Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Herb E. Smith, January 29, 2016

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


Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Search this Index
00:00:00 - The role of Appalshop as an independent voice in the region

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Alright it's January 29th, 2016.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about the role Appalshop played as an internal, independent voice in the region. He says that he believes it was the youth culture in the organization when it first began in the 1960s and 1970s that influenced that--saying that, as young people, they were willing to question unethical practices that had become commonplace because "that's just the way it is" (e.g. unsafe mining operations, environmental degradation, and the exploitation of the populace). Smith talks about the work of other activists in the region, including Harry Caudill, and says that it was not easy to build an organization such as Appalshop that would critique the common practices of the place it was located. He says that it was important to those involved, as well as the people who lived in the region, that Appalshop be the voice that will stand up to powers that are conducting these harmful practices.

Keywords: Activism; Politics

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Appalachian Region--Social conditions; Appalshop, Inc.; Caudill, Harry M., 1922-1990

00:05:24 - Appalshop as an arts organization

Play segment

Partial Transcript: With that in mind, I'd like to, for the rest of our conversation today, try to move from the '70s into the '80s and '90s.

Segment Synopsis: Smith recalls conversations he had with author James Still when Smith lived nearby in Knott County. He says that he and Still would often discuss the complexities of portraying the same people you were living and working among, and how Still influenced his approach to the work he completed at Appalshop. While Smith acknowledges that Appalshop is an arts organization, he is hesitant to use the word "art" to describe their work because of its connotations, saying that he believes their work to be much more broad than art. Smith talks about how Still created works that talked about the human experience in the region, and says that he wanted to try to understand how he could do the same in his own work.

Keywords: Activism; Art; Knott County (Ky.); Letcher County (Ky.); Literature; Writing

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Social conditions; Appalshop, Inc.; Still, James, 1906-2001

00:19:08 - Appalshop as an intermediary between local and national audiences

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I'm fascinated by that, that conversation between say you and Still, or Arnow, and how those real conversations with people that are now gone influenced your understanding of what this expression was about.

Segment Synopsis: Smith expands on a quote about author James Still, saying that just as Still was able to go between the art world and the world of regular mountain people, Appalshop served as an intermediary between these two groups as well. Smith talks about how this intermediary role raised questions about who the audience of the films are. He says that for his work, the most important audience is the people of the region, and he hopes that Appalshop's work has encouraged them to learn more about the place that they're a part of. Smith also discusses how the structure of the films allowed them to appeal to both the local and national audiences, saying that because they were constructed from the words of the people in the films, viewers were able to bring their own sets of experiences to the stories. He believes that this allows viewers to become active participants in understanding the lives of those being portrayed.

Keywords: Activism; Art; Film making; Politics; Writing

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Social conditions; Appalachians (People) in motion pictures; Appalshop, Inc.

00:24:29 - Friendship with Chester Cornett / inspiration for "Hand Carved"

Play segment

Partial Transcript: It makes perfect sense, and it allows us to, to start talking about one of your films that bridges this gap.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about getting to know chair maker Chester Cornett and starting work on the film "Hand Carved." Smith says that he, Cornett, and Still would often have conversations about living and making a living in Appalachia, and that he learned just as much from Cornett as he did from Still. Smith talks about his motivations to make "Hand Carved," saying that both he and his wife were very interested in people like Cornett who lived alternative lifestyles--namely, finding a way to live in America without being part of an economy that is oftentimes destructive to the land and people (e.g. the coal industry), and still be a part of the country.

Keywords: Craftsmanship; Dwarf (Ky.); Economics; Film making; Hazard (Ky.)

Subjects: Alternative lifestyles; Appalachians (People) in motion pictures; Appalshop, Inc.; Cornett, Chester; Hand Carved (Motion picture); Still, James, 1906-2001

00:37:28 - Addressing issues of identity in "Hand Carved"

Play segment

Partial Transcript: That's great, that's a wonderful answer.

Segment Synopsis: Smith discusses the content of his film "Hand Carved," specifically about trying to communicate the issues of taking on "Appalachian" as an identity. He talks about the Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio and how the Urban Appalachian Council would have Cornett demonstrate chair making. Smith says that Cornett was at times distrustful of people, and didn't understand some of the larger things that were going on in the region at the time. He says Cornett would never have referred to himself as an Appalachian because it was a term used by the War on Poverty people who came into the region in the 1960s.

Keywords: Cincinnati (Ohio); Film making; Identity; Pine Mountain (Ky.); War on Poverty

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (people); Appalshop, Inc.; Cornett, Chester; Hand Carved (Motion picture); Urban Appalachian Council

00:43:57 - The making of "Hand Carved"

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Going from content to process, I'm curious about the experience of making that film with Elizabeth, who you're married to by that point.

