In 2016, old time music has thriving communities in nearly every major U.S. city, as well as specific regions in the Pacific Northwest and California.[1] It even enjoys a special status in Japan, where appreciation for old time and bluegrass music holds a special cultural status for middle class families (Mitsui 1993). This chapter will present two case studies about the contemporary, contrasting old time communities in Boone, North Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York. I will explore how both communities, with are located within very different geographical and historical contexts, attempt to contextualize old time music, given the long road it has traveled from Gemeinschaft mountain hollows to mass media and beyond. Additionally, I will look at the extent to which old time music has become fetishized and assigned other meanings that may be classed, romanticized, and politicized.



Boone is a small college town of 11,000 residents nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a fifteen-minute drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway. As an Appalachian community, Boone has been a site in which Appalachian music originally ‘happened,’ and the greater region has produced many esteemed, authentic old time musicians, including Tommy Jarrell and Doc Watson. Yet in 2016, Boone is no longer the isolated mountain town it once was: it is home to a major state university that enrolls some 20,000 students, miles of suburbanized strip malls engulf the intimate town center, and the region has become a major tourist destination for rock climbers, hikers, and musical tourists.

Yet elaborate cultural infrastructures in Boone serve to celebrate Appalachian traditions, presenting old time music as just one of the many cultural products of Appalachia past and present. Appalachian State University offers several institutionalized academic resources, including: the Appalachian Special Collection in the university library, which safeguards both primary sources from the region as well as scholarship about Appalachia; an MA program in Appalachian Studies, with tracks in sustainability, music, and culture; and the headquarters of the Appalachian Journal, which is the academic journal of the Appalachian Studies Association. This academic infrastructure is nationally renowned as centers that document and analyze Appalachia. Elsewhere in Boone, there is infrastructure that centers on music, including: the Jones House, a community center that supports music lessons in traditional instruments and hosts concerts; Murphy’s Pub, which hosts an open, weekly jam circle for any interested old time musician; Legends, which hosts musical acts as well as cultural events such as poetry readings by the Affrilachian poets; The Mountain Times, and other regional publications that freely disseminate information about upcoming cultural events. Lastly, there is an office of the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices, which sponsors community events at the same time that it works to reduce the effects of corporate environmental exploitation.[2] The depth and reach of these institutions serves several purposes: they ensure that Appalachian music is contextualized within the larger framework of a past Appalachian culture, they provide democratic outlets for participatory music, and they provide spaces for native Appalachians to prosper in their community.

Before I explain how these institutions are successful in resisting total commodification of old time music and the significance of this, it is important to recognize that the music scene in Boone does not fully resist the commodification or decontextualization of old time music. In Boone, the music is commodified in several ways, such as the frequency of concerts that charge admission in order to accrue profit. Such emphasis on for-profit presentational concerts also de-democratizes the music, as not every community member will be able to pay. The popularity of concerts in Boone also reveals a tendency to present old time music as presentational and not participatory, which I have argued was a necessary step in its commodification. These infrastructures also decontextualize the music inasmuch as none of the events are literally taking place within the Appalachian experience that created the music. While many events try to convey the complexity of the culture that created the music, they often run into limitations such as viewing the era through a distant, historical lens or by simplifying it. Also, these infrastructures are often shaped by non-native Appalachians and Appalachians who grew up in ways that were not rooted in the Gemeinschaft community relations in which they learned Appalachian music orally and aurally in a classical ‘folk’ tradition. Therefore the presence of outsiders in these cultural infrastructures constantly runs the risk of misunderstanding Appalachian culture and potentially ventriloquizing it. Lastly, although these institutions actively attempt to include African American musicians and poets in their events, the past erasure of people of color from relevant scholarly and cultural work plagues these institutions today.[3]


The Boone Heritage Festival

Yet as described, the infrastructures in Boone have been designed such that they present a best-case scenario for the cultivation of old time music in the 21st century. Keeping in mind the limitations of the institutions discussed above, I will discuss two instances in which I think Boone infrastructures are moderately successful in dealing with the music authentically, in its pre-commodified, participatory context.

