Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge

Posted by | April 17, 2014

Dr. Jean Haskell (l) and Dr. Katie Hoffman (r), curators of 'Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge.'

Dr. Jean Haskell (l) and Dr. Katie Hoffman (r), curators of ‘Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge.’

Please welcome guest authors Dr. Katie Hoffman and Dr. Jean Haskell. They are guest curators of a newly opened arts exhibit at the Portsmouth [Virginia] Arts and Cultural Center, in the state’s coastal Tidewater region. Dr. Haskell is retired as the Director of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at ETSU. She was also co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia with Rudy Abramson. Dr. Hoffman is the founder and owner of Appalworks, a company committed to promoting Appalachian cultural heritage. She served as co-curator for the Appalachian section of the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and was Traditional Music Producer for the 4-part PBS Series Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People.

 

Appalachia, by many accounts, seems to be disappearing or vanishing. These accounts, often accompanied by photographs of abandoned, decaying buildings, lament the loss of community places and of a traditional way of life in the mountains. While the nostalgic images and lamentations are often moving and valid, we argue for a more balanced view of Appalachia, one that includes its vital and dynamic elements—honoring tradition, yet taking it in imaginative new directions.

To many people, mountain culture seems frozen in the past—comprised of poverty-stricken folks who are significantly behind the times. Such well-meaning shows as Diane Sawyer’s Hidden America (2009) have exacerbated this problem. Sawyer’s first episode of “Children of the Mountains” begins with an invitation to “travel inside a world apart. . . ,” suggesting that Appalachia is vastly different from other parts of the country.

Sawyer’s “special report” focuses heavily on poverty and social dysfunction in Appalachia, both of which clearly exist in parts of the region. But, while she means well, Sawyer’s work is not very balanced. It shows the general tendency of outsiders to patronize mountain folk. Add to that such shows as Appalachian Outlaws, Hillbilly Blood, and Buck Wild, and it’s no wonder that people outside the mountains can’t let go of the negative stereotypes of poor, violent, ignorant hillbillies first promulgated by local color and travel writers in the 19th century. A promotional piece for Appalachian Outlaws says that “in Appalachia, 401Ks are built on ginseng, moonshine, and fur; feuds last for generations; and every day is a matter of survival.” Reality TV? Perhaps hyperbole TV is more accurate.

This first item to the left is a Charlie Brown devil face jug. Brown is an 8th-generation potter from Western North Carolina. The face platter is from Sammie Nicely, an "Affrilachian" artist from Russellville, TN. The two face jugs on the right are the work of the famous Lanier Meaders (1917-1998) from North Georgia, whose family still carries on the tradition. The first is "Richard Nixon" and the second is "Two-Face Politician." (I am sensing a theme there...)

This first item to the left is a Charlie Brown devil face jug. Brown is an 8th-generation potter from Western North Carolina. The face platter is from Sammie Nicely, an “Affrilachian” artist from Russellville, TN. The two face jugs on the right are the work of the famous Lanier Meaders (1917-1998) from North Georgia, whose family still carries on the tradition. The first is “Richard Nixon” and the second is “Two-Face Politician.” (I am sensing a theme there…)

People outside of our region (and some regional folk, too) often miss the story of Appalachia as a place of innovation. As writer Jeff Biggers argues in his book The United States of Appalachia, “This is Appalachia’s best-kept secret: Far from being a ‘strange land with peculiar people,’ the mountains and hills have been a stage for some of the most quintessential and daring American experiences of innovation, rebellion, and social change.” Biggers goes on to make a compelling case.

“Changing Appalachia: From Custom to Cutting Edge” is our response to the false notion that Appalachia and its “primitive” culture are “disappearing” or “vanishing.” As guest curators of a newly opened exhibit at the Portsmouth [Virginia] Arts and Cultural Center, in the state’s coastal Tidewater and not in Appalachia, we have worked hard with Museum Director Nancy Perry and Curator Gayle Paul to showcase the vibrancy and vitality of Appalachia’s art and craft community. The exhibit honors the custom and tradition that serves as a foundation for the cutting edge of Appalachian art and craft. Its purpose is to show visitors the innovation and imagination of the region’s “makers.” We want people, especially outside the region, to take a new look, quite literally, at the wealth of excellent art and craft in the southern mountains and its threads of continuity from the old to the new.

This turned and beaded piece is the work of <a href="http://www.lindafifield.com"> Linda Fifield</a>, and is from her "Fire on the Mountain" series.

This turned and beaded piece is the work of Linda Fifield, and is from her “Fire on the Mountain” series.

