The Great Smoky Mountains are positively full of music.
The songs begin with the music of the Cherokee—the Principal People who passed down their myths, songs, and dance long before the invention of a written Cherokee language. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the music came to include the songs of settlers, the enslaved peoples who traveled with them, and diverse laborers drawn to work in a growing logging industry in the mountains.
The merging of these peoples and their instruments throughout Southern Appalachia would eventually give rise to brand new music traditions entirely distinct from what had come before. Uncovering the tangled and fascinating history of how this music came to be is a project that remains unfinished.
A new GSMA podcast mini-series called Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music hosted by Drs. William Turner and Ted Olson hopes to shine a light on a key part of the musical story of the Smokies. By sharing research, listening to recordings, and interviewing contemporary musicians and experts in music history, Drs. Turner and Olson will draw attention to the many contributions of Black musicians to the songs of Southern Appalachia.
A special interview with the co-hosts is now available on Smoky Mountain Air—GSMA’s existing podcast hosted by Karen Key and Valerie Polk, which will distribute Sepia Tones. The first episode of the mini-series premiering in the coming week will feature guests including Loyal Jones—a founding figure of Appalachian studies—along with accomplished musicians Sparky Rucker and James Leva.
The remaining five episodes will be released throughout 2021 and cover topics such as the history of Black music in East Tennessee, Black sacred music, Black women musicians, and the diverse landscape of music communities in Southern Appalachia.
“One of the things I noticed quickly, conspicuously, when we started down a path of trying to learn about Black history and culture in the mountains of the South is the absence of a body of literature that deals specifically with the music of Blacks in the South,” said Dr. Turner. “I was inspired to get interested in this type of music, and in this podcast in particular, because we are filling a void. The general public does not know much about Black Appalachian music.”
Hosts Turner and Olson bring a wealth of knowledge to the podcast series. Dr. Turner is a longtime African American studies scholar who first rose to prominence as co-editor of Blacks in Appalachia (1985) and as a research assistant to Roots author Alex Haley. He retired as the Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies and Regional Ambassador at Berea College. His memoir, The Harlan Renaissance, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2021.
Dr. Olson is a professor of Appalachian studies at East Tennessee State University and the author of many books, articles, reviews, encyclopedia entries, and oral histories. Olson has produced and compiled several documentary albums of traditional Appalachian music, for which he has received numerous awards, including seven Grammy Award nominations. While this is Turner’s first time collaborating with Olson and GSMA, Olson produced GSMA’s Appalachian documentary albums On Top of Old Smoky and Big Bend Killing and co-produced Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music.
“This is an opportunity to work again with the association, and that’s a collaboration that’s very important to me,” said Dr. Olson. “I think the work we’ve done together has been very fruitful and helpful toward educating the public about some of the most important historical and cultural themes of the Smokies region.”
Sepia Tones is funded through the African American Experience in the Smokies project in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park.