What We Talk About When We Talk About "Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills"

In 1975, Dr. Patrick Gainer (1903-1981), the beloved West Virginia University folklore professor, musician, and collector of West Virginia folk songs, published the foundational "Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills," a curated compendium of ballads, songs, and spirituals he collected in the Mountain State. While Gainer's pithy annotations of the songs in the collection convey an intimate relationship with the Scots Irish oral mountain song tradition, the music of other cultural traditions are notably absent. Though Gainer writes in his introduction that African Americans have made the greatest contribution to American folk music over any other ethnic group or race, any songs from that tradition are relegated to their own scant final chapter, regrettably entitled, "The Negro Contribution." This paper will explore Gainer's collection as a case study of the historical erasure of the musical traditions of other cultural communities in West Virginia. I will also present modern examples from my own folklife documentation in the Mountain State and consider how they might serve as points of entry for reclaiming a more expansive and diverse vision of musical heritage in West Virginia and the greater Appalachian region.