Writing from western North Carolina, Brenda Kay Ledford provides a general introduction to the culture of the Southern Appalachians. While some outside the South regard the region as one monolithic cultural entity, Ledford shares facts about one particular region and its people, contradicting stereotypical beliefs by describing a distinctive part of Southern culture.
Voices of the Past
by Brenda Kay Ledford
Culture is the sum of all forms of art, of love, and of thought, which in the course of centuries, have enabled man to be less enslaved. – Andre Malraux
Old ways and old customs are fading away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But the past dies slowly in my native town of Hayesville, North Carolina.
According to Robert Morgan, writing in the introduction to Echoes Across the Blue Ridge, Southern Appalachia has undergone profound changes in the past few decades. The hunting ranges of the Cherokees are still here, the deep valleys and peaks of the Blue Ridge. But that world is crossed by casinos, golf courses, retirement centers, and resorts. Much of the old culture of the mountains is passing away. But we still have the poise, peacefulness, and spirituality of the mountains in their ancient splendor and dignity.
Most of the early settlers of these mountains came from a Scots-Irish heritage. They migrated from Ulster in the eighteenth century to America. These folks landed at New England and made their way down to the Appalachia. They were independent and loved “elbow room.” Mountaineers cherished the land and resented dogmatic people.
Despite their independence, mountain folks believed in helping others. That was one way to survive hard times. Neighbors built barns, houses, harvested crops, and sat up with the sick. This attitude of caring for others is still part of the twenty-first century in this region.
The Southern Appalachian dialect still has aspects of the Elizabethan English. The mountain speech was born of isolation from the world and has a lyric softness much like music. Some traditional Appalachian words include clim for climb, arsh for Irish, bed tick for feather mattress, ancher meaning to get an answer, cathead for biscuits, beatiness meaning extraordinary, bumfuzzle for confused, tromp for stomp, biggity meaning to act better than someone, blowhard meaning to brag, atter for after, and allow meaning to think or purpose.
According to Billy Ray Palmer, professor of Appalachian Studies at Tri-County Community College, our culture has been stereotyped in literature, movies, and cartoons. These portrayals have diminished perceptions about the IQs of hard-working, intelligent people.
Mountaineers developed skills and crafts to live in these hills. They developed farm tools, grew vegetable gardens; made soap, butter, lard, and molasses; weaved yarn, made clothes, and stitched quilts. The pioneer women held quilting bees to socialize and to trade patterns. Quilting was born of necessity to keep families warm. Mountain women spent hours at the quilting frame creating works of art. Fabric was scarce so they kept every piece of cloth in a scrap bag and reused it in quilts.
Today, the old-time crafts are still alive at the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown, North Carolina. The school was established in 1925 to savor the mountain culture and to promote mountain art including woodcarving, pottery, blacksmithing, weaving, mountain ballads, and folk dances.
Despite a religion that frowned on dancing in Southern Appalachia, there’s a rich background in this region. Mountain dancing included square dancing, buck dancing, and clogging. They held barn dances in these hills and played the fiddle that some folks called “the devil’s instrument.” Appalachian traditions of singing ballads also preserved the cultural history of this area.
John Parris, the columnist for The Asheville Citizen-Times, wrote that the music of the hills today is a thin echo of tunes that were sung in the era of singing schools, the circuit-riding preacher, and the camp meeting. Parris continues that the singing master, with his tuning fork and shaped-note song book, has crossed over the Jordan River. But the music — the real old-time hymn tunes — is going. A Christian Harmony Singing is also held each summer at the John C. Campbell Folk School, and for that one day each summer, the rafters ring with folks lifting up the beautiful music of Christian Harmony. Sadly, the old-time hymns are fading and giving way to the modern tunes.
Additionally, an important part of Southern Appalachian culture is religion. Faith helped the mountain folks to overcome trials. They placed their hope in a higher power and believed a better day was coming when they reached heaven. Some people have mocked the religion of the “Bible Belt,” but as former President Jimmy Carter said, “Religion is natural as breathing.”
Southern Appalachian writers often include religion in their work. Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer wrote in one blurb for the 2003 anthology Lights in the Mountains, “These writers show how important the Southern Appalachian Mountains have been in their creative lives and how much place matters. The real creative voice is the mountains themselves, weaving their songs of wind, rain, river, and light to preserve culture.”
Besides religion, the Southern Appalachian culture embraced superstitions. Because we were isolated from the outside world, mountaineers often had no access to a medical doctor. That’s why they treated ailments with home remedies. Some included wearing a rabbit’s foot around the neck for good luck. They put snuff on bee stings. A few folks even wore a flour sack around their heads for headaches. During this time of COVID-19, some people practice home remedies rather than seek medical help.
Another superstition still practiced in Southern Appalachia is planting crops by the signs. My mother raised a vegetable garden until she was 90 years old and studied the signs in the Farmer’s Almanac. Ancient astronomers studied the stars and discovered the belt of planets and the moon were divided into twelve parts. Each contained a constellation of stars and were named. Since all the signs except Libra were after living things, the belt was called the zodiac, or “zone of animals.” Each sign is supposed to rule a certain part of the human body. All good planting calendars label each day with a sign that rules it.
Additionally, a regional group, Mountain Area Storytellers, carry the tradition of spinning tales. The group performs at festivals, on the courthouse square in Hayesville, the local libraries, churches, and care centers. According to storyteller Kanute Rarey, the oral tradition has been part of this region since the first arrival of people. Cherokee elders, through story, advised their clans with their visions and past experiences. They taught the young traditions and spiritual beliefs of the tribe through stories. Later, “Early Europeans settled the Tusquitte Valley, and wove the fabric of storytelling into their families,” says Rarey. “They reminisced of the past, shared their day, taught essentials of survival, heard news from passing strangers, and entertained themselves through stories.”
Finally, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” Mead’s words describe the people and culture of Southern Appalachia well.
Brenda Kay Ledford is a seventh-generation native of Hayesville, North Carolina. She is a retired educator and award-winning writer. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Our State, Appalachian Heritage, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Country Extra, Angels on Earth, and in forty-four Old Mountain Press anthologies. Her books, Red Plank House, Sacred Fire, and Beckoning, are available on Amazon.