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Thursday, December 12, 2013


The Library of Congress states:

"In fact, music of the Appalachian region has never been one thing, but rather another multifaceted force in the creation of twentieth-century music. Its influence has appeared in blues, jazz, bluegrass, honky tonk, country, gospel, and pop, at the very least."
This description captures the musical and artistic approach I take with my An Appalachian Christmas album, which is shaping up to become a Christmas perennial. This is the third straight year An Appalachian Christmas has entered the best seller’s rankings at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Since the time Cromwell banned Christmas songs in the Commonwealth of England, quite a few Christmas albums have been made, so understandably, joining the ranks of annual Christmas favorites is very exciting!

 It is interesting to note that some people have criticized the album for not being Appalachian enough. Of course, I disagree wholeheartedly with this criticism, an assessment that reflects a limited knowledge of the musical culture and history of the region. I encourage these critics to learn about our incredible vast musical culture before judging it! Indeed, most American music has originated in the Appalachian Mountains over the last 400 years.
Those who criticize An Appalachian Christmas for not being Appalachian enough generally live in other regions of the country. It is quite noticeable. They think that Appalachian means one thing and one thing alone when it comes to music: old-time music with nasal voices, dulcimers, washboards and how ‘bout some missing teeth and overalls thrown in, right? Manners, manners…! People should not be so quick to characterize a region of the country and its culture based on such extreme stereotypes. But so it goes with Appalachia.

Most critics of the musical styles on the album are in fact confusing terminology: Appalachian music is not equivalent to “bluegrass music” or “old-time music.” Appalachia is a region of the country, not a musical style. Frankly, it would be just as absurd to name a style of music “Tennessee Style” because it includes music played in Nashville, Memphis, Bristol, and beyond. Regardless of the terminology, it goes without saying that these cultural misjudgments are in some cases indicative of lower prejudices – we can do better than that, folks. It’s Christmastime!

Why am I the right person to bring light to this music? For one, I play pretty much all the styles associated with Appalachia, so I know the similarities and differences between them. I also know how to develop these styles and can identify previous developments therein. I was one of a few people who broadened the definition of “Texas Fiddling” into “Contest Fiddling.” I did the same thing with bluegrass music, being one of the first few to adapt it to “Newgrass,” putting a new spin on it with Strength in Numbers and other similar projects with a couple handfuls of other top players. I transformed the Nashville Cats into the New Nashville Cats with my Grammy-winning recording that changed popular perception of Nashville players. Twenty years ago, modern Classical music began to embrace fiddling and American traditional music as source material and a musical language for compositions again, returning to tonal composition. My Fiddle Concerto from 1993 and my Appalachia Waltz with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer from the same time period played a big part in that development.

But before I discuss anything further, let us take a look at the Library of Congress’s description of Appalachian music:

