From West Virginia To the West Coast

Country Jam
Originally uploaded by kenf225

I’m changing gears, as I put it in a Facebook update. I spent the past week in West Virginia, and now I’m in Seattle, where I’m going to spend a couple of days meeting with technology and newspaper people. I did end up doing some work while in West Virginia — had one conference call where I was wondering if the harmony singing class behind me and the Cajun fiddler practicing on the plaza were coming through — but it’s all good. If I can maintain a good musical life and a good consulting job at the same time, then that’s a good life.

West Virginia was great. The music was wonderful; the photo is of Courtney Granger, Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz leading a jam one night on the porch of Halliehurst. When I have more time I will post some audio and hopefully some video as well.

I’ll be spending more time in West Virginia this summer; I decided this week that I will finally get around to attending the Clifftop Applachian String Band Festival and from there I will go back to Augusta for a week of old-time music and singing.

New Yorkers mock West Virginia far too easily; every time I go, I hear (and sometimes make) jokes about hillbillies and such, but it’s not only a beautiful state, it’s not that much more provincial or intolerant than New York City. Remember, West Virginia is a separate state because it refused to secede from the Union along with the rest of Virginia, whereas New Yorkers lynched blacks and killed U.S. soldiers resisting the call to fight in the Union army.

While I was there, I read The United States Of Appalachia, which points out that the region was the source of many important progressive trends in this country, starting with the native Cherokee who had a written language and a Constitution read and voted upon by a population more widely literate than that of the thirteen colonies.

The first community in America to declare independence from England was in Appalachia, causing the royal governor of Virginia to complain about the mountaineers setting “a dangerous example to the people of America, of forming governments distinct from and independent of his majesty’s authority.” A ragtag militia of mountain people routed the British in a 1780 battle that turned the tide of the Revolution to victory. And a young man named Adolph Ochs bought the newspaper in Chatanooga, Tennessee, built it up into a paragon of progressive and honest journalism, then mortgaged it to buy The New York Times and fight the tide of yellow journalism and anti-Semitism in New York City.

It’s always been racially integrated (more so, certainly, than my upbringing in Staten Island was). The first abolitionist newspaper was published out of Jonesboro, Tennessee, and the West Virginian Martin Delany was one of the earliest and most foresighted African-American political leaders, blasting Harriet Beecher Stowe for her condescending portrayal of blacks and speaking out against the empty promises and racism of white abolitionists, in strong contrast to his contemporary, Frederick Douglass. The United Mine Workers, which drew its strength from Appalachia, was founded with a constitution barring discrimination on race or religion. Rosa Parks learned activism at an Appalachian school where “We Shall Overcome” was first heard by people including Martin Luther King and Pete Seeger, who somehow ended up with the copyright.

Appalachia stoked the country’s industrial revolution and provided much of the workforce to cities like Detroit and Gary and Pittsburgh. For most of its history it has been exploited like a third-world country, and modern “mountaintop removal” mining continues the pillaging to this day.

Great music tends to come from crossroads like New York City and New Orleans and Chicago. Appalachia has been a crossroads for cultures and people since before Europeans came to this country, and it’s got the music to prove it. And it’s a beautiful place. I love New York City, I am happy I’m from here and I’ll never move away. But I look forward to returning to West Virginia next month.

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