In addition to the being the oldest mountain chain in North America, the Southern Appalachian region is full of old traditions enriched by a wide variety of people and culture. From quilting, to farming, to arts and craft, these longtime traditions have been passed down throughout the region from generation to generation, including music.
Asheville and Western North Carolina may be known for their thriving modern-day music scene, but traditions of old-time string band music, ballad singing and bluegrass date back well into the 1700s. The banjo – originally brought to America by enslaved Africans – was initially made of gourd bodies or pots, and covered in animal hide. Before the Civil War, the banjo, which was often paired with the fiddle, was a popular instrument for white and black musicians living in the Appalachian mountain region. In fact, according to the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, no other place has had more influence on the development of the banjo in America than Western North Carolina. Over the years, the banjo became widely accepted by all Southerners, and the instrument’s physical structure also changed. Today, the two most popular banjos are the resonator banjo, often called the bluegrass banjo, due to its importance in the traditional style of bluegrass music, and the open-back banjo, which is sometimes referred to as the old-time banjo. Musicians from North Carolina’s western Piedmont and mountain region, including Earl Scruggs, Charlie Poole and Snuffy Jenkins, are recognized as the creators and popularizers of modern banjo styles.
The banjo may be one of the oldest instruments used in traditional Appalachian music, but ballad singing is considered one of the earliest styles. Ballads are typically stories set to music and usually sung unaccompanied. Its origin dates back to the 1700s, and it was first introduced to the region by immigrants from the British Isles. Traditional songs by Cherokee Indians and African Americans influenced the Anglo/Celtic music brought on by these new settlers, and many singers begun to chronicle the current events of their day in the new ballad-style format. While some ballads are simply known as love songs, many are notorious for being dark and violent, telling tales of war, treachery and loss. Madison County, North Carolina, which is located about an hour north of The North Carolina Arboretum, is home to one of the longest, unbroken ballad singing traditions in America, first documented by English folk song collector Cecil Sharp prior to World War I.
While the history of Appalachian music can be traced as far back as ballad singing, its high-energy, popular bluegrass style is a bit younger. The first sounds of bluegrass were aired over the radio on February 2, 1939, by Bill Monroe, a Kentuckian known as the father of bluegrass music, and his band the Blue Grass Boys. Bluegrass incorporated many of the familiar instruments of an old-time string band, including the fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass, but it also introduced new elements such as “breaks,” where band members would take turns playing the lead. This new style was different from the unison approach of old-time string music.
At The North Carolina Arboretum, we work hard to pay tribute to the region’s rich natural and cultural heritage. From garden demonstrations, (including our signature Quilt Garden) to arts and craft, to exhibits, you can always find a bit of history and education on our 434-acre property. As a way to honor the region’s musical traditions, we launched our Music in the Garden concert series, which highlights Appalachian, blues and folk music performed by local artists. On Thursday, June 23 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., we are excited to host Zoe & Cloyd, a duo from Western North Carolina that perform a mix of original and traditional Appalachian style music featuring the fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin. These two artists were founding members of the acclaimed bluegrass band, Red June, and are long-time veterans of Asheville. Admission to Music in the Garden is free; standard Arboretum parking fees still apply (including free parking for Arboretum Society members). For more information, please click here.