachia that is generally considered to include folks living in the hills and valleys between Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. This area of memory, of loss, is one that has become more bittersweet the further away I have travelled. Where I felt real and felt the animal in me as I spent long days with my cousins and siblings climbing those hills, where also my mother had planted pine trees as a child. I remember the soft summer nights and hearing whip-poor-wills while sitting outside on the old porch where my Pappaw whittled and told stories. I remember Mammaw snapping beans in the yard and her great shucky beans and fried green tomatoes and applesauce cake and cornbread. What I remember, really the most, was the love.
The Appalachian area was sometimes frightening to me. Dotting the backroads were otherworldly shacks that were so broken down you wouldn’t think anyone lived there, until you saw an ancient toothless couple or a clothesline out on the front porch. Late at night trucks would roll down Highway 160, in front of that old sewer creek, and would echo throughout the bends along the road.
We’d go up to hike near an abandoned coal mine where a house had burned down and now stood black and structureless, and there were poor shacks up there too. The land that had cradled my memory from as long as I could remember was also a forest of poverty, mist, and ghosts. Every time we visited, it seemed like we went backwards in time, similar to the way Joseph Conrad described the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. The area resembled nothing of where we came from, though it did resemble everything that was wrong with America and its unhealthy coal mining industry among a poverty-stricken, hungry community.
In the 19th century, coal overtook wood for energy in the United States. From the 1960s onward, mountaintop coal removal became more popular than underground mining due to the fact that a worker could get more than twice as much coal. Coal mining has been ruinous for rivers, air, soil, biodiversity, and, of course, human health — with black lung disease and cancer. Fly ash slurry and chemical spills from coal production have destroyed waterways and even been found in drinking water. Fracking to extract natural gas found in shale is also dangerous in that it results in poisonous wastewater that can end up in groundwater; this water is hard to break down, even by wastewater treatment plants. Deforestation and wetland removal in order to produce coal are no small issues either. Though the fossil fuel industry has been known for the jobs it provides, mechanization and energy transition have greatly reduced the number of these jobs in the past few decades.
Rising Appalachia: story and song
My bittersweet memories of the eastern Kentucky hills and urge to experience those times again has been helped along by story and song from the region, particularly from the band Rising Appalachia, whose music takes me back. Founded by sisters Chloe and Leah Smith (Leah sometimes goes by the last name Song), the band’s southern roots are punctuated with activism and care for the natural world.
Musical Traditions, the online magazine for traditional music throughout the world, explains Appalachian music as deriving from two types:
Today when ethnomusicologists discuss ‘Appalachian music’ they generally divide the term into two periods: the traditional music — including ballads and dance tunes, mostly brought over with Anglo-Celtic immigrants, and in evidence from the early eighteenth century through 1900 — and the ‘old-time’ music popular from around 1900 through 1930, a blend of that tradition with parlour and vaudeville music, African-American styles, and Minstrel Show tunes… One of the greatest influences on Appalachian music, as well as many popular American music styles, was that of the African-American. The slaves brought a distinct tradition of group singing of community songs of work and worship, usually lined out by one person with a call and response action from a group… Originally from Arabia, and brought to western Africa by the spread of Islam, the banjo then ended up in America. Mostly denigrated as a ‘slave instrument’ until the popularity of the Minstrel Show, starting in the 1840s, the banjo syncopation or ‘bom-diddle-diddy’ produced a different clog-dance and song rhythm by the turn of the century.
Rising Appalachia integrates all these styles in their music, and has an upcoming album, Leylines, coming in May, which will include Ani DiFranco, Trevor Hall, and Maurice Tuner. According to their website:
“Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music — that we’ve been born and raised with — and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive,” Leah says. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”
I’m looking forward to Leylines but also have found a home in their music that’s already out as it’s kind of like the umbilical cord to home. I’ve listened to the band for a few years now and have recognized the way that pain can bring art, and that their activism is not lip service nor festishized but comes from a genuine place.