Native people—the Cherokee, for example—learned to use the land and forests to meet their needs and live sustainably. White settlers learned from them, and many of the more traditional, customary objects in the “Changing Appalachia” exhibit—handmade draw knives and butter molds, beautiful baskets, stunning coverlets—show how Appalachians learned to make things, beautiful as well as useful, from what was readily available, passing on the tradition of each craft. These traditions are sometimes tended and cultivated to keep them unchanged, but often they become the seed from which other traditions sprout wings and fly. There’s a strong streak of inventiveness in Appalachian culture, and amongst us there have always been artists and fabricators who take what they need from the past, re-invent it, and do so with style.

The artists whose work comprises the “Changing Appalachia” exhibit all show a deep respect for our region’s people and traditions, but they also show how innovative and inspired the art and craft community in the region can be. Joel Queen, a Cherokee artist whose pottery is featured in the show, is committed to using traditional Cherokee methods in creating his pieces. They reflect certain elements of his heritage beautifully—but they are also recognizable as all his own. As he delivered his pots to the exhibit hall, Queen admired the horsehair sculpture of Millicent Young, an artist from Appalachian Virginia, commenting that one of her pieces reminded him of the Cherokee shawl dance.

'Un Furl', by <a href="http://www.millicentyoung.com">Millicent Young</a> of Swift Run Studio.

‘Un Furl’, by Millicent Young of Swift Run Studio.

He was pleased to see the kind of company in which his pieces would reside for the next few months. Like Queen, we are excited about these pieces, all of which are in conversation with one another to tell a positive story about our region. There is Young, who uses everyday materials such as horsehair and wood to create liminal, graceful sculptures designed to evoke spirituality. There is Sammie Nicely, from Russellville, Tennessee, whose great-great-grandparents were slaves in East Tennessee, and whose critically acclaimed “Affrilachian” art reflects his African and Appalachian heritage and serves as evidence that Appalachian culture is not as monolithic as many people think.

As we constructed the exhibit, we took into consideration the perception of Appalachia that we most wanted to change. A century of stereotypical images and impressions stand in the way of understanding the whole story. For some reason, photographs of poor people, dressed in overalls and posed by old vehicles or broken-down buildings, have become the lens through which many people view Appalachia. There is room for the nostalgia—and acknowledgment of the region’s problems—that these photos evoke, but we believe that there is too much emphasis on sepia-toned portrayals of falling-down houses and not enough on the vibrancy and nature of contemporary life in Appalachia.

For example, far from being an isolated mountain man, Benjamin D. Walls, a 34-year-old self-taught Bristol, Virginia fine art photographer, has traveled all over the region, the country, and the globe, creating stunning images of the natural world. Walls hopes that his images, available through his gallery in downtown Bristol, will inspire others to slow down, understand the importance of nature, and consider preserving it more carefully. An entrepreneur and job creator, he opened his own gallery and has enjoyed numerous accolades and awards—including having photographs chosen for display by the Smithsonian Institution and the Natural History Museum of London. He chooses to stay in the mountains of Virginia as an homage to his native Appalachian roots and environment. So Appalachia is not “disappearing” or “vanishing,” as so many writers have claimed over the last 100 years or so, but it is changing as people in the region find ways to integrate Appalachian heritage into modern life. Appalachian culture is a continuum in which the past continues to inform and shape the present.

‘Aspen’, by <a href="http://www.benjamindwalls.com">Benjamin Walls</a>. Walls does not manipulate his images digitally, and 98% of the work he does--including this image--is on film.

‘Aspen’, by Benjamin Walls. Walls does not manipulate his images digitally, and 98% of the work he does–including this image–is on film.

 

Working with Gayle Paul, the talented curator of the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center, we have brought together a community of artists whose works help viewers appreciate and understand more about the spirit of the Appalachian region. There are diverse pieces on display, some highly traditional or customary and some that offer traditional materials, themes, or techniques with a cutting edge perspective. They are all in juxtaposition, or more accurately, in conversation with each other, showing the lively artistic energy flowing through the region. As Millard Lampell once wrote in O, Appalachia (1989), “the mountains nurture visionaries. And visions are the seeds of art.”

The response to the exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive. Almost 700 people showed up for the opening reception for the exhibit on April 4. During the reception, Southwest Virginia’s Celtibillies entertained the crowd with their mix of Appalachian and Celtic music, as the Good Foot Dance Company, from Elkins, West Virginia, demonstrated some traditional dance steps from each culture. As a result of the positive reaction to the exhibit, the museum is considering extending it past the original July 6 ending date. Other programming related to the exhibition features Jews in Appalachia, quilts made and cherished by a mountain family descended from enslaved ancestors, ballad singing, Appalachian foodways from traditional fare to haute cuisine interpretations of mountain food, Appalachia in the movies, and more.