Segment Synopsis: Smith discusses what it was like working on "Hand Carved" with his wife, Elizabeth. He says that they would take turns shooting and working on the sound, and the shooting styles were very similar so the film came together nicely. He talks about renting a house in Northern Kentucky while they were shooting, recalling what it was like working with Cornett. He says that they ended up shooting more film than they had intended, resulting in an 80-minute movie rather than a 30-minute movie. Smith says that he chose to edit the film without his wife, however, because the story needed a single focus and the task didn't lend itself well to collaboration. Smith talks briefly about the film's reception, but says that it was important to him that Cornett liked the film.

Keywords: Cincinnati (Ohio); Film making; Washington (D.C.)

Subjects: Appalachians (people) in motion pictures; Appalshop, Inc.; Hand Carved (Motion picture); Motion pictures--Production and direction

00:56:26 - "Hand Carved" and related works

Play segment

Partial Transcript: A final thing about its reception and we'll move on from this...

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about how the film became part of a larger conversation going on with other regional artists (Gurney Norman, Wendell Berry, and Jim Ways Miller, for example) about Chester Cornett and his chairs. Smith says that a lot of people from all over the country were inspired by and interested in Cornett. He recalls employees from the Procter & Gamble company in Cincinnati befriending Cornett and introducing him to people on the design team at the company. Smith says that everyone was fascinated by his ability to create chairs that were both strikingly beautiful and functional.

Keywords: Film making; Kentucky writers; Writing

Subjects: Appalachians (people) in motion pictures; Appalshop, Inc.; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; Hand Carved (Motion picture); Miller, Jim Wayne; Norman, Gurney, 1937-; Procter & Gamble Company

01:02:46 - Beginnings of the Appalachian Human History Project

Play segment

Partial Transcript: It makes great sense. Um, and now I want to shift toward, uh, something different that's more--well, a different kind of project.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about the films Appalshop made as a result of grants received from the National Endowment for the Humanities, specifically "Strangers and Kin." He says that they invited 10 scholars from throughout the region to be part of the project, including Cratis Williams, James Still, Wilma Dykeman, and Helen Lewis (who eventually became Program Coordinator). He says that the scholars not only helped them compile materials for the films, they also gave direction about how to go about completing the project. Smith says that they ultimately came to the decision to have each film telling the history of one subject (e.g. land use), in order to combat the idea of Appalachia as a place "where time stood still," and show viewers the dramatic changes that have occurred in the region over the years.

Keywords: Activism; Film making; National Endowment for the Humanities

Subjects: Appalachian Region--History; Appalshop, Inc.; Strangers and Kin (Motion picture)

01:13:36 - The hillbilly stereotype in "Strangers and Kin"--Part I

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Could you speak for a minute about, um, how you all decided as a group and why you all decided as a group to deal with stereotypes first?

Segment Synopsis: Smith discusses how they came to the decision to tackle the negative stereotypes of Appalachian people at the beginning of the new film series. He says that before they could begin telling the history of the region, they needed to show people that their ideas about Appalachia were wrong. Smith talks about how they all thought that once people understood what life in Appalachia was really like the negative image of the "hillbilly" would go away. However, he says that he no longer believes that. He talks about how the hillbilly is more than just a stereotype, it's an archetype--a stock character in American storytelling. He says that people have used the hillbilly image for years to further their own agendas, speaking specifically about the films put out by the Tennessee Valley Authority that showed mountain people as needing to be modernized in order to justify building a dam and flooding people's homes. Smith says that as long as there are people around to benefit from using negative images of mountain people, those images will not go away.

Keywords: Archetypes; Film making; Literature; Prejudice; Stereotypes

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (People) in literature; Appalachians (People) in motion pictures; Appalachians (People)--Public opinion; Appalshop, Inc.; Strangers and Kin (Motion picture); Tennessee Valley Authority

01:26:10 - The hillbilly stereotype in "Strangers and Kin"--Part II

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Get--uh, from that back to the film--

Segment Synopsis: Smith continues talking about how his film "Strangers and Kin" tried to correct the negative stereotypes of mountain people, discussing in detail the different approaches they used in the film. He talks about the decision to use actors to convey what was written about Appalachian people in early texts, saying that by using those words alongside personal stories, the actors are discounting the words so that they can no longer be used against them. Smith talks about how the entire film is built on the juxtaposition between the stereotype and reality, and that the film's power is based in the energy between the conflicting images and words.

