Podcast Series Reveals African American Influence on Southern Appalachian Music

Podcast Series Reveals African American Influence on Southern Appalachian Music

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

“It’s not a Black music and it’s not a White music. It’s a music that was basically played together.”

This observation is one of many kernels of wisdom offered up by fiddler Earl White, who is Black, on a new podcast series produced in the Smokies that is helping to illuminate how Southern Appalachian music was shaped and shepherded by African Americans.

Sepia Tones guest Earl White performs at the Fiddle Tunes festival in Port Townsend, WA. Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz.
Sepia Tones guest Earl White performs at the Fiddle Tunes festival in Port Townsend, WA. Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz.

Back in 2018, Great Smoky Mountains National Park launched a concerted effort to begin telling the stories of the region’s Black people. The African American Experience in the Smokies project has been amplifying the voices of Black interpreters ever since, thanks to funding from nonprofit park partners Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) and Friends of the Smokies.

The project’s latest initiative is Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music, a series spun off from GSMA’s popular Smoky Mountain Air podcast. Appalachian music historians Dr. Ted Olson and Dr. William Turner host the six-part Sepia Tones production, which includes rarely heard historic recordings and lively conversations with dozens of regional and nationally known musical guests.

“Having a seat around the Sepia Tones table, while chatting with the guests, reminds me of how we used to press our ear down onto the railroad track back in the late 1950s and early ’60s, in Harlan County, Kentucky, to listen for the coming of the train, which would be miles away,” said Dr. Turner, who co-edited Blacks in Appalachia and served as a research assistant to Roots author Alex Haley.

“Our guests on Sepia Tones are big rollers, metal-against-metal heavy, rumbling far-far back in the tracks of American history, which people of color helped to lay, busting and pouring their hearts out for what is their America too,” Turner said, “like John Henry, who, while sitting on his mama's knee, knew that he wanted to be a steel-driving man.”

The podcast’s editor and Smoky Mountain Air cohost, Valerie Polk, GSMA’s videographer and publications associate, says she never could have imagined having the opportunity to be involved in a project like Sepia Tones.

“As a video editor, assembling a podcast presents a new challenge — communicating meaningful content completely through sound — but it also allows us to include wonderful recordings that capture the essence of our subject,” she said. “I've enjoyed incorporating these into each episode as well as meeting each of our impressive guests, and, as Dr. Turner likes to say, ‘I learn something new every day!’ This holds true for me as I edit each episode, and I'm incredibly excited about our hosts’ and guests’ abilities to shed light on a topic that needs to be explored.”

The other cohost of Smoky Mountain Air is Karen Key, senior publications specialist at GSMA. She considers Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music a positive creative endeavor spawned in the isolating environment of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Sepia Tones cohosts Dr. William Turner (left) and Dr. Ted Olson (right) interview guest Dom Flemons (center) as he shares examples of the African American influence on Southern Appalachian music. Interviews and performances for Sepia Tones have been conducted through an online video chat. Image courtesy GSMA.
Sepia Tones cohosts Dr. William Turner (left) and Dr. Ted Olson (right) interview guest Dom Flemons (center) as he shares examples of the African American influence on Southern Appalachian music. Interviews and performances for  Sepia Tones  have been conducted through an online video chat. Image courtesy GSMA.

“It has given me another opportunity to work with Dr. Ted Olson, who is the encyclopedia for all things Appalachian music,” she said. “The first opportunity was on Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition, a two-disc album with a new generation of singers and musicians, most of them having learned their songs directly from oral tradition — either from older singers, from recordings, or both.”

Olson and Key collaborated on the design of the album artwork, liner notes, and packaging to communicate the feel of the music. Big Bend Killing was largely successful, receiving nominations for best graphic design at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards and a 2018 Grammy nomination for best album liner notes.

“One of the goals of Sepia Tones is to encourage podcast participants to share perspectives on cultural issues of concern to us and, we assume, to podcast listeners,” said Olson, a professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies at East Tennessee State University and an award-winning author of many books, poems, articles, essays, encyclopedia entries, reviews, and oral histories.

Olson described how the recently released second episode of the miniseries generated a particularly powerful moment when two podcast guests, aforementioned Black fiddler Earl White and White scholar Kip Lornell, exchanged perspectives regarding how the recording industry and commercial radio — from the early years of the 20th century forward — fostered an environment of racial and cultural segregation by using music to divide rather than to unite people. 

“As Earl and Kip observed, records and radio marketed music to specific groups constructed according to racial considerations, which limited the potential audience for some universally significant cultural expressions,” Olson said. “Earl and Kip also discussed how Blacks as well as Whites often ignored music genres and other formal, ‘official’ cultural categorization and instead freely and informally shared their musical culture with each other. Appalachian music is shaped by Blacks as much as by Whites, and this podcast series is dedicated to acknowledging and understanding this shared heritage.”

The Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music miniseries is made possible by Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s African American Experience in the Smokies project and Great Smoky Mountains Association. It is distributed through the Smoky Mountain Air podcast available on most streaming services.
The Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music miniseries is made possible by Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s African American Experience in the Smokies project and Great Smoky Mountains Association. It is distributed through the Smoky Mountain Air podcast available on most streaming services.

Turner pointed out that Sepia Tones speaks directly with some of the living luminaries of so-called country and faith-based music across the Southern and Central Appalachian musical registry. Guests recorded or set for forthcoming appearances on the miniseries include Dom Flemons, Amythyst Kiah, James ‘Sparky’ Rucker, James Leva, Loyal Jones, Jack Tottle, Virgil Wood, and Dr. Kathy Bullock.

“When the music-talk starts, these folks take us back to the roots, to those whose voices — though now silenced by death — will live forever as ‘Black country artists you should know’: Arnold Schultz, Charley Pride, DeFord Bailey, Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, Lesley Riddle, and Linda Martell, among others. Not insignificantly, listeners hear on Sepia Tones how the styles of these pioneering Black country artists seeped into the work of the genre's icons, such artists as Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe, and Merle Travis.”

Sepia Tones is distributed through Smoky Mountain Air and available through Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, and most other major streaming services. Two episodes and an introduction interview with Turner and Olson are now available.

Dr. Turner’s memoir, The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in late September. In June, Dr. Olson received the East Tennessee Historical Society’s Ramsey Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Smokies LIVE

Frances Figart directs the Creative Team that produces Smoky Mountain Air and collaborated with her fellow native Kentuckian Dr. Bill Turner on the name Sepia Tones.

 

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