In January, 2016, as I was researching and writing this thesis, I purchased a new banjo from the online emporium Amazon. As I opened the cardboard box it came in, I uncovered a beautiful, rustic instrument that was embossed with a small “Made in China” sticker. With glossy tuning knobs and silver strings, it was clearly a new instrument. Yet its synthetic neck was dyed to look wooden and its canvas head came with black scuffmarks, as if it had been knocked many times during the banjoist’s craft. Made to look like it had perhaps been built in the rural Appalachian backwoods, my banjo was the instrument version of Mumford and Sons: presentable, evocative of the imagined American yesteryear as presented in Tol’Able David, and entirely funded by corporate capitalism. Clearly, the designers of this banjo were attempting to profit off of the cultural baggage that comes with the banjo in much the same way as commercial producers of regulated moonshine. My banjo is designed to invoke centuries of musical tradition in the Appalachians as well as the stereotype of the hillbilly, even though it was manufactured in the very industrial corporate capitalist formation that was unfamiliar and in some ways antithetical to the conditions that produced the music. Clearly, my banjo, a fetishized commodity of Appalachian music and culture, is the product of more than a century of commodification of the music.

Fitting with the history of the folk music revivals and the resounding success of the Kingston Trio, the first song I learned on the banjo was the simple tune “Tom Dooley.” I learned the song by reading sheet music on the website This method of interacting with Appalachian music must be the final frontier in the decontextualization and commodification of old time music. Far different from the oral and aural learning that took place in the mountains, I learned an old Appalachian song as I sat alone in my room at a university in the northern United States, and I strummed a Chinese-manufactured banjo as I read the sheet music on a computer screen. Furthermore, I was able to read the music due to more than a decade of my professionalized knowledge of classical violin. I do not feel personally ashamed of my actions; I merely recognize the irony of becoming a musician of traditional Appalachian old time music vis-à-vis the most isolated, modern, and therefore least Appalachian methods possible.

Of course, it took centuries for people like me (urban, college-educated northerners) to be able to interact with this specific Appalachian cultural production in such a removed way. As Appalachian music left the mountains, various groups have repurposed it. From academic and commercial interests that were explicitly motivated by white purist values, to leftists trying to incite a socialist revolution, the decontextualization of Appalachian music has allowed it to be used for political messages across the spectrum. That old time music has been embraced by such a variety of interests is a reminder that all music—and all cultural productions more generally—are malleable enough to be used anywhere on the non-linear spectrum of hegemonic control. Old time music has been used to render the hillbilly less dangerous, to accrue profit, to advance white racial supremacy, and to entertain a community during a bean stringing. It has held an array of meanings for millions of people, often attaching itself to racist, nationalist, and commercial ideologies.

At the same time that negative Appalachian stereotypes abound in popular culture, old time music has gained exposure in middle-class urban circles. Neo folk revivalists, such as Eli Smith and others in the Brooklyn nouveau folk scene, romanticize Appalachian culture to the extent that they attempt to ventriloquize old time musicians. This scene has attracted many New Yorkers looking for an alternative to pop and other forms of music, and together they create a vibrant folk community in Brooklyn. However, they approach the folk music from a bourgeois perspective that values learning folk music in similar ways that they regard learning classical instruments: fiddling may be the new classical violin for these presumably middle-class, college-educated, left-leaning families.

What does the future hold for old time music? As Boone becomes ever more connected to the modern, Gesellschaft world, how will this shape its music and cultural traditions? Because much of the strength of the Boone music community comes from the presence of native Appalachian musicians, what will happen decades from now when true mountain men like Rick Ward become extinct, when there are no original, veritable bearers of Appalachian music who learned it first-hand? Will we witness the Brooklyn-ization of Boone? In Brooklyn, it seems unlikely that these talented musicians will ever be able to resolve the tension between their urban, modern context and the music they appropriate.

Yet now, more than ever, in the age of the commodification of everything sacred and joyous, the importance of democratic, participatory, and de-professionalized music and cultural formations is more important than ever. How bright a future it is to imagine children who grow up unafraid of their singing voices, who revel in making vocal melodies and harmonizing with loved ones, not for the sake of accruing cultural capital. Clearly, playful, collaborative musicking can contribute greatly to a contagious joie de vivre in this age of the electronic screen glut. Certainly, the Jalopy offers these opportunities to some extent, and Boone seems to offer them even more extensively. To varying extents, these music scenes offer a place for democratic, participatory music formations to exist alongside the professional, presentational music and cultural formations. In this era of the ever-expanding capitalist-cosmopolitan formation that is advanced by the onslaught of the importance of technological advances and social media in our lives, what is the role of music in our everyday lives? Stokes (1994) laments:

Ritual forms of music have become peripheralised, and the rest, social dances, bar sessions, concert attendance, listening to a new CD at home in the evening or the radio during the day fit into gaps created by work, or at least, the working day. Music often seems to do little more than fill a silence left by something else. (pp. 2-3)

Certainly, modern folk communities attempt to consciously counteract the decreasing importance of playful music in our lives. Yet they are limited by their inability to detach their communities from the profit motive, professionalism, and middle-class tastes. I call for the continuation of folk music to sprout out of lived experiences, rather than musical appropriation.

In this era of late capitalism, to quote phrases used often in the anti-capitalist Adbusters magazine, perhaps we can begin to “live without dead time” by “playing more jazz.” Except instead of jazz per se, we can begin by playing and developing more regionally based music that describes our lived experiences both in musical form and content, like the Appalachians have done.



I have spent some eighteen months familiarizing myself with the concepts of Appalachia and old time music, and I have not yet reached a still point with my research. I constantly encounter—to put it bluntly—tremendously weird representations of old time music in the 21st century that seem to extend and even surpass the questions I explore in this thesis.

One week before the due date of this thesis, I browsed Netflix and discovered a 2013 film named The History of Future Folk. The plot? An alien from planet Hondo is sent to Earth to destroy it. Just as he is about to release a virus that is certain to annihilate Earth’s human population, he hears music—which has not been invented on his planet—for the first time. Abandoning his mission, he decides to make a life for himself on Earth, complete with marrying an earthling, raising a daughter, and getting a day job. His side gig? He is a performing musician. In Brooklyn. Who plays the banjo and sings with an exaggerated southern accent.

The History of Future Folk shown at an outdoor park.

The History of Future Folk shown at an outdoor park.

I encourage future scholars of folk music and Appalachia alike to grapple with this film, which presents the world from a satirical (or genuine, how can we truly discern?) post-modern, post-old time, post-Appalachian lens.


I would like to thank Professor Moon and Professor Nevarez for their sharp, thoughtful feedback throughout this research and writing process. Also, thanks to many individuals for helpful, encouraging conversations that ultimately shaped this thesis: Trevor McKenzie, historian and friend Kevin Oshnock, Jeremy Aaron, and peer editors. This thesis would not have been possible without Appalachian State Professor Dave Wood and his wonderful Appalachian Music class, which led to an entire semester of exploring possible thesis ideas. Lastly, thanks to the Jalopy Theatre and the Jones House for friendly access to their music communities.

This thesis is dedicated to Mary Simcoe (1918-2012), the first Appalachian I knew.



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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

Chapter Four
Contemporary Old Time Music Scenes in Boone and Brooklyn