Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts

Larry Holzwarth - June 18, 2019

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Novelist Thomas Wolfe made numerous references to the resentment he encountered in his North Carolina hometown after writing about it. Wikimedia

21. You Can’t Go Home Again

In 1940 Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again was published posthumously. In the novel, the protagonist, a writer, publishes a novel in which several disparaging references to his hometown, Libya Hill, are made. The writer subsequently received threats and a hostile reception from his former friends and neighbors, who are aware the depiction was accurate but resent the writer’s making the outside world aware of the problems. While the state in which Libya Hill was located is never identified, Wolfe was from North Carolina, and the issues he referred to were those of Appalachia. The novel serves as an indication of the resentment which can occur when conditions are revealed which place one’s home under outside scrutiny, a resentment which is prevalent in some areas of Appalachia as a result of its past.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Mndolier Bill Monroe, one of the founders of the musical genre which became known as bluegrass. NPR

22. The music of the mountains

When the settlers to the Appalachian region arrived they brought with them the music of their homeland, chiefly the ballads of the day, a means of regaling listeners with stories sung a capella, since few instruments existed to accompany the singer. They also brought dance music, which was played chiefly on the violin, known to the dancers, listeners, and players as the fiddle. Over the decades, the tunes of the ballads remained, with the words of the song replaced by American legends and local yore, often several times over. The songs, dances, and new instruments led to an entirely American musical genre emerging from the hills of Appalachia during the 20th century.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Lester Flatt (banjo) and Earl Scruggs (guitar) helped popularize bluegrass far beyond Appalachia. YouTube

23. Appalachia is the homeland of bluegrass music, a uniquely American genre

The term bluegrass calls to mind the rolling hills of central Kentucky, but the musical genre which bears its name is a child of Appalachia and is an entirely American art form. It was developed from the blending, over time, of the traditional music of the Scots-Irish settlers of Appalachia, played on dulcimer and banjo, with the fiddle music of the Irish reels and clog dances. Its name came from an early performer of the music, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. One the of group’s members was a young banjo player by the name of Earl Scruggs, who revolutionized the style of playing the instrument. Another was a guitar player named Earl Flatts. Flatts and Scruggs remain one of the most famous, and popular, bluegrass combos of all time.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
West Virginia miners at the opening of an experimental mine. Appalachians have traditionally resisted change of all types. National Archives

24. The Appalachians developed a culture of fierce independence

The remoteness of the region from the rest of the United States, and from its own communities as a result of the mountainous terrain, led to the development of a spirit of self-preservation and independence which remains in all but the largest urban areas. The long-standing exploitation of the region by outsiders, who harvested the lumber and dug the coal leaving behind the damage done, led to a distrust of outsiders. Change is often viewed with suspicion, and accomplished only slowly when it is accomplished at all, the general belief for decades being that if it was good enough before, it remains good enough. In some mountain towns, the days of the company store are remembered wistfully, if not fondly.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Square dancers show their stuff at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina circa 1940s. Library of Congress

25. The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival

In 1927, in an effort to increase tourism given the rise of automobile travel in the United States, Asheville, North Carolina organized a Rhododendron Festival. The following year Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a musician with a law degree from what was then Trinity College (today’s Duke University) organized the festival as the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Bascom performed dressed in formalwear while playing his banjo, in order to distance himself from the image of being a hillbilly. The festival he organized, no longer centered on rhododendrons, continues to celebrate Appalachian music and dance, and is the longest-running celebration of Appalachian music and culture in the United States.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Legendary musician Arthur Lane “Doc” Watson performing on banjo in 1994. State Archives of North Carolina

26. The Appalachian region has provided some American musical icons

The rich musical culture of Appalachia has been enjoyed throughout the United States for many decades, and will no doubt continue to be for many more. Country music legend and award-winning actress Dolly Parton hailed from the region. So did Loretta Lynn, who was truly a coal miner’s daughter. Crystal Gayle, Patty Loveless, and Naomi and Wynona Judd are but a few more. Guitarists Chet Atkins and Doc Watson, multiple instrument virtuoso Ricky Skaggs, and pianist and singer Ronnie Milsap are other famed American musicians whose work reflects the hills of the region in which they were born.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
A map of the Appalachian Development Highway System shows the generally agreed upon geographic boundaries of the region. Appalachian Regional Commission

27. What exactly is Appalachia?

Appalachia is less a geographical term than a cultural one, describing a region in terms of its social norms and demographics rather than its relation to topographical or geographic boundaries. It is generally regarded as including portions of 13 states including only one in its entirety – West Virginia. Portions of the populations of several cities and towns are considered to be Appalachian, though the cities themselves are not considered part of the region. Examples include Cincinnati, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan, both of which absorbed large numbers of Appalachian migrants who arrived seeking work during the Great Depression, and created communities reflecting Appalachian culture within the city.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The possibly mythical folk hero John Henry, likely a composite from several regional folk tales, is a large part of the lore of Appalachia. Wikimedia

