Contingent Culture: Talk, Music, and Political Economy in Southern Appalachia

Understandings of southern Appalachia are suffused with eschatological tendencies: the death of local industry, the death of company towns, the death of a ‘way of life,’ the death of actual individuals. In the context of old time and bluegrass music performance in southwest Virginia, another set of concerns emerges: the persistent folkloric fear of the death of ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ in the face of political-economic change. This discourse, often voiced by self-described “transplant” and middle-class residents, hinges on a reified representation of culture in its concerns about rural authenticity. In contrast, I examine the imbrication of humorous repartee, recountings of illness, injury, and death, and commentary on political-economic change by working-class musicians. This register of joking dialogue, and personal anecdotes of labor, play, and sometimes suffering, are dynamized by contingencies and singularities. Talk of a banjoist who no longer plays, probably because of his son’s recent suicide, for instance, or fond recollections of gigs at a 6 a.m. Monday cattle auction that no longer exists, or even darkly humorous stories about the antics of a renowned fiddler’s nephew fallen off the wagon: interlaced in dialogue and with the playing of string band tunes, these references unsettle consolidating or homogenizing visions of culture. In Bakhtin’s terms they exert a centrifugal discursive force, but one that, embedding personal stories in local economic possibilities and limitations, nevertheless reflects the larger political-economic histories and neo-liberal logics continually shaping the cultural and economic landscapes of Appalachia.