You are here

Music in the Mountains

Gloria Goodwin Raheja Mines the World of Appalachian Blues and Ballads
June 17, 2019

For more than ten years, Professor Gloria Goodwin Raheja has been traveling in Appalachia, conducting interviews and working in a dozen archives there and in the United Kingdom, doing research on music and the coming of industrial capitalism to the mountains for her book, Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields.

Getting Started

Raheja says that her interest in blues music and in Appalachian music began as an escape from her academic work on the anthropology of India. For fun, she had been listening mainly to pre-World War II African American blues musicians, and a friend recommended a double record album called A Lighter Shade of Blue, containing blues recordings made by white Appalachian musicians in the 1920s and 1930s. At first she wondered why on earth she’d want to listen to such a thing, but the very first track by Frank Hutchison caught her attention.

Hutchison, a coal miner and musician in the 1920s and one of the first white guitarists to record blues music, inspired the question that sparked Raheja’s research: how would a white coal miner living in the remote mountains of southwest West Virginia have learned blues before recording them in 1926, especially since blues music had come into existence only twenty-five years or so before?  “Frank kidnapped me,” she says, smiling. “He drew me away from my research in India, all the way to Appalachia.”

“I wanted to imagine what that coal mining world was like, a world in which white miners were playing blues on their guitars and singing them, having obviously learned them directly from black musicians, since the recording of African American blues musicians didn’t really take off until 1927. I realized that what I really wanted to do was attempt to take an academic approach to it.”  She applied for a grant from the University, and the funding enabled her to do many months of ethnographic and oral history research in Logan County and archival work in several states. In the process, the project broadened out considerably in terms of her vision for the book.

Raheja’s realization that early twentieth century coal miners and members of their families had sung and played a wide range of musics that were preserved on 1920s commercial records and later on field recordings—blues, British ballads, union songs, hymns and spirituals, minstrel songs, Tin Pan Alley songs and more—meant that she had to learn about a broad swathe of American music. For example, in the summer of 2018 she spent five weeks in archives in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky to research the Appalachian British ballad tradition, and five weeks in London and Scotland to learn about the historical background of them.

This summer, she will be working in the West Virginia University Library’s archive of field recordings and documents concerning this storytelling song tradition that was brought to North America by eighteenth century immigrants.

New Approaches

Raheja originally thought this would be a quick project, one that she would complete in about two years. It’s been twelve years now. “The book isn’t finished yet, mainly because I keep making new discoveries that I had no idea would be on the horizon, but it’s also because the research is so much fun that I don’t want to give it up,” Raheja laughs. “I feel like I should try to finish this book, but every time I sit down to write, I realize I need to know more about something, and then new vistas open up to me, new avenues of research, one after the other.”

While the initial idea was to write a short book about blues in Appalachia, the project expanded. It’s now about the complex musical exchanges between white and black Appalachian musicians and about the full sonic and social landscapes in a single musical community in West Virginia. This approach, Raheja says, has not been taken in any other book about American vernacular music.

Changing the Game

Raheja is writing an academic book to be published by a university press, but she is trying to write it in such a way that it will be accessible to a broader audience of people interested in what is usually called “roots music.”  

“The music of Logan County and many other parts of Appalachia reflects an awareness of class on the part of the coal miner musicians,” Raheja says. “It was a terribly difficult time for coal miners in West Virginia,  and in 1921 Logan County was the site of the largest labor uprising in American history, so I’m trying to tell the story of the relationship between music and people’s understandings of the tumultuous times they were living in.”

Her book will be unique, because it brings an ethnographic imagination to bear on a topic that has almost never been analyzed by an anthropologist.  “I bring a different kind of awareness to these issues,” she says, “an awareness of the importance of studying musical communities and the full panoply of music heard and performed in them.”

Raheja is currently completing the research and writing of Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields, serving as producer of two box set CD compilations of music she writes about in the book, and doing research for another book called Scandalous Traductions: Landscape, History, Memory. She teaches in the Department of Anthropology.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.