There is so much to be proud of in Appalachia, and we need to be sure that we acknowledge and celebrate the best of our culture as carefully as others before us have explored our deepest problems. As we have worked to establish a better balance, we have delighted in the fact that we are not alone in our aspirations.

As far back as 1981, the Appalachian Regional Commission sponsored an exhibition of contemporary Appalachian artists called “More Than Land or Sky: Art from Appalachia.” It opened at the National Museum of American Art, then toured the country. The New York Times review of it said, “Hillbilly, it is not.” Just ahead, in October of this year, the annual meeting of the Southeastern Museums Conference, to be held in Knoxville, Tennessee, stands as proof that others continue to share our mission: the theme is “Appalachian Renaissance: Renewing Traditions, Rethinking Approaches.” These programs, and our exhibition and programs, are not hillbilly either—just amazingly Appalachian.

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Sharpsburg, KY renovates dilapidated WPA gym, reopens it as community center

Posted by | April 16, 2014

The following piece by Cheryl Truman ran April 14 in the Lexington Herald-Leader. It is reposted here with permission.

 

Henrietta Thomas’ brother Clayton Toy was paid 20 cents an hour in 1936 to help build the gymnasium with smoke-colored Bath County sandstone.

That’s him, she said, pointing to photos: He’s the one with the hat.

Sharpsburg Community Center in Sharpsburg, Ky., on April 10, 2014. Then center is in a renovated WPA era gym which had fallen into disrepair and was recently restored. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff | Lexington Herald-Leader

Sharpsburg Community Center in Sharpsburg, Ky., on April 10, 2014. Then center is in a renovated WPA era gym which had fallen into disrepair and was recently restored. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff | Lexington Herald-Leader

It was the height of the Great Depression, and the federal Works Progress Administration was embarking on a massive campaign that employed everyone from construction workers building gymnasiums to writers producing guides to the states that are now collectors’ items.

The architects and builders produced some of the nation’s most distinctive and long-lasting architecture. Its characteristic style is called WPA Architecture, or WPA Rustic Architecture, and it was used on gymnasiums, amphitheaters and lodges.

The design aesthetic emphasized the use of native materials, adapting indigenous methods of construction, low silhouettes and the avoidance of right angles and straight lines.

Sharpsburg High School, and its separate gymnasium, closed in 1963. Eventually the school was torn down, but the gym stayed. The building deteriorated. Trees grew in the gym where Beulah Hard used to cheer in her white corduroy skirt uniform.

Interior view of the Sharpsburg Gymnasium photographed July 22, 1936, showing stone masons laying exterior wall. Courtesy Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection/University of Kentucky.

Interior view of the Sharpsburg Gymnasium photographed July 22, 1936, showing stone masons laying exterior wall. Courtesy Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection/University of Kentucky.

“It wasn’t anything like they do now,” Hard said. “It wasn’t acrobatics. It was rah-rah-rah.”

The school was a community center for decades. Everyone in town, it seems, has a story associated with the gym and its rolling roofline. Sharpsburg council member Thelma June Gulley remembers a piano in a corner issuing the strains of Pistol Packin’ Mama.

Belva Woodard, a former home economics teacher, remembers the hallway just off the gym where her future homemakers used to sell Cokes and candy bars in the late 1950s, when Cokes could be bought for 80 cents a case. Others remember the stage, draped with a maroon velvet curtain.

In 2006, the city began a plan to reclaim the gym, 11 miles north of Mount Sterling. Eight years later, after a lot of sacrifices and scrimping and piling one source of money on another, Sharpsburg has turned the building into a refurbished community center with a gymnasium, a branch of the Bath County Memorial Library, a classroom for community college and extension courses and a kitchen. Signs in the hallway list the names of all the graduates of Sharpsburg High School.

The Sharpsburg Community Center, as it now is named, is not only central to community gatherings, but it sits on a hill that gives it visibility of pretty much all of Sharpsburg, population 310.

“The donations and the interest in this thing have surprised even me,” said Rob Lane, the city clerk. “We feel like it’s going to be used even more than we envisioned.”

The community center is spacious and colorful, with its red beadboard, but the city had to make some concessions on what it could afford, according to Mayor Dorothy Clemons. She wanted to have an athletic floor, but she had to make do with concrete; likewise, a plan to restore the stage had to be scrapped.

