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The Past, Present, and Future of a Possibility:

Exploring the Legacies of Appalshop Oral History Project

By Jeffrey A. Keith

I never thought that there was [only] one thing that was gonna happen at Appalshop.  You know, I think it was just introducing people to a possibility.

-Josephine Richardson, remembering 1969 in 2015

The Past

Endurance is remarkable.  That’s one reason why anniversaries elicit the urge both to mark time and to engage with history.  As a way to mark Appalshop’s fiftieth anniversary, this website is a collection of memories and recollections held by a representative selection of people who have collaborated with or been a part of Appalshop.  As the director of this project, I hope that these stories deliver a gift to the future by encouraging people to consider how Appalshop’s legacies exhibit the importance of imagination and creativity as well as how the demands of modern life challenge and complicate the possibilities held by those very same impulses.

Known primarily for its impressive catalog of documentaries and films, Appalshop is a Kentucky-based nonprofit organization that, over five decades, has served as a creative hub for a theater troupe (Roadside Theater), a record label (June Appal), a literary magazine (Mountain Review), a community radio station (WMMT), an educational program (Appalachian Media Institute), a professional archive (Appalshop Archive), and an array of community-building activities--from “Sexy Sex Ed” workshops to economic development projects.  The “Exploring the Legacies of Appalshop Oral History Project” highlights the life stories of some of the people who have shaped and been shaped by this organization’s work.  

Imperfectly but meaningfully, oral history allows individuals to share their own stories and, sometimes, to reflect on a collective story about the broader significance of their experiences.  As a methodology, oral history complements Appalshop’s mission of empowering people to tell their own stories. This project, however, was conceived as an independent research project about Appalshop and is intended as a resource for those wishing to learn more about this organization.  Oral history can suffer from the so-called sins of memory--omission, forgetfulness, and exaggeration are common when people are afforded the opportunity to spin narratives about the past.  On the other hand, oral history benefits from the intimacy of the approach, and it brings forth stories that give texture to institutional narratives. It was an honor to hear so many incredible stories told by skilled raconteurs--many of whom have created work that I admire.

The oral history interviews in this collection allow various people to explain the way their lives intersected with the work of Appalshop.  This is important for a variety of reasons, but most notably because the work that has taken and continues to take place at Appalshop realized an unlikely possibility: that a repurposed bottling factory in Letcher County could become a vital force in the cultural history of the United States.  That said, oral history is perhaps the most unvarnished version of any historical record, and stories in this collection convey some of the difficulties and conflicts people faced as they pursued meaningful work at Appalshop. Collectively, they demonstrate that rural culture matters, and that Appalshop audaciously pursued its potential through a steady attention to that fact.

Appalshop’s history is bound to Appalachian history as a whole, and Appalachian history is burdened by an exceptional weight of romance and ridicule.  Writing one hundred years ago, John C. Campbell characterized the southern mountains as “a land about which, perhaps, more things are known that are not true than of any other part of our country.”  Fifty years ago, Appalshop decided it was time to set the record straight. So-called Appalshoppers went about making films, writing plays, recording music, learning stories, and getting to know both tradition-bearers in their communities and cutting-edge artists from across the nation in an effort to reframe Appalachia as a place characterized by a rich and dynamic cultural heritage and, in turn, to reclaim what it meant to be Appalachian.

The Appalachian Studies Association came into being in 1977, and it has matured alongside Appalshop.  It is significant that influential scholars during the first wave of the Appalachian Studies movement collaborated frequently with Appalshop, and that many celebrated the organization’s embrace of the relationship between the meaning of place and the importance of the past.  When the National Book Award-winning author Gurney Norman, a native of Eastern Kentucky, wrote the folktale Ancient Creek, for example, he decided to distribute it primarily on a record pressed by June Appal, seeing this choice as a way to tend to Appalachia’s oral tradition of storytelling through a new medium.  In his review of Ancient Creek, the Western North Carolina-born poet and, before his death in 1996, frequent Appalshop collaborator, Jim Wayne Miller wrote, “In the future, where we are will continue to have something to do with who we are, just as who we are will depend in part upon who we were.”  All of this echoes the Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry’s insistence that “we owe the future the past, the long knowledge that is the potency of time to come.” Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Berry has celebrated Appalshop’s legacies as well: “Appalshop has made a substantial improvement to the fate and fortune of its region.  No institution has done more to enhance the self-awareness and self respect of Eastern Kentucky and all of Appalachia.”

