Appalachian Music: Instruments & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Many American musical traditions can trace their lineage back to the traditional music of the Appalachian Mountains. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of this musical style and see how the traditions of Appalachian music live on today.

Appalachian Music

If I asked you to describe traditional American music, there are a few directions your answer can go in. You could talk about jazz and blues of the southern deltas, or perhaps the swing and rock of mid-20th century cities. When the United States government, however, rounds up musicians to send across the world as American cultural ambassadors, there's another kind of music that's often included: bluegrass.

Bluegrass is a modern variation of traditional string-based folk music originating in the mountains and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachians represented one of America's first frontiers, and frontier music became one of the first truly American forms of musical expression.

Origins

Appalachian music is a fitting metaphor for American history because it emerged from a blend of various musical influences stewing together in the remote Appalachians. For the most part, we can trace the origins of this unique form of expression back to two primary groups: Anglo-Celtic immigrants and African Americans.

Anglo-Celtic Influence

From the middle of the 18th century through the American Revolution and into the early 19th century, the region of Appalachia seemed to promise something: opportunity. Here was a huge area where Europeans and Americans could own property and become self-sufficient farmers. Life in the mountains, however, was difficult and so the people who were willing to move there were mostly lower-class immigrants, particularly those from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

As these immigrants moved into the Appalachians, they brought with them folk music from their homelands. Music was very important to these communities, who lived on remote farms but would get together for dances. In general, two forms of Anglo-Celtic folk traditions planted roots in the Appalachians. First were narrative ballads, sung by a single and unaccompanied vocalist. These songs were almost always sung by women and dealt with issues of love, heartbreak, death, and sexual betrayal. In fact, ethnomusicologists have noted that about half of the American variations of these tunes that were developed in the Appalachians have to do with pregnant women who were murdered by male lovers.

Other Anglo-Celtic musical traditions were entirely instrumental, used for social dances. The single most important instrument, likely brought to Appalachia by Irish or Cornish immigrants, was the fiddle. Fiddles were lively and light, perfect for upbeat dance music. As the people of the Appalachians practiced their music and refined their instruments, they also developed some that were completely unique. The most prominent example is the mountain dulcimer, a stringed instrument developed by Scottish/Irish communities in the Appalachians, but which has no real precedent in Britain. This instrument would quickly spread across the Appalachians as a staple of the growing musical tradition in the mountains.

Woman with a dulcimer in a 1917 issue of Vogue
dulcimer

African American Influence

The other main group to influence the development of Appalachian music was African Americans. Throughout the 19th century, slaves and freedmen introduced their unique musical traditions into Appalachia. While Anglo-Celtic traditions generally entered the region from the east and north, African-American traditions worked their way in from the South. Group singing, call-and-response based melodies, a celebration of improvisation, and a deep devotion to rhythm were all brought into Appalachia by African Americans.

Along with their singing styles, these musicians also brought a few unique instruments. The most important was a plucked stringed instrument that had originated in Arabia, spread into Africa and made its way into the Americas called the banjo. The banjo was perfect for African American music, with the sharp plucks creating a strong syncopated rhythm.

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