28 Appalachians have a rich folklore, part of the American folk tradition

Of the many American folk heroes and tales, many of the most famous have their roots in the Appalachian traditions. Davy Crockett is both a very real and significant figure in American history and a subject of folklore and tradition in the Appalachian hills of eastern Tennessee. The mythical railroad worker John Henry, whether a composite of several different characters or a complete fabrication shared by railroad workers over their campfires, is another. Appalachian culture today includes story-telling festivals, a long-standing tradition, in which Jack tales – tales which feature a character going by the name of Jack – are presented with Jack’s heroic exploits described, to be amplified upon by the next storyteller.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The 1953 cast and performers from Midwestern Hayride, one of the earliest programs to air Appalachian music. WLW

29. Appalachian radio stations helped spread the culture to other areas

In 1937, a radio program originally titled Boone County Jamboree, and soon renamed Midwestern Hayride, began broadcasting from Cincinnati’s powerful station WLW. The program featured live performances of local and regional musicians and performers, many of them Appalachian, including bluegrass music. It was heard across much of the Midwest, exposing the music which had up to them been heard only in the Appalachian communities to a new audience. It was soon augmented by similar programs on rival stations, including in Wheeling, West Virginia, and later moved to television, picked up by NBC, and later by ABC. It was one of the first exposures of Appalachian culture presented to the nation in a positive light.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
LBJ’s Great Society specifically targeted Appalachian poverty and lack of educational facilities. Wikimedia

30. Appalachian economy continued to lag behind the rest of the nation in the 21st century

As recently as 2014, studies indicated that in some communities in Appalachia families were forced to subsist on as little as $5,000 per year of income. The absence of long-term jobs in some communities led to the acceptance of work as day labor when available. Families continued to survive by using the barter system, or labor exchange system (work for food). During the drive for the creation of LBJ’s Great Society, depictions of the poverty suffered in many Appalachian communities were used to gain support for the program, but fifty years later the poverty it was meant to eradicate remained in many communities, in some even worse than they had been.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The building in the distance is an early church, with a frontier cabin in the foreground at the Jeffress recreation area in North Carolina. National Archives

31. The influence of religion on Appalachian culture

While the Bible and Christianity were always highly important in Appalachia, traditionally the role of an established church with a defined hierarchy was not. Approximately 80% of the region has always maintained to be of the Christian faith, but at the turn of the twenty-first century, nearly 70% were unchurched, belonging to no particular denomination or congregation. In the late 20th century several religious organizations began aggressive proselytizing campaigns, bringing with them the inducements of charitable support for the needy and improved educational programs, but many were rejected due to the culture of independence and self-realization which has always been present in the Appalachian mind.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Bethel Cemetery in the Great Smoky Mountains is a popular resort for ghost hunters. Bethel Cemetery

32. Double doors don’t necessarily mean a house is a duplex in Appalachia

Appalachia is liberally dotted with small and medium-sized towns, with houses which date back for well over two hundred years in some cases. Many houses were equipped with two front doors, which to a modern eye would lead the viewer to assume the house is a duplex. But in many cases, the two doors signify something else. One was for entering and exiting the house under normal circumstances. The other was for entering a room where one could sit with a recently deceased member of the household. Sitting with the dead, ensuring that the body of the deceased remained escorted at all times prior to burial was a custom brought from the old country, and the double front doors made it easier for friends and extended family to visit without disturbing the rest of the house.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Appalachian love spoons, derived from Welsh tradition, were meant to signify betrothal and demonstrate the bridegroom’s skill with his hands. Pinterest

33. Love spoons were a sign of proposal presented to a prospective bride

Because of the remote nature of many Appalachian villages and hamlets, the prospects for a bride were limited, and the competition for their hand in marriage keen, one of the reasons why Appalachian women married at a much younger age than their counterparts across the nation. Often a successful courtship – which had its own rituals and rules – ended when the prospective groom presented a hand-carved wooden spoon, called a love spoon and decorated as lavishly as the whittling skills of the gentleman allowed, in lieu of an engagement ring. The love spoon was a descendant of a tradition brought from Wales, and demonstrated that the gentleman presenting it was skilled with his hands, and thus likely to be a good provider.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Quilting was involved in both the courtship cycle and the wedding ceremony. National Archives