The Library of Congress: Appalachian Music
The term "Appalachian music" is in truth an artificial category, created and defined by a small group of scholars in the early twentieth century, but bearing only a limited relationship to the actual musical activity of people living in the Appalachian mountains. Since the region is not only geographically, but also ethnically and musically diverse (and has been since the early days of European settlement there), music of the Appalachian mountains is as difficult to define as is American music in general.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing into the 1920s, nearly all of the early scholarship on Appalachian music focused on "ballad-hunting" or "song-catching," the discovery of New World variants of ballads and other songs that had originated in the British Isles. Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1898) served as the canonical text. One of the most famous of the ballad hunters was Cecil Sharp. He and others helped create an unassailable historical connection between some of the songs of Appalachia and those of the British Isles.
The early assessments of Appalachian music by non-Appalachian writers reflected the values and interests of the writers much more than those of the subjects. For example, Robert Winslow Gordon, founder of the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress in 1928 (now the American Folklife Center), saw Appalachian folk music as defined by its direct relation to British song as the more "authentic" or "American" alternative to African-American and Jewish-American popular music: "Personally, I frankly believe that the whole project of reviving and making known our true American folk stuff is one of the most worthwhile things to be done today. From the point of view of true Americanism.[sic] That stuff is the very soul of our past, of pioneers, of the men who made America. It's not modern Hebrew Broadway jazz." Sarah Gertrude Knott, founder of the National Folk Festival, tempered its supposed multiethnic program with the statement: "No one doubts that the Anglo-Saxon expressions should predominate at the National Folk Festival." Contemporary and topical songs of town dwellers, mine workers, and any others "spoiled" by too much contact with non-British culture or with economic realities overtaking the U.S. at the time were considered unfit for study by scholars such as Sharp.
This preoccupation with a pure British heritage was not absolute. Folklorists and activists such as John and Alan Lomax, Ziphia Horton, and others collected topical and contemporary songs in the 1930s and 1940s, often in tandem with efforts at organizing the Appalachian population for leftist causes. Among the few examples of early scholarly attention to non-white Appalachians are James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee (1901) and Louis Chappell's unpublished work of the 1920s, which uncovered the story of the African-American railroad ballad "John Henry."
Actually, in spite of the image promoted by early scholars, Appalachia was not settled only by Scots-Irish or other British peoples. Settlers from a multiplicity of European ethnic groups populated Appalachia, including Germans, French Huguenots and East Europeans. In the early twentieth century, African Americans were reported to make up 12 percent of the Appalachian population. Furthermore, isolation between these groups was not necessarily the norm. The mountain dulcimer, now almost an icon of Appalachian music, is a direct descendant of the German Scheitholt. African-American banjos, string bands, and many of the tunes that came with them arrived sometime around the 1840s as minstrel shows began to make their way around the U.S. Jane Becker notes that "Southern mountaineers still sang the old Anglo-Saxon ballads and traditional hymns, but they also enjoyed new ballads on contemporary topics as well as the popular music of the day. They used homemade fiddles side by side with guitars, banjos and mandolins purchased by mail." Even in isolated areas, the ideal of mountaineers passing down a pure tradition did not match the observations of Lester Wheeler, who saw "the residents of Nicholson Hollow in the Blue Ridge gathered at one cabin to listen to music programs on the radio."
A slightly more accurate picture of what "Appalachian music" might have meant in the early twentieth century is provided by the recordings made at Bristol (on the Tennessee-Virginia state line) in the summer of 1927 by Ralph Peer for the Victor Record Company. In the process of selecting performers and repertoire to record, Peer did urge performers to keep out anything modern. But even this small cloud had a silver lining. The Teneva Ramblers, a group that operated out of Bristol but had recently acquired the talents of a young Mississippi singer named Jimmie Rodgers, were told that before they could record they had to find "older, more down-home songs than the ones they had been doing." Unfortunately, while trying to comply with this request, the band broke up. Consequently, Rodgers made his first solo recordings, opening a career that produced country music's first true star. Other artists--local star Ernest Stoneman and his family, the Carter Family with their Victorian gospel style, protest/gospel singer-songwriter Blind Alfred Reed, Rev. Ernest Phipps of the Holiness Church, stark traditionalist B. F. Shelton, fiddler "El" Watson (the only known African American at the sessions) and other string band musicians, contemporary shape-note singers the Alcoa Quartet, and numerous others--showed that the music of the mountains was woven from many strands indeed.

In truth, the more Appalachians are able to represent themselves, the harder it becomes to define "Appalachian" music or culture in any meaningful way. Stephen William Foster has stated, "One might argue that the notion of Appalachia as a distinctive and creditable variant of American culture remains a minority opinion." It has more or less disappeared as a scholarly topic, not because the music is unimportant, but because the term has become less and less meaningful. In fact, music of the Appalachian region has never been one thing, but rather another multifaceted force in the creation of twentieth-century music. Its influence has appeared in blues, jazz, bluegrass, honky tonk, country, gospel, and pop, at the very least. These music styles owe to Appalachia much the same debt they owe to cities and rural areas outside Appalachia. The story of Appalachian music is very similar to the story of music in America, where musicians have never cared much for categories or purity of lineage, but have eagerly mined whatever styles and forms felt suitable for the raw material of new adaptations. -(Library of Congress)
I find it amusing that some people want to debate which Christmas songs are more Appalachian. Are they Appalachian enough to be on An Appalachian Christmas? Do Christmas songs need to be from Appalachia to be on the album? The answer is that there are no well-known Christmas songs from Appalachia. The vast majority of Christmas songs originated either in Europe hundreds of years ago or in Hollywood in the last century. Are there any popular Christmas songs written in Appalachia? It does not appear to be the case. So, making an album of Appalachian Christmas songs would basically be impossible.

