American Folk Music: The Origins of Appalachian Folk Music

Appalachian Folk Music is the folk music of the Appalachian mountain people of the United States. Appalachia is a region around the Appalachian Mountain range in the United States, which stretches from Mississippi to New York State. Culturally speaking, however, Appalachian culture is located in the central part of this area and southward, namely West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, though the specific region called the Appalachians is debatable and has changed throughout American history. (1)

Appalachia was settled primarily by people from the borderlands of England and Scotland, specifically from the English counties of Cumberland, Westmoreland, Northumberland, Durham, Lancashire and the Scottish counties of Ayrshire, Dumfries shire, Roxburghshire, Berwick shire, and Wigtownshire. This migration occurred during the 1700s. So, as one can well imagine, English and Scottish folk music traditions were brought to America from these countries and became enmeshed with American folk music styles. (1) A few examples of the influence of the English ballad on Appalachian music are the songs “Barbara Allen,” House Carpenter” and “Cuckoo Bird.” (2) And the Scottish tune “Bonnie George Campbell” may have influenced the Appalachian dance tune “Cumberland Gap.” (2)

The Appalachian people also brought Protestantism and Catholicism with them from their countries of origin. These religious concepts also influenced Appalachian folk music. Some of the religious characteristics that influenced Appalachian music were baptism in natural water, chanted preaching with rhythm, congregational shouting and foot washing. (1) Because the economy of the Appalachian region was based on agriculture and mining, early settlers did not always see the need for formal education. Appalachian education consisted primarily of moral teachings from the Bible during non-farming months. (1) After the Civil War, more schools and more educational opportunities became available in the area.

In the final years of World War I, folklorists Cecil Sharp and Maude Karpeles travelled throughout Southern Appalachia collecting over 200 ballads that they collected in the region. Sharp and Karpeles discovered that the Appalachian region was a haven of ballads as from as long ago as medieval times. They found such songs as “The Demon Lover” (also known as “House Carpenter”, and “The Elfin Knight.” Both of these ballads are from medieval times.

Traditional Appalachian music is one of the most important aspects of Appalachian culture. This distinctive style of American folk music was influenced by English and Scottish ballads, Irish and Scottish fiddle music, and African-American blues music. The Europeans who settled in the Appalachian region brought their violins (aka fiddles) with them across the ocean to the new world. The banjo became one of the most recognized instruments in Appalachian style folk music, and was an instrument of African-American influence. African-American banjo players were documented in Knoxville, Tennessee as early 1798. In the early 1900s guitars, mandolins and autoharps were made available to the people of the Appalachians via mail order catalogues. So autoharps, mandolins, and guitars joined banjos and fiddles in local Appalachian string bands. Different variations of the dulcimer also became popular because they were taught in settlement schools in the early 1900s. Jean Ritchie increased the popularity of these instruments in her performances and recordings of songs and dulcimer music in the American folk music performed in the 1950s.