Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Herb E. Smith, August 16, 2015

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:01 - Family / Whitesburg, Kentucky history

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Partial Transcript: Um, okay. Hello, this is Jeff Keith. It's August 16th, 2015. I'm here with Rayna Gellert interviewing Herby Smith.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about his family and what it was like growing up in Whitesburg. He talks about some of the stories his great-grandfather would tell him about the days before large scale mining came to Letcher County. He says that in those days, people made a living growing crops and farming, and they considered mining to be lesser work even though miners made more money. Smith says that both of his grandfathers and both of his brothers worked in the mines, but he never did. He says he feels good about how he's lived his life, and is happy that he was able to find a way to stay in the area without having to work in the mines.

Keywords: Consolidation Coal Company; Farming; Jenkins (Ky.); Mining towns; Railroads; Subsistence agriculture; Whitesburg (Ky.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Kentucky; Coal mines and mining--Kentucky--Letcher County; Families; Mining camps

00:10:09 - Effects of the out-migration in Whitesburg

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Partial Transcript: Uh, did you have as, as close a relationship or--with your Grandfather Smith or did you hear stories about him as well?

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about traveling to visit his father's family in Dayton, Ohio, and some of the differences between Dayton and Whitesburg that he noticed when he was a child. He remembers listening to his aunt change her accent when she talked on the phone, and says she told him that they had to change how they spoke because people thought they were stupid. Smith talks about the effects the out-migration had on Whitesburg, saying that between 1950 and 1970 Letcher County lost half its population. He says that times were difficult, economically, in those years, but his family was fairly well off because his father had a stable job with the steel company.

Keywords: Bethlehem Steel Corporation; Dayton (Ohio); Miner's vacation; Out-migration; Travel; Whitesburg (Ky.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Appalachian Region--Emigration and immigration--History; Mining camps

00:21:54 - Awareness of national and local issues

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Partial Transcript: Um, you mentioned this, uh, appearance of the National Guard.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about going to school in Whitesburg, and reading about the Vietnam War and other events happening in the United States at the time. He talks about going to college at Vanderbilt University, but says he wasn't taught much about events related to the Civil Rights Movement that happened in Nashville, despite it being an important location in the movement. However, he says that he wasn't involved in or aware of local issues in Whitesburg--union issues, strip mining, etc.--until he started working at Appalshop, making films about the region. It was then that he started getting interested in learning more about the history and culture of central Appalachia.

Keywords: Appalshop, Inc.; Civil rights movement; College; Nashville (Tenn.); Strip mining; Vietnam War

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Kentucky--Social conditions; Coal miners--Labor unions--Kentucky; Council of the Southern Mountains; Education; Vanderbilt University

00:29:39 - Development of a regional identity

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Partial Transcript: You answered one of my questions I wanted to ask you earlier about how you were making these at the time of college, um, and I want to get to that...

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about how he wasn't sure where exactly the Appalachian region was, and remembers seeing a map of the region in Appalshop and being surprised that Whitesburg was in the middle of it. He talks about the development of a regional identity through his work with Appalshop--making films that were an attempt to present a more accurate view of Appalachia, but not necessarily responses to the more negative stereotypes that were being shown on television in shows such as "Beverly Hillbillies." He talks about attending the Council of the Southern Mountains to meet activists from throughout the region and learn more about the issues in Appalachia. Smith says that he believed that the people at Appalshop could play a role in re-making Appalachia and educating people about its history and culture.

Keywords: Activism; Buffalo Creek (W. Va.); Film making; Kentucky; Mining towns; North Carolina; Tennessee; Virginia; West Virginia

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachian Region--History; Appalachians (people); Council of the Southern Mountains; Motion pictures--Production and direction

00:39:38 - Relationship to other activists in the region

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Partial Transcript: Two more questions about this and then I'm going to--

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about his relationships with other well-known activists in the region such as Harry Caudill. He says that while he respected the Caudills and the Gishes, they weren't social friends because of the generational differences between them--both in their politics and in their relationship to the Appalachian region.

Keywords: Activism; Generational differences; Harry M. Caudill; Letcher County (Ky.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Kentucky

00:44:54 - Early work with Appalshop

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Partial Transcript: And, and I was curious about school, one more thing, and that was that I read a few times about Carl Banks.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about taking a journalism class in high school with Carl Banks, and how Smith was first introduced to Bill Richardson and Appalshop. Smith says that he and his friends would play chess in class, and Banks encouraged students to participate in Appalshop projects as a way to get the students more engaged in journalism as a subject. Smith recalls working full time in the summer of 1970 with Appalshop, making a television commercial for Adult Basic Education. It was during this time, Smith says, that he first got interested in film making equipment and the editing process. He talks about his first films, "Judge Wooten and Coon-on-a-Log" and "In Ya Blood."

Keywords: Activism; Appalshop, Inc.; Film-making; Journalism; Student films

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Motion pictures--production and direction

00:54:29 - Film equipment in the 1960s and 1970s

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Partial Transcript: Yeah, I know, I'm actually excited to talk to you about that film in, in, in just a minute.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about some of the differences between modern film equipment and equipment in the 1960s and 1970s. He says that for the most part they all taught themselves how to use the equipment, and that what he liked most about the film equipment in those days was the tactile nature of production--there were certain mechanical processes that had to be set up just right, otherwise the film could have bad picture or sound. Smith talks about the editing process and how you had to think things through before making cuts to the film, because once you made a cut it couldn't be put back. Smith says that at Appalshop they saw film as a way to explore and learn more about the Appalachian region and how people lived in the days before large scale mining.

