Tour of Appalachian Music
This is a collection of traditional Appalachian Music, which I put together in an attempt to highlight the diversity and breadth of styles present in the state of Kentucky.
While no collection of this nature can be comprehensive, I have attempted to include samples of religious music, game and dance tunes, courting songs, various fiddle and banjo styles ranging from what is commonly now called "old-time" to the more contemporary bluegrass, and songs that represent the African-American and Native American contributions to the region.
You’ll find some really well-known artists here beside some of their more obscure contemporaries. Most of the material was gathered from the Berea College Special Collections & Archives of Traditional Music, where there are hundreds of hours of non-commercial field recordings dating back as early as the 1920s.
When you listen to music on this site, you'll be linking to the Digital Library of Appalachia at Berea for most of the tracks, and while you're there, I encourage you to look around and discover your own favorite artists and songs! In a few cases where I felt that the artist really needed to be included but where no non-commercial link existed, I included links to paid sites where the songs can be downloaded for a small fee. Enjoy!
Owen "Snake" Chapman
I'll Learn You How To Rock Andy
Owen 'Snake' Chapman (1919-2003) was born near the small town of Canada in Pike County, Kentucky. Like many Kentucky mountain people in the 20th century, his life saw him leave and then return to the mountains. Born and raised in a log cabin, he worked as a coal miner from late teens to middle-age, retiring early with black lung and working briefly in the auto plants of Detroit before returning to the family home in Chapman's Hollow sometime in the late '60s. Snake learned many of his tunes from his father, George ‘Doc’ Chapman, who was born around 1850. Even though, like many mountain fiddlers of his generation, Snake’s playing eventually branched out to embrace styles and tunes he heard on the radio and at contests, he also had a large body of music which came directly from his family and local fiddlers with no radio or outside influences. On this song he is accompanied by Paul David Smith, also of Pike County, who is playing the banjo in a non-bluegrass three-finger style.
Jim & Dave Couch
Tree In The Mountain (Kids/Entertainment Song)
The Couch Family is a somewhat obscure family who contributed vast quantities of song, story and lore to the recorded folk culture of Kentucky. “Discovered” by folklorist Leonard Roberts in the early 1950s in Harlan County, Kentucky, brothers Jim and Dave Couch shared many of the traditional tales, songs, and legends preserved orally by their family for generations. In many cases, their versions of the material were significantly different than other documented examples. Although recordings of the family’s work are have not been released for commercial consumption, Roberts did release two books containing folkways, lore and transcriptions of tunes, which were later compiled into the single volume Sang Branch Settlers. It is interesting to note that although the religious beliefs of some mountaineers kept certain songs and stories that were deemed unsavory from being passed on and led to their eventual disappearance, the Couch Family’s somewhat more liberal approach to religion allowed for the preservation of much rare material.
Lazy John (Fiddle Tune)
Clyde Davenport (1921-2003) was born in Wayne County, Kentucky, near the Tennessee line. He learned music from his father and grandfather early in life, and his brothers learned as well. In his mid-teens he began to play for dances, on both banjo and fiddle. He never pursued a career as a musician, and moved to Indiana after being in the service during World War II. However, after retiring from the auto factory where he’d worked, he moved back to Wayne County and began to play with other local musicians again. He had a large collection of old and rare tunes in his repertoire which he was always willing to share, making him an important Kentucky traditional music resource.
Quill O'Quay ("Nonsense" Song/Work Song)
Nimrod Workman (1895-1994) was born in Martin County, Kentucky, and went to work in the coal mines of West Virginia at the age of 14. He worked in the deep mines for 42 years, until Black Lung Disease forced him to retire. Throughout his entire mining career, he was active in union politics and organizing. After retiring from the mines, he continued his activist career and also began to perform as a folk singer across the country. Much of the music he performed was learned from his family, who were of Scottish and Cherokee descent. He also performed original music, including hymns and coal songs. He and his wife, Mollie, had 13 children all together. Much of his recorded music is unaccompanied singing, and gives a distinct example of the Appalachian sound, with his use of modal scales and harmonies, idiomatic language, and distinctive ornamentation.
This song has some terminology in it that I want to explain. Put a little blockquote box on the right side of the page next to this song with the following definition in it:
What is a "boddler"? In "Quill O'Quay, the beginning of each line starts with the word "boddler". If you didn't know a bit about the traditions of Eastern Kentucky (as brought from the British Isles) you might think that "boddler" is a proper name. However, it is a variation of the word "bodger", which refers to a type of woodworker who was very common in earlier times. A bodger/boddler would move from town to town, taking his woodworking equipment (a pole lathe, primarily) and setting up a shop of sorts in the woods. From young green saplings, he would turn carved legs for chairs, tables and other furniture. Locals could buy the legs and then fashion from them their own furniture. It makes sense that a bodger or "boddler" might be fighting a wild boar, because he spends so much time in the woods and wouldn’t have to worry about the nuisance of being gored by a boar while trying to do his work!
