Appalachian Labor Songs And Punk Rock Converge In KY Youth Empowerment
Girls Rock Whitesburg in Whitesburg, Kentucky is a music camp for female, gender-fluid, non-binary, and trans youth. Over the course of a week campers learn an electric instrument, form a band and write songs. At the end, they perform in front of a live audience. While the camp focuses on electric music instruction, participants also learn how music is tied to social justice.
Last summer, in a special report as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Nicole Musgrave followed two campers who reinvented a traditional protest song to respond to events in their community. In 2018, Musgrave volunteered at the camp during its inaugural year.
Voicing Opinions Through Music
It was the second day of camp, and one of the newly-formed bands was experimenting with playing the song “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads. The drummer of the band was 18-year-old Sheyanna Gladson of Cumberland, Kentucky.
“I wanted to play music for a really long time ... because I go to a lot of shows but I never played. Even though I obviously wanted to,” Gladson explained.
Her bandmate was 17-year-old Adeline Allison of Harlan, Kentucky. “I’ve always been drawn to music, but I’ve only played music with men. Which is fine. But I’ve never really met any other women who play music before,” Allison said.
Girls Rock Whitesburg launched in the summer of 2018, part of an international network that supports camps like this all over the world. This was Gladson and Allison’s second year at camp. They both said last summer was empowering.
“I was able to find some confidence musically and personally,” Allison explained.
“We don't realize how much of a necessity that is to have confidence in ourselves. That’s not conceited, that's not bad to love yourself, you know?” Gladson said.
Gladson, Allison and their third bandmate Larah Helayne were all camp interns in 2019, so they decided to call their band The Interns. Together, they wrote the camp’s theme song, which features lyrics that declare, “I take up space and use my voice. I’m not afraid to make loud noise.”
“It’s just such an important part for all these young girls to remember. Because so many girls feel like they don't have room to talk. Or even if they do, no one's going to value their opinion. But that’s not true at all,” Gladson said.
Voicing opinions, especially on social issues, is a big part of what Girls Rock Whitesburg is about. In addition to music instruction, campers participated in workshops on topics like sex ed and anti-oppression, and they discussed difficulties in their personal lives and conflicts happening in the world.
This past year, some campers wrote songs about their experiences with bullying and sexism. In 2018, Gladson and her band wrote a song called “Melt the ICE,” to speak out against Immigration & Customs Enforcement detaining migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. In the song, Gladson wails, “Claustrophobic. There is no space. If it was your kid, then what would you say?”
Girls Rock Whitesburg is part of a long Appalachian tradition of protest music written by women—women like Florence Reece. In the 1930s, Reece penned the well-known protest song “Which Side Are You On?” as a response to the bloody labor struggles she witnessed in her home in Harlan County. During the 1930s when Reece wrote it, other female activists in eastern Kentucky were also using music to speak out against injustices in their communities. In the song, an unaccompanied Reece condemns coal operators and law enforcement, and calls on miners to organize.
On the surface, songs like “Which Side Are You On?” that draw on the ballad and old-time music traditions might not seem to have much in common with the punk tradition that many Girls Rock campers and organizers draw from. But there is more in common than meets the eye. The common thread is dissent.
At Girls Rock Whitesburg, the traditions mix and meld. Organizer and music instructor Mitchella Phipps even has a name for it.
“I just like to call us kudzu punks ... Whether it’s a fiddle or whether it’s an electric guitar, it’s kind of that same thing. We’re telling stories and we’re expressing things that happened to us in creative ways,” Phipps said.
Another instructor Carrie Carter explained the overlap between the past and present. “A lot of what happens in old-time music in the 1800s and early 1900s is fighting against oppression and fighting ‘The Man’ and fighting systemic issues,” Carter said.
Gladson said she hears similar strains in the music she and Allison are learning to play at Girls Rock. “Punk music’s just kinda saying what you feel and what you think should be said. Just expressing yourself. And you can do that where they can definitely hear you because you’re so loud, you know?”
Music Meets Activism
Following in the path of Florence Reece, the Girls Rock campers are learning the connection between music and activism. When it came time for The Interns to choose a song to cover during their final camp performance, they chose “Which Side Are You On?”
Gladson said they chose “the old song about the miners in Harlan. Just because of what’s happening right now.”
At the time of this interview back in the summer of 2019, dozens of coal miners and their families had taken up residence in the middle of a train track in Harlan County, just 20 miles from Whitesburg. They were blocking a shipment of coal to protest against their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, which had recently gone bankrupt, laid them off, and then failed to pay their remaining wages.
“My dad was playing that song when he was driving me home yesterday. We passed the protesters in Harlan. The miners who are protesting on the tracks in Cumberland. I’ve always loved the song.…So it’s kind of cool to see it be relevant again,” Allison explained.
Which Side Are You On?
On The Interns’ final day of camp, a crowd gathered on a grassy hillside for the band’s final performance. The Interns played the camp theme song they wrote, along with a cover of the song “I Wanna be your Girlfriend” by Girl in Red. They closed their set with a performance of “Which Side Are you On?”
Along with electric guitar, drums, and bass, The Interns added fiddle and banjo to their version as a nod to the song’s place in old-time music repertoires. Girls Rock organizers and instructors Mitchella Phipps and Carrie Carter accompanied the band.
Once everybody tuned their instruments and found their place on stage, The Interns bandmember Larah Helayne introduced the song with words of support for the Blackjewel mining families: “Support miners. Support people over profits. Support these mountains. It is a place worth fighting for and not just a place worth leaving. So this one is called “Which Side Are You On?”
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.