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What Ballads And Science Fiction Reveal About Appalachia

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Courtesy of Kenneth King and the WV Mine Wars Museum
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Miners stand in line to turn over their guns in 1921 during the Battle of Blair Mountain.

This week’s episode is all about ballad singers and storytellers. If you’ve listened to Inside Appalachia over the past year, there’s a good chance you’ve heard music by Anna & Elizabeth. This week on Inside Appalachia, co-host Mason Adams sits down with Elizabeth LaPrelle, who grew up in Rural Retreat, Virginia. She and her husband Brian Dolphin moved from Brooklyn back to southwestern Virginia just before the pandemic hit. As longtime performers and new parents they took to Facebook Live, posting weekly livestreams of lullabies and stories. We’ll also hear about a song called “Tom Dooley,” which was first released shortly after the Civil War. It resurfaced 60 years ago, when it topped the Billboard charts. It had everything: A love triangle, a grisly murder, a manhunt, and a hanging. Folkways reporter Heather Duncan is a native of Wilkes County, North Carolina, where the song unfolds. Recently she set out to explore why ballads like Tom Dooley, based on real tragedies and real people, have such staying power.

And we’ll hear from a contemporary ballad singer Saro Lynch-Thomason, who uses the tradition of ballad singing in protests and marches.

In This Episode:

W.Va. Mine Wars Through Music

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Rebecca Williams
Saro Lynch-Thomason is a ballad singer and folklorist from Asheville North Carolina. Saro created the Blair Pathways Project, which tells the history of the West Virginia Mine Wars through music.

The West Virginia Mine Wars played out over two decades of fighting between coal miners and their employers over the workers' right to belong to a union. In 1921, the conflicts culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, when thousands of armed miners and company men faced off in the remote hills of Logan County, West Virginia. The miners eventually surrendered peacefully, once the U.S. Army showed up. This August marks the 100th anniversary of the battle. Folkways reporter Rebecca Williams talked with Saro Lynch-Thomason, ballad singer and folklorist from Ashville, North Carolina. Thomason created the Blair Pathway Project, which tells the history of the West Virginia Mine Wars through music.

Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Saro Lynch-Thomason was one of our Inside Appalachia Folkways reporters in 2019.

 

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Courtesy Alison Stine
Alison Stine's novel "Road Out of Winter" is a near-future science fiction novel that plays out across an Appalachia where spring never comes.

Haunting, Near-Future Sci-Fi Novel Set In Appalachia

Books, like ballads, can also tell stories that play out in the imaginations of listeners. “Road Out of Winter,” is a one such novel. Written by journalist Allison Stine, the book won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2020 for distinguished science fiction. The central character is Wyl, a young woman who's grown up on her family's illegal marijuana farm in rural southeastern Ohio. And while “Road Out Of Winter” is technically a sci-fi novel, it describes a future that feels frighteningly real. After two years without spring — Wyl and her community find themselves living in a perpetual winter. Wyl decides to leave the farm and head to a warmer place in California. “It's funny that everyone does call it ‘speculative fiction,’ and it does have a wild element. This is not exactly what's happening in our world — but I think it's close,” Stine told Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams. Stine focuses her novel on themes of cooperation among Appalachians, of neighbors helping each other, and the resilience of women. Spoiler alert: The novel closes with a scene of hope for humanity’s future that revolves around farmers and women.

Stine’s second novel, “Trashlands,” comes out in October.

Storyteller Ilene Evans Reads “Big Max”

Ruth Ann Musik is one of West Virginia’s most famous storytellers and has been described as “a public relations for West Virginia folklore.” She brought energy and passion documenting the state’s rich storytelling tradition. This led to five books and dozens of short stories, including “The Telltale Lilac Bush.” Decades after Musik collected these tales, they’ve been told and retold by storytellers across our region by people like Ilene Evans. This week, we hear Evans, a storyteller based in Thomas, West Virginia, telling one of Musik’s stories called “Big Max.”

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Our Inside Appalachia theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Elizabeth LaPrelle, Brian Dolphin, Anna & Elizabeth, Saro Lynch Thomason, Grayson and Whitter and the Kingston Trio.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Caitlin Tan and Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to Insideappalachia@wvpublic.org.

Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Caitlin Tan is working as Inside Appalachia’s folklife reporter, as part of a Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies grant. The goal of her reporting is to help engage a new generation in Appalachian folklife and culture.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.