Book Report: Hands in Harmony

Local photographer Tim Barnwell recently released Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia (W.W. Norton, 2009). The collection of images and oral histories spans 30 years and offers a broad if not fully comprehensive look at the sonic and visual arts of the region and many of the masters of those genres.

Aside from the written introduction, Barnwell’s tome divides the photography and text into the front and back halves of the book. It’s an interesting choice —- logic suggests that each carefully-composed black and white portrait would be followed by the edited interviews Barnwell completed with his subjects. Instead, the all-photos-no-text (except for captions) approach turns the book into a kind of Appalachian photo album.

Taken as a whole, the collection begins to reveal something interesting: The likeness between musicians and craftspeople, each holding his or her instruments/tools/products lovingly for the camera. Though most of the photos are posed shots, they share a sense of motion, of life being embraced even as most of the subjects appear advanced in years. A photo of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers from 2003 shows the band in action at the corner of a log cabin. The facing page features Cherokee artist Going Back Chiltosky, his hands resting on the wings of the wood carving of a bird. He seems to be holding the bird, poised for flight, in place.

This is the magic of Barnwell’s images: Even in the most posed and still of frames, there’s a sense of the personality of the artist. Wood carver Wade Martin sits, hands hidden from view in his lap, at a table which holds a fiddle and a carving of a man playing a fiddle. Everything is all squared edges and tidiness, except that to the right of the wood carving is a smaller statuette of a hula dancer. Notice the hula dancer, then glance again at Martin’s carefully-composed expression and suddenly the somber artist seems to be barely containing a giggle.

The oral histories also offer some gems: There’s a spooky story from Ralph Stanley II (son of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley) who tells about taking his then-future wife to the tomb of Stanley’s uncle Carter. Barnwell includes an interview with ballad singer Dellie Norton, completed before her death in 1993. Norton, born in 1898, sang Scottish ballads passed down through generations of her family members. The author also managed to interview blues guitarist Etta Baker before her 2006 passing. “I dream a lot of my chords, put ‘em together. I dreamed the chords of ‘Knoxville Rag,’” she told Barnwell.

Tim Barnwell appears at the following book events:
• A signing at Captains Bookshelf (31 Page Ave., Asheville, 253-6631) on Friday, Oct. 30, 5:30-7 p.m.
• Book signing and lunch talk at A-B Tech library (340 Victoria Rd., Asheville, 254-1921) on Thursday, Nov. 5, 12:30 p.m.
• A signing at the Asheville Art Museum (2 S. Pack Square., Asheville, 253-3227) on Friday, Nov. 20, 2-4 p.m.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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