On October 11th, 2015, I attended the Boone Heritage Festival. Located on the grounds of a non-profit museum called the Hickory Ridge Living Museum, the festival was free and well attended. The festival offered presentational musical performances by native Appalachian musicians, native storytellers, historical demonstrations, local farm vendors, and regional crafts. At every step of the festival, there were native Appalachians present so as to contextualize the music within other facets of Appalachian culture.

I watched local musician Rick Ward perform. Ward plays a homemade banjo and humorously told my Appalachian Music class in 2015 that the banjo strap he uses is a bra strap given to him many decades ago by his high school girlfriend. Ward, a bona fide Appalachian who speaks with a thick dialect, plays banjo with an idiosyncratic style of picking that he learned from his father. His style emphasizes an outstretched index finger, unlike the popular styles of claw hammer or three-finger. In between songs, Ward told stories that emphasized his lived experiences and personal flair. In no sense is he a poseur; in no sense was his performance inauthentic. He was just a ‘hillbilly’ talking and musicking on stage at a heritage festival, which many of his musical friends also attended.

Appalachian storyteller Orville Hicks contributes to the authenticity of the festival. Photo by Lonnie Webster for the High Country Press

Appalachian storyteller Orville Hicks contributes to the authenticity of the festival. Photo by Lonnie Webster for the High Country Press

Later at the festival, I conversed with Orville Hicks, a famed Appalachian storyteller, as he sat at a booth where he sold a book he wrote. At another station, a native Appalachian showed me how to throw an axe at a mark, which continues to be a recreational activity for some mountain folk. Following that activity, I walked past a group that was making apple cider until I found the jam circle, which was popular throughout the duration of the festival.

Thus by providing a feasible space for musicians to play participatory old time music, and also by contextualizing it with other Appalachian traditions that emphasize Jones’s values of self-reliance and community, the Boone Heritage Festival’s implicit claim that it would celebrate Boone’s heritage was validated. As discussed, most ‘folk festivals’ are merely sites of decontextualized, reconstructed, and commodified Appalachian music. This festival was qualitatively different from most other heritage or folk festivals.

Musicians play together in a jam circle at the festival. Photo by Lonnie Webster for the High Country Press

Musicians play together in a jam circle at the festival. Photo by Lonnie Webster for the High Country Press


The Jones House

The Jones House is a thriving cultural and community center located in downtown Boone that provides music lessons for several Appalachian instruments, hosts concerts (both free and for-profit), displays local artwork, and provides an open, weekly jam band session on Thursday evenings. It is a non-profit cultural center that is funded by the City of Boone, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Lessons at the Jones House present the opportunity for locals to learn the fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, the dulcimer, and flatfoot dancing, usually under the instruction of an Appalachian native, which I define above as an Appalachian who grew up in a Gemeinschaft community in which they learned Appalachian music orally and aurally in a classical ‘folk’ tradition. [4]  Lessons are taught in group settings and cost $125 for fifteen meetings (less for children). Instruments are available for rent at an affordable price. Students of music lessons are not exclusively elementary school-aged musicians whose parents have pushed them into learning an instrument, as is the case with many middle class families that are motived by classed distinctions of hobbies. Though there were certainly several students that fall into this category—and I say this not to diminish the value they get from the lessons, but merely to point out that several of these students may be pulled into the Jones House community in the same way that students in the Jalopy Theatre are pulled into it—the ages of music students at the Jones House are mixed.

In my beginner banjo class, there were several adults that wanted to learn the banjo for personal edification. Therefore my banjo class presented the opportunity to learn banjo amongst adults, students, and children alike, under the direction of Deborah Jean (DJ), a native Appalachian. While DJ did distribute a sheet of banjo tabs and lyrics for the song “Come Fly Me,” we mostly learned the music aurally and orally. In a 21st century twist on the limitations of aural transmission of music, several students took videos of DJ playing on their cell phones so they could later practice the music by modeling her playing.