2nd view sharpsburg gym

“I had no idea of all the ins and outs to do something like this, that it would take so many years,” Clemons said.

The total cost is more than $1.3 million, including a $500,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant and a $500,000 community block development grant from the state. The United States Department of Agriculture chipped in a $175,000 rural development grant, and the USDA’s rural development arm gave the city a $200,000 long-term, low-interest loan.

The community center also has an organization of friends and supporters who donate money for the center’s upkeep and extras.

Town resident Carolyn Calvert Rogers is grateful that the big stone building on the hill has been preserved for future generations.

“My father was a school bus driver,” she said. “There were five in my family that started and graduated here.”

Resident Eddie Grimes, 74, has a unique memory of the school. He owned the only dog that ever graduated from Sharpsburg, he said. His shepherd, Mac, accompanied Grimes to school every day during his school career. When school let out, Mac would reappear to take him home.

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New exhibit on Joe Frank Harris, GA’s 78th governor

Posted by | April 15, 2014

Georgia’s Bartow History Museum opens a new exhibition in the permanent gallery tomorrow on the life and legacy of Honorable Joe Frank Harris, Georgia’s 78th governor.

Gubernatorial candidate Joe Frank Harris, pictured at a campaign in Gilmer County in 1982, was viewed by pundits as a dark-horse candidate at best. Harris won the Democratic nomination and subsequently the governorship itself. Photo courtesy The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gubernatorial candidate Joe Frank Harris, pictured at a campaign in Gilmer County in 1982, was viewed by pundits as a dark-horse candidate at best. Harris won the Democratic nomination and subsequently the governorship itself. Photo courtesy The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Born and raised in Bartow County, Harris worked in his family’s business after college and then began a distinguished political career, serving for 18 years in the Georgia House of Representatives and 8 years as governor. Harris’s most visible achievement as governor was a sweeping reform of public education. The program, known as Quality Basic Education, sought to improve funding for Georgia public schools by expanding student testing, introducing new programs for students with disabilities, and increasing teacher salaries.

Although the legislature never fully funded the program, state expenditures for public education increased dramatically, and teacher salaries began to rise from dismally low levels.

After his two terms as Governor, he was appointed to the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia, serving as chairman of the Board of Regents for two years and a member for seven years. Joe Frank Harris served as a distinguished executive fellow at Georgia State University and a lecturer in its School of Policy Studies from 1995 until 2009 and currently serves as chairman of the board of Harris Georgia Corporation, an industrial development firm that was established in 1980 in Cartersville.

New Joe Harris Display in "Towards New Horizons" exhibit at the Bartow History Museum

New Joe Harris Display in “Towards New Horizons” exhibit at the Bartow History Museum

The Bartow History Museums wants future generations to know and understand the impact someone from their own community has had, and therefore will highlight Harris and his family’s contribution to our history by incorporating the exhibit into the Museum’s “Toward New Horizons” gallery. This gallery looks back at some of the area’s key events and people over the past several decades.

The exhibit will feature objects, documents, and photographs covering Harris’ early life through his two terms as governor. The exhibit will also feature an interactive kiosk allowing visitors to access additional information and photographs covering a wide range of topics related to Harris’ life and career.

This new exhibit was made possible by a generous gift from AFLAC Foundation, Inc. The opening will take place on April 16, 2014, at noon, during our monthly Lunch & Learn program. Tom Lewis, who served as Harris’ Chief of Staff, and Joe Harris, Governor and Mrs. Harris’ son, will talk about their roles during the Harris administration before the exhibit opening. The Bartow History Museum is located at 4 E. Church Street in downtown Cartersville. Parking is available next to the building. The lecture is free to members and included with the price of admission for not-yet members. For more information on this and other BHM programs, call 770-382-3818, ext. 6288 or visit our website.

Bartow History Museum Director Trey Gaines places a bowling shirt worn by Gov. Joe Frank Harris that has the family business, Harris Cement Products, inscribed on it, into a permanent exhibit at the venue. Photo by Skip Butler/The Daily Tribune News

Bartow History Museum Director Trey Gaines places a bowling shirt worn by Gov. Joe Frank Harris that has the family business, Harris Cement Products, inscribed on it, into a permanent exhibit at the venue. Photo by Skip Butler/The Daily Tribune News

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Empress of the Blues

Posted by | April 14, 2014

When Bessie Smith sang the blues she meant it. Smith (1894-1937) was the greatest and most influential classic blues singer of the 1920s. Dubbed “The Empress of the Blues,” Smith embodied the blues feeling, while her songs, drawing from her sordid lifestyle, rang true with rural and urban audiences alike.

