Our guests Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson talk about an exciting new podcast mini-series they'll be co-hosting as part of Smoky Mountain Air called Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music. This mini-series can be found right here through this podcast, with new episodes every other month.
Dr. William Turner is a long-time African American studies scholar who first rose to prominence as co-editor of the groundbreaking Blacks in Appalachia (1985). He was also a research assistant to Roots author Alex Haley. Turner retired as distinguished professor of Appalachian Studies and regional ambassador at Berea College. His memoir called The Harlan Renaissance is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in 2021.
Dr. Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University and the author of many books, articles, reviews, encyclopedia entries, and oral histories. Olson has produced and compiled a number of documentary albums of traditional Appalachian music including GSMA's On Top of Old Smoky and Big Bend Killing. He's received a number of awards in his work as a music historian, including seven Grammy nominations.
We spoke to Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson on an online video chat.
Music selections in this episode:
[Old-time guitar music and bird song]
Valerie Polk 00:06
Welcome to Smoky Mountain Air, a podcast from Great Smoky Mountains Association that explores the diverse natural and cultural history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I'm Valerie Polk, videographer and publications associate.
Karen Key 00:21
And I'm Karen Key, senior publication specialist at GSMA.
Today we'll be talking to Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson, co-hosts of an exciting new podcast mini-series we'll be launching through Smoky Mountain Air called Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music. This mini-series can be found right here through this podcast, with new episodes every other month.
Dr. William Turner is a long-time African American studies scholar who first rose to prominence as co-editor of the groundbreaking Blacks in Appalachia. That book was published in 1985. He was also a research assistant to Roots author Alex Haley. Turner retired as Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies and Regional Ambassador at Berea College. His memoir called The Harlan Renaissance is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in 2021.
Dr. Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University and the author of many books, articles, reviews, encyclopedia entries, and oral histories. Olson has produced and compiled a number of documentary albums of traditional Appalachian music, including GSMA's On Top of Old Smoky and Big Bend Killing. He's received a number of awards in his work as a music historian, including seven Grammy nominations.
Valerie Polk 01:52
During each episode of the Sepia Tones podcast mini-series, Karen and I will be handing over the hosting reigns to Dr. Turner and Dr. Olson as they explore the many black roots and branches of Southern Appalachian music. They'll invite musicians and experts to join them in the discussion and share recordings old and new. The series is funded through the African American Experience Project in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We spoke to Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson on an online video chat.
[Guitar music and singing / "My Home's Across the Smoky Mountains" by Sparky Rucker from the Digital Library of Appalachia's Berea College collection]
Karen Key 02:47
Welcome, Dr. Turner and Dr. Olson, to Smoky Mountain Air!
Dr. Turner 02:51
Thank you, we're glad to be here.
Dr. Olson 02:52
Good to be here.
Karen Key 02:54
So, tell us about the name you've chosen for the special series, Sepia Tones. I hear that our Creative Director Frances Figart at GSMA contributed to part of the name, and, Dr. Turner, you added to that to give it another layer of context. So, tell us a little bit about how y'all came up with that.
Dr. Turner 03:12
A few weeks ago we were discussing when Frances—I think the idea was we knew what the subtitle would be, right? Was that "Black Appalachian Music" or something like that? And the whole idea was what would be the engine, the front end of that, and so, I think Frances put "Tones." And while I didn't ask her directly, it seemed to me that "Tones" was a play on words that could be skin tones as a first thought I had. Or the second notion of tones as in music tones. When I looked at that, I snapped immediately to a memory of a very popular magazine in the African American south primarily, but it was actually all over the country.
Three major magazines when I was growing up, and one, of course, two much better known called Ebony and Jet magazines, which came out of Chicago. But there was another one called Sepia, a real sophisticated, slick magazine. And I suggested we put "Sepia" in front of "Tones" so that we would have this notion that "Sepia," which refers to some kind of fish, I understand, but I always knew it also meant a kind of natural color. So, the color of autumn leaves and the fall in Appalachia struck me. And that's where I came into let's put this as "Sepia Tones" so that people might hear and see the tones that were coming out of Black musicians heads and hearts and feelings and experiences, as well as they could play the same kind of music as anybody else in Appalachia.
Karen Key 04:59
Well I think Sepia Tones is a great name for the series. What are you hoping listeners will gain from a discussion of black Appalachian music in this podcast over the next several months?