In Boone, thanks in part to structures such as the Jones House and the Boone Heritage Festival, old time music is often commodified and decontextualized to some degree, but it is usually treated in such a way that encourages participatory music, the inclusion of native Appalachian musicians, and it is located within the context of Appalachian values and history. Several veritable ‘mountain folk’ spoil Boone’s cultural infrastructures with their constant presence. At many of the cultural events in Boone, many of the same faces are present; I felt such a sense of community that my understanding of Boone’s music community verged on the Gemeinschaft. There are few signs that these structures and the participants appropriate Appalachian culture, as we will see in Brooklyn. The interest in Appalachian culture is seemingly not motivated by the desire to accrue social capital, but out of a genuine desire to understand the culture of the place and the desire to learn how to play music participatorily. Because the Boone music community includes many different types of residents in the Boone community, I conclude that the community is mostly accessible to all local residents,  thereby respecting the history (and definition) of folk music.



“Despite his careful notation of their songs, [Cecil Sharp] found it impossible to catch the slides, slurs, and tangy gutturals of their free expression” (Langrall 1986: 38).

Unlike the music scene in Boone, when one explores the old time music scene in Brooklyn, New York, one does not often encounter the word ‘Appalachia’ used as an influence or characterization of the music. The old time cultural infrastructures in Brooklyn are more likely to describe their music as ‘rural,’ ‘working class,’ or perhaps ‘roots music.’ As described in Chapter Three, the term ‘folk’ is ubiquitously thrown around in the general American musical landscape, and ‘folk’ as a musical genre has become such a fuzzy, elastic concept that it encompasses not only Mumford and Sons, but acoustic-indie groups such as Bon Iver and suburban Seattle group Fleet Foxes. The Brooklyn old time scene is located in the neighborhoods of Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, and Brooklyn Heights, which have indeed gentrified, but are not as homogeneously middle-class white as the local folk music scene would suggest. The musical infrastructures in Brooklyn pay aesthetic homage to Appalachia, and occasionally provide ways to learn about the history of old time music, if not the larger history of Appalachia. Yet as described, though this may attempt to contextualize the music, it also adds a pedantic, academic element to old time music. This section will focus on a prominent cult of personality that shapes the Brooklyn music scene as well as two important institutions that dominate the old time music scene in Brooklyn: the Jalopy Theatre and the Brooklyn Folk Festival.


The Jalopy Theatre

The Jalopy, which is a joint tavern-theatre venture, opened in 2004 as “Moonshine Bar” (Jalopy Tavern; online). Although the production of moonshine factually occurred throughout southern Appalachia, it has been exaggerated, romanticized in film, and has even been commodified: at most liquor stores, one can find ‘moonshine’ sold in mason jars that try to pass of as authentically brewed, regardless of its legal, uniform production. In 2012, the Jalopy attained its present name. A “Jalopy” is an old, decrepit car. While it appears that this name was inspired by a co-founder’s interest in restoring classic American cars (Beck 2012: online), it also alludes to the Jalopy’s fascination with interior decorations that resemble all things old, used, antique. The name choices of the theatre underscore the way that the Jalopy community views Appalachia.

The Village Voice writes of the Jalopy, “Grab a mason jar full of beer and sit back in one of the old church pews and fall into a different age—your mutton chops that look out of place in Williamsburg seem to make sense down here” (Eisinger n.d: online). This critic sounds eerily similar to a viewer of Tol’Able David, whom I cited in Chapter Three as describing that the film left him with “nostalgia for a place I had never been, a time I never knew” (Coppedge 1982: 42). The décor of the Jalopy is intended to transport the city-weary Brooklynite to a simpler era. If a patron were to look up from one of the wooden church pews, which is the seating in the theatre, they might see a washtub bass hanging from the ceiling, which as I have alluded was used by many Appalachian musicians, such as the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, in an authentic context. Here, in the Jalopy, which is situated in a comfortable neighborhood of a global city, there is little to no context for this washtub bass. Although the Jalopy is a for-profit enterprise that does not make much money, its décor reminds me of a Cracker Barrel or a Hard Rock Café; the Jalopy’s Appalachian chic décor serves to allude to a culture in the pursuit of profit. The past and present names and décor of the Jalopy therefore belie a sense of ‘folksy rebelliousness.’ To what extent can this exist within a modern, affluent, Gesellschaft context?

