In this episode, I take on a potentially sensitive subject: cultural insensitivity toward Appalachian people, as manifested in the musical community. This episode deals with what I see as respectful vs. insensitive ways to approach performing and participating in cultures of groups and places that are different from your culture of origin.
To lay the foundation, I discuss how I believe the music and dance of Appalachia should be performed and celebrated by all who love them, how our heritage and history have been whitewashed historically, and how it’s important to acknowledge the privilege I have in being a white, able-bodied, and cis-gendered heterosexual woman.
I also discuss some of the problematic examples of “performative culture” I’ve seen, including:
I also share some personal experiences about how those behaviors can sometimes feel mocking or belittling to those of us who have had to process stigma and stereotypes and/or been made to feel less than due to where we’re from.
Finally, I address the importance of having these conversations with each other, among various cultural, ethnic, and racial categories, as we all work together to dismantle the systemic oppression inherent in our society.
welcome to the what dreamers do podcast. i’m your host carla govan and appalachian musician flatfoot dancer, mama creative and dreamer from kentucky. i’m on a mission to inspire others to realize their dreams and live their most creative lives. grab your mason jar full of sweet tea or something a little stronger, and pull up a chair, because it’s time to get your dream off.
that’s what dreamers do. hello, there dreamers. i’m so happy to be with you for this week’s episode of the what dreamers do podcast. and this week, i’m going to be talking about a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, but that i have not spoken out on very much because it’s kind of sensitive. and i’m a little bit scared to share this topic and to talk about my views and ideas. but i’m going to talk about it anyway. because i feel like it’s important. and i feel like it’s part of my job as a musician and a cultural educator from appalachia and from kentucky to talk about the issues that affect us and the ways that media representation of us make us feel. and sometimes the behavior of people who are attempting to explain or perform our culture can affect those of us who grew up here. so welcome to the michael tre is not your costume appalachia edition. but before we get started, there are a few things that i want to say, and a few acknowledgments that i want to make. because i feel that they’re also important. so the first thing that i want to say is, where i’m coming from is music is for everyone. appalachian music is for everyone. i want everybody to participate in old time music jams and flatfoot dancing and sing alongs. and i want everybody who loves to perform it professionally or in an amateur way or just enjoy it in their homes, to participate fully no matter where they’re from no matter what their background. it’s something that i love to share. and i believe deeply in sharing it. so that’s my first foundation that i want to tell you. i also would like to acknowledge and just touch upon the fact that our appalachian heritage is quite diverse, both ethnically and racially. and sometimes our history has been whitewashed, there are plenty of scholars and academics, who at different points in history have tried to present appalachian culture and music as some sort of last bastion of our pure anglo ancestry, including the very famous ballad collector, cecil sharp. and as we know, hopefully, we all know now that’s just false, it’s really false. and there’s been a great deal of scholarship devoted to debunking that, and anybody from appalachia can tell you it’s it’s a more diverse place than where sometimes portrayed as, but as an educator, as somebody who presents traditions that were heavily influenced, for instance, by african american musicians and dancers all throughout their inception, i just feel that it’s important to mention that and to acknowledge that the final foundational thing that i want to say is a little bit more complex, because one of the things that i’m going to be talking about during this episode is cultural appropriation and how it applies to appalachia. and i just want to acknowledge that there are other marginalized groups who deal with stereotypes and cultural appropriation, who are not white, who are dealing with intersectional kinds of biases, and systemic prejudice and racism. so i want to acknowledge even as i talk about this subject, that is kind of a tender spot for me, that i do have the privilege of being a straight white, able bodied, slim, cisgendered heterosexual woman. and it’s different. it’s just different than my friends of color who are dealing with some of the same issues of representation and cultural appropriation who also have other intersectional identities that they’re dealing with. and i want to lead off with the assertion that appalachian culture, especially when it comes to sharing the music, sharing the dance in the ways that it was shared with me, in all of the communities that that i grew up in, is pretty much the opposite of elitist. there wasn’t never any level that i encountered of exclusivity elitism, you’re playing that wrong. this style of music doesn’t have those parameters. we play it this way, there was none of that. and anytime i’ve encountered that it’s been from somebody playing the music from outside the region or doing the dance from outside the region. so
