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Elaine Purkey and the Importance of Appalachian Music

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Elaine Purkey is one of our country’s premiere folk singers, regularly giving performances around the state and country. Recently she asked me if I knew of any film that she could show her students at the Big Ugly Community Center that would talk about the importance of music in Appalachia. I first suggested that she watch the film I had just given her, Mimi Pickering’s great film on Bluefield native Hazel Dickens, “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song.” That was where my exploration of the importance of Appalachian music began.

Elaine is teaching school children about Appalachian music as part of a program sponsored by the Clay Center.Robin Kessinger, Heidi Muller and Elaine present programs on Appalachian music to school children around the region.

Of special note on this subject is the work of Archie Green, author of “Only A Miner – Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs.” Mr. Green recently passed away ( March 22, 2009) after a lifetime devoted to recording the life and times of working people. NY Times obituary. He worked to create the American Folklife Center at The Library of Congress.

Bob Gates suggested his great film, “Morris Family Old Time Music Festival” which will be coming out on DVD soon. ( Gates has also recorded some of the Vandalia Festival musical events held annually at the WV Cultural Center. I do not know of a source for purchasing them.)

John Lilly, editor of Goldenseal and a fine musician himself, told me that he really likes the Appalshop film about Nimrod Workman, “To Fit My Own Category,” and the Burt/Chadwick film on the Lilly Brothers, “True Facts…in a Country Song.”

Bill Perrine, a leading WV expert on foreign films and a one time writer on music, recommended “High Lonesome – The Story of Bluegrass Music” about blue grass music from Kentucky.

Elaine herself searched the web and found a film called “The Queen Family – Appalachian Tradition & Back Porch Music.”Luckily, WVLC has a DVD copy.

I recalled three films by Les Blank, a well-known documentary filmmaker and friend of Alan Lomax. He has made three  films about Appalachian musicians – “Julie – Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge”(1991), a film about Julie’s brother, “Tommy Jarrell – Sprout Wings and Fly.”(1983) and a sequel,”My Old Fiddle – A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge.”(1994) 

After e-mailing around, and doing some thinking, and talking to my wife Frani who is also a fine musician/singer, I thought of the two best films that explain the importance of Appalachian music – “The Fifth String” starring two fine WV musicians, Dwight Diller and John Morris, with a guest appearance by Elaine as a dancing waitress and “Ballad of a Mountain Man” (which is apparently not in distribution at this time) about Bascom Lamar Lunsford who started his campaign to save Appalachian music in the 1920s. ( I worked on the film a bit with Donn Rogosin, letting the filmmakers use uncopyrighted footage of Charleston in 1932 as a town shown in the film. The filmmakers edited the film in Beckley at WSWP-TV. Rogosin told me recently that he is planning on making a new documentary on Appalachian music.)

One mega-movie that definitely has a lot about Appalachian music is Mari-Lynn Evan’s PBS series, “The Appalachians.”Phyllis Geller, the director, used Appalachian music as a focus for her entire story, starting with a great scene filmed in Scotland about the true meaning of the popular song, “One Frosty Morning.” The series also includes the last filmed interview with Johnny Cash who was greatly influenced by Appalachian music and was married to a member of the seminal music family, June Carter.

I always think of the great film about Uncle Homer Walker, a black banjo player from southern WV called “Banjo Man.” He performed in Gates’ film “Morris Family Old Time Music Festival” and spent decades traveling the state and country, playing his version of old time songs.

A recent film about Pete Seeger, “Peter Seeger – The Power of Song,” shows how Seeger realized the importance of Appalachian music, and used many Appalachian songs in his performances. No film that I have ever seen shows how powerful music can be, especially music written by the “common” men and women of this country.

Several years ago, a feature film called “Songcatcher” was released. The film showed early music historians in the tradition of the Lomax clan, traveling through Appalachia to record songs.

Anne Lewis from Appalshop suggested some other Appalshop films on Appalachian musicians including Herb E. Smith’s great film on “The Ralph Stanley Story” and I ran across Lewis’ own film on WV gospel singer, Ethel Caffie-Austin, “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” I e-mailed Anne that I thought that Mimi Pickering’s other music film, “Dreadful Memories – The Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning” is definitely one of the most intense, best films ever made about an Appalachian music.

