My great-Papaw Cochran playing the banjo is one of my earliest and foggiest memories. The memory is so faint, sometimes I wonder if it happened at all. My family assures me my memory is correct; Papaw Cochran played the banjo up into his 90s. You hear banjo and think he must’ve played bluegrass, but he didn’t. He played something older, something folksier: traditional Appalachian music.
One of Papaw Cochran’s favorite songs was The Ballad of John Henry. Every time I hear it, I’m flooded with memories of hearing similar music as a child. I heard it at festivals and carnivals around Canton. Old men sat on benches in front of service stations playing it, and sometimes I heard it when my Papaw took me clogging.
The music is a reflection of Appalachia’s unique past. Inspired by musical traditions of the English, Irish, and Scottish settlers of the 18th century, which focused primarily on ballads and reels (particularly those accompanied by the fiddle). Other notable influences include the traditional music of enslaved Africans (who introduced the banjo in the late 1700s), New World ballads, hymns, and coal mining & protest songs.
Traditional Appalachian music gained fame in the early 1920s after it was first recorded. Unfortunately, the Great Depression put an end to its rising popularity. Though its success was short-lived, it became the basis for old-time music, bluegrass, and country. As bluegrass and country rose in popularity, traditional Appalachian music could have faded to the point of extinction. Instead, it crept back into the hills from which it came and continued to flourish as regional folk music.
As an Appalachian native, I can attest that traditional Appalachian music can still be heard throughout the mountains. People back home get together to play the old tunes and attend festivals centered around the time-honored tradition that refuses to die.