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Elkins Couple Working to Preserve Appalachian Culture

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Folk Society of Greater Boston
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Appalachia has a rich culture and history with music and stories passed down from generation to generation. But sometimes it’s non-natives who are working to document that history so it can be passed on to future generations. This has been the life calling of two folklorists and musicians who now make their home in Elkins, West Virginia, Michael and Carrie Kline.  

Exploring the Natural Gas Industry

With support from the Oral History Association Emerging Crisis Research Fund the Kline’s are currently working on a project called Pay Dirt, documenting the gas rush in north central West Virginia, a subject they say is highly polarized. 

“And we’ve seen documentaries on both sides and they’re good for the side that they represent but they’re not helping people from other sides to hear one another’s story,” Carrie said. “So we’re currently working with everything we can bring to bear to try to tell a story that will help people from various perspective open up to hearing their own views in the context of others.”

The Kline’s create a discussion on an issue like gas drilling by collecting individual stories, recording each person in a setting and with a demeanor where they feel safe about talking. Later, in the studio they combine the multiple interviews they’ve collected with a goal of deepening community understanding.

“So that it becomes an extended conversation,” Michael said.  “It’s a way of bringing together many different views and perspectives in a way that everybody is heard and everybody responds.”

The Kline’s say the shale drilling project is a perfect example of a controversial topic where all sides of an issue can be explored in one place by editing together comments from separate interviews that represent the perspectives of many individuals.  And they’ve found some surprises in what they’ve collected, like how little folks from different sides of the issue talk to each other.

“We go to Doddridge County and we visit people who are devastated by the changes in their lives, we interview microbiologists who are documenting people who are sick from air pollution, we go to the homes and workplaces of people in industry who are so excited and we think ‘could you all visit each other?’” Carrie said.

“I guess that’s our mandate to create intimate visits with one another, people from different sectors, because we need all of us, we’re all here in this world and these communities and we’ve got to interweave our experience and broaden our understanding,” she said.

“And become more human in our policies and our vision of a better world. It has to have more humanity in it and more good citizenship and I think our work speaks to all of those things,” Michael added.

Their Musical Side

But the Klines are not just documentarians of life in Appalachia. They are also musicians, with a mission of keeping traditional music alive and adding new music to the genre. For about 50 years now Michael has been collecting old songs passed down through families that are generally sung from memory.

“And so we try to share these songs in as many ways as we can,” he said.

Michael Kline says they’ve sung the songs to their own children, to children in schools all over West Virginia and at festivals across the state. He says it’s thrilling to see the excitement students have when they learn traditional Appalachian songs and gives the children a connection to local culture and history.

Michael and Carrie Kline have recently released a two CD set, Wild Hog in the Woods and Working Shoes.


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