Dr. Turner 05:12
I hope people will gain something Ed Cabbell talked about a long time ago in his work when he first came out with this idea of studying black Appalachia and its people, black Appalachian people and their cultures. And Ed had an article once called Black Invisibility and Racism in Appalachia that he wrote in the late 60s. And so, there's this notion of invisibility that—the idea in that old saying "If a tree falls in the woods and there's nobody around to hear it, did it make a sound?"
And so, in a metaphorical way what we're doing with this podcast I know is to say there were a lot of black sounds coming out of the mountains that, just as with foodways and other cultural elements, you cannot have Appalachian music without the tones, the input, the compositions, the ideas, the experiences of black people in Appalachia, who were always there from the earliest times. Even if one looks at the date marked in 1619 when the first African slaves were brought into Port O'Connor, Virginia, long before then in the 1500s there were Moroccans—Africans—who had accompanied Spanish explorers into what we know as the Smoky Mountains, at that point a couple hundred years before 1619, at least 150 years before then.
So that what I hope we will do is, as a reader might be listening to this podcast, they would then say, "Oh, I didn't know that." Or they might say, "Well, I am so glad that other people now will know what I've known a long time." And so, we'll be educating young people who have no idea about it, and those more seasoned people who had some idea about it. But during this podcast, we will be talking to specific individuals mentioning specific references to times and people and places and milestones so, that's one of—that's what we would accomplish. We would kind of mark a spot on a tree. And people will know that from this time forward in 2021, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, most appropriately it seems maybe you think of the Appalachia, you can't help but think of the Smoky Mountains, so that a number of things are coming here together that are cultural, historical, that are geographical, that are political, that are musical, and all kind of coming together at one time, I think.
Valerie Polk 08:05
Well we're looking forward to you casting some light on these musical influences that people might not know about. So, tell us about some of the musicians that are really key in the history of black Appalachian music—names that you think will certainly come up during this discussion. Some of our listeners might not be as familiar with some of the material, so, if we could just know some of the names and what they mean to the music.
Dr. Olson 08:31
When we spoke with Sparky Rucker in our conversation for the first podcast, Sparky read off a list of some of his favorite musicians. And it was very poignant because, a lot of the musicians that he mentioned, certainly they were people that he knew personally, which meant that there was a great deal of affection and connection in his celebration of them as musicians and as people.
To mention some of the other names of other black musicians from Appalachia, one could certainly do a who's who of well-known and well-respected musicians from the Appalachian region. I'll mention a few of those… Bessie Smith… We could mention, you know, more contemporary artists… Bill Withers, Nina Simone.
The list of great musicians in American music includes a lengthy list of well-recognized black musicians from Appalachia. Sparky talked about a number of them. We will be talking about more of them throughout the podcast series, but those names, the handful that I mentioned, are, you know, that's the tip of the iceberg.
But we certainly hope to look at other musicians from Appalachia who are less well-known. I mean one opportunity that we have here is to, shall we say, strengthen and diversify the dialogue about what is Appalachia and who are the great Appalachian musicians. Frankly a lot of the great Appalachian musicians aren't well known.
And of course, we're also trying to introduce an effort to contextualize the music. I mean, the music is wonderful in and of itself, but it says so much about culture and history and human experience. And so, to talk about music is, I feel, a very important part of the music appreciation experience. It's one thing to understand how the music is structured, but it's another thing to note the backstories to the music, to know how to interpret the lyrics, how to interpret the mood of the of the performer, how to understand the subtleties of the stylistic approach that the musician takes, and then of course personal connections to the musical world that people are keeping alive in their music. We want to find those backstories. The podcast series provides a, you know, kind of like, a table around which people can sit and chat and open up about things that matter.
[Guitar and harmonica music and singing / "John Hardy" by Martin Simpson, featuring Dom Flemons on harmonica and bones, from On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music]
Karen Key 11:27
So, tell us a little bit about your background and how you've both come to have interest in music of black Appalachians. Dr. Turner, let's start with you.
Dr. Turner 11:35
I think I became interested in this type of music through the love for it that was exhibited by my father. My dad was born in 1917. And my father was born in Wise County, Virginia, in a little place called Coburn. Quite frankly, amongst my family and my friends, most of whose parents had migrated to the coal fields where I was born in Harlan County, Kentucky, many of them were from Alabama—central Alabama. My father was from southwest Virginia, so, his mother would have been born in southwest Virginia in 1896. His grandmother was born in Lee County in Pennington Gap, Virginia, in the 1850s.