The Jalopy has received positive reviews by respected gatekeepers of taste such as the New York Times, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker. In December 2015, New York Magazine published in its annual gift issue and included as one of its suggestions fiddle lessons at the Jalopy for the “young American roots listener.”

New York Magazine: November 2015 issue.

New York Magazine: November 2015 issue.

Compared to the Jones House, lessons here are much more expensive: $585 for twelve weeks of group lessons, according to the posting. This posting is striking in many ways. Its presence in this place and time has been made possible by more than a century of fetishization of Appalachian culture and music. Not using the word ‘Appalachian’ in the advertisement, nor hinting at the mountain’s history, the posting here presents fiddle lessons as a gift suggestion next to a nearly $1000 polka dot dress and a “snazzy velvet tux.” This suggests that fiddle lessons are an acceptable high-class gift idea. Next, the image itself is startling: it uses the image of a young white male, dressed as a well-heeled lad of a past aristocracy. Comically, he is poised to play classical violin although the posting is for fiddle lessons that are associated with moonshine, hillbillyism, and powhitetrash. This posting serves to entice middle class families to send their children to learn ‘roots’ music at the Jalopy, perhaps as an adorable alternative to classical violin lessons. The message that these lessons are for ‘young roots’ fans—as opposed to fans of other ages—further reveals the classed meanings of fiddle lessons and by extension folk music in New York.

However, an observation of one such fiddle class reveals that the bourgeois hype about the Jalopy is somewhat forced upon it by non-members. In October 2015, I sat in on a fiddle class, which consisted of a 30-something year old instructor who sat in a circle with six children. The rapport between the teacher and students was warm, even playful, but it did not closely resemble the lessons in the Jones House I had witnessed. This was because, as I later learned, the teacher is a classically trained violinist who ‘learned’ how to fiddle a mere week before he began to teach classes at the Jalopy. His professional training and his lack of knowledge of authentic old time fiddling affected nearly every aspect of his lesson. While there was evidence that he sometimes taught tunes with the aid of aural methods—singing the tune together, and the like—the first step in learning the tunes was to read sheet music, as per his classical training. At one point, the teacher noted, “this tune is in A-minor.” Applying harmony and musical theory to old time music is a modern, professionalized idea. Thus I have pointed out the myriad ways that this lesson illustrates how far removed old time fiddling is at the Jalopy from its original context and even from the Jones House. As the New York Magazine posting suggests, lessons at the Jalopy have been shaped by middle class tastes and understandings ‘folk music’ and culture. This fiddle lesson session bespeaks the unresolved tension at the Jalopy between sophisticated professionalism, attempted authenticity, and even class insecurity.

Yet, at the same time, I caught glimpses of what I believe to be true Appalachian old time characteristics in the very same lesson. Much different from my own experiences of twelve years of classical violin lessons, the group element of the lessons was meaningful enough to steer the tone of the lessons away from the Suzuki method. Although surely not all native Appalachian musicians learned to play in group settings, the group dynamic more closely resembled the Appalachian value of community and togetherness, even invoking a community bean stringing; the young fiddlers had a common goal and listened to each other to arrive there. Also, despite the overt fetishization of old time music and the obscurity of the term ‘Appalachia,’ the Jalopy exists to create community in such an inherent way that it is difficult to argue its discordance with Appalachian values. The Jalopy is one of the sponsors of the Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is a platform that further reveals the extent to which old time music is commodified in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Folk Festival and Eli Smith

On April 9th, 2016, I attended the 8th annual Brooklyn Folk Festival, where I volunteered backstage and thus had the chance to interact with the musicians. By observing the festival during the afternoon and evening, I made many observations about the folk music community. The festival made many attempts—and both succeeded and failed in many ways—at presenting an authentic platform for genuine folk musicians to share their music. However, as we would expect, the furthest extent to which the festival was successful in presenting authentic musical formations was limited in that it went only as deep as revivalism, which as I have argued is inherently appropriative, pedantic, and leads to further bourgeois interest in folk music. Indeed, I attended a screening of a film written and produced in 1983 by John Cohen, a member of revivalist group the New Lost City Ramblers. In another example of folk revivalism at the festival, I sat in on an old time jam session. Compared to Boone, where old time jam circles are participatory and democratic in that everyone takes turns soloing on a theme, the festival jam circle was hierarchical. It was led by a fiddler who academically explained the origin of the base tune to the other musicians before they began to play it. For me, his explanations of fiddle tunes from Mississippi exaggerated the fact that we were in a world city, completely removed in time and space from the origins of the music.

