Traditional Appalachian Mountain lifestyles are based on a number of cultural pillars that form a solid foundation. These pillars include a strong devotion to family, deep-seated religious values, a determined independent spirit, and a firm devotion to a cultural heritage. Most often, the devotion to a cultural heritage is forged through the art of story-telling and traditional music—predominantly mountain bluegrass. The earliest pioneer settlers of the Appalachian Mountains were poor immigrants seeking political and religious freedom. They often carried few possessions with them on their journeys, so they relied upon the art of story-telling and music to preserve their cultural heritage and pass it along to their children. This is why the lyrics of most traditional mountain bluegrass songs tell stories, many of which can be rather tragic tales. Nevertheless, they represent the trials and struggles of a people whose search for freedom led them to carve a self-reliant life out of a wild and untamed mountain wilderness. In this sense, the music, stories, and legends of traditional Appalachian society represent a true American cultural heritage. This is another dimension of traditional folkways that we wish to help preserve through our ongoing efforts at Peeper Pond Farm.
I must admit, my childhood farm upbringing in the northern Appalachian Mountains was not based in a tradition of music. My adoptive family tended to rely on story-telling to pass along the traditions. A number of them proved to be tall tales, to say the least. However, I did make some effort to learn how to play music. I took a year’s worth of piano lessons when I was in second or third grade (I can’t remember for certain), but I got bored with the rather mundane songs I was told to practice ad nauseum. I simply got tired of practicing songs I didn’t like, so I just refused to practice them until the teacher gave up on me. My mother did eventually obtain a small electric organ that I later tried to play. The organ came with a card that was placed behind the keys with numbers on them that corresponded to the numbered notes on the sheet music that came with it. I learned to play a few of the songs, but couldn’t transfer that knowledge to other songs that I would have preferred to play.
When I was in fifth and sixth grades, I was encouraged to play a band instrument by our music teacher. My personal preference was to learn how to play a guitar, but that was not an instrument that you could choose to play in a marching band. I ended up trying to play the trumpet instead. That didn’t last very long when my rather shrill efforts to practice at home met with disapproval from my parents and sisters. Even our cows occasionally complained, so I was soon outvoted.
During the early years of our marriage, Barb bought me a six-string guitar for Christmas in 1995. I tried to learn how to play it from an instructional book, but I never did grasp it well that way. I intended to get some lessons, but my busy overtime work schedule made it virtually impossible to make time for formal instruction. After a few years collecting dust, we sold the guitar in a yard sale. At that point, I just decided that music simply wasn’t my forte. After all, my wife led me to believe that the only thing deadlier than my aim was my singing, so I eventually decided I couldn’t take my music very far even if I could learn to play something.
Barb, on the other hand, does possess a decent alto singing voice and had learned how to play the piano as a child. She actually took formal lessons for ten years and can read sheet music. She inherited a spinet piano from her grandmother, which she would play once in a while, but it was never her passion. She preferred to sing and performed in a number of different choirs and choruses over the years. During the first two years of our retirement, she has performed with the Petersburg, WV Community Chorus. Although we brought her piano with us on each of our professional working career moves, she decided to sell it before we retired to our Peeper Pond Farm home in 2017. It was just getting too big to carry with us at our age.
After we retired, our connection to traditional mountain music grew. Our local radio station, WELD-FM, plays a wide range of country and bluegrass music. We also started attending and participating in Jeff and Amanda Barger’s occasional pot luck supper gatherings at their North Mill Creek homestead farm, each of which would culminate in an impromptu bluegrass sing-along played by their friends and neighbors. We even attended a number of mountain bluegrass sessions at the nearby Landes Ruritan building about ten miles north of our farm. Throughout that time, I have learned a lot of wonderful traditional bluegrass songs that preserve the Appalachian story-telling heritage I have described.
Within our first year of retirement, we began to visit a number of local churches to find one that best suited our interests. After attending at least ten different church services, we finally settled on the Dorcus Baptist Church. The long-time pastor of that church, Steve Davis, is a man I greatly admire, and his light-hearted approach to sermons grounded in every-day life appealed to us.
Barb’s only initial disappointment was that the church did not have a choir she could sing in. The congregation was rather small, so they only had a part-time piano player; most of the hymns were sung acapella with Steve Davis in the lead. Steve has a beautiful bass/baritone voice that would ensure him a second career as a professional singer if he ever decided to retire from preaching. He can also play the guitar, but not the piano. However, once I let word slip out that Barb could play the piano, the wheels began to turn in the congregation’s collective mind. Eventually, she was ‘encouraged’ to play for the weekly services, and she finally relented to them in August 2018. Since then, Barb has become the primary pianist for the church, a role she has grown to enjoy. The only problem was that we no longer had a piano at home, so she had to drive weekly to the church to practice—a twenty-six-mile round trip.
This past December, we decided to splurge and buy a relatively inexpensive electronic keyboard for her to use for practice at home. At the same time, I decided to try to learn how the play the Mountain Dulcimer. I often enjoyed listening to hammer dulcimer performances I encountered during my childhood, but found the instrument too expensive for yet another experiment in learning to play music. However, I soon learned that the Mountain Dulcimer is much easier to learn than most other instruments, and it was not very expensive to buy. I decided to give it a try and began a self-instruction effort to see how much I could learn.
During the month of December, I managed to learn how to play a total of six songs on my dulcimer. The first two simple songs, “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, I learned how to play by video on the first day. From that starting point, I learned to play additional songs by ear–I still can’t read sheet music. I learned how to play “Taps” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” within the next day. I then began to figure out how to play two traditional Christmas carols, which were far more complex. Within a few more days I had figured out how to play “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem” on my own. I began to learn a few other songs, but decided to concentrate on mastering my starting repertoire before trying to learn any new songs. My failing memory was making it harder to remember how to play each song when I tried to expand my vocabulary of songs. Now that I have convinced myself that I am capable of playing an instrument, I plan to take some formal lessons.
The Mountain Dulcimer is an American invention that is tied to traditional mountain music. It is shaped like a violin but strummed like a guitar. I purchased a four-string dulcimer, which has two melody strings (that are played together), a middle string, and a bass string. Some older dulcimers tend to have only one melody string. The pitch of each string is changed as you play through the use of bridge frets, like a guitar. Each fret corresponds with a different note. Although the musical range of a mountain dulcimer is more limited than other string instruments, I have found it easy to learn, which is a distinct advantage for a musical novice. I am hoping to learn how to read sheet music and play chords through formal instruction.
My ultimate goal is to sit on our front porch this summer and play traditional songs that have echoed through our mountains for generations. With any luck, I hope to invite Jeff and Amanda and many of our new friends to join us at Peeper Pond Farm for a pot-luck dinner and bluegrass sing-along as we have enjoyed at their home. I do promise that if I attempt any singing, it will be to myself. This is how we hope to help pass along the traditions that make our rural mountain life special and distinctly American.