Seen through the eyes of folklorists and educators, Appalachia is a region still defined by its people

Essential reporting in volatile times.

Not a Subscriber yet? Click here to take advantage of All access digital limited time offer $5.99 per month EZ Pay.

Interested in Donating? Click #ISupportLocal for more information on supporting local journalism.


Face to face. Knee to knee.

That’s how Seth Young, executive director of Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, describes the process of learning traditional music and art.

“What we share — our traditions and cultures — cannot be learned on the internet or YouTube,” Young said. “We explore and learn when teacher and student experience the process together.”

Eric Lassiter, director of the Marshall University Graduate Humanities Program, expressed that concept another way. When speaking about partnerships of students, communities and nonprofit organizations, he said, “If you don’t see Appalachia dynamically, you can’t understand it.”

Stretching from Georgia to New York, Appalachia is a region alive with the traditions of immigrants who brought artisan skills, arts, music and foods to a new land. Mountainous and rugged, it was once the gateway to the West. The people who settled here adapted to challenges. They built communities. They helped each other.

“Today, that spirit is called collaboration. People in Appalachia have a connection to this place, and they are finding new ways and looking for new experiences that will help the region grow,” said Tom Hansell, interim director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University.

“The thread that binds the people who call Appalachia home is the stories they tell,” said Stan Bumgardner, editor of Goldenseal, the magazine of West Virginia traditional life. “Whether they are sharing the stories behind the music, the quilt pattern or their family heritage, they are passing traditions and pride from generation to generation.”

Throughout Appalachia, people are coming together to preserve the traditions, acknowledge present challenges and look to the future. From cultural exploration of folkways to determined research into economic development, the region has a growing number of partnerships that involve people with many interests.

“Appalachia has a cultural authenticity that its people value and its visitors appreciate,” Bumgardner said. “The idea that something has been passed down from generation to generation has an appeal for people. Our culture is not artificial, preplanned and crowd tested for acceptance. It is genuine and has history behind it.”

Goldenseal and traditional life

Goldenseal was preceded in 1973 by Hearth and Fair, which was produced by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and edited by Tom Screven. In 1975, Screven became the first editor of Goldenseal when the magazine moved to the Commission on the Humanities, then to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History — now the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History.

The magazine maintained its focus on arts and crafts but branched out to feature music, folklore and oral histories. When Ken Sullivan became editor in 1979, the magazine adapted to its readers’ interests by maintaining the arts focus and incorporating more stories on social history and life in West Virginia. Its next editor, John Lilly, continued that emphasis and added more about popular music, particularly early local radio performers.

“We take an American Heritage approach to history by telling the stories of the people and places in a readable format that our readers like,” Bumgardner said. “We hear from readers who live all over the country about what they like, don’t like and want to see more of.”

The magazine now includes features on more recent history, as the old-timers who wrote about the early 1900s have died. Younger writers still look to cover traditional stories, but they also write about contemporary urban living as well as rural life.

Bumgardner appreciates the value that is placed on traditions in Appalachia.

“When you look at a handmade quilt or eat a fruit cobbler, you know that it didn’t take a degree to learn the process,” he said. “Those things were made of necessity and using what was available while still with a thought to make the quilt pretty or the cobbler delicious.”

“Everything has a story that goes back in time,” he said. “Old-time musicians like Dwight Diller can talk about a musical tune that has no words for longer than it takes to play it. People enjoy knowing that the music has roots in history.”

Generational sharing

This summer, the Augusta Heritage Center will host the 48th Augusta Festival. This three-week program in July features weeklong intensive workshops that bring together master artists, musicians, dancers, craftspeople and enthusiasts of all ages. Several hundred people attend the workshops and thousands more attend public concerts, dances and festivals that are held throughout the year.

“We are most known for our unique model of immersive arts education,” Young said. “Appalachia is as much a melting pot as New York City, and you see that here at Augusta, where workshops range from traditional bluegrass to Cajun/Creole and big-band swing music.

“There is richness to our heritage and history that often gets lost in stereotypes, when we should be proud of our background and celebrate the stories that define us.”

Emily Miller, Augusta’s artistic director, said the real value of the Augusta experience is in seeing the interaction between teachers and students.

“Here, we are taking the next steps to preserving and conserving our heritage,” she said. “Over time, the students become the teachers and we hear fresh interpretations of tunes as generations are passing on the music and the stories behind them. The same is true of traditional dance.”

For Young and Miller, that generational sharing can be seen in the numbers of young people and young families attending events at Augusta.

“We are seeing that more and more,” Young said. “Not only are they coming for the arts, but other programs as well. We are going to offer an Appalachian Folkcrafts, Medicine and Lore program that will share the history of how plants that are all around us were and can be used in many ways.”

Gerry Milnes, who was the folk arts coordinator for 25 years, dedicated himself to developing an extensive library of music and literature at the center. As a folklorist, he had an avid interest in all aspects of Appalachian culture. He even did research on how joinery styles connected communities.

“The nuances of personal contact and physical settings are so important to learning here,” Young said. “Our beginning musicians are not just learning a tune or a song, they are learning the story of the song. The students in the folkcraft class won’t just learn about medicine, they’ll learn the lore behind it. The more layers you uncover, the more you discover how we are connected globally.”

Making connections

Connecting global mountain regions is a priority at Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina. Tom Hansell, interim director of the Center for Appalachian Studies, found that to be true while he was in Wales for an Appalachian State international study program.

“I worked with Welsh musicians to produce a video about a tune that began as a Welsh hymn and, in America, became the bluegrass song ‘Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.’ Later, it morphed into a song about mining,” he said. “It was amazing to hear the medley of the songs.