i just want to say and state for the record before i dive in, that i’m not coming from an elitist place, the appalachian elders from whom i have learned so much, we’re not coming from an elitist place. i’m coming from the place of this is part of how i take back the narrative as an appalachian as a kentuckian and hopefully, how i give you some food for thought, as you have your own relationship with the music, whether you live back in the holler or whether you live in brooklyn, i don’t care. i just want us to all respect each other and enjoy the music together. so let’s get started with what i want to talk about. i’ve been performing traditional appalachian music and dance professionally, ever since i left college since i graduated from college at the age of 21. and i’ve seen a lot of acts, i’ve met a lot of people, especially in the early aughts, after the oh brother, where art thou movie came out, there was a huge wave of people playing traditional appalachian music, forming old time bands. and they were from all over the world and all over the country. and i was touring and probably playing about 200 dates a year at that time of my life. so i saw a lot, i met a lot of people. and some of it just really rubbed me the wrong way. and i want to talk about it. so thank you for listening along. and i think the bottom line of what i’ve seen that, to me seems problematic is not people who are from elsewhere or from other cultures who perform appalachian music. that’s totally wonderful. there’s some amazing musicians who might be from new york or california who were excellent musicians in his style, and i have tremendous respect and love for them. for me, the issue comes into play when people are performing their idea of appalachian culture. and while i acknowledge that when you’re on stage, there’s always a certain question mark between what am i doing? that’s my authentic self? and what am i doing that’s a larger than life version of myself. that’s, that’s normal. and that’s part of being on stage. but i’m just going to list for you some of the things that i’ve seen over the years, and i’m still seeing unfortunately, if if these things had disappeared, if i did not still see these things, in my travels, and in watching others perform, and seeing press kits and websites, then i wouldn’t be needing to do this podcast, this wouldn’t be an issue anymore. so number one, fake accents. okay, this one to me should be a no brainer. i mean, if you’re performing appalachian music, that’s awesome. and even if you’re singing it in sort of the style that you learned it from whatever family you learned it from or recording, yeah, your voice might take on a little bit of that accent. but when you actually adopt some sort of your version of a southern or mountain accent, often one that sounds kind of fake. to the ears of those of us that grew up here. it just seems odd. it seems like it’s going a little too far. and for those of us that grew up, getting made fun of by our indiana cousins for the way we said not or knife or something like that. it just seems kind of like maybe you’re making fun. i don’t know. so fake accents. that’s one. number two, when you’re trying to write songs in the style of appalachian music, and all you write about are the old tropes of killing people. the diction, pills, spouse abuse, moonshine, poverty, violence, all those things. i’m not saying that you can’t write good songs that include any of those elements because songwriting is such a powerful way to address social issues. i do it my band does it. i’m totally for that. i totally believe in that. but when you are, shall i say strip mining? a cultures not just a cultures can characteristics but a cultures stereotypes, so that you can write songs that you feel are more quote unquote authentic. i think that’s problematic. so next, this one is a little less common, but as somebody who books, bands and who has
been on both ends of the spectrum, from running festivals to performing lots of festivals, i’m sending in my press kit to people, i’m reading people’s bios and press kits. if you lived and or live and or work in appalachia and have learned a lot of your material from appalachian people, i think it’s totally valid and legit that you would want to put that in your press kit. but don’t write your press kit in such a way that it obscures where you’re actually from. and it seems like you’re trying to say that you’re something that you’re not, it just seems kind of bogus. i mean, i guess you’re not hurting anybody. but again, why not just talk about who you are and where you’re from, and where you learned the things you learned and where you live now and why you live there and why you love it. there’s so much you can talk about without misrepresenting yourself in a way that seems designed to try to act like you’re something that you’re not. another issue i have are festival presenters and promoters who seem to be picking people that are portraying that more stereotypical version of appalachian culture. because maybe they think it’s what their audience wants the people that yuk it up the people that make hillbilly jokes on stage. and i’ve seen major bands do this, there was a major band, i don’t know if i should call him out or not that made a joke when they’re playing in louisville, kentucky, about toothless people in the next county. and it was clearly intended to be a hillbilly joke, but i’m thinking you’re literally making your living on quote, unquote, hillbilly music, and dressing up in your overalls. and you’re still going to make that joke. i don’t know it just and they weren’t from the region. i mean, you’re a great musician, you don’t need to make that kind of joke, make a different joke. come on. it’s the 21st century people. another issue that i’ve seen, and especially during this pandemic time when people are putting on virtual festivals, and you could literally hire somebody from anywhere in the world is presenters and promoters who present appalachian music, and bands that are playing that traditional appalachian style, without any attempt to actually include one or two people that are from the region. i believe that one special thing