What links author Cormac McCarthy, country-and-western belle Patsy Cline and influential literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr.? Well, they all hail from Appalachia, an area that stretches from the bottom of New York State to the upper reaches of Mississippi. It also takes in the Appalachian Mountains, the entirety of West Virginia and sections of 12 more states along the way. But Appalachia wasn’t always known for its cultural outliers.
In fact, throughout its history Appalachia has often been viewed as a backward place, its populace isolated from the more cosmopolitan parts of the U.S. Residents’ numbers were, however, boosted by the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which brought an influx of migrants who came to work in the region’s coal mines.
The workers were largely made up of people from the southern states, European immigrants and descendants of Appalachia’s first settlers. But while coal mining proved to be a lucrative venture for the wealthy industrialists who relocated here, the Appalachians themselves saw few benefits.
For example, moneyed businessmen used their clout to influence local governments, which often had negative consequences for areas’ economies. In addition, the boom-and-bust nature of the coal industry meant that substantial economic growth never really happened.
Life, then, was undoubtedly hard for the Appalachians – a reality that gave rise to the wider population’s perception of them as rather backward and cut-off. This was largely perpetuated by Local Color Movement writers, who viewed the Appalachian people as Elizabethan rather than American.
So as the perception of Appalachia as a place of poverty began to spread, well-intentioned members of the middle class arrived with ideas of bringing some culture into the area. How? By promoting modern-day values and the virtues of education.
This arguably patronizing attitude is summed up by a 1915 New York Christian Advocate article. “Millions of these people are shut in by the mountains from the currents of modern life… from a broad, sane and true vision of life,” it read. “They live the narrow, hard and discouraged life and die before their allotted time.”
But while Appalachia’s economic climate may have been harsh, the realities of daily life weren’t as bleak. Children did indeed spend time working on farms, but they had plenty of outdoors downtime, too. Adults, meanwhile, found their fulfilment in religion and music.
In fact, music – along with traditional crafts and folklore – was an aspect of Appalachian culture that urbanite anthropologists were keen to preserve. And among them was Cecil Sharp, an English folklorist who visited Appalachia to see if folksongs brought by British immigrants in the frontier era had survived into modern times.
It’s been suggested, however, that folklorists like Sharp – as well as founders of folk schools like John C. Campbell – have, to an extent, romanticized Appalachian culture. Indeed, many continued to view the Appalachians as backward, at least relative to those in industrialized parts of the U.S.
This perception may have partly been down to a 1900 New York Journal article, which used the word “hill-billie” for the first time. Its author described such a person as “a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.”
The image of the moonshine-swilling, shotgun-toting hillbilly clearly had classist overtones. It also aroused the loathing of some in the intelligentsia. The literary critic and social Darwinist H. L. Mencken, for instance, spoke of applying eugenics to “inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia.”
Yet while this generally negative view of Appalachia continued to prevail, the region still maintained its own distinct culture. The contemporary folk festival has its roots there, for example, with the likes of the White Top Folk Festival and the American Folk Song Festival having been inspired by Appalachian culture.
The years following World War Two, however, would be particularly hard on Appalachian society. Indeed, as men and women returned home following military service, they became increasingly disillusioned by the lack of career opportunities.
Therefore, the years after 1945 would prove to be a turning point in the history of Appalachia, just as they were for the rest of the U.S. But whereas other areas of the country experienced a boom, Appalachia was pretty much left behind. Locals, then, felt that they had no other choice but to move north and west in search of work.
In fact, in the two decades following the Second World War, 3.5 million folks left Appalachia. Many arrived at the Midwest’s big cities, which would have been an enormous culture shock to people used to a rural way of life.
But while many Appalachians lived in poverty, it could be argued that Appalachian culture actually strengthened during these years of hardship. Even prior to the war there was progress. In 1932, for example, the self-styled “radical hillbilly” Myles Horton set up the Highlander Folk School in Grundy County, Tennessee.
Not only did the institution function as a focal point for workers looking to unionize and fight exploitation, but it also featured in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. For instance, Rosa Parks learned about social activism at the school, while workers there helped to popularize “We Shall Overcome” as the movement’s anthem.
Another folklorist, meanwhile, was doing much to unseat the pastoral stereotype of Appalachian music and culture. In 1959 Alan Lomax set out to document the region’s songs for the Library of Congress. And he found Appalachia to be a melting pot of European, African and Native American traditions.
By the time the 1970s came around there was a greater sense of regional pride, which was no doubt fostered by the social upheaval of preceding decades. This can be seen in these colorized images, which were uploaded by Google Photos user Elihu Bailey in May 2016. The pictures document life in Appalachia during the 20th century and capture people at work and play. Moreover, the images tell of communities bound together by industry, religion, comradeship and pride.
Though poverty is still prevalent in some parts of Appalachia, life there has generally improved over the past half-century. Poverty rates, for example, fell from 31 percent to 17.5 percent between 1960 and 2014. And although societies worldwide are apparently becoming increasingly homogenized, we still have these images to remind us of the Appalachian people’s way of life.