West Virginia’s traditional/folk music scene is vibrant and well-known. A myriad of festivals focused on those traditions draw visitors and participants from across the globe. The West Virginia State Folk Festival, held every third weekend in June, to coincide with West Virginia Day, was founded by Dr. Patrick Gainer in 1950 “to preserve the remnants of West Virginia traditional life and culture to the end that citizens may appreciate and respect the achievements of their forbearers.”
Other festivals of note include the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston, The Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, The Gardner Winter Music Festival in Morgantown, and the offerings of the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins. For each of these there are numerous other local festivals around the state.
It seems that music has always been a part of the area we now call West Virginia. Many of her citizens play traditional music, or can at least point to someone in their family line who does or did play. One professor at West Virginia University, a Logan County native and traditional musician himself, is building upon the work of many who came before him to help focus attention on the contributions of several southern West Virginia musicians/singers whose contributions to the tradition are largely unknown to all but the most curious of listeners.
Along with my colleague Dr. Gloria Goodwin Raheja, we’ve created a website called, “Folk Music of the Southern West Virginia Coalfields.” At present, the website highlights the musical contributions of nearly 40 musicians/singers from southern West Virginia, with a special emphasis on those from Logan, Mingo, and Lincoln counties who were recorded in their homes in 1940 by Louis Watson Chappell. Others will be added as more information about them surfaces. The project is funded in-part by the National Coal Heritage Area and can be found at this link: https://johnhaddox.faculty.wvu.edu/folk-music-of-the-southern-west-virginia-coalfields
Chappell, a professor English at West Virginia University, was also a musicologist who spent the summers of 1937-47 travelling around West Virginia with an aluminum disc recording machine capturing 647 discs containing some 2,000 recordings of singers, banjo players, fiddle players, and some story tellers. Among those 2,000 cuts are 213 from eight persons from Logan, Lincoln, and Mingo counties. The names Tom Whitt, Mary Jane Dyson, Lum Pack, Sarah Workman, Henry Bias, Rhoda Nelson, Paulina Cole, and Kate Toney may ring a bell to some family members, or to those interested in cataloging old cemeteries, but the musical contributions of these individuals is often not recalled. Chappell took sparse notes and often only included a name, date, recording location, and a listing of songs and/or tunes collected from each person he recorded.
While I am taken with the music, my main effort with this project is to tell the stories of the people behind the music. These songs and tunes in the Chappell Collection didn’t just come from thin air—they were played and sung by everyday people who lived, worked, and roamed the hills of my home area. Some of their musical selections harken back to those that were carried over to this country by the earliest of immigrants. Historians of the southern coal fields often look at everything through the lens of the coal industry. This project provides the viewer and listener a traditional music perspective to a history of the area.
The summers find me traipsing around the hills, visiting old cemeteries, playing tunes over the graves of long-forgotten musicians, all the while acknowledging them and searching for additional clues about their lives.
As the southern coalfields were (and still are) so rich with talent, there are plenty of other musicians/singers who are not in the Chappell Collection featured in the project, a few of whom were quite well-known regionally, if not nationally, in their days.
I invite anyone with additional knowledge of any of the persons identified in the project, or with suggestions for someone who might be a good candidate for the project, to please contact me at my WVU email: email@example.com
Chris Haddox is an Associate Professor of Sustainable Design in the School of Design and Community Development at West Virginia University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-293-3657.