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What is Traditional Appalachian Music?

Dan Cavallari
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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During the 19th century, an area of the United States that ran from southern New York state to the northern parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi in the United States became known as Appalachia. It was a rugged and hilly region settled primarily by the Scots-Irish as well as other European settlers. Inhabitants of this region took elements of their European culture and combined it with new aspects of the Appalachian region to develop traditional music, which had elements of English and Irish ballads, African-American blues music, and other elements to create a distinct sound that became known as Appalachian music.

Appalachian music provided a beginning for what would eventually become bluegrass music, country music, and old-time music, and elements of Appalachian music can be heard in all those genres. The Appalachian style combined several different genres and instruments to create a distinctly different sound; for example, the fiddle, which came from the Scottish tradition, eventually combined with instruments such as the banjo, which was common in African-American songs. Soon, instruments such as the mountain dulcimer, which is also known as the Appalachian dulcimer, and mandolin began to become prominent in the region. Once combined with traditional instruments and the banjo, Appalachian music began to take shape as a distinct musical genre.

Appalachian music is markedly influenced by religious themes and hymns, since religion was such a strong influence on the daily lives of Appalachian inhabitants. Many Appalachian songs were traditional English, Welsh, or Scottish ballads that simply became prominent in the Appalachians. However, New World ballads — that is, ballads written in North America — became just as influential as Old World ones. New World ballads were often written about prominent issues of the day or news in the region. Protest music crept into the Appalachian style as workers struggled for higher wages and better working and living conditions, and ballads began popping up that dealt with mine disasters and workers' strikes.

Appalachian music gained more popularity and notoriety in the 1920s when the first recordings began to appear. Recorded Appalachian artists found moderate success, but the onset of the Great Depression largely sent these musicians back into obscurity. Not long after that, however, country music cropped up, influenced directly from the Appalachian style. The recordings of the mid to late 1920s are often considered the beginnings of the country music genre. By the 1940s, bluegrass was becoming popular; this genre combined elements of both traditional Appalachian music and the emergent country music.

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Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By anon1003107 — On May 02, 2020

Definitely a scots influence in Appalachian music. Fiddle, reels and some sangs. reels and strathpeys being indigenous to Scotland. Jig dances and hornpipes to England.

By TreeMan — On Nov 26, 2011

I have always compared the Appalachian people to the Irish gypsies over in the United Kingdom.

The Irish gypsies and the Appalachians seem like similar types of people, although the Irish gypsies are a little more nomadic than the Appalachians. I think I compare the two basically due to the negative stereotypes people have of both of them as well as their styles of music.

Irish gypsy music has its own distinctive style that is very musical and very enjoyable to listen to. It is more of a folksy style, just like bluegrass or Appalachian styled music and just listening to it brings comparisons between the two.

By JimmyT — On Nov 25, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I live in Southern Illinois, which is very close to Kentucky and I see aspects of the Appalachian culture occasionally in coming into contact with people.

There are a lot of people that see the Appalachian people as being backward, being absolute drunks, and having a backward type of music. However, this is not at all the case and only goes to show how judgmental people can be.

One thing though that I think people are not judgmental about is the Appalachian style of music, which is just so interesting and different that it appeals highly to people across the country.

I have visited New York and heard people listening to bluegrass and Appalachian styles of music with great enjoyment and although they may have had negative associations with these people they greatly enjoyed their music due to the uniqueness of it.

By cardsfan27 — On Nov 25, 2011

@Izzy78 - I completely agree with you. Appalachian and the bluegrass style of music have their own distinctive flair and a style of its own that is a lot more different than other styles and genres of music.

There are negative associations with this kind of music and I think it is because of the backward like appearance of the people that some people, who have elitist attitudes, have when forming their opinions on the culture as a whole.

In reality the Appalachians are no different than other cultures and their have their own quirks that make them unique from others. Each and every culture has that and to go along with their distinctive culture they have their music to add, which most people have heard at one time and automatically associate with the Appalachian people.

By Izzy78 — On Nov 24, 2011

I live just outside the Appalachia area and people have their own assumptions about the traditional Appalachian style of music.

I have noticed that a lot of people enjoy bluegrass, but there are certain stereotypes associated with this type of music that makes it a bit unappealing to some people.

Usually long beards are associated with bluegrass and Appalachian style music as well as a little bit of the hill billy aspect which causes some people to be turned off by the music.

Even with its stereotypes bluegrass and Appalachian style music have their roots in the South and have their own distinctive flair that is a lot different than other genres of music.

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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