During the afternoon session, for which tickets cost $25, the attendees were mostly 30-year-old parents with their babies and toddlers, many of whom wore fashionable, quirky glasses that have become a popular aesthetic in college-educated crowds. Despite the strong presence of diversity in the neighborhood outside the festival grounds, as stated, the clientele at this hour seemed to be mostly white and middle-class, if my judgments about their comportment, aesthetics, and conversations are correct. During the evening portion of the concert, the clientele became mostly twenty-somethings whose aesthetic I will describe as Appalachian-hipster: beards, flannel, suspenders, and distressed leather boots abounded. Sitting politely in the church pews of St. Anne’s Church, the concertgoers watched acts perform that had names such as: Spirit Family Reunion, the Hickhoppers, and Jarron “Blindboy” Paxton. These names somewhat cheaply appropriate Appalachian culture. The Spirit Family Reunion, a group of Brooklyn-based college graduates, is not a family group, yet their band name taps into the prevalent Appalachian music occurrence of family groups as sites of musical production (see Chapter Two). Jarron “Blindboy” Paxton, who attended Marist College for a few semesters, grew up in California. Yet he sings with a thick southern accent, as do so many of these acts, which is an obvious appropriation of Appalachian musical culture.

The most authentic facet of the festival was the backstage camaraderie and unmistakable sense of community. The Jalopy co-sponsors this festival, so the community at the festival is an extension of the Jalopy community. Because many of these musicians were drawn to folk music because of the powerful sense of nostalgia it gives them, to a time before the mechanical sound of synthesizers, during a romanticized era in which community members took care of each other and did not live in alienated urban areas, the musical community is highly populated with curious, caring individuals that value a sense of community. Their attempt to play music with ‘that high lonesome sound’ is a way to perhaps regain a sense of humanity that is lost in cities and in pop music. Jarron Paxton told me that most of these talented musicians do not play folk music for the money; when they want to make money, they perform as ‘Americana’ musicians, which is a musical buzz word that is apparently more ‘exotic’ and commercially lucrative that is ‘folk’ music. At St. Anne’s Church, even if the musicians appropriated Appalachian dress and garb, it seemed to be partially because they are in search of the other (imagined, romanticized) facets of Appalachian culture that they feel is lacking from their current possibilities. However, I theorize that their other motivations to participate in the urban folk scene are more shallow: they desire appreciation and a renown for ‘coolness,’ which they can achieve by shallowly nodding to Appalachian aesthetics and all of the romantic characteristics that accompany them.

The Brooklyn Folk Festival is organized by Eli Smith, an Oberlin-educated millennial banjo teacher at the Jalopy and radio host of the “Down Home Radio Show.”[5] On his website, he describes his show as being “a hardcore, unreconstructed, paleo-acoustic folk music program.” Rendered in such esoteric terms, how comfortable would an Appalachian native feel appearing on this show? A neo-revivalist to the core, Smith is somewhat a historian of folk music. He has formulated ideas about the purpose of old time music, ascribing it similar political meanings that hybridize the original, pre-capitalist context of the music and the politicized meanings of the 1960s musical leftists. He sees the goal of his local movement as honoring the working class heroes, and he speaks lucidly about the commodification of Appalachian music:

By promoting and perpetuating the music of America’s rural working class, black and white, you bring honor to them, to the memory of all the people who actually built the country…Because the capitalists and the vampires and all the bloodsuckers, what did they ever do? Forget them. Let’s talk about the everyday people who did the grunt work and created their own culture before it was destroyed by the forces of mass media and so-called progress. (Interview with Brooklyn Magazine, 2015)

Smith is also in a band called the Down Hill Strugglers, which is also a spin on the names of early commercial Appalachian string bands. A still from one of their music videos reveals that they have an appreciation of an Appalachian aesthetic, admiring it so much that their music video takes place not in their urban jungle, but in an unnamed outdoor field—and leather boots abound.

