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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Appalachia: Traditional Music and Instruments

Image: Appalachian Dulcimer Library of Congress

Music has always been at the center of life in Southern Appalachia. The people that settled in this region are descendants of Scottish-Irish, English, Welsh, German, and French, as well as people of African American and Native American heritage. An oral musical tradition came with these people, many of whom were laborers, servants, and farmers. Primarily, because of isolation from the outside world, the people of Southern Appalachia have preserved and developed their style of music to a fine degree, which to this day, upholds the charter of the people, culture, and history that it is about.

The most frequently heard vocal form of music from this region is the ballad—a song that tells a story. Each singer sings a ballad in his or her own personal way. Sometimes new words are sung to an old melody. A ballad can be based on an event in history, a humorous situation, a tragedy, happiness, a religious topic, a heroic deed, or the supernatural. Because most of the original European settlers of Appalachia could not read, the stories contained in ballads were used to teach the history, ethics, and morality of the community.

The Southern Appalachians is known for its instrumental traditions, particularly the music of the mountain dulcimer, fiddle, banjo and the limberjack.

The mountain dulcimer is one of the earliest North American folk instruments. The body extends the length of the fingerboard and traditionally has an hourglass, teardrop, triangular, or elliptical shape (also called the galax). A courting dulcimer has two fretboards allowing two players to closely sit across from each other to perform duets, hence the name. The mountain dulcimer has three or four strings; contemporary versions of the instrument can have as many as twelve strings and six courses. The melody is played on the highest-pitched string, and the other strings are the drones.

The fiddle was brought to America by settlers from the British Isles. It was used as a solo instrument and to accompany dancing. The Appalachian fiddle is often held against the upper chest, not under the chin, and the bow is held a bit in from the end. It is known that rattlesnake rattles have been placed inside the body of the fiddle for a percussive effect.

The banjo typically has five strings, four full-length strings and a shorter fifth "thumb" string running to a tuning screw halfway up the neck. The banjo originated in Africa and was brought to America in the 17th century by black slaves. Early banjos had fretless necks, a varying number of strings, and, sometimes, gourd bodies. Adopted by white musicians in 19th-century minstrel-show troupes, the banjo gained frets and metal strings. The five-string banjo, plucked with the fingers, is common in folk music and commercial bluegrass bands.

Image Right: Limberjack by Keith Young

A unique percussion instrument of Southern Appalachia is the limberjack—a wooden doll-like figure attached to a stick on the back. The player sits on one end of a board and suspends the doll over the free end of the board. When the player hits the free end of the board it moves up and down, hitting the doll and causing it to bounce around. The sound made by the bouncing wooden doll is similar to that made by Appalachian clog dancers.

It is a fascinating journey through time when you take a look at the music of Southern Appalachia. You can experience a living oral tradition that in some ways has not changed at all from the time settlers came over from Europe.

The image of the limberjack is from Appalachian Dulcimers by Keith Young of Annandale, VA.

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