“We offer place-based curricula that allows students to learn how an area that is considered isolated connects with national and global issues and movements,” he said.

Often, students discover the mountain culture of Appalachia is not so different as mountain cultures in other countries and not as isolated from the mainstream as many think. Hansell saw that firsthand while in Wales on “After Coal,” a documentary about people in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and South Wales who must abandon traditional livelihoods in dramatically changing economies. Now in book form, it is available from the West Virginia University Press.

He also found evidence closer to home. In Boone, Mast General Store has operated since 1883. At the turn of the century, the store sold the latest French fashions for women in the area. In another example, an archaeologist conducting a dig at Kentucky coal camps found fine china shards that were popular in New York City.

“We take a holistic view as a way for young people to build Appalachia’s future and preserve its traditions,” he said. “We look at sustainability by studying the history of social movements and developing practices for initiatives as renewable energy and small-scale agriculture for a sustainable future.”

That learning style includes partnerships with businesses, nonprofit organizations and community leaders. In one class, students participate in an Appalachian Teaching Project on sustainable economies, sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Appalachian studies

Marshall University offers a certificate in Appalachian Studies in the Master’s of Humanities program. Like the Appalachian State program, students may focus on traditional topic, but Lassiter finds that they are overwhelmingly interested in issues of change and diversity.

“Our students are seeing their work as an intersection of ideas and approaches to sustainability and adaptability,” he said. “We have a longstanding tradition of partnering with community groups and nonprofits for collaborations that can make a difference or focus on an issue like health care or regional migration.”

Students in the program worked in collaboration with Charleston-based researchers to complete “I’m Afraid of that Water: A Collaborative Ethnography on a West Virginia Water Crisis.” The publication is available from the WVU Press and is based on the graduate seminar, “Water Crisis Oral History and Documentary.”

Lassiter said that, in the seminars and community projects, it is exciting to see how the lines blur between students, educators and community leaders.

“We are all learning from each other and talking about ideas that blend traditional with contemporary thinking,” he said. “This is a tradition in our program that is great for everyone who participates.

“We hope that our program leads student to see Appalachia as a fulcrum or an intersection. We offer seminars that open dialogues on the future of Appalachia and how we need to understand the past to build the future,” he said. “We are also challenging students to look at how our diverse histories surface within both rural and urban contexts.”

Students in the program participate in archaeological digs, oral history projects, speakers’ series and events planning. The program partners with the Historic Glenwood Foundation in Charleston to support communications and preservation projects.

Gender and ethnicity

Marshall University also supports Appalachian studies through the Center for the Study of Gender and Ethnicity in Appalachia. It is the only Appalachian Center in the country dedicated to studying and understanding the region’s diversity.

The Rockefeller Foundation for the Humanities recognized the importance of this research in 1996, when it awarded the center one of its prestigious scholars-in-residence grants. In 2000, CSEGA was awarded a rare second grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue the work of scholars at the Center.

The scholars supported by the first grant conducted research on female banjo players, Italian coal miners, African-American Appalachian schoolteachers, Cherokee family heritage and female workers in the glass industry.

“We are taking the focus in different directions with studies on the Latino culture and the LGBTQ communities in the region,” co-director Lori Thompson said. “The center hosted a symposium this month that highlighted student research to encourage reframing and rethinking our understanding of this community.

“We want students to look at the past while identifying what they think Appalachia is now and will be in the future,” she continued. “We are looking at immigration patterns and national politics and continuing to look at the hard decisions that West Virginians are facing on whether to stay or leave.

Thompson sees much unexplored territory as Appalachian residents realize more and more about themselves and their communities.

“We need to really think about what it means when people come to Appalachia,” she said. “It is important that we understand their ideas of community and what they think a community looks like. Learning what diversity includes living the experience and researching subjects that we haven’t even thought or talked about so that change can begin within for Appalachia to be welcoming and open.”

Communities reimagined

The Appalachian Regional Commission was established more than 50 years ago to help Appalachia move into the nation’s economic mainstream. ARC provides funding for investments in the region to create jobs, improve local water and sewer systems, increase school readiness, expand access to health care, assist communities with strategic planning and provide assistance to emerging businesses.

The Hatfield-McCoy Trails and Coal Field Development are two West Virginia businesses that have received ARC support through POWER, a congressionally funded initiative that makes federal resources available to communities and regions affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations and coal-related industries.

Coal Fields Development received funding through POWER and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation for SEED-LIFT (Social Enterprise and Economic Diversification-Leveraging Investment for Transformation). The project is helping to remove barriers to participation in the workforce by improving the education and skill sets of residents in Lincoln, McDowell, Mingo and Wayne counties. It allows the organization to invest in community-based real estate development through entrepreneur-oriented revitalization, and to expand job creation and business development.

Upon completion, the projects will improve seven communities, create 60 jobs and three businesses, and redevelop 50,000 square feet of downtown space while leveraging $7 million in private investments.

The Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority project used the funds to develop and implement a comprehensive program to expand tourism-related employment and businesses in West Virginia and foster expansion of the trail system in Kentucky. The project is expected to create 225 jobs and 50 new businesses along the trails and is supported by funding from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

“This is a true success story showing how people can reimagine their communities,” ARC legislative liaison Guy Land said. “Local people who love their communities have opened businesses that allow them to stay in the communities they love and grow the economy by supporting the successful trail system. It’s magic, the way they are building better futures.”

Face to face. Knee to knee. People are redefining Appalachia.