So, my father grew up in a place where old-time bluegrass mountain music was all he heard all of his life. And in fact, his own accent and dialect, you might say, was much more mountain, and in the view of some people, quite 'white' than it was black because dad had this kind of typical Appalachian way of talking. I'm sure if you've met people—black people—from the mountains of southwest Virginia who grew up in rural areas, in many instances there was not much difference in the dialect and the way of speaking of black people and white people. You couldn't tell one from the other in many instances—my grandmother and grandfathers on that side.
So, my dad was always a devotee to what was considered by many of our black friends 'white' mountain music, and he really liked it. And he liked the Grand Ole Opry. And besides that, when you think about where I grew up, the local radio station which came out of Cumberland, Kentucky, in Harlan County, it did not play what we call 'black music.' They played country music all the time, whether you liked it or not. And the only avenue to music that probably permeated most black communities was through WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. That was a clear-channel 50-watt station in the 50s. So, in some sense the Grand Ole Opry, that type of music, my father, as I said earlier, had grown up in southwest Virginia so, I kind of heard it all my life.
And I basically got interested in it later when I came to know Loyal Jones when I was a grown man when I went to Berea College and did some work there in the late 70s. When I got to know people like Sparky Rucker and learned a lot from him. And, of course, in the last a few years I've gotten to know Ted Olson who's taught me about everything I know about this type of music.
We get compartmentalized into different genres of music so that 'black music' in my generation was thought of generally, one thought generally of blues, rhythm and blues, rock n' roll that came out of the James Brown, Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and in my mother's generation, going all the way back to, say, Ma Rainey—that kind of blues. Or the lady out of Chattanooga, Bessie Smith, that was kind of considered black music. In fact, Bessie Smith had a piece that my grandmother used to play all time, Black Mountain Blues. And in Harlan County when she made that in 1933, that was considered kind of like 'black music.'
So, that's essentially what I meant by that, so that when you hear people like some of the folks who are in this podcast, you would not associate them with black musicians because dulcimers and fiddles and guitars and banjos were not exactly the instruments associated with, say, the music of black people, except, say, in the Delta of Mississippi and that kind of blues.
Karen Key 15:46
Well, we're very excited to hear the music and the guests you'll be bringing to the podcast.
Dr. Olson, could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in this music.
Dr. Olson 15:56
I grew up in the big city in Washington, DC. You know, my older brother, for example, he was a musician and had a soul band. And so, being in DC growing up during the civil rights era was an interesting time. I delivered newspapers—The Washington Post—and I kind of followed along the happenings in terms of civil rights, not so much the legislation as much of that happened earlier, but kind of the aftermath of race relations in Washington, DC, and the rest of the country. And I found that with music in my house growing up and a love for R&B and jazz, and of course, every other kind of music—classical and folk and rock, my home environment was steeped in music, and much of it was 'black' music being in DC.
I got to know a number of, you know, black musicians pretty well. As a kid I used to attend the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, which of course then had a different name—Festival of American Folk Life, I think it was called way back when. But I befriended John Jackson who was a terrific foothills bluesman from Virginia who lived in DC. And I had a few conversations with him when I was very young. He told me about his life as a gravedigger. And he told me about his music and how his music expressed his experiences growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. All that was very, you know, a deep impression upon me and I kind of set off in life both to replicate the music that I loved… I suppose imitation is the highest form of flattery, and I was deeply moved by what I heard and tried to, you know, recreate it in my own experience.
Well, while still a teenager, I kind of migrated into the mountains myself and lived in West Virginia and befriended musicians of all backgrounds. I learned from people who had learned music within the family as opposed to from records or from, you know, song books or that sort of thing. Although I suppose that those were in their experiences as well, but we're talking about true traditional musicians that I befriended. And so, I kind of understood learning about music from all different angles, both kind of more formally and also from within community environments and within kind of bonds of friendship. And along the way I became kind of a scholar, I guess you would say, of Appalachian music generally speaking. And of course my interest in Appalachian music was always the "large tent" definition of Appalachian music. I loved all kinds of music, you know, both the traditional music and the more popular music from within the region and beyond.
And as a scholar I found myself studying black music in places like Mississippi and Kentucky. And then moving to East Tennessee, I continued to study musical traditions from multiple backgrounds, including from African American communities. And I befriended people like Sparky Rucker and Etta Baker, and, you know, a handful of other folks from the African American community who taught me a great deal about, you know, how to understand the musical expressions made within those communities. And so, I loved all kinds of music, and I tried to play as many different kinds of music as I could. I took on the banjo, which of course has deep African connections and learned some historically African American styles on the banjo and sang some blues songs to the best of my ability. Of course, it was all in adoration of the music and in deference to the people who made the music. You know, I had no illusions that I was any way, shape, or manner within the tradition, but I was respectfully kind of trying to educate perhaps new generations about the values and the beauties of these musical traditions.