Little Pink (Courting Song)
Few traditional instrumentalists have offered as innovative and unusual a technical approach to their instrument as Kentucky mountain dulcimer artist, I.D. Stamper. It was not until I.D. was in his thirties that he built and began to play his first dulcimer, having first mastered the harmonica and 5-string banjo as a youth, but it quickly became his first love and trademark.
Stamper was born in Arkansas, where his family moved following the big lumber boom in the late 19th century. In 1912 they returned to their native Letcher County, Kentucky where “Ike” lived until his death in 1986. Starting in the coal mines as a “chalk eye” (apprentice to a more experienced miner) as a young teen, he worked nearly forty years in the mines until he left the “bad air” for a safer and better paying job as a maintenance man in a Louisville children’s hospital. But all the time music was his first love.
Although I.D. Stamper was born at a lumber camp in Arkansas, his family soon moved back to their native Letcher County, where “Ike” learned music from his mother and other community members. His first instruments were harmonica and banjo. He went to work as a miner while still a young teen. After working nearly 40 years in the mines, he left for a job as a maintenance man.
Although it took Stamper a while to begin making dulcimers (an art no doubt inspired by his well-known relative Uncle Ed Thomas) his skill at both making and playing dulcimers quickly became what he was known best for. Stamper was one of those interesting mountain performers who displayed in his music a blend of black and white influences, and on a dulcimer, no less.He enjoyed a late-in-life music renaissance at festivals and local events, and his especially deep and resonant dulcimers had a sound which has still not been replicated. He lived in Letcher County until his death.
Lillie Mae Ledford
Banjo Pickin' Girl (Banjo Tune)
Lily May Ledford (1917-1985) was born into a large family in Powell County, Kentucky. Despite some resistance from her family, she learned to play the banjo and sing the traditional songs of the region in her spare time. She went on to become one of the original the Coon Creek Girls, who got their start on the radio in Renfro Valley, Kentucky. They acheived national success, and made many radio appearances in Chicago.
The Coon Creek Girls were one of the first all-female string bands, and they played ballads and religious songs in a fiery, foot-stomping style usually reserved for men. Despite stereotypes used to promote the Coon Creek Girls—stereotypes about women and about the people of the Appalachian region—they achieved a wide audience and Lily May Ledford remains a respected musician, known for her claw-hammer style of playing the banjo. Like many Kentucky musicians of the time period, she enjoyed a career renaissance later in life, appearing at folk festivals throughout the region.
Fall, Fall, Build Me a Boat (Play Party Song)
Rufus Crisp (1880-1956) was born in Floyd County, Kentucky. Although he grew up surrounded by music, like many mountain youth, he began to play the banjo in earnest as a teenager for square dances. After marriage, Rufus gave up the banjo for a time, until folklorists started asking to hear his music. He had a wealth of material, and once recorded over 100 songs for collectors Margaret Mayo and Stuart Jamieson. Rufus performed a variety of ballads, religious songs, and more playful or humorous songs, which seemed to be his favorite. It is interesting to note that he mainly played religious songs after the death of his wife, Lulu. He didn’t have much formal education, and never traveled far from home, but his clean and distinctive banjo style with its unusual right-hand technique and his vast well of songs make him a standout among early Kentucky artists recorded for Smithsonian Folkways. The song “Fall, Fall Build Me a Boat” was often sung to accompany a kind of square-dance called a “play party game”.
Look Up, Look Down (Railroad Song)
Addie Prater Graham, a singer of traditional ballads, hymns, and songs from eastern Kentucky, was born around 1890 in Magoffin County. She grew up in a family and community rich in traditional music. She learned many songs from her mother and many more from neighbors and family, including ballads which trace back to the British Isles, others composed in America, frolic songs and ditties, and religious songs in the Old Regular Baptist tradition. While the Old Baptist belief of her parents forbade the use of musical instruments, she became an accomplished singer in the complex, highly ornamented style of Kentucky’s oral tradition.
Addie’s repertoire included several extremely rare songs, including “We’re Stole and Sold From Africa,” an anti-slavery song which seems to have originated in the antebellum Abolitionist movement. She also sang a number of songs of African American origin, many of which she learned from Black railroad builders.
Addie married Amos Graham, a native of Wolfe County, Kentucky, and had three children. They lived in Breathitt County for many years before settling in Cynthiana, Harrison County, where she and her daughter ran a clothing store for many years. She passed away in 1977.
