Appalachian aesthetics and why I’ve been thinking about it.

Kaymoor Mine SiteI haven’t been writing on this blog lately, partly because I’m out of the habit, and partly because I feel like I don’t have answers yet.  This morning I made a list of a dozen books I need to read before I start having answers.  I’m probably going to have to beat myself over the head with these books, and I trust I’ll be seeing stars before I start seeing constellations.  Right now it’s just questions and hypotheses – little openings that I want to crawl into and look around inside.

My overarching project, the way it’s formed itself in my mind right now, is an aesthetics of contemporary Appalachia.  Aesthetics in its messiest sense – the mythologies, politics, identities, values, fixations, aspirations, and perceptions that can be harvested and steam-sealed into an art-product (as in, anything that people look to for artistic value, however perfunctory) that for whatever reason smacks of Appalachian-ness.  I want to identify it so I can participate in it, and help those who are helping to move it in the direction of conscious, dignified work that has a place in the American and international artistic conversation.

Here’s one hypothesis, one cave-mouth that’s begging to be spelunked:  that the aesthetic that we allow to define us is frozen, coated in amber.  That those of us who embrace a positive history of the Appalachian people feel we have only one resource to mine that is in demand by the rest of the nation.  I’m speaking here of the mountain folkways – the banjoes and dulcimers, the quilts and clogs, the tall tales and moonshine.  I want to be clear that this is an incredibly valuable resource, that we are in fact one of the few regions in the country that has a folk heritage as well-known and rich as this.  It’s even doing a lot of good for the liberation of an oppressed people.  But on the other hand, we seem more concerned with preserving it as it was than engaging with it as it is today.  We cling to an image of our idyllic mountain past because it’s the only thing that shields us from the barrage of cultural assaults that face us.

Bluegrass may have been the last major innovation in the Appalachian arts, and people are even surprised that it’s as young as it is (younger than some of the folks who listen to it).  Its strength and staying-power lies in a fact that leads me to my second hypothesis.  Bluegrass, just like pretty much every important musical style in North America, has origins in African as well as European styles.  The banjo itself is an African instrument (I just discovered this site, which documents its storied pan-Atlantic life).  Yet black Americans are not a part of the picture that we draw upon as Appalachian heritage.  In fact, the most easily accessible picture nationally is that we are purely white and predominately racist.  I will never quite forgive Jon Stewart for a segment he did in the 2008 primaries, which showed multiple back-to-back interviews with racist West Virginians, followed by Stewart’s commentary, which involved him putting on a straw hat and drinking moonshine to the delight of the studio audience.

So here’s my second hypothesis:  that we undervalue our diversity here.  We white-out a significant portion of our history, much to our own detriment.  It’s not just blacks who get this treatment, but anyone who diverges from that image of the pioneer white mountain family with its clear gender roles, simple ideas, and little political ambition.  We miss out on the reinforcing effect that an embraced multifarious heritage can have on a culture – the same effect that biodiversity (which we can boast as among the best in the world here) has on an ecosystem and that economic diversity (the lack of which has plagued us for centuries) has on an economy.

So what’s the endgame for all of this?  Why is this important?  It’s important because Appalachia is an oppressed region, and whatever forces – economic, environmental, cultural, political – oppress us from the outside are reinforced by our own self-oppression, our own fatalism.  It’s the same colonized mind that Steve Biko recognized among the oppressed people of the apartheid regime – a mind that says, “The current is strong so I may as well swim with it,” or, in the lyrics of Woody Guthrie:

This dusty ol’ dust is a-gettin’ my home

And I’ve got to be driftin’ along.

Aesthetics are vital for survival, for vitality itself.  They are as important for the development of a region as roads and bridges, because they are why we travel on the roads and bridges.  A people assured of its own strength and dignity can define, demand, and implement its own progress.

I’ll save more of the soapbox material for after I’ve immersed myself in more of its constituent ideas and realities.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has ideas to share about this.

  1. Very interesting post. I too am questioning the same ideas. I think we call it stereotyping a culture and though elements of those stereotypes may exist, it is not the whole history or story. Common stereotypes certainly do not fit the diverse history or place of every person in Appalachia. But you can see the “aesthetics” being mined and cultivated in the tourism industry in Appalachia. An industry I was a part of for 20 years. I fought stereotyping and tried to present a different view of history and our placement now. Not easy to do….because from Johnny Depp to Jon Stewart that perception is still there.

  2. “Here’s one hypothesis, one cave-mouth that’s begging to be spelunked: that the aesthetic that we allow to define us is frozen, coated in amber. That those of us who embrace a positive history of the Appalachian people feel we have only one resource to mine that is in demand by the rest of the nation. I’m speaking here of the mountain folkways – the banjoes and dulcimers, the quilts and clogs, the tall tales and moonshine.”

    I’d agree with that Nate.

    Here in Scotland we’re both blessed and handicapped by the perception of my country as misty, rain-speckled, filled with castles, kilts and cows.

    And yes we have all those, often right outside the buildings where world-leading computer games are made, or bio-tech products are engineered, or class-leading oil exploration components are created.

    We’re the myth, but we’re also the reality.

    Visitors wander around wearing ‘jimmy-caps’ – tweed bonnets with fake ginger hair hanging out, a ‘joke’ at the expense of freckled-ginger Scots – that perception of who we are given flesh. An item that, if it were a turban with ‘blackface’ vibe going on would be classed as racist. But which some visitors wear and simply laugh about.

    The problem for many people is getting past their expectation that the myth is all there is, that it alone defines us.

    Loch Ness is near my house. Around it has sprung up an astonishing ‘industry’ that exploits the ‘monster myth’. Go view the monster centre exhibits, and possibly smirk in disbelief. But if you are lucky enough to be able to speak quietly to a local farmer or fisherman about the strange things they’ve seen in the loch, you’ll look afresh at that huge expanse of water before you. And you’ll wonder. But they would not talk to you for fear of ridicule.

    And almost a stone’s throw from my home is Culloden Battlefield – commemorating a ‘reality’ but one around which many myths have grown along with an industry which attracts many exiled Scots from the USA eager to see the location of an event that changed Scottish history. Kilts and claymores, fighting the English, our old enemy. And losing.

    But somewhere in between (literally, physically located, hidden in a woodland near the Battlefield) is a ‘Clootie Well’ – a holy well that predates christianity, has its roots somewhere in pre-christian nature-worship: reverence for water, earth and air, and which today still attracts votive offerings from many people. But it’s mostly local people who visit, it’s not a tourist attraction, and the scraps of cloth left hanging on the branches speak of a real affinity for something intangible and inexplicable. A spirit of place that is affecting and indefinable, but very very real.

    I see so much of this in the representations of Appalachia. There’s the surface: those old chestnuts of moonshine, gap-toothed smiles and fiddles, beat-up trucks and worn-out people. But in amongst them, and going far far deeper are glints and gleams of the reality of modern Appalachia, a people looking outwards, their world view predicated on pride in the breadth of their culture, the diversity of their people and the contribution and sacrifices they’ve made for both their home and their country.

    It’s too easy to sell a stereotype – because it requires little thinking about, needs no explanation, is not too taxing for the casual onlooker.

    And in Appalachia, as in Scotland, gap-toothed ‘exotics’ may be obvious, but they may just as easily be selling on Ebay, buying on Amazon, and contributing to their communities in various surprising ways. We can be both the myth and the reality, sometimes both at once.

    …..and that’s enough for now. I need to go and cook the haggis and turnips, and have a wee dram……….ye ken!

    • So sorry — I thought I’d already done that. And thanks so much for your wonderful thoughts.

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