Indeed, Appalshop’s impact has registered locally, nationally, and internationally.  Locally, Appalshop has reinforced the importance and value of traditional culture, regional identity, and civic engagement.  Nationally, Appalshop has received accolades, awards, and an array of grants for its leadership as a creative organization. Internationally, Appalshop has engaged in exchange programs and has influenced the mission of organizations in Italy and other far-flung places.  These are among the storylines that come to light in the “Exploring the Legacies of Appalshop Oral History Project.” In addition, the collection includes accounts of conflict, frustration, and resilience in the face of economic challenges, social problems, environmental devastation, and political change.

The Present

Hundreds of talented artists, scholars, journalists, and administrators have collaborated with or worked for Appalshop, and taken collectively, their work has influenced the thinking and the lives of thousands.  This project does not seek to be exhaustive in its approach, and the work is ongoing. This website is an initial iteration of the project, and its release is intended to promote further research into a dynamic organization that currently is celebrating a half-century of engagement, art, and media-making across Appalachia.

The process of choosing interviewees for this project was largely organic, a less formal version of what social scientists call snowball sampling.  Current Appalshop employees helped me by generating a list of interviewees that emphasized the early years of the organization. Interviewees then recommended further interviewees, and through a process of word-of-mouth and wide-ranging correspondence, the fifty-five interviews in this collection came together between 2015 and 2018.  The past year has involved an extensive effort to catalog, index, and review all of the interviews--a process that required the patient work of my collaborators at both Warren Wilson College and the University of Kentucky. (For more information on the contributions made by my collaborators, please visit the thanks and project funding pages on this website.)

The Future

Appalachia has long been characterized as existing in the past.  This has given rise to poetic book and essay titles that could be considered playful if not for their destructive impact over the past century and a half.  In 1899, Berea College president William Goodell Frost, for example, published a speech-turned-essay titled “Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains.”  A little over six decades later, the Presbyterian minister Jack E. Weller published Yesterday’s People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia, and it became a handbook for young people who engaged in the War on Poverty across the region.  Now pundits and politicians have followed the lead of J. D. Vance who, in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy (2016), describes mountain people as torn between old values and a modern world; this, Vance and others insist, helps to explain “Trump Country” as well as Appalachia’s various troubles.  

All three of the above works locate the problems of the region’s future in the relationship between Appalachian people and the past, but there are an overwhelming number of alternative narratives.  Those in the field of Appalachian Studies, of course, would encourage curious people to read works of history, sociology, economics, anthropology, and literature that challenge such simplistic interpretations and that do so by offering facts rather than anecdotes.  If you want to understand Eastern Kentucky’s history, I suggest the work of Ronald D Eller, my mentor in graduate school and the person who encouraged me to pursue research into Appalshop after I joined the faculty at Warren Wilson College.

Eller’s first book, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of Appalachia: 1880-1930 (1983), demonstrates that Appalachia’s experience of modernization and industrial development explains many of the region’s enduring problems.  In other words, most commentators have confused the region’s condition with its culture, and Appalachia’s condition is an outcome of the modern world’s abrupt and violent arrival in the mountains--not on account of the region’s embrace of tradition.  Eller’s last book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 (2008), shows how twentieth century federal interventions to address the region’s enduring problems failed because of the entrenched power of industrial leaders and their political allies throughout the region, particularly in the coalfields.  Eller offers a compelling counternarrative that celebrates Appalshop and other regional organizations that emerged from federal interventions and then reinvented themselves in ways that allowed them to lift up Appalachian culture in the face of its misinterpretation.  Pivoting from the past to the future, Eller reframes Appalachia as the opposite of a place stuck in the past; rather, he sees it as a window into the future for a nation struggling with the implications of what a consumerist society is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of what it defines as the good life.

The now substantial history of Appalshop--as it celebrates its endurance for half a century--similarly invites a different vision of Appalachian history and what it means for the future.  Falsely, Appalachia is characterized as a national problem. In reality, it is a region rich with cultural treasure, as Appalshop demonstrates. Falsely, Appalachia is characterized solely as a place from which talented people wish to escape.  In reality, Appalshop draws in creative and brilliant people and encourages others to stay in the region. Falsely, Appalachia is depicted as hopelessly fatalistic. In reality, Appalshop’s existence, persistence, and output conveys resilience and exhibits the agency of Appalachian people.  Falsely, Appalachia is viewed as static and lagging behind the rest of the nation. In reality, Appalshop has been a national leader for fifty years.

The past is present, and the future is full of possibility.  We don’t need to look far for inspiration. In fact, we only need to recognize how the promise of the past flows through dynamic organizations like Appalshop, a beautifully imperfect experiment in democracy, possibility, and expression that has much to offer the nation’s present and future.  As evidence for these claims, I offer well over one hundred hours of indexed and word searchable interviews with individuals whose life experiences speak to the complicated yet profound legacies of Appalshop. I urge you to explore them as a way to learn more, and I invite you to create new and productive narratives about Appalachia in this uncertain and anxious age.