Folk Music of the Southern West Virginia Coalfields
About This National Coal Heritage Area (NCHA)-Funded Project
Coal and coal-related activities are often the first things that come to mind when thinking about the history of southern West Virginia. Coal played such a part in the history of the area that the counties of Logan, Mingo, Lincoln, Boone, Wyoming, McDowell, Wayne, Fayette, Mercer, Cabell, Nicholas, Summers, and Kanawha are often simply referred to as the southern WV coalfields--as if nothing else ever occurred there.
The focus of this undertaking is to shine a light on the individuals who contributed to the rich folk music traditions of those "coalfield counties. While the songs and tunes themselves are wonderful and should be treasured, there is often a lack of information about the persons who made the music--a gap this project aims to fill.
Being a traditional musician from Logan, WV, I have had an interest in many of the featured individuals since learning about them decades ago. While I had no comprehensive, systematic approach to learning about the persons, I did uncover tidbits over the years and my interest never waned. For some reason, it was with renewed interest that I became determined to find, and was successful in my search, the grave of Dick Justice. With the help of Brandon Ray Kirk, I was also able to locate the grave of Peter "Pete" Henry Hill--a descendent of slaves down on the Sawmill Road area of Chapmanville. Pete was known to have played fiddle with Dick.
In 2019 I was introduced to Dr. Gloria Goodwin Raheja of the University of Minnesota by my friend and colleague, Dr. Travis Stimeling, a Professor of Musicology at West Virginia University. Gloria is a cultural anthropologist who years earlier had developed an interest in a particular musician, Frank Hutchison, from Logan who had recorded a handful of blues songs in 1929. Frank’s style so captured her curiosity that she began making treks to Logan to learn more about him and his music. Each time she learned something about Frank, it led her to other musicians in the area. Soon she was fully immersed in the development of a book entitled: Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields. The introduction to Gloria came about as Travis knew that both Gloria and I had a mutual interest in Dick Justice, and that I had found Dick's long forgotten grave in a small mountainside cemetery in Yolyn, WV. Gloria contacted me immediately after the email introduction about the possibility of taking her to the location. She happened to be in Morgantown conducting research at the WVU Library, and I happened to be headed back down to Logan the following morning. She could not join on that trip, and thus we planned a trip for later in the summer.
Brandon Ray Kirk, a professor of History, at Southern WV Community and Technical College, is a well-known expert on the history of the area. He and I had attempted to connect on music-related history a few times in the past, but had never managed to fully do so. I mentioned to him that I was going to bring Gloria to Logan for some music history research and asked if he would like to join us. Join us he did, and the three of us spent three wonderful days searching for graves, discussing the musical history of the area, and unwittingly hatching a plan for this project.
The Sources of the Music
This project draws on a variety of sources that include library archives, personal archives, family histories, and commercially recorded music.
One of the main sources of sound recordings is the Louis Watson Chappell Collection. From 1937-1947, Louis Watson Chappell, a musicologist from West Virginia University (WVU), travelled around West Virginia with a machine that recorded sound on aluminum discs. Chappell recorded 647 12" aluminum discs, representing 2,000 musical selections from 90 individuals. Some of the selections were unaccompanied singing, and others were instrumental pieces such as on fiddle, banjo, and guitar. The Chappell Collection resides in the West Virginia and Regional History Center (WVRCH) in the WVU library in Morgantown, WV. While the collection is available to the public, it is not in an easily accessible digital format for streaming and downloading. One of the goals of the project is to create stream-able/downloadable versions of a sampling from the collection to serve as a pilot for doing the same for the entire collection. This link takes you to the cuts from Logan, Lincoln, Mingo, and Boone counties in WV. Chappell cuts from Logan, Mingo, Boone, and Lincoln counties.
You can listen to this 2 episode podcast created by Caleb Paul to get an idea of what the Chappell Collection holds: Vernacular Sounds Podcast by Caleb Paul
In addition to housing
the Chappell Collection, the WVRCH also houses the following field recording
archives of Dr. Cortez D. Reece, Dr. Kenneth L. Carvell, Dr. Thomas S. Brown,
and Dr. Patrick Ward Gainer.
This project is a work-in-progress and begins
by drawing on the Chappell Collection and those artists that resided in the
southern WV coalfields. Eventually, all collections will be
represented as the geographic focus of the project broadens.
In addition to drawing upon the WVRHC archives, this project accesses the extensive archive of field recordings and photographs of well-known folklorist, Gerry Milnes. Milnes' work resides in the archives of the August Heritage Center at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV.
The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of field recordings from West Virginia. The archives of song collector George Korson are represented in this project, as some of his work focused on labor songs in the coalfield counties of interest.
In some cases the individuals represented in this project made professional recordings. The ownership of those songs is often unclear, but the songs have been copied and distributed so widely that nearly everything can be found on publicly available sites and it is to those public sites that listeners are directed.
The Sources of Biographical and Other Information
In some ways this project is best thought of as a puzzle, with different persons having, or knowing the location of, different pieces. Given that many of the people featured in the project have long been deceased, the piecing together of the various puzzles will likely never be complete. There will always be unanswered questions about who the person was, but through the passion of many individuals, we've often been able to identify many details about the persons behind the recordings.
Dr. Gloria Goodwin
Raheja as contributed mightily to the project by graciously sharing biographies
she has developed for several of the performers feature in her aforementioned
book, Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of
the Appalachian Coalfields.
Brandon Ray Kirk has provided invaluable on-the-ground assistance in locating final resting places for many of the musicians, and for combing through his personal archives to add other musicians and music history to the project.
It has been a common
experience for us to reach out to relatives we’ve found on various social media
and/or genealogy sites to seek out additional information about the persons we
are researching. More often than not, we’ve
been able to share previously unknown information about their relative’s
musical past. In exchange, these
contacts have often provided additional information, pictures, and stories
about the ancestors.
As this project
proceeds, it is hoped that new information will come forward—information we can
use to further flesh out the individuals already featured in the project, or to
add new individuals.
How to Navigate and Use This Project
Here are a few suggested ways to use the information found in this project:
-Think about the settings in which their music was delivered. Think about your own connections to the area and the music--perhaps you know of your own relatives who should be in this collection, or perhaps you had additional information about one of the individuals featured. Contact me if so!
-Schedule a trip to
southern West Virginia to immerse yourself in the physical settings in which
this music was often delivered. Yes, in some ways the landscape has
changed drastically since many of these musicians were singing and
playing. The thriving communities in which they lived are often but shells
of their former selves. In other ways, however, nothing has
-Take a drive to the top of a mountain, or the head of a holler to visit some
of the cemeteries where these talented people lie at rest. Offer up your
own musical tribute to them.
-Purchase some music of a modern day musician whose work is informed by these little known musicians.
- Incorporate some of this music into your own musical repertoire!
This is a living project--something that can be added to as new information is uncovered. To that end, should you have information you'd like to share about one of the musicians featured in this project, or about a musician you feel should be included, please do so! As time rolls on, some of today's folk musicians in the area will be included on this site.
Funding for this project