[Guitar music and singing / "Key to the Highway" by the Foddrell Brothers from the Berea Sound Archive]
Valerie Polk 20:23
Dr. Olson, you've been involved in several music projects with Great Smoky Mountains Association before. Would you mind telling us about some of them?
Dr. Olson 20:31
As a scholar, I began a kind of a collaboration I guess is a good way to put it with Great Smoky Mountains Association where we have thus far worked on four different CD projects celebrating Appalachian music. And, you know, the first one was Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, which encompassed 1930s-era sound recordings made by Joseph Sergeant Hall in the Smokies. And, you know, that was predominantly a, you know, a white musical tradition that Hall had documented there in the Smokies as people were leaving to create the park. That CD surprised, I think, a lot of people as far as that the Smokies at one time had been rather heavily populated and that the cultures of folks who lived in the Smokies had very rich family and community music traditions, as well as of course other traditions.
But we documented the music traditions on that CD and on the subsequent CD that we made with the Association. And that was the Carol Best and the White Oak String Band CD that was pretty important because it documented the emergence of a new style of banjo playing by Carol Best who was a native of the Smokies in the 1950s. He's considered one of the great pioneers of the melodic banjo style, which is now quite popular in bluegrass—in the bluegrass world.
The next two were recordings made of contemporary musicians revisiting the older Appalachian repertoire. And we definitely tried to have a kind of an 'open tent' approach when making those recordings. And so, we invited people from all different backgrounds to participate in the recording of Appalachian musical traditions for those two CDs. One of those is called On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music. The other is called Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition. And we tried in both those CDs to incorporate black music traditions and the blues ballad tradition associated with black performers as well as, you know, the British-Celtic ballad traditions and music traditions. So, we really did try to portray in those CDs the true essence of Appalachian music, which is that Appalachia is a melting pot of many different cultures, and we tried to display that.
One other project I thought I'd mention since it definitely relates to interest in black music in Appalachia was a box set that I did working with a gentleman named Tony Russell who's a British music scholar. We worked together to create a box set called The Knoxville Sessions. The reason that's so important—we had a conversation for this podcast with Sparky Rucker who grew up in Knoxville and talked about the Knoxville music scene. And on that box set The Knoxville Sessions, Tony Russell and I were able to locate all of the original recordings made in 1929 and 1930 made by the Brunswick-Vocalion Record Company back then of musicians either living in Knoxville or living just outside Knoxville in, say, the Great Smoky Mountains or up into eastern Kentucky. But among these 100 or so recordings were a number of recordings of great African American singers and musicians living in Knoxville at the time, people such as Leola Manning, a great blues singer—an urban blues singer kind of in the spirit of Bessie Smith—kind of that same generation. Amazing vocalist who's only made records in Knoxville for that one recording trip by that one record company. We were able to bring them all out and release them on CD in that box set. Another master musician that we were able to include on that box set was, of course, the great Howard Armstrong. His initial recordings were made there in Knoxville, and we were able to include them on this box set. And other African American musicians are on that box set as well.
Valerie Polk 24:36
Well, let's listen to one of the tracks from a project you mentioned with Great Smoky Mountains Association. This is "John Henry," the traditional blues ballad that many people will know, from the album Big Bend Killing, a two-disc set available from Great Smoky Mountains Association at SmokiesInformation.org. The tracks from this album are also available on all major digital music services online. Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade are featured on this recording.
[Guitar and banjo music and singing / "John Henry" by Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade from Big Bend Killing]
John Henry was a little bitty boy,
Sittin' on his mama's knee
The Big Bend Tunnel and that C & O Rail;
It's gonna be the death of me, oh Lord,
It's gonna be the death of me.
John Henry went into that tunnel,
He went into the tunnel to drive;
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
Laid down his hammer and he cried, Lord, Lord,
He laid down his hammer and cried.
Valerie Polk 26:05
So, that was Amythyst Kiah on vocals and guitar and Roy Andrade on banjo in that recording from the album Big Bend Killing that GSMA released in collaboration with one of our guests, Ted Olson. This collaboration was sort of the beginning of GSMA's effort to explore our region's music.