In the video of the song Filthy Dirty South is the statement: “Due to the production and extraction of oil, a great deal of marshes and swamps are lost at an astonishing rate of a football field every 30 minutes.” The video shows a paddle through a southern swamp, along with the sisters playing guitars in the woods. Water reflects sunlight almost ponderously. Plants that are not invasive kudzu (which I saw everywhere in Kentucky when we last visited) peek through the rich forest soil. Feathers and beads adorn guitars and hair. There is something primal about it all, and something sweet about the sisters’ voices dipping into the soft ballad of Appalachia.
Another Rising Appalachia song, SUNU, has an aerialist swinging from a tree, dancers and Moko jumbies wearing ancient African masks, and it combines African and Appalachian music. ‘Sunu’ means ‘Dance Beautiful Women Dance’ in Guinea. It’s clearly a celebration of life and nature, but also seems to represent, at least to me, a theatrical coming together of multiple cultures, a positive sign about how we must dignify where people came from.
In Occupy, the band recognizes resistance. It’s reminiscent of old blues with that pain of the world coming through but with no more weeping and a’wailing because “we’ll be done with the troubles of the world.” Similarly, in Resilient, one of my favorite songs, is a call for action and not drowning in helplessness. Echoing the reality of pipelines through backyards and “prayers to the waters” and “women to the center”, it calls for hanging on, not just to where we are now but to our roots. The video is a beautiful one of dancers expressing this idea of uplift.
I cannot begin to cover every vision and sound from these artists, and they are all as worthy as the ones mentioned here. I can only recommend digging a new rabbit hole for yourself. You will find modern fusion as well as reimagined older folk songs like I’ll Fly Away and Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Another Rising Appalachia song, Harmonize, further ties together past and present, as the band actually travelled to the Salish Sea, near my current home in British Columbia, to film the video and meet old friends and family there. The video is a story of rites of passage for a teenager and includes old crafts like sailing, blacksmithing, seed-saving, fishing, and even love and courtship.
Listening to this music has become the thread connecting past and present for me, in more ways than one. Their videos bring back the sweet summer days I recall as a child in the sunlit forested mountains and lakes, with bugs and seeds and petals flying by in some frenetic motion that says “this is life, and it is good.” Their music may be born of pain in this world, but it takes us to a higher place where we shouldn’t be afraid to speak out against hate, division, environmental degradation, and economic disparity. It’s a music of place and time, of what was once and still is, but the songs also transcend time. It’s about hanging onto the deepest of our good roots, no matter that mountains, summer waterfalls, marshes, forests, or people we love have gone.
Since those old days of Kentucky, although I have moved to the west coast of Canada, protesting pipelines in my own woods — and finding new mountains to climb and old stories to tell among friends during backyard southern parties, complete with shucky beans and bourbon — I still slip back into my southern accent. Rise above. Carry it forward. Uplift.
Find out more
Mary Woodbury — whose forthcoming novel, Up the River (under pen name Clara Hume), is about a pipeline spill in Appalachia — has previously contributed two posts for us on A History of Eco-fiction.
Rising Appalachia was founded by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, the band established an international fan base due to relentless touring, tireless activism, and no small degree of stubborn independence: find out more at risingappalachia.com.
Musical Traditions, the magazine for traditional music throughout the world, is an online resource, and includes A Short History of Appalachian Music, which Mary quotes from in her post.
Though this article centres around one band’s contribution to Appalachian music, Mary has provided some further reference for both story and song:
- Works by Barbara Kingsolver
- Works by Mary Alice Monroe
- Authors discuss their environmental works: Inside Appalachia, West Virginia Public Broadcasting broadcast (22/2/19)
- Out of the woods: Appalachia, literature, and the American dream, at Electric Lit (23/11/16)
- Protest songs of the Appalachia, at the Special Collections, Belk Library
Silas House: A remembrance of Jean Ritchie, at Appalachian Voices (2/2/15)
- Songcatcher, the movie — description at IMDb