Southern Appalachians: Mountain crafts

Part 6: In which a sour old man says some difficult things about some very nice people

Alan Hollar

Alan Hollar

Alan Hollar is a wood carver from Crossnore. He stands about 6-foot-seven and wears a ball cap and big frame glasses. He is giving demonstrations on cutting lathe-turned wood bowls at the craft center at the Moses Cone mansion along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The craft center is a kind of fantasy world, filled with quilts, stained glass, preciously carved wood and beautifully glazed pottery. As soon as you enter, you are hit with the odor of sachet and the sound of Irish flute and dulcimer music.

None of this has anything to do with the Appalachian Mountains, except as it is marketed to wealthy yuppies looking for faux-authentic mountain crafts.

“It’s true, I suppose,” says Hollar. “It used to be that mountain crafts were things that people couldn’t buy and so made for themselves. Now, they can buy pretty much anything they need at the Wal Mart. Crafts have become things that cannot be made by machine.”

Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway

Folk Art Center, Blue Ridge Parkway

The problem is one of integrating a past of poverty and make-do with a present of money and art galleries. Hollar is certainly correct when he says, “A culture cain’t stand still.”

Appalachian mountain crafts has suffered from the same forces that stultify Native American arts. both cultures have not stood still and are part of the same 21st century that we all live and breathe, but the market has identified their niches, and forced a “brand” or identity on them that is inauthentic.

In terms of Native American art, there are many fully-integrated artists working, as Native Americans, without having to resort to Indian stereotypes — artists such as Rik Danay, Bob Haozous and Kay Walkingstick — but too often the art-buying public wants instead pots and blankets. It is why artist Fritz Scholder once exhorted, “Stop painting Indians!”

by Harrison Begay

by Harrison Begay

Despite his warning, the market for so-called “traditional” Native American art is clotted with talking blue coyotes, lance-carrying warriors and never-ending rainbirds. And the inevitable “Bambi paintings” of deer and bear.

Originally, the creation of this Dorothy Dunn-style of Indian art was to help promote Native American arts and give talented Native artists a chance to make a living from their art. Perhaps it was too successful: Now, that style is considered “traditional,” and ordinary buyers of the art don’t want to look at anything that doesn’t fit the mold. And “Indian art” is a ghetto from which the truly talented feel pulled two ways: They want to escape the ghetto, yet, they want to create art from their cultural roots.

The Southern Highland Craft Guild has done something of the same for mountain crafts. It was formed in 1929, and was an attempt to make some money for poverty-sticken mountain folk.

Perhaps it has also worked too well, for there is little left of the mountains in these elegant doo-dads.

The tourists who glide through the Parkway Craft Center at Moses Cone Memorial Park, or the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, N.C., want souvenirs more than art, and they want something that portrays the fantasy of a “simpler way of life” that people “used to live” in the rural mountains. So, they find candles, stained glass, soft-colored quilts and jewelry in the form of dogwood flowers or bluebirds and feel they have come in contact with a more authentic way of life.

But it ain’t so. Instead, they have come in contact with a successful marketing strategy.

Some of the art is very nice, even beautiful in its way, but it is a far cry from anything that was made back in the hollers and coves when if you needed a ladle, you carved one from a chunk of wood.

“We were born into a world filled with random shapes and odd angles,” Hollar says, “but we made for ourselves a world of wallboard cubicles and we long for something with a touch of that randomness we miss. That’s why people like those bowls with the uneven edges turned from wood boles.”

Burl vase by Alan Hollar

Burl vase by Alan Hollar

And Hollar’s bowls are beautiful: They exploit the essential beauty of woodgrain and its colors. He is a master craftsman. But no matriarch living in the cut-off coves of Appalachia before electrification who required a bowl for kneading dough would have been happy with one that sported a great hole in its side.

It isn’t only the visual arts. The mountains are full of music. There was church music — some of it nearly unlistenable — and dance music, and the music that was played on front porches when the aunts and uncles gathered together and played old “chunes.”

Emmett Lundy

Emmett Lundy

You can find old recordings of some of that in the Alan Lomax collections. It is rough-hewn music, in a style that valued a keening, flat-affect voice — a style copied by Bill Monroe that he called the “high lonesome” — and always clearly amateur.

You can hear the old music in re-releases of those Lomax recordings, like those made in 1941 of Emmett Lundy from Graham County in Virginia. There is a plaintive sourness in the playing, learned from his teacher, Green Leonard. No one would call the music pretty, yet it is intensely beautiful. It is authentic.

The racks of CDs at the craft centers feature instead the commercial recordings of professional musicians who have created an ersatz “traditional” music that is hardly distinguishable from New Age pap. It is music with no angles or edges — completely unlike the hard-muscled people of the hills, who were all angles and edges — “with the bark still on.”

The soft-toned flute jigs on the stereo are like no music I ever heard in the Appalachians. Where were the scratchy fiddle tunes with every note slightly flat? Where were the affectless hymn tunes sung by straight-lipped mountain families? Why is that hammer dulcimer playing The Two Fairy Hills instead of the the strummed dulcimer playing Rock of Ages?

This is the mountain experience smoothed out and made marketable, giving the uninitiated the illusion of authenticity with none of the wood soot and bacon grease.

The CDs are on a rack by the register. They are all prettified.

“Do you have any really ugly music?” I ask. The young clerk — probably a college student from the flatlands come up to the mountains for a summer job among the “plainer, simpler folk” — doesn’t understand what I mean.

NEXT: food

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