Smith was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, TN. She spent her early years living in a one room shack in a small area of Chattanooga known as Blue Goose Hollow. These living quarters were shared by both of her parents and all of her siblings, which at the highest count could have been as many as seven.

Her father, a part time Baptist minister, died when Smith was an infant and by the time she reached the age of nine her mother Laura and at least two of her brothers had also passed away. Smith’s sister Viola moved the family into a tenement apartment in a section of Chattanooga known as Tannery Flats. She supported her sisters, brothers, and her own daughter mainly on the small wages she earned from taking in laundry, and was apparently very strict when it came to her siblings.

Bessie SmithThe family income was minimally supplemented by the odd jobs that Clarence, the eldest brother in the Smith family, took. By 1904, Clarence left town to join the Moses Stokes traveling show and his support left town with him.

Despite the abject poverty that consumed Bessie Smith’s childhood, she is noted as having completed school at least to the eighth grade. During this time Bessie is also said to have started her entertainment career. Standing on the corner singing, accompanied by her younger brother Andrew on guitar; their preferred location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets. They collected spare change that people passing by threw at them.

After hearing his sister perform at an amateur night at the Ivory Theatre, Clarence arranged an audition for Smith with the Moses Stokes Company, and she was hired as a dancer in 1912. She became friends with an older Moses Stokes veteran, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who was called the Mother of the Blues and likely exercised some influence over the young singer.

Rainey is largely credited with moving the blues away from its traditionally male, country sounds to the more classical, city and women’s style that is associated with the Harlem Renaissance, today. Smith had her own voice, however, and owed her success to no one. If anything, Ma Rainey taught her stage presence.

Bessie Smith’s heavy, throaty vocals were balanced by a delightful sense of timing. Her live shows were a blend of comedy and drama in song. She played on the road for eleven years before recording her first song in 1923. That record sold 780,000 copies, but only made her $125.

During her heyday, she sold hundreds of thousands of records and earned upwards of $2000 per week, which was a queenly sum in the 1920s. She routinely played to packed houses in the South as well as the North and Midwest. Alberta Hunter, a contemporary blues singer of Bessie Smith’s, said of Smith, “I don’t think anybody in the world will ever be able to get as much hurt into one song.” There are some artists who don’t have to do anything other than walk out on stage to create electricity in the air, and Bessie Smith was one of them.

sources: www.jerryjazzmusician.com/mainHTML.cfm?page=albertson.html
www.southernmusic.net/bessiesmith.htm
www.nps.gov/history/delta/blues/people/bessie_smith.htm
xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/blues/bsa.html

Alberta Hunter, appalachia, appalachian history, mountains Bessie Smith, blues, Chattanooga TN, Ma Rainey

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Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by | April 13, 2014

We post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. Check us out on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:

We open today’s show with guest author Dr. Robert F. Maslowski, editor of the journal West Virginia Archeologist and a professor at Marshall University. “In early April,” he tells us, “we drove west to Hopewell country to meet with Nancy Stranahan, Director of the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System and Bruce Lombardo, Director of Heartland Earthworks Conservancy. The two of them were instrumental in a recent successful effort to preserve one of the largest and most complicated earthwork complexes built by the Hopewell.”

We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a calendar of events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.

Jonathan Winskie, who’s about to graduate from the University of North Georgia with a history degree, got interested in the heirloom seed saving community in surrounding Lumpkin County in 2012. How had heirloom seed gardening helped to develop community in Lumpkin County, he wanted to know? What was the status of the tradition? What heirloom seeds still existed within the county? He and 6 other students helped form Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories. SAGAS, a collaboration between the Departments of Biology and Visual Arts, and the Appalachian Studies Center, is now one of 15 Appalachian Teaching Projects sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

We’ll wrap things up with a review of Ben Montgomery’s new book Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. Emma Rowena Caldwell Gatewood was 67 years old in 1955 when she started on a trail that would lead her, not only to the top of a mountain, but to fame, celebrity and status as an inspiration to hikers (and non-hikers) for years to come. At a time of life when most women her age were settling into quiet domesticity, Emma took a hike. She started at Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia and stopped 2,050 miles later at the top of Mt. Katahdin, Maine to become the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail alone.

And thanks to the good folks at Old Hat Records, we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from the North Carolina Ridge Runners in a 1928 recording of Nobody’s Darlin’, re-issued on Old Hat’s 1997 CD Music from the Lost Provinces.

So call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corncob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian history.

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