Other great Appalshop films on Appalachian musicians include “Sunny Side of Life” about the Carter family, Lewis’ film on “Lily May Ledford,” and Lewis’ film “Morgan Sexton: Banjo Player from Bull Creek.”

I also immediately thought of the two ceremonies that the WV Music Hall of Fame has sponsored, inducting musicians of all kinds in to its institution. Hazel Dickens was one of the first people inducted. The film about its 2007 inaugural ceremony is one of the most positive films ever made about the importance of music to a people. Thanks to Lipton and his friends, people including myself know about Blind Alfred Reed.

After a few moments, I  thought of the lifetime work of Elkins, WV musician/author/promoter Gerald Milnes of the Augusta Heritage Center. I told Elaine that his film about Melvin Wine , “One More Time – the Life and Music of Melvin Wine” was definitely a fine film about the importance of Appalachian music. I also suggested his film, “That Old Time Sound” about Lester and Linda McCumbers who influenced many other great WV musicians in the central part of the state. He agreed that that particular film would be useful for Elaine’s students.

It’s hard for me to think that anyone has to be shown the importance of Appalachian music. As Jeff Biggers has shown in his book, “The United States of Appalachia,”the people and culture of Appalachia has had a great  influence on all of the country and world. But young students here in WV often don’t see how powerful Appalachian music has been when they listen to contemporary rock and roll. Hopefully, thanks to the efforts of music teachers like Elaine Purkey and the other many great Appalachian singers, the next generation will learn early how powerful our own music really is.

Addendum 1 – from Elaine Purkey –

—– Original Message —–

From: Elainepurkey@aol.com  Sent: Tuesday, April 07, 2009 5:10 PM  Steve, the reason I wanted you to contact Kate McComas is that there are others besides myself, Robin and Heidi teaching students.  They are being taught drums, guitar, fiddle, horns, and dulcimer.  I am the only “song” teacher.  One of Heidi’s students from Kermit used his experience learning to play the dulcimer to put together a Social Studies Project  called “The Importance of Mountain Dulcimer Music” (I think) and won in the school and County and now is headed for the state competition.  That project is where I got the idea to teach my 3rd to 5th grade students about why this music is important. Maybe you could add something about others teaching these students also.  I so would not want to have people thinking that we were the only three people doing this. Thank you for all your help.  Looks like I have a lot of reading and looking to do.   Oh yes, Hazel Dickens has written a book called: “Working Girl Blues (The Life & Music of Hazel Dickens)” which Bill C. Malone worked with her on that has a lot of information about our music also. 

Addendum 2  Jack Wright, a founder of Appalshop and expert on films about Appalachian music, professor at Ohio University, etc., etc. e-mailed this additional information –

And also, there are the great John Cohen films that were the first of their kind. He coined the phrase “High Lonesome Sound” 1963, which was the title of his first film shot in
E KY. He also made a short film on Sara & Maybelle Carter plus Musical Holdouts & The End of an Old Song-all Appalachian.
And Alan Lomax’s film work.AMERICAN PATCHWORK SERIES
 From 1978 to 1985 Alan Lomax traveled the American South and Southwest with a television crew to document regional folklore with deep historical roots. From the resulting 400 hours of footage came the five-program series American Patchwork, which aired on PBS in 1991. (All are 60 minutes)
Appalachian Journey
Alan Lomax travels through the hills and hollers of the
Southern Appalachians investigating the songs, dances, and religious rituals of the descendents of the Scotch-Irish frontiers-people who have made the mountains their home for centuries. Preachers, fiddlers, moonshiners, cloggers and square dancers recount the good times and the hard times of mountain life. Performances by Tommy Jarrell; Janette Carter; Ray and Stanley Hicks; Frank Proffitt, Jr.; Sheila Kay Adams; and Raymond Fairchild, the man reputed to be the fastest banjo-picker in the world.
Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old
An examination of the talents and wisdom of elderly musicians, singers, and story-tellers, who perform not for fame or fortune but to preserve and share their culture. Stories told by Janie Hunter (80 years old) of Johns Island, S.C.; ballads sung by ex-coal miner and union organizer Nimrod Workman (91), of Chatteroy, W.V.; fiddle tunes and tales of moonshining and feuds from Tommy Jarrell (83) of Toast, N.C.; and footage from the Alabama Sacred Harp Convention in Fyffe, Alabama, in which people of all ages gather to sing old-time shape-note hymnody.