about hiring performers who are from the tradition that they’re sharing, is that we have a different set of cultural contexts to the songs that we’re talking about. and we have stories that go with it in so many cases. we’re telling stories about our buddies, our grandparents, our parents, our family reunions, how we worked, how we learned the song from our uncle when we’re stripping tobacco, or how this was a coal mining song that was used in our county to help unionize the miners. and that’s part of what makes appalachian music so special is it comes from this rich culture. and so when you have an artist who is from here, sharing the music, they’re not just sharing the music, they’re sharing their whole culture, their stories. and so i believe it’s very valuable and helpful to try to include some appalachian representation in your lineup. have your artists that are from everywhere have your talented and light filled and loving and beautiful artists from all over that just love fiddle tunes and banjo tunes, but include some appalachians in the mix. another thing that can be problematic is the way people sometimes presumed to offer cultural explanations, and perhaps even paint entire cultural phenomena with really broad brushes and speak on our behalf. obviously, appalachia is a pretty big region. and we have a lot of different groups and different kinds of people in different subcultures within the larger culture. and so there are many, many stories to tell. however, for example, one time i saw this performing group that was putting on a piece in tennessee, and i saw it online and i was reading the description. i think they were doing a streaming version of it too and i was considering watching it and then part of the show description said this piece explores the light and darkness and i appalachian culture.
and i knew some of the performers and i looked at the bios for all of them, and none of them were from there. and i felt like that’s a pretty presumptuous artistic thing to do. when you’re not from somewhere to explain, or analyze or present, concerning the light and darkness in a region. i mean, i’m just trying to think of a similar comparison. you know, if i went to ecuador and studied the music and lived there for a few years, and then i created a presentation that i put on down there about the light and darkness and ecuadorian culture. i don’t know it just kind of rubbed me the wrong way. what do you think? i’d love to hear some of your opinions about this, because i know i’ve got some sharp cookies listening in because you send me messages, and i know you’re out there. so i love to have a dialogue about this. i’d love to hear more about your opinions and your experiences. and maybe even we’ll have another episode where i share some of those. so, by all means, carla, carla grover.com, or you can message me on instagram at kentucky carla or reach me via facebook messenger at carla govan music. anyway, i just have one more item in the things that rubbed me the wrong way category before we move on. but this one is a big one. it’s definitely not unique to me. pretty much every creative artist, activist buddy i have in kentucky and in much of appalachia shares this frustration with me, which is that film and book industries, mass media wants to promote artistic work that reinforces the same old stereotypes and the same old tropes over the more nuanced voices, and descriptions and explanations of those of us who are actually from here. i am certainly not the only one saying this. there are many eloquent writers who have written about this issue in this problem far better than i have. and some of them are even going to be guests on upcoming podcasts. but for now, i’ll just leave it at that. it’s an ongoing issue. and it has been since the 1800s, when the local color literature was very popular in the national imagination, and people wrote these very overly romanticized but also overly stereotyped books about the quaint appalachian people, our contemporary ancestors. so anyway, i won’t go into that any further at this moment. so some of these things that i’m talking about, have to be changed in the media, they have to be changed on the national level in the collective consciousness, in the new york times in netflix, in the publishing industry. some of these changes have to come by practitioners of appalachian music that aren’t from here. and maybe that’s as simple as just having the awareness that this music is sacred to us. and it’s part of our identity. and all we’re asking for is respect. respect. it boils down to respect and i think that’s what everybody wants. but where i think the deepest change needs to happen, and the change that i have worked, the hardest to bring into effect is within the hearts and minds of those of us who are from here, those of us who live here, and our young people, especially because so many of us have internalized the stories that we’ve been told about ourselves, just as we as women have internalized negative stories, and we have misogyny to read out, just as people of color have internalized stories that are racist against themselves, just as those of us who are attempting to be anti racist, white people have internalized racist stories, and we have to eliminate our own inner racism. those of us who are from kentucky here from appalachia have to constantly go through this process of evaluating, bringing awareness to and reshaping the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. so one of those stories in my family as an example and i think this is a pretty commonly employed one by people that are from eastern kentucky is well yeah, those stereotypes are true, but our people weren’t
