Southern Appalachia has been a driving force behind many of the greatest advances in American culture, music and politics. That’s author Jeff Biggers‘ story, and as unlikely as it may seem, he’s sticking to it.
In his new book, The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006), Biggers sets out to prove that the vast mountain system, and Southern Appalachia in particular, has “been a stage for some of the most quintessential and daring American experiences of innovation, rebellion, and social change.”
Biggers, the 42-year-old grandson of an Illinois coal miner, has been a writer and reporter for assorted publications and broadcast media, including National Public Radio and Public Radio International. His work has taken him to far-flung locales across the United States and countries from Mexico to India. And he’s well aware that his thesis will butt heads with the enduring stereotype of Southern Appalachian natives as, to put it bluntly, a bunch of dumb, white hillbillies.
As Biggers notes in the book’s preface, during the very years when he was researching and writing it, “CBS talent scouts combed the Southern mountains for corncob-piped rubes to participate in a proposed reality-TV show based on The Beverly Hillbillies; Abercrombie & Fitch dressed their manikins with a “West Virginia, It’s All Relative” T-shirt; and a horror film, Wrong Turn, featured a promo about ‘six young people who find themselves being hunted by inbred cannibals in the woods of West Virginia.'”
But a deeper look into the region’s history and the influential figures and ideas that have emerged from Appalachia counters such Deliverance-style caricatures, Biggers contends. For example, while the region has long been known for its Anglo-Saxon “mountain music,” the Southern mountains have in fact been home to a mosaic of styles that found their voice in the work of such varied Appalachian natives as crooner Perry Como, “High Priestess of Soul” Nina Simone, and blues pioneers Bessie Smith and W.C. Handy. Meanwhile, native writers such as Willa Cather, Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe and James Still (acclaimed as the dean of Appalachian literature) have left an undeniable literary legacy.
In similar fashion, Biggers describes how famed Cherokee linguist Sequoyah painstakingly constructed a syllabary that soon produced widespread literacy, sparking a renaissance among a beleaguered native people, and how Chattanooga native Adolph Ochs helped make The New York Times one of the most influential newspapers in the world.
Biggers also devotes several chapters to Southern Appalachian rabble-rousers who were in the vanguard of struggles for democracy and civil rights. Early mountain patriots defied the British Empire in 1772, forming a self-governing “District of Washington” in what is now eastern Tennessee. Elihu Embree, a Quaker industrialist from Tennessee, founded the country’s first dedicated antislavery newspaper, the Emancipator, in 1820. Union organizers fought for the rights of white and black miners and mill workers alike. And the self-proclaimed “radical hillbillies” of the Highlander Folk School in east Tennessee, notes Biggers, operated a “secret training center for the civil rights movement” during the high-stakes years of that struggle, teaching civil disobedience to the likes of Rosa Parks.
These and other stories put an unconventional spin on Appalachia’s role in the country’s development. “A lot of people sort of chuckle at the word ‘enlightenment,’ as though I’m being facetious,” Biggers said during a recent interview from his home in Illinois, where he was taking a break from a book tour that will soon bring him to Asheville. “And I’m like, ‘No way – I’m being serious.'” Then the conversation turned to why and how it was that he got serious about trumpeting the upside of Appalachia, and to the peaks and valleys he crossed along the way.
Mountain Xpress: What first sparked your interest in doing a book about Appalachia? Was it any one thing in particular?
Jeff Biggers: That dates back to my literal ‘road to Damascus': Just a few miles up the road from Damascus, Va., I was working on farms and hiking in the backwoods and trying to get myself together. I was 19, had dropped out of college and gone through some disturbing things. I got picked up hitchhiking by a man, and I immediately cracked a joke about the dangers of hitchhiking the world of Deliverance and hillbillies, and he stopped the car and told me to get out. Then we kept talking, and he said, “If you really want to know about mountaineers, come with me.” And he took me to the Appalachian South Folklife Center in West Virginia. So the book has been germinating for 23 years. I never left Appalachia; it pretty much went with me as I continued to work around the world.
MX: There’s already a vast literature out there on Appalachian studies – why did you think this book needed to be added to it?
JB: There is an incredible treasury of Appalachian-studies work. I’m part of the Appalachian Studies Association, have been for years, and I really admire the people who have been at this grindstone for decades. … I think my role is not as an academic or even as a historian, but as a journalist and popular writer who looked at this treasury and tried to cull it for a lot of the great stories and histories, and perhaps turn over a few rocks which we really haven’t turned over yet, for a national as well as a regional readership.
MX: Why did you decide to focus on Southern Appalachia, as opposed to the entire mountain system, which stretches from Mississippi to Quebec?
JB: Because I feel like it’s the Southern Appalachians who have been demonized, who have been stereotyped the worst. You do have really rich mountain cultures up in New York, and as you go up to New England and Maine as well, who have similar experiences to the folks in the Ozarks, the people of my country in southern Illinois. But it’s the Southern Appalachian who has really carried the burden of the hillbilly stereotype. So I felt that there, specifically, were these incredible stories that so few people knew and that really needed to get out – to finally say, once and for all, “Let’s put aside these ridiculous and wretched stereotypes that just don’t seem to want to go away, and let’s tell the amazing story of how Southern Appalachians have shaped America.”
