Do You Know the Cultural Origins of Southern Appalachian Music and Dance? And How Isolated Were the Southern Appalachians?

Here’s a hint: Do you know the cultural origins of the banjo?

Phil Jamison begins his program by playing the banjo. September 28, 2015, Pack Memorial Library.

The banjo comes to us from Africa, having been brought to the New World by slaves. This was news to me, although several people in the audience of Phil Jamison’s talk were able to answer the question correctly. What about Southern Appalachian music and dance, especially clogging or flatfooting? Are the origins, as often thought, from the Scots-Irish?


Phil Jamison, a musician and dancer and author of the new book, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics argues that these distinctive folk dances are not the unaltered jigs and reels of the early British settlers, but hybrids that developed over time by adopting and incorporating elements from other popular forms including English and Native American roots, but also, and predominately from an African American heritage. He sets history straight as he shows the significant role of African American dancers, musicians, and callers and their influence on Appalachian dance and music.

Which raises the question of how isolated were the Southern Appalachians? It has often been written that Appalachia was a remote and isolated place, and that “the retention of eighteenth-century British culture in the mountains was due to the lack of contact with the modern world.” Jamison suggests that while some areas are certainly remote and isolated, “the region as a whole has never been completely cut off from the outside world.”

To make his point, he introduces us to the tradition of black fiddling, which did not originate in the New World. “West African fiddlers have accompanied singing and dancing with one-string gourd fiddles since the twelfth century . . .” During the times of slavery in the 1800s, the role of a dance musician was that of a servant, true both for the North and the South. He told us that in all of his research, he did not find one white fiddler, until quite contemporary times–they all were African Americans.

Jamison uses the 1867 Harper’s Weekly engraving below, one of many such illustrations he has gathered, showing a black dancer and banjo player entertaining a racially mixed crowd during a voter registration at Asheville.

Engraving from September 28, 1867 Harper’s Weekly, showing blacks registering to vote. Engraving by A.W. Thompson, and titled, “Registration At the South-Scene At Asheville, North Carolina.”

And for his major second point, other than the Great Wagon Road (“the path to North Carolina”) where immigrants traveled from the Northern colonies to settle in the Appalachian area, he calls attention to the magnificent water system in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, where goods of trade were sent on large flatboats and barges down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers all the way to New Orleans. He calls it the “Back Door to Southern Appalachia.” Jamison records in his book that one publication in 1787 reported more than 120 boats passing by Pittsburgh to New Orleans during a single week.  The crews on these boats typically hired a fiddler, typically African Americans, who played for the crew as well as played music for people along the shore. Add to that, “as many as fifty Appalachian counties (in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) were accessible by the navigable tributaries of the Ohio River.” I hope you see where this is going–the transmission of music and dance through the commerce that flowed along the “Back Door of Southern Appalachia.”

A lot of information to try to give a sense to in a blog. It’s best to read the book. Even if you’re not terribly interested in Appalachian music and dance, you will want to read this book for the vast cultural history of the Southern Appalachian area, not to mention the due he pays to the African American influence of the American folk tradition.

After the program, I realized how invigorated I felt, having been shown that something was very different than the way I thought it was. Very, very different. And, it is kind of fun to be turned upside down on your head.

Phil ended his program with his flatfoot dancing. This was not a choreographed piece, but a dance where he listened to the music and interpreted it with his feet.

Post by Zoe Rhine, Librarian


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