like that. and of course, you know, you can look at some of the stereotypes and some of the people you see on tv and some of the photos you see. and we have seen people like that living in our hollers. you know, we did grow up next to that dude, that is embarrassing our entire state on national tv. but then again, we’ve seen that guy in big cities to those problems that we have, that we’re working on, in kentucky, just like everybody around the world is working on problems like addiction, and poverty, and education, and unemployment. of course, we have those problems, but we know that they exist in every part of the world. and yet, they’re routinely associated and portrayed as being almost uniquely appalachian problems, we are defined by our problems in a way that other regions are not. but i know in my family, that’s one of the ways that my mother in particular dealt with the internalized stories about what hillbillies were like. another example for her is that she went to a settlement school growing up which settlement schools, pine mountain settlement school, hammond settlement school, only to baptist school, which is still in existence, but was originally settlement school, were often run by people who moved to appalachia from elsewhere. and they did a lot of wonderful things, on the one hand, but on the other hand, there was sometimes a narrative at those places that you needed to better yourself in the sense that you needed to get real culture. and that’s, that’s something that my mom really internalized. so, you know, she, she grew up in this amazing musical family. and you know, of course, i did, too. and i was just mesmerized by my grandmother and learning all the songs that she sang, and my uncle’s my grandfather, but my mother at school learned this narrative that she needed to better herself and learn proper culture. so she was always trying to listen to opera and ballet. and, i mean, i left ballet, and i kind of like opera, depending. but my mom, she thought of that as the real culture. and what we had at home was, you know, that was just hillbilly stuff. and so that was another side effect of these the stories, i’m talking about the stories that were told, and that we internalize. and so i think that’s kind of the bottom line for me is the things that people do when they’re performing appalachian culture, that strike me sometimes as being insulting or insensitive, or even, you know, presumptuous, they wouldn’t wrangle so much, if we didn’t have a stigma growing up here. i probably wouldn’t think about them if i didn’t, even when i went to grad school, you know, in 2015, have a professor that routinely would single out things that i said, in my accent, and point me out in front of the class, even though my accent is so much milder than it used to be. it’s kind of like, those of us that are from here, have lived through a lot of stereotypes. we’ve dealt with our share of stigma and being made fun of, or having things assumed about us based on where we’re from. and so to see people that are performing our music, also attempting to perform our culture and our identity, especially if that’s in ways that are reinforcing those stereotypes or seem mocking in some way, it just feels hurtful. and it’s unnecessary, because you can perform appalachian music at carnegie hall and not be from appalachia and do a brilliant, amazing job, and still be respectful and culturally sensitive to the people that you learn the music from, or the culture that you learn the music from. so those of us from kentucky who play traditional music, and perform traditional dance, it’s more than just music is more than just dance. it’s who we are. and it’s our communities and it’s our families. and it’s precious to us. it’s one of our most precious, natural resources besides the people themselves that live here. so and i think, like any other group of people or any other individual, anywhere in the world, we just want respect, and we want appreciation for
the beautiful qualities that our culture has. and i think one final thing that really is worth mentioning in this discussion is you can’t really have a conversation about appalachian culture. and the problems that we face in appalachia. and i say problems, because that’s usually what people want to talk about when they talk about our region. when reporters come here, when people actually don’t even come here and write articles about us in the new york times, what they want to talk about is what’s wrong with these people? why are they like this? why are they so backwards? why are they live in this way? and i’ve said it before. and i’ll say it again, if we’re going to have that conversation, we have to talk about the centuries of economic injustice and oppression that have occurred due to an extractive industry that has benefited the rest of the united states at times at the expense of appalachian people, and has certainly lined the pockets of corporations, industries and individuals, primarily not from the region when i was growing up 80% of the mineral rights, and about 60% of the land were owned by people that didn’t live there, which meant that any profits that were generated by the vast timber and coal resources that were there were mostly trucked out of the region. i mean, coal had its booms and its busts, i got to experience a little bit of that boom, in the early 80s. when my dad, he was working for the coal company, and then immediately experienced the bust when it went down again, and he lost his job. but the fact of the matter is, for his rich of a region as we are resource wise, we should have the best roads, the best schools, the best hospitals, the best internet, and it’s not the case. and we have to look at policy, we have to look at tax law, we have to look at systemic economic injustice, that has contributed heavily to some of the problems that we have in appalachia today. and this is similar all over the world, in mineral rich areas or in or where extractive industries exist. but where the local residents are living in poverty. so that’s