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Appalachian Musical Instruments

Background and History

The Appalachian Mountains extend 1, 500 miles from Maine to Georgia. They pass through 18 states and encompass the Green Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, the Berkshires of Connecticut, New York's Catskills, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The region known as the Southern Highlands, or Upland South, covers most of West Virginia and parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Virginia. In colonial times, this area was known as the "Back Country." Appalachian people share a common cultural heritage that is expressed through their speech and dialect, their building methods and crafts, their religions and superstitions, and, most of all, their music.

Appalachian folk music developed its characteristic sounds over several centuries of immigration, movement, and settlement. During the seventeenth century, the earliest settlers in the area were Anglo-Celtic: English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh. They settled the eastern seaboard, and as they pushed westward, their way was barred by the continuous ridges of the Appalachians. The good farmland of the Piedmont, between the mountains and the ocean, was quickly claimed by powerful landowners, so the settlers were forced to make their living from the thinner soil of the mountains.

It wasn't until 1750 that the Cumberland Gap was discovered, which led to the fertile bluegrass country of Kentucky. These mountain regions of Kentucky, however, were not settled until 1835, when President Andrew Jackson made a cruel treaty with the Native American population and the area was opened up for farming. Many of these mountain farming communities were very isolated, and they remained remote from the world and from each other. They retained their old ways and developed gradually in their own time, uninfluenced by change in other areas.

In 1763, the French gave up their American land rights to the British, and this led to greater expansion into and throughout the Appalachians. After the Revolutionary War of 1775-1783, travel restrictions were lifted for the Irish. Thousands of Irish people arrived in Pennsylvania as indentured servants, and when their terms of service were completed, they sought their living on the land. Finding good farming land prohibitively expensive, many of them moved south into the mountains. This wave of immigration was intensified during the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s, when many rural Irish left their homeland for America. Most settled in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, but others moved into the Appalachians to work the land.

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