Keywords: Appalshop, Inc.; Coal mining industry; Film equipment; Film making

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachian Region--History; Motion pictures--production and direction

01:04:39 - Tensions between Appalshop and the federal government

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Partial Transcript: And I wanna go back, um, to, uh, to ask about Bill and some of those earlier experiences, especially the summer of '70?

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about the pressure Appalshop was under in the 1970s to develop a curriculum--pressure that originated with the Nixon Administration. He says that Appalshop began in the middle of the turmoil of changing administrations (from Johnson to Nixon). He recalls a report that he wrote as a young man, in which he voiced his frustration with national policies and the lack of honest dealings with the public. He says that he felt as though people in Appalachia were experiencing hard times as a direct result of these policies. Smith also talks about Bill Richardson and his goals to connect the young people at Appalshop with events and activities going on throughout the Appalachian Region so they could continue on in the organization after he left.

Keywords: Activism; Appalshop, Inc.; Community Film Workshop of Chicago; Flaherty Film Seminar; Nixon administration; Vietnam War

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Motion pictures--production and direction

01:19:25 - Fundraising strategies

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Partial Transcript: The, um, the next thing I want to ask about that you just brought up is, really interesting to me, are these trips to New York City.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about traveling to New York City to request funding from various organizations. He recalls working at the National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts Program where he would meet with people who were asking for funding, saying that he learned a lot about fundraising from that experience. Smith also talks about fundraising strategies he and others at Appalshop would use--namely by saying that they weren't there for another handout, but that they wanted to be part of significant change within the Appalachian Region. He says that, with regard to funding, Appalshop's case was not need, but opportunity.

Keywords: Activism; Appalachian Regional Commission; Appalshop, Inc.; Film making; New York City (N.Y.); Rockefeller Foundation; Travel; Whitesburg (Ky.)

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions--20th century; Appalachian Region--Economic policy; Fundraising; National Endowment for the Arts. Folk Arts Program

01:34:37 - The making of "In Ya Blood"--Part I / mission of Appalshop

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Partial Transcript: Um, um, I'd love to transition here and talk about some of these early films you made.

Segment Synopsis: Smith discusses his motivations and inspirations behind one of this first films, "In Ya Blood." He says that while Randy (the main character) does eventually go to work in the mines, the central question for him was always what factors one considers when making the decision to work in the coal mines. Smith says that he was trying to write Randy's choice, and the choice that others in the region have to make--because Randy was not trapped in the mines, nor was he caught up in larger forces. Randy, like others, was facing a real choice. Smith talks about the choices he made, saying that he had more opportunities than others because he did well in school and received a college education. He says that even if he hadn't chosen to stay and work in Appalshop, he would not have chosen to work in the coal mines. Smith also discusses the goals of Appalshop--namely to create a welcoming space for intelligent, talented people to come together and explore their interests.

Keywords: Appalshop, Inc.; Education; Film-making; Screenwriting

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Kentucky--Social conditions; Coal mines and mining; Motion pictures--production and direction

01:49:46 - The making of "In Ya Blood"--Part II / friendship with James Still

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Partial Transcript: Here in a minute I would--when we end I have a couple questions that would, uh, that will relate to those larger, um, dimensions of Appalshop.

Segment Synopsis: Smith discusses a specific scene in his film "In Ya Blood," where Randy goes around and talks to coal miners about what it's like working in the mines. Smith says that this scene was not scripted, and that, while he was acting, the miners weren't. He says that in those days it was very uncommon for filmmakers to use documentary-like scenes in fictional films, and it was unlike anything anyone else had done or seen before--contributing to the overall feeling of "realness" of the film. Smith says that "In Ya Blood" was shown locally in Whitesburg, and also at the Freshman Arts Festival at Vanderbilt, where it was well-received. He also talks about his friendship with Appalachian writer James Still, and how he was inspired both by Still's work and the way he chose to live his life as an independent voice among the people he portrayed in his writings.

Keywords: Agrarian Movement; Appalshop, Inc.; Documentaries; Film-making; Writing

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Kentucky--Social conditions; Coal mines and mining; Motion pictures--production and direction; Still, James, 1906-2001

02:06:58 - Work at Appalshop

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Partial Transcript: Um, that's fascinating and, and I look forward to talking about all of this more, but I wanted to ask a couple questions here before we ended.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about how, in the early years, the ideas and the possibilities of what Appalshop could do was more important than his own financial stability. He says that unlike a lot of people who spend their work lives doing things that others want them to do, those in Appalshop were free enough that they were able to create a space where they could make a living in the mountains doing what they wanted to do. Smith says that he's very proud of how he has chosen to live his life and is proud of what he's been able to do at Appalshop.

Keywords: Appalshop, Inc.; Economic security; Working

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people)--Kentucky--Social conditions; Still, James, 1906-2001