a conversation for another day. but to me, it’s it’s germane to this discussion of, of cultural appropriation and cultural strip mining, which is how it feels sometimes to those of us that grew up in appalachia. so i’m going to leave with one final story that kind of illustrates the very thing i’m talking about. and it happened six or eight months ago, when things were just starting to open back up. and i went to this local bluegrass convention type mini festival, i should say, to see one of my friends play. and there were tons of bluegrass bands. and it was right when things started to open up. so bobby and susie had come out from every hauler in eastern kentucky because it was in lexington. and you know, that’s kind of a music hub, one of the music hubs for eastern kentucky people will drive over here to see concerts. so eastern kentucky was well represented. and you know, the energy was high. everybody was cheering and i was really enjoying the concert and i met this girl who was there visiting a friend. and she had flown in from california to see the show. and she was very nice. i chatted to her and i found out that she was in a blue grassy old timey i’m not really sure band back in california, where she was from, and she was chatting to me and i think she kind of felt like i was a kindred spirit. but she was kind of making these little comments because you know, it was a the crowd you could tell by the t shirts and just by the vibe that they weren’t all like bleeding heart tree hugging liberals there were a variety of political perspectives represented let’s just say it was socio politically a pretty diverse crowd. and you know, that’s those of us that play appalachian music and traditional music
in kentucky in the south in the bible belt in appalachia. we’re used to that you know, festivals it’s always like this kind of crazy mix of, you know, pot smoking tie dye where in dread lot, you know, people that just love the old time music and more straight laced, more conservative, more religiously or politically conservative people that are from kentucky to or from appalachia or from wherever, who just also loved the music. so that’s the kind of vibe that was at this bluegrass festival. and as i’m talking to this woman, i could tell, she was feeling kind of like, oh, god, what are all these people doing here, she was feeling some distaste for it. but it was literally the culture and the people. that was the origin, the origination point of the music that she loved and played back home. but i got the impression just from talking to her, then when she did these festivals, and so forth back in california, she didn’t have to deal with all of the spectrum of perspectives and viewpoints, and you know, where people stood on maybe masks and vaccines and so forth. so maybe there was more of a bluegrass bubble, if you will, where she was from, but i just thought that was interesting, because, you know, it was, clearly she loved our music enough to perform it as one of one of the ways that she made her living. but she wasn’t very comfortable with the culture and the people in actuality. and, and to me, that’s, that’s kind of one facet of what i’m talking about. so anyway, i hope we can all continue to make music and dance together with respect and harmony. i am saying these things to people that aren’t from appalachia, but i am on the same journey myself and my ensemble cornbread and tortillas i perform with artists from different parts of latin america, as well as a mexican american woman. and i’ve had to just shut up and listen and get the perspective of the artists that i’m working with on what it is okay for me to perform with them, what they don’t feel comfortable with what they feel like as appropriation, what feels respectful, what doesn’t feel respectful. and i don’t always know it’s a learning journey. and it’s humbling. but it’s important for us to do, especially if we have white privilege, and especially if we have some of the other types of privilege that exists in our society, that we do the work of listening to each other, and learning how each other feels. and it’s going to be different on a case by case basis, because appalachians are not monolithic. latinos are not monolithic. african americans are not monolithic. you know, i can’t speak for everybody in my culture. and nobody can do that. but i think these are important conversations to have. and i’m grateful to you all for having them with me. so again, i’d love to hear from you. i’d love to hear your thoughts. and i’m just going to leave you with a thought. i know i’ve played the song on this show before so i won’t play it again. but i do want to mention that my song me and the redbird river was a song i wrote in the audience. while i was listening to one of those bands that i felt like was doing some of those nono points that i discussed earlier. i wrote the song in a direct response to what i felt like was a misrepresentation of my culture. and so not everybody knows that backstory of it. i always love to hear the backstories of songs, and i will link to the song in the show notes just in case. you have not heard that song that i wrote for my grandmother. so i hope you have a fabulous week and i can’t wait to see you next time on what dreamers do.
thank you so much for joining me this week. if you want to make sure you never miss an episode. please hit subscribe wherever you’re listening now. or visit my website to get on my email list at www dot karla grover.com. when you sign up, you’ll instantly receive my milton mama digital care package, a bundle of music and videos to help you wring every drop of the heart of life. you’ll even find a dance lesson as well as my granny’s cornbread recipe with new goodies being added all the time. i’ll see you next thursday on the wet dreamers do podcast
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