• Appalachian Culture

    Old House in AppalachiaThe Appalachian mountaineers have been discovered and forgotten many times. They first attracted national attention during the Civil War. Their primitive agriculture disrupted by foragers and incessant guerrilla warfare, thousands of them straggled out of the mountains in search of food and shelter. Their plight was brought to the attention of President Lincoln, who promised that after the war a way would be found to aid the poor mountain people whom the world had bypassed and forgotten for so long. The war ended, President Lincoln was assassinated, and Appalachia was forgotten.

    Appalachian people are considered a separate culture, made up of many unique backgrounds—Native Americans, Irish, English and Scotch, and then a third descendants of German and Polish immigrants—all blended together across the region. The mountains also figure into the uniqueness of Appalachia. The mountains kept Appalachia isolated from the rest of the country and from the influence of other people's involvement in their lives. They developed a distinctive culture.

    Appalachians are very independent and very content with the places they live. They are very close to nature and have a deeply held belief in God. They are friendly, kind and helpful to one another, taking care of the needs of others. Appalachians also have a strong sense of what is right and what ought to be. They have a deep mistrust of anyone who is new, anyone who is a stranger. They resist change.

    Appalachia has a very long history of exploitation. The struggle continues as each new chapter is written. The area is extremely rich in natural resources, one of which might be considered its people. However, though fabulous wealth has been generated in Appalachia, the mountaineer's share in it has been held to a minimum.

    This beautiful region of steep wooded hills, narrow valleys and winding streams is a land of contradictions and tragedy. Appalachia has become synonymous with destitution and illiteracy, containing some of the poorest counties in the nation.

    Appalachian culture is a real and functioning culture that is revealed through its arts and crafts, traditional music, traditional foods, its customs, its traditions and its somewhat common language. Traditional foods such as greens, potatoes and beans with cornbread and biscuits are the norm.

    The Appalachian culture we witness today is one that has been preserved mostly by families and churches. The constant attempts by the "outlanders" to change this culture are testimony to the determination and strength that persists in this culture. This culture is based on subsistence agriculture and hunting, not on industrial class-structured ways of existence. Two key characteristics of the culture of Appalachia are the independence displayed and the constant mutual aid provided to others in the region. There is a sense of equality that exists between the people; this is of course in sharp contrast to the inequality and elitism that exists in other areas of modern society.

    Culturally, there are four distinctive people groups in Appalachia. To fully understand Appalachia, it is important to recognize this diversity. One people group consists of descendants of the original pioneers who settled in the region during the westward movement. These people tend to be landowners, politicians and business people. The characteristics of this group are self-reliant, independent, hard-working, stable and having strong ties to family.

    A second group is composed of the hard-working coal miner, logger or factory worker. The average worker has little education, few skills, a large family, no wealth and few choices in vocation. For example, while coal mining continues to be the largest financial contributor to the economy of West Virginia, poverty in the coalfields remains a daily and depressing reality.

    The third group is the profession group. These are individuals and their families who have moved to Appalachia due to a profession (i.e., bankers, lawyers, teachers, ministers, etc.). Members of this group are usually not readily accepted by the Appalachians.

    The fourth group is the returning Appalachians. This group consists of those who grew up in the mountains, moved away for employment and are now returning to Appalachia. Many of them find it difficult to adjust to the lifestyle they left as a teenager.

    Appalachians expect others to respect their freedom. Independence and self-sufficiency are very important to the people in the region. The friendly greetings and helping hands offered to strangers by the majority of Appalachians will impress the short-term visitor. One should not be misled by their friendliness. Mountain people as a whole are resistant to change, slow to accept outsiders and are very reluctant to accept authority.

    This region called Appalachia stretches from Pennsylvania to Mississippi and encompasses many cultures, all of which have some common values. The cultures are self-sufficient and independent. They have survived influxes of "outlanders" seeking coal, timber, natural beauty for recreation and cheap labor. Many barriers exist within this culture when it comes to business support.

    Entrepreneurship often suffers because of geography, the learning styles of entrepreneurs from this region, the workforce quality, the perceived negative attitude toward success, the regional insularity and the general information available about capital.

    Some notable elements of our Appalachian culture still survive. Many cultural traditions still survive, such as group games, homemade objects, storytelling, home and herbal remedies, clogging and flat foot dancing (a form of dance where the rhythm of the music is beaten out with the feet), tool making, basket making, quilting, and traditional music played on handmade instruments such as banjo, fiddle and dulcimer. Many elements have been lost due to urban influences, changing times or the mere facts of embarrassment or shame.

    Many modern day Appalachians try to distance themselves from the "hillbilly-ness" that is associated by "outlanders" to the inhabitants of this region. Many young people try to forget the traditional ways and notions and adopt the new ways of thinking.

    The language spoken in Appalachia is unique also. It is thought to be a blend of Scottish flavored Elizabethan English directly related to the migration patterns of early settlers from these regions. American film and television have done much damage to the image of the Appalachian culture. Through films such as Deliverance and television shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and the comic strip Li'l Abner, Appalachian people are viewed as hopeless but proud, desperate but industrious, noble first generation frontier people, yet somehow ignorant and degenerate. This was in strong contrast to the way this region was originally described in the 1890s in terms of romantic wonder.

    The word Appalachia is an old Indian word and it has a real definition - "endless mountain range." The Indians thought the Appalachian Mountains went on forever and ever and ever.

    Today, Appalachian people are more diverse than ever, both rural and urban. Nevertheless, they share a common pride, common values and a common heritage. The people in this region have suffered from industries such as oil, coal mining, timber and others. Having extracted the resources from this region and enjoyed many years of prosperity, many of these industries have left, leaving the landscape scarred yet beautiful, exploited yet underdeveloped. Even after all this, you will still find a people who are proud of strong family values and self-reliance.

    The federal government today defines Appalachia as parts of West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. It incorporates 397 counties in 13 states, covers a total of 195,000 square miles and has a current population of more than 20 million.

    While religion is important in Appalachia, the reality is that better than 65 percent of the region is unchurched. Some counties are as high as 80 percent unchurched. Culture and religion are interwoven, and while mountain people believe the Bible, respect the church and welcome anyone who comes in the name of the Lord, the organized aspects of religion have not been important factors to the people of Appalachia.

    I hope you enjoy getting to know this new culture. An excellent resource to read in preparation for and during ministry in Appalachia is Yesterday's People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia by Jack E. Weller and published by The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky. You can order the book through most bookstores.

    Related Video Resources

    Mountain Talk
    The true story of Appalachia is told in this documentary through candid interviews and performances. The songs, stories, and candid interview convey a shared sense of place and identity that continues to define mountain people, even as their culture seems to be disappearing into the modern world. Learn More >>

    The Appalachians

    A film (DVD) on the history and culture of Appalachians that features Johnny Cash in his last film interview. Appalachian mountain people are songwriters and storytellers. To tell their history, the producers use mountain songs as an integral part of the film. The lyrics tell the story of their lives, their emotions, their loves and their fears. Learn More >>