Some claim the styles on my album are not Appalachian. For instance, there is no jazz or swing in Appalachia, they say. But did you know that the “father of bluegrass” Bill Monroe’s three most famous fiddlers, Kenny Baker, Vassar Clements, and Chubby Wise, were all originally swing jazz fiddlers? Some doubt the existence or importance of the orchestra in Appalachia, but I just recently appeared with a symphony orchestra in an Appalachian state under a conductor who had just composed a piece for their anniversary called “Appalachian Colors.” Some say there is no pop music in Appalachia. Beyond the fact that the pop singer James Taylor (who appears on An Appalachian Christmas) lived in North Carolina for a long time (you remember his song “Carolina In My Mind” – I played it with him many times!), there are many pop artists from Appalachia.

Many of you are probably familiar with Doc and Merle Watson, both of whom were from North Carolina. I played on several albums and tours with Doc and Merle, who, in my mind, embodied Appalachian music more than anyone. Their music featured a cohesive mixture of hoedown, gospel, blues (including Piedmont style), folk, ragtime, jazz, old-time, swing, pop, and bluegrass. Throw in those English ballads that the academics want you to concentrate on and please do not ignore all of the great African American music from the region, all an important part of the Appalachian soundscape, and you have an idea of how musically diverse the region really is.

In some sense, I think of new age acoustic-folk music when I think of Appalachia – ethereal music with repetitive-hypnotic rhythms reflective of the region’s endless rolling hills.

It is worth briefly discussing instrumentation as well, since critics question the use of “non-Appalachian” instruments on my album. Instrumentation is only one aspect of a musical style, and of course it changes over time. I can make An Appalachian Christmas without a dulcimer, for instance, just like I can make a bluegrass album without a banjo (see my Markology and Thirty-Year Retrospective albums). A couple of my Christmas songs feature an orchestra, and a couple others feature jazz guitar. (If Mother Maybelle Carter preferred a Gibson L-5 jazz guitar to the folk guitars most of her colleagues used, I think I’m safe on this front!) These instruments and instrumentations can be just as representative of Appalachia as any others.

I will say that I usually describe my music as “American” rather than “Appalachian.” So, why name my Christmas album An Appalachian Christmas rather than An American Christmas? First, I like the sound of the album title. Second, the album features my signature piece, “Appalachia Waltz.” Third, I believe the album is, in many ways, a natural continuation of the Appalachian album series (starting with Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey) I created with Ma and Meyer. An Appalachian Christmas completes the trilogy of albums inspired by the cradle of American music on stringed instruments: Appalachia.

As the Library of Congress notes above, there is no particular Appalachian style of music, but rather a diverse range of musical styles emanating from its culture that includes music from African Americans, Spaniards, Native Americans, Gypsies, Middle Easterners, and European Americans. I loved living in Tennessee for 18 years. If you were to come over to my Christmas party in Appalachia (today, I have a home near the Appalachian Mountain range in Pennsylvania), the music you would hear there would be exactly the kind of music that is on the album.

Just remember not to label everything in life and put it in a box. That is an easy way to get into trouble. Let it go, and just enjoy! Enjoy the freedom of it. After all, freedom is the thing to which every person and every artist aspires! Merry Christmas from Appalachia! –Mark O’Connor


  1. No one could have said it better, Mark! Congratulations on this lovely album!

  2. Thank You Mark.So much about the vast musical culture and history started in the Appalachian Mountains over the last 400 years.It tis true that a region of a country and its culture should not be characterised based on extreme stereotypes.Appreciation for the music coming from lower social standing are in essence the true beginnings of musical culture and their history,as they are the most authentic expressive,raw styles,all intertwined that have laid the first steps for American music in the twentieth century within the Appalachian Mountains.