MX: I may be biased on this matter, but I think that some of the most compelling case studies in your book are situated in Western North Carolina. What did you learn about our neck of the woods that really surprised you? Were there any stories or individuals you came across from WNC history that you simply were not expecting?
JB: Yeah – the role of Lesley Riddle, the black guitar player. He was from Burnsville, and he had an incredibly important role in the Carter Family. For the almost 10 years he traveled with A.P. Carter, they would collect ballads from folks in the small towns and the backwoods. Here was this amazing black guitarist who had a gift for transcribing songs – to hear a song and write it down. His role was absolutely vital to the history of country music.
At the same time, I think that for me, the greatest story is the role of Nina Simone, who came from Tryon. I feel like a large part of my book is to help resurrect her legacy in American music. There are very few other divas who so far transcend being pigeonholed as a jazz singer, soul singer or pop singer. Here was this woman who, in this tiny community, was a child prodigy taught by an English patrician woman who was married to a Russian artist. Then suddenly, in the 1940s, blacks and whites come together in the town to raise money to send her away. She goes first to Asheville, then to New York City. If anything has shattered the backwoods stereotype of people who lack letters and lack culture, Nina Simone’s story does it.
MX: Regarding Nina Simone – some readers might find her story an odd or least unexpected addition to the book. What’s your case that her music springs from Appalachian influences?
JB: She often talked about this incredible mix of heritages she had – from Cherokee, Scottish-Irish and African parts of her experience – which, for me, symbolizes the great Western North Carolina experience. You had all these streams of people who came in, and then this great amalgam of culture emerged that was very important for our country. … To me, she’s definitive of the region, in that she shows that it’s a crossroads. She didn’t just sing jazz – she played Bach motifs, and she could cross over to gospel, country, folk and pop – and to me, that is Appalachia. Far from being sort of sequestered for 200 years in the backwoods where nothing changed, it was completely the contrary: It was a great crossroads of the music of America.
MX: Another question about Simone: I wonder if she considered this region an enlightened one. She seemed to have lived out her life with a dim view of the United States in general, because of racism and other concerns, and she didn’t seem shy about saying how backward and unjust she thought the South, in particular, was. So how did you approach the issue of key figures in this history who might not have been so fond of Appalachia themselves?
JB: I would say Thomas Wolfe is in that same category, because so much of their inspiration came from the grief, suffering and difficult experiences of their youth. Thomas Wolfe showed that in his novels. And Nina Simone, when she talks about what it was to be “young, gifted and black,” she talks about being haunted by this issue. … In fact, it was this kind of tension and these problems that artists and innovators struggled with and [that] caused them to go on and do something to confront it. I think a lot of Simone’s work, particularly with the civil-rights movement and her ballads that dealt with black identity, came from her personal struggle in the region.
MX: That begs another question. Simone and several other exemplars in your book essentially became Appalachian expatriates – that is, they may have been born and raised in the area, but they did their most influential work after they left it. Are stories like theirs, then, a hard fit in a book about important things people have done in Appalachia?
JB: So much of what I was trying to show was people who have been shaped by their experience in Appalachia, even if they did run off to Detroit, like [novelist] Harriette Arnow, or to the West, like [novelist] Cormac McCarthy and [environmental activist/author] Edward Abbey, or to New York City, like Wolfe and Simone. What they did was take this incredible Appalachian heritage and history – this rich and contradictory history – with them, and that’s what really shaped how they viewed their role. You know, we often talk about the Americanization of certain regions, because of McDonald’s and consumer culture, and how things are becoming a monoculture. I like to turn this on its head and talk about how Appalachia has Appalachianized a lot of America.
MX: While plenty of people in our area will take some delight in the fact that there’s a new book focused on what’s good about Southern Appalachia, did you worry about going overboard in that regard? Did you feel that the book could become too boosterish and put too much of a gloss on the region?
JB: I tried hard not to romanticize the region, because I feel like we don’t need that either. We do need to get beyond the cliché of the freedom-loving mountaineer, and we have to come to grips with both sides of a lot of our history. To me, that’s the fascinating part, the sort of contrary road – I mean, you had an amazing abolitionist movement here because slavery was deeply entrenched, so there’s both sides of the coin. I felt that to be taken seriously, I had to show both sides. …
I really wanted to show that this wellspring of innovation often came from the quagmire of injustice. And that, to me, is the beauty of America – that instead of being stuck in a rut, we’ve had these great innovators who have really rocked the boat and gone on to move the country to another level of culture and enlightenment.
Meet the author: Jeff Biggers will read from The United States of Appalachia at two local bookstores. The first reading begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24, at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 55 Haywood St. in Asheville (254-6734). The second starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at City Lights Bookstore, 3 East Jackson St. in Sylva (586-9499).