Digging Up the Home of Mountain Music

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Mountaintop removal coal mining isn’t just destroying Appalachia’s landscape. It’s also also fracturing the region’s culture, including its traditional music. The “faith, politics, culture” magazine Sojourners reports on the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in eastern Kentucky, which trains youngsters to play–and be proud of–the old-time music that has been losing its foothold in the hollers.

“East Kentucky is a very poor area, and it gets the short end of the stick in a lot of ways,” school founder Beverly May tells Sojourners. “There are terrible problems of environmental devastation and economic devastation from the strip-mining of coal. The kids see all this, and they know where they stand in the American scene. They’re hillbillies. The Cowan Creek School counters that. It says you have a heritage that is honored all over the world and is one of the main sources of all American popular music. Saving this music is a part of saving this regional community.”

Banjo player Randy Wilson, who teaches at the school, tells Sojourners that coal mining is still a touchy subject in the area: “We got some flak last summer because so many of our music school teachers publicly voiced opposition to strip-mining and mountaintop removal. Some people said we needed to be aware that many of the local people at our events also work for a coal company. It is a shame that we have to pit jobs against honoring our heritage, but that is how it is here in Appalachia.”

This internal conflict is also the thread running through the forthcoming book Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, which will be published in April by the University Press of Kentucky. The authors, Silas House and Jason Howard, both grew up in families with coal-mining backgrounds, and in the introduction they describe the pressure exerted on those who dare to speak out: “Many Appalachians find it difficult to oppose this practice because of the coal industry’s long history of convincing people that to protest any form of mining is to oppose an industry that has long been a major supplier of jobs within the region.”

The book goes on to both puncture that argument–mountaintop removal actually doesn’t provide many local jobs–and give voice to 12 courageous local witnesses to the devastation, including many who also draw connections between coal and culture. One is 86-year-old songwriter Jean Ritchie, sometimes called the “mother of folk,” whose music was recorded by famed musicologist Alan Lomax. In a song that still rings true, she sings of “black waters run down through the land” and says, “The memories, they just push right down on me sometimes.”

Look for more coverage of the book at Utne.com closer to April.

Image courtesy of Cowan Creek Mountain Music School.

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