Bill, what was your interest in doing a podcast about black Appalachian music at this time?
Dr. Turner 26:29
Well, my inspiration, going back to what I said earlier in terms of my family also was a house filled with music, our mother was a musician. She played piano in a kind of rock n' roll band so to speak—a jazz band in the 30s and the 40s when we were growing up. But she also played piano for the same church for 52 years. But beyond that in terms of inspiration it goes back to my long-time interest in black people in Appalachia, period. In 1985 I was part of publishing a book called Blacks in Appalachia with the late Ed Cabbell. And Ed was himself an accomplished musician and folklorist with a degree—the first master's degree in black Appalachian studies which he took from Appalachian State. And I got to meet Ed through Loyal Jones and John Stevenson, who used to be the president of Berea College. But earlier in the 60s, in the mid 60s, John Stephenson was my undergraduate advisor when I was—in 1966 I was 20 years old when I met John, and at that time he was professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky.
So, these guys tended to formalize what my father had tried to teach us to appreciate about Appalachian culture, because where I grew up in in Eastern Kentucky, as I said earlier, most of the black people in my father and mother's generation were migrants to that area primarily from central Alabama. My mother had been born in Harlan County in a little town called Benham, Kentucky. My father as I said earlier was born in Wise County, Virginia.
So, one of the things I noticed quickly, conspicuously when we started down the path of trying to learn about black history and culture in the mountains of the south is the absence of a body of literature that dealt specifically with the music of blacks in the mountains. You can find things about migration; you can find things from Ron Lewis about mining; you can find things from Ron Eller and Harry Caudill and different people who wrote about the mountains. But at that time Cece Conway I think was her name, she had not done that work on the black banjo for example Banjo Players. So, Cecil Sharp, yeah you know, he came and did that, but he also tended to ignore and pay very little attention to black people and their music in the mountains. So, I was inspired to get interested here in this type of music in this podcast in particular because we're filling a void, a great void. And I don't mean to discredit all the work that Ted just talked about, but the general public does not know very much about black Appalachian music. So, I'm just excited to be part of codifying this more specifically than we've done up to this point.
Valerie Polk 29:41
Well, we can't thank you enough for both of you bringing your scholarship on this topic of Appalachia and black music in Appalachia to this podcast series Sepia Tones and we know it's just going to be a fascinating series.
Dr. Turner 29:54
We look forward to it.
Dr. Olson 29:55
Valerie Polk 29:56
Thank you, Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson, for launching this special series Sepia Tones as part of Smoky Mountain Air and thank you so much for your time today.
Dr. Olson 30:04
Dr. Turner 30:05
Thank you. Glad to be here.
Valerie Polk 30:07
Dr. William Turner and Dr. Ted Olson are the co-hosts of Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music, a podcast mini-series we'll be featuring here on Smoky Mountain Air over the next several months. We leave you with another recording from Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade, this one from an album called On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music. This and other GSMA-produced music is available at our website, SmokiesInformation.org. Here's "Going Down this Road Feeling Bad."
[Guitar and banjo music and singing / "Goin' Down this Road Feelin' Bad" by Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade from On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music]
Going down this road feeling bad,
I'm going down this road feeling bad,
Going down this road feeling bad, Lord, Lord,
And I ain't gonna be treated this way.
Going where the water tastes like wine, oh,
I'm going where the water tastes like wine,
Going where the water tastes like wine, Lord, Lord,
Cause I ain't gonna be treated this way.
Karen Key 31:40
Look for more episodes in our series Smoky Mountain Air from Great Smoky Mountains Association to come soon, and more episodes of our featured mini-series Sepia Tones.
Valerie Polk 31:51
In addition to selections by Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade from GSMA's Big Bend Killing and On Top of Old Smoky albums, this episode featured three music snippets: "My Home's Across the Smoky Mountains" by Sparky Rucker from the Digital Library of Appalachia's Berea College collection, "John Hardy" by Martin Simpson featuring Dom Flemons on harmonica and bones, which is also from the On Top of Old Smoky album, and "Key to the Highway" by the Foddrell Brothers from the Berea Sound Archive.
Karen Key 32:26
Our theme music is from Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music GSMA's Grammy-nominated music collection available at SmokiesInformation.org. Bird recordings by Mark Dunaway. Thanks for listening!
[Old-time guitar music and bird song]
Laurel Rematore 32:42
Great Smoky Mountains Association supports the perpetual preservation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the national park system by promoting greater public interest and appreciation through education, interpretation, and research.