CD Review: ‘The Mountain Came Alive’

Posted by | September 24, 2013

Think of him on this project as a combination of Raffi and Pete Seeger. Adam Booth’s newly released CD The Mountain Came Alive: A Year in the Life of a Mountain in Stories and Song joyfully pitches its message to a middle school audience using the seasonal framework promised in the title. And what is that message? “Celebrate the things you love about your [Appalachian] home; they may be taken away if you don’t hold fast to them.”

The Mountain Came Alive

Booth’s business card lists him as a musician and a storyteller, both of which he most certainly is here (he even works in some yodeling that would make Jimmie Rodgers proud). His card also lists him as a champion liar, but in the context of this project he’s anything but. The truth he seeks to convey to his listeners arrives in capsule summary at the beginning of Track 14, “News Comes to the Mountains:”

‘It had been decided by someone who lived far away that the mountain was going to be cut down. Now, a mountain isn’t cut down like a tree, where the bottom is chopped into, and the rest falls over. A mountain is cut down from the top, layer by layer, until nothing is left but flatness where the mountain once stood. See, deep inside the mountain, there are precious things that have high value. And there are some people who want to get at those precious things. But on top of the mountain there are precious things that have high value, too.’

There’s a lyrics booklet included in the CD, but you won’t find these sentences (which are spoken, not sung) printed in it. Booth has opted to only present the song lyrics in print. That may be a design/production issue in terms of keeping the booklet compact enough to fit inside a CD sleeve, but it’s a shame, because some of his most thoughtful insights appear in the stories.

Booth has done a good job maintaining a vocabulary level appropriate for his intended middle school audience; the Track 14 sentences typify the language used throughout—though I did hear the word ‘taciturn’ pop up at one point, and that startled me.

There’s an 800-pound gorilla hulking in the corner with this CD project, and Booth nods to it in the Track 14 intro, then never says anything further about it. In fact he never once utters the phrase ‘coal mining,’ and Track 14 is the only time in the entire 50-minute CD when the business is even alluded to.

“This album is meant to safely present a difficult idea that few people discuss or even know about: mountains are being torn down,” says Booth in his liner notes. Trouble is, the ‘safety’ in this soft-pedaling approach risks alienating a portion of the very audience who needs most to hear his message: the children of coal miners.

Yes, they understand that the decision to tear down mountains originated somewhere far from where they live, but they just as clearly understand that their dads, uncles, and granddads have to put food on the table and raise up families. If the ‘people who want to get at those precious things’ are chased away, what livelihood will replace the one they depend on to survive? Booth doesn’t know the answer to this anymore than anyone else does, but it does seem like this song/story collection somehow needed to at least acknowledge the coal miners’ perspective; the mountain is home to them too.

My mother was fond of saying “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It may well be that an artist/educator who wishes to have his teaching product used in coal country school districts has no choice but to stay quiet on King Coal if he’s strongly opposed to its practices — better to be let into the classrooms where you at least have a chance at being heard, than to be shut out entirely.

Booth on Country Road

Teachers who respond positively to the idea of utilizing The Mountain Came Alive in their classroom will be pleased to learn that Booth has intentionally kept his production values straightforward — a teacher with a reasonable singing voice and access to a dulcimer, a guitar, or a piano can easily master these pieces for performing in his/her own classroom. “Children need to hear real sounds in music that appropriately challenge their growing minds,” says Booth, by way of explaining why he’s opted not to use anything synthesized or electronic in his songs.

Because of its seasonal narrative structure, The Mountain Came Alive could just as easily be scheduled for classroom listening in 4 segments spread around the calendar, as opposed to one continuous listening. Either way, Booth clearly sees the project not just as an item to be consumed, so much as a springboard for discussion. “The story does not end when the tracks finish playing,” he says. “Hopefully this album will bring up many issues and questions. Talk about them with your children and students and have good, old-fashioned conversation!”

The website accompanying The Mountain Came Alive contains a rich compendium of audio clips discussing the various Appalachian musical instruments used on the CD (dulcimers, guitars, mandolins, etc), a photo gallery of things Appalachian (ramps, corn husk dolls, whimmy diddles), a page on the various musical styles employed on the CD (old-time, country & western, shape note singing), a much fuller discussion of mountaintop removal, and a feedback page so teachers can continue the discussion online with Adam Booth and with each other.

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