After a lifetime of singing only in the home, Addie performed at a number of music festivals in the 1970’s. She was recorded extensively by her grandson Rich Kirby and by folklorist Barbara (Edwards) Kunkle; they produced her LP recording Been A Long Time Traveling on Appalshop’s June Appal record label. The recording brought her music to the attention of a much wider audience; among the artists who have recorded some of her songs are Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Ginny Hawker, and John McCutcheon. Appalshop recently re-released her recording with additional material. (thanks to grandson Rich Kirby for biographical material)
Sarah Ogan Gunning
Captain Devin (Drinking Song/Nonsense Song)
Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910-1986) was born in Knox County, Kentucky into a musical family of mixed Scots-Irish and Cherokee descent. While she and her brothers and sisters were learning many songs from both mother and father (Her sister Aunt Molly Jackson and brother Jim Garland were also well-known folksingers), they were also moving from coal camp to coal camp following their father’s trade as a miner. Sarah later married a miner, and the hardships and struggles she faced in helping her family and friends in trying to create a strong labor union and force the coal companies to treat workers fairly informed some of her original compositions. She was known for re-writing traditional songs to address the political issues associated with the miners of Kentucky. She is, to me, a wonderful example of a true Appalachian folksinger. She seamlessly combines humorous tunes, ballads, love songs, nonsense songs, and songs with a political activist bent to give an overall portrait of her life and her experiences as a Kentucky woman, mother, singer, and activist. The song “Captain Devin” has what sounds like a nonsense refrain at the end of each line, but which is actually a corruption of the original Gaelic, as this is a song from the Irish tradition brought to America.
Old Virge (Fiddle Tune)
Bill Livers (1911-1988), born in Monterey, Owen County, Kentucky, was a tenant farmer and fiddler. He was well-known for being a lively performer, and played a range of styles including traditional tunes from the region, blues songs, and popular tunes of his time. He was especially known for his witty stories and tricks during his performances. The whooping you can hear in “Old Virge” was standard in his performances, and might be a link to African-American traditions in Kentucky. He credits this tune to his grandfather, Virge Livers, who was also a fiddler.
Beaver Dance (Cherokee Tradition in Appalachia)
Walker Calhoun (1918-present), of Cherokee, NC, is from the Big Cove community on the Qualla Boundary, where he still lives. He is included here among this grouping of Kentucky musicians as he is demonstrating a tradition that has become difficult to find in our state, but which is also a part of our heritage. Walker Calhoun learned sacred songs, dances, and Cherokee religious practices from his uncle, Will West Long, who had learned them from Swimmer, a Cherokee medicine man of the late nineteenth century. After Long’s death, Calhoun began teaching what he’d learned to young people from the tribe. He still performs and teaches with a group of young dancers, and has won a number of prestigious awards, including a National Heritage Award Fellowship. Showcased here is a song called Beaver Dance. It is worthy of note that many Cherokee songs are inseparable from the dances that go with them, and this one is no exception.
Hi, Said The Blackbird (Explaining Song)
Pleaz Mobley (1912-1990) was a ballad singer, entertainer, and politician from Clay County, Kentucky. He learned his music from family and community members, and often sang at political events and while campaigning. His versions of ballads and traditional songs influenced many mountain singers, and in the end, he is remembered more for his singing than his political activities.
Laughing Boy (Fiddle Tune)
Buddy Thomas was a fiddler from Lewis County, Kentucky. He came from an isolated and rural background where he learned his material from his family and community. He suffered many childhood ailments, and music was always an important outlet for him. His repertoire became very large and included some rare and unusual tunes not often heard in other parts of the state. As an adult, he had many opportunities to play music, and went back and forth between factory work and gigs in Kentucky and Ohio. His album for Rounder Records in the early 1970s brought his tunes and style to a whole new audience, and the old-time audience nationwide fell in love with his music. He passed away at a square dance in 1974, but his legacy lives on in many fiddlers today, in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Black Waters (Environmental Song)
Jean Richie (1922-present) is one of Kentucky’s best-known folk artists. Combining the huge body of song that she learned from her singing family, her skillful and rhythmic dulcimer playing, her prodigious songwriting talent, and her informative and scholarly knowledge of the region and its music, she brought the traditions of Eastern Kentucky to a national audience with her performances, books and recordings beginning in the 1940s. Her authentic and dignified portrait of her mountain upbringing belied many of the media stereotypes of the region and began to give an honest look at mountain culture. Also, her poignant first-person songs about some of the environmental and economic issues facing coalfield denizens aroused sympathy and understanding for what mountaineers were dealing with and helped galvanize activism inside and outside the region. Since she began performing, she has maintained an active career in music, as well as raising a family and pursuing a career in social work, in which she received her degree.
When Kentucky Had No Union Men (Coal Mining Song)
George Davis (1904-1992), known as "The Singing Miner" to many East Kentucky residents, was one of the most popular personalities ever heard on WKIC and WSGS. After injuring his arm in a mining accident, he devoted his time to writing and singing about the lives and working conditions of coal miners. He sang the songs he composed and worked as a disc jockey on the radio stations in Hazard from 1947 until 1969. But first he was a coal miner, operating a coal-cutting machine from 1920 to 1949. Davis began singing and playing the guitar about 1933 when Eastern Kentucky coal mines were being organized by the United Mine Workers of America. He would practice on his front porch, and miners would gather around his home to listen. He went on to record many songs, including "Coal Miner's Boogie," "When Kentucky Had No Union Men," and "Harlan County Blues." He became a much-beloved and fondly remembered radio personality in the region.