Smith seems so fond of Appalachian culture and music that he has chosen to study them and then attempt to ventriloquize them onstage, singing in their accents and donning their alleged beards and clothing. They play songs such as “If I Die A Railroad Man” and “Four Cent Cotton,” which clearly pull from lived experiences of past eras in different regions that are not their own.

These Brooklyn folk infrastructures all represent the neo folk revival’s attempts to authentically render Appalachian songs. The limits to this approach are myriad, and even a true sense of authenticity cannot be achieved because of the urban location of the musical infrastructure and historical divorce from the culture that created the music. The musicians are drawn to old time music because it represents an authenticity and a sense of community that they may find lacking in other musical genres. Unconsciously, some of them they may be tapping into the most romanticized notions of Appalachia, imagining it as a pre-modern land of moonshine, lawlessness, and family gatherings on the porch or around a campfire. Likely, few would admit that they are also drawn to the urban folk music scene because, thanks to the revivalists of the 1960s, it is has become an endeavor that combines highbrow culture and hipster culture. They elevate Appalachian culture, but they choose to live in a global city with first-rate amenities, rather than living down in Boone, where the culture is less about hipness and there is not a glamorous urban landscape to escape to when your boots are scuffed.

However, in the addition to the sense of community that I have described, the Brooklyn folk music scene also encourages a sense of musical play that is commonly absent in classical instrument lessons. From the content of the fiddle lessons, and also by providing musicians a steady space to grow in a musical community, the Jalopy seems to encourage a sense of musical exploration as a form of ‘play,’ which is empowering and oppositional to the deadening logic of neoliberalism. Together, these elements have the power to resist the atomizing and commodifiying powers of capitalism, which is very ‘pre-capitalist Appalachian’ of them.

At the end of the day, perhaps Smith and other locals could give the most respect to the ghosts of Appalachian musicians past by developing their own folk music that is rooted in their own lived experiences. According to Mark Wilson “The folks deserve to have their music heard in its proper contours, not filtered through several layers of interpretive remove” (Scully 2008: 117). Perhaps the history of hip-hop music could inspire them. Hip-hop music originated as a folk music that grew directly out of the lived experiences of black urbanites, and it proved to be a site of resistance, empowerment, and community building prior to its commodification.



[1] The Old-Time Herald, a magazine dedicated to old time music, reveals communities all across the U.S. They list weekly old time jam sessions in regions outside of Appalachia including cities in Pennsylvania, New York (Kingston), Oregon, San Francisco, Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Arizona, Texas, and Alaska. N.a/N.D. Retrieved Apr 15, 2016 (

[2] In addition to these infrastructures, there are many businesses that are named after geographic and cultural specificities of the region: Appalachian Cookie Company, the Highland Apartments, and Mountaineer Heating and Cooling, to name a few examples. In Boone, there is much evidence that there is the spirit of pride of place, which has been described as an Appalachian value by Jones.

[3] However, the town of Boone includes a black community named Junaluska, which occasionally sponsors its own cultural events that are intended primarily for the Junaluska community.

[4] In the spring of 2015, I enrolled in beginner banjo lessons and rented a banjo. I draw much of this ethnographic data from this experience.

[5] His approach to urban folk music is very similar to another millennial folk musician, Jeremy Aaron, who is also a lifelong New Yorker save for his college years at Oberlin. Jeremy also organizes local folk showcases and has a blog about the origins of old time music.


Next: Chapter Five
Conclusion, Afterword, References


Previously: Chapter One
Introduction to Appalachia

Chapter Two
Old Time Music: Its Original Context Within Appalachia and Its Participatory Nature

Chapter Three
When Old Time Music Left the Mountains: The ‘Discovery’ of Hillbilly Music