The Appalshop singers
Driving into the Cumberland Mountains in eastern Kentucky, I watched the clouds cast shadows down into the patchwork green of the valleys. I noticed the flowers blooming purple on the hillsides. Then I heard sounds that were just as vivid as the countryside: WMMT-FM was coming in loud and clear, and it was playing good, gravelly folk. The down-home deejay spun a surprising mix of Julee Cruise, the Velvet Underground, and some hammered dulcimer tunes. Even before I rode over Pine Mountain to Appalshop’s headquarters in Whitesburg, Ky., I had heard the welcoming voice of its radio station.
Appalshop is a nonprofit collective making homespun art that tells the stories of central Appalachia. The collective shares Cumberland Mountain culture with the rest of the country through an appealingly varied lineup of enterprises — a touring theater group, documentaries for public television, recordings of mountain singers and storytellers. ”We speak to our place and find that it speaks universally,” says Donna Porterfield, managing director of Appalshop’s theater branch.
Appalshop succeeds by giving this rugged region’s midwives and coal miners a chance to tell their own stories. And by giving the rest of us around the country — children and adults alike — a chance to listen to such fetching songs as ”Bold Sea Captain” and ”Black Dog,” to watch insightful shows about mountain amusements, and to hear poignant stories about rainbow-colored fish and a wily mountaineer called Jack.
Appalachia is a land of storytellers, and most of them will tell you that no outsider ever came into the mountains and got the story right — not the producers of Deliverance, not Newsweek, not even Charles Kuralt. The government’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s generated a lot of unflattering attention for the people of these mountains, but it also brought them Appalshop, a federal program that has evolved into a modern multimedia means for Appalachians to preserve such centuries-old cultural activities as quilting with Cherokee patterns and healing with ginseng.
Visiting the Appalshop headquarters is like entering a barnwood beehive. The building has an art gallery, a radio station, a full-scale film-editing facility, and a 150-seat theater. The 30-some workers wear flip-flops and cutoffs and sometimes slip away for a skinny-dip in a nearby creek, but their commitment to documenting Appalachian culture is evident when they retreat into offices to write a proposal for funding to expand Appalshop programs to other regions or to edit a documentary on what they regard as the exploitation of female fast-food workers. The collective is run democratically; each member has a vote in the direction Appalshop takes.
The Appalshop message is spread through all manner of entertainments. Retail stores across the country carry records bearing the June Appal Recordings label, with music ranging from Western swing and gospel to the banjo and ballads of Morgan Sexton, an 80-year-old Kentucky coal miner with black lung disease who won an award this year from the National Endowment for the Arts. June Appal has been able to preserve strains of regional music that have vanished in less isolated parts of the country. Excellent dulcimer music is available on June Appal CDs, cassettes, and albums, some of it in traditional Irish variations that have survived unchanged in the hollers. Mountain storytellers with antic voices are also available on record. Children will especially enjoy Carryin’ On, Jack Alive, and Mountain Tales.
Appalshop’s theatrical division, Roadside Theater, creates stirring productions about mountain life. The company tours extensively, and videotapes of its performances, most of which are captivating for school-age children, are available through schools and libraries nationwide. Roadside Theater draws on mountain storytelling techniques to relate deeply affecting plays about the region. One of them, Leaving Egypt, is a musical about a family facing the loss of its ancestral home because an electric company wants to flood the land.
A riveting and revealing play called Red Fox/Second Hangin’ pieces together the story of the first and second hangings in Wise County, Va., in the 1890s. It is acted by three men who jump into one another’s narratives while shifting their voices by whole octaves to create different characters.
When the federal government started Appalshop in 1969, the group’s productions were not as elaborately researched and constructed. The work was created by local teenagers who were thrilled by the government-provided film equipment. In 1970, the Appalshop kids took footage of a July 4 coon-on-a-log contest, a local pastime that would make today’s animal-rights advocates blanch. (The contest involves dogs swimming out to get the ring-tailed animal off a floating log.) The dog-paddling was spliced with footage of a judge talking about local politics in Leslie County, Ky., and mountain folks laughed heartily at the resulting film, Judge Wooten and Coon-on-a-Log (which is still available on video from Appalshop).
Today, the Appalshop theater group carries the region’s voices from Hopi Indian mesas in the Southwest to multitiered auditoriums in Los Angeles. But it is back home in the hollers, playing in one-room schoolhouses or on truck- bed stages, that Appalshop finds its most important audience — the children of Appalachia. While the group’s stories offer outsiders insight into mountain life, they also reaffirm a mountain child’s loyalty to a place where life is never easy and where half the population has moved away during the past 20 years. These children are the seeds Appalshop is cultivating, and as old-style mountaineer Ray Hicks says in a documentary about outlasting hard times, ”As long as there’s seed of us here, that’s us.”