34. Quilting bees also were used to predict the next to be married

Appalachian quilting bees provided quilts for warmth, quilts for special events such as weddings and births, and the opportunity for socializing and exchanging news and gossip. It also provided young women of marriageable age (often as young as 15) an opportunity to appraise their chances of marriage by using the reliable predictor of “shaking the cat”. A wedding quilt would be grasped at all four corners by single women or girls, another would place a cat in the center, and the ladies would begin to shake the quilt back and forth. Whichever of the young ladies the cat leaped closest to as it made its escape was next to marry, and those young ladies with a particular gentleman in mind were no doubt encouraged.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Christmas traditions included sharing, giving, feasting, and for many locally distilled moonshine. Wikimedia

35. Christmas in Appalachia had its own special customs and celebrations

Before the advent of the railroads and its improved communications, many of the traditions of Christmas were somewhat different than they are today. One was the tradition, descended from the Welsh, of calling for gifts on the day after Christmas, allowing the poor to knock on the door of the more well-to-do and receive gifts. Some believe that the English Boxing Day also descended from this Welsh tradition. Christmas celebrations included shooting matches, community feasts rather than private family gatherings, and in later years gifts from the coal mining company, or logging company, given to their employees along with the day off, though most often without pay.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Tradition was that those who sat beneath a pine tree on Christmas would hear the angels sing, though the price was high. Wikimedia

36. Appalachian superstitions surrounding Christmas also came from Scotland and Wales

As in all cultures which celebrate Christmas, many superstitions and myths surround the holiday, most of them based on the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice which predated the Christian holiday. One held in parts of Appalachia was that sitting under a pine tree on Christmas Day allowed the angels’ singing to be heard, though it was a mixed blessing because it also ensured for the listener it was their last Christmas on earth. January 6 – the twelfth day of Christmas – rendered powers of healing to those born on that date. It was also believed in some areas that coal should not be given or lent on Christmas Day, a tradition which descended from the Druid belief that at the solstice lumps of coal contained the souls of departed relatives.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Cincinnati, Ohio developed several neighborhoods of Appalachian migrants filling assembly line jobs in the city’s manufacturing sector in the 1930s. Library of Congress

37. The Appalachian migration spread its culture west and north

In the twentieth century, the use of coal began the steady decline which continued into the twenty-first, and as profits dwindled many of the mines closed. Migrants began to leave the region in droves, heading to the cities where manufacturing jobs requiring easily learned skills paid well. The migration both emptied many towns in the mountains and created communities within the cities of the north and west. Finding the cities strange, frightening, and often hostile, migrants created their own communities, as had the Chinese, the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and others before (and after) them. Many such enclaves still exist, where the accent of the mountains can be heard among the sounds of the city.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
An Appalachian farm truck in the Heritage Farm Museum near Huntington, West Virginia. Wikimedia

38. Appalachian agriculture remained a mostly family affair

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the end of the twentieth-century American agriculture underwent a transition with many family-owned and operated farms being absorbed by commercial entities. The transition was not as severe in Appalachia, where though the climate is for the most part conducive to farming the topography is not. Smaller, family-owned farms remained prevalent. Nevertheless, the number of farms and the acreage in crops has declined steadily since the 1950s, and though farming remained an important part of the region’s economy the number of jobs and the income derived from agriculture, as with coal and logging, continued to drop through the twentieth century.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Biltmore House, one of many sites throughout Appalachia which have made it a tourist mecca. Wikimedia

39. Tourism became the major industry throughout Appalachia

As mining, logging, manufacturing, and farming all declined in the second half of the twentieth century, the tourist industry expanded, and the exploitation of the perceived stereotypes of the Appalachian people and culture began. It was then that the image of the hillbilly, resented by many Appalachian people, began to be used in marketing and to attract visitors to the region. It continues to be used in the 21st century. By the 1980s Great Smoky Mountains, National Park was the most visited of all of the American national parks, and the resorts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge had expanded, largely through the exploitation of the imagery which some of their neighbors found offensive.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Despite federal, state, and local efforts, many areas of Appalachia are still stricken with grinding poverty. Getty

40. Appalachia continued to lag behind the rest of the nation

The census conducted in 2000 revealed that sections of Appalachia continued to lag far behind the rest of the United States in income and education, while leading to poverty. In Martin County, Kentucky, visited by Lyndon Johnson after the announcement of the War on Poverty in 1964, 37% of citizens were found to be living beneath the poverty line. In Appalachia, over 23% of all adults lacked a high school diploma, and more than 30% were considered functionally illiterate. The belief that a job in the mines, or logging camps, or driving the trucks which move their continually dwindling output of product, continued to outweigh the belief that an education is important in many of the remote areas, where the traditions of the past continued to displace the needs of the present and the future.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“A History of the Mountain Dulcimer”. Dr. Lucy M. Long. Online

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