Keywords: Film making; Gender; Race; Stereotypes

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (People) in literature; Appalachians (People) in motion pictures; Appalachians (People)--Public opinion; Appalshop, Inc.; Motion pictures--Production and direction; Strangers and Kin (Motion picture)

01:38:43 - Response to "Strangers and Kin"--Part I / friendship with Harry Caudill

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Um, that's as good a place as any to, for a second, say how did local leadership feel about, say, that?

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about how local leaders in the communities reacted to his film "Strangers and Kin." He says that the County Judge for Pike County at the time liked it at first, but didn't like the audience's response to the things he had said in the film. Smith also talks at length about Harry Caudill and his reaction to the film, and recalls different interactions he has had with Caudill over the years, specifically when he shined Caudill's shoes for the first time. Smith discusses his friendship with Caudill, and says that it was in Caudill's nature to try to get a response from people and that it shows in his work. He says that Caudill's work was never meant to be taken as absolute truth, but meant to be provocative and serve as the spark for conversations about important issues in the region.

Keywords: Activism; Community; Film making; Letcher County (Ky.); Pike County (Ky.); Stereotypes

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (People)--Public opinion; Appalshop, Inc.; Strangers and Kin (Motion picture)

01:46:26 - Response to "Strangers and Kin"--Part II

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I'm also taken though by, you know, having read the, the, the Tom Gish response.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about Harry Caudill and Tom Gish, saying that their work in the region is part of what made an organization such as Appalshop possible. Smith says that he has always looked up to both Caudill and Gish, but says that he does not necessarily agree with everything they have said and done. He talks about Gish's response to the film "Strangers and Kin," and suggests that the differences in opinion stem from generational differences. Smith also talks about how Ned Beatty, one of the actors in the film "Deliverance," came to a screening of "Strangers and Kin." He says that Beatty was very moved by the film and says that he regretted being part of "Deliverance." Smith says that, overall, "Strangers and Kin" was well-received, and he's glad that he made it.

Keywords: Activism; Film making; Generational differences; Tom Gish

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Appalachians (People)--Public opinion; Caudill, Harry M., 1922-1990; Deliverance (Motion picture); Gish, Tom; Strangers and Kin (Motion picture)

01:56:07 - The making of "Harriette Simpson Arnow: 1908-1986" / friendship with Harriette Simpson Arnow

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Um, I'd like to keep trucking along. We still got a little--some more time, and talk about Harriette Simpson Arnow.

Segment Synopsis: Smith talks about making the short film about Appalachian author Harriette Simpson Arnow, saying that he has always been a fan of her work and wanted to create a film that would both honor Arnow and encourage others to read her work. Smith talks about getting to know Arnow and her husband at the writer's workshop at Hindman Settlement School, and says that he developed close friendships with both of them as a result. Smith also discusses the sense of urgency surrounding the Arnow project, saying specifically that there were concerns about her health. Because of these, he says he was allowed to go ahead and start making the film even though the fundraising had gotten complicated and the funds weren't yet secured. Smith says that once Arnow and her husband had passed away, it was very difficult for him to finish the film--he says he had always intended to show the film and talk about it with Arnow, so he was unsure how to proceed. However, he says once he realized that he was going to be the last person to ever make a film about Arnow while she was still living, he was able to finish the film.

Keywords: Ann Arbor (Mich.); Film making; Hindman (Ky.); Kentucky writers; Writing

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Arnow, Harriette Louisa Simpson, 1908-1986; Harriette Simpson Arnow: 1908-1986 (Motion picture); Hindman Settlement School; Motion pictures--Production and direction

02:06:47 - Parallels between the work of Appalshop and Harriette Simpson Arnow

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And, um, I have one more question about it.

Segment Synopsis: Smith discusses the parallels that exist between Arnow's work and the work of Appalshop, specifically speaking about how both he and Arnow had a fascination with the "old timey" ways, and their neighbors and kin--a fascination that oftentimes even close friends and family members didn't understand. Smith recalls a conversation he'd had where a good friend of his had insisted that he forget about the past and look to the future to move things forward. He also discusses the ways that they had learned from Arnow, just as they had learned from James Still. Smith remembers first meeting Arnow when she came to a reading hosted by Appalshop when the organization was first getting started. He says that a lot of the town leaders were in attendance--the majority of whom opposed Appalshop--and that Arnow was the first person to tell them that the work Appalshop was doing was important, and that they should support them.

Keywords: Film making; Keno (Ky.); Kentucky writers; Rural life; Whitesburg (Ky.); Writing

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachians (People) in literature; Appalachians (People) in motion pictures; Country life

02:16:08 - Changes in Appalshop

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Amazing. You've been so generous with your--with your time today and I, I, uh, would like to ask one last question--

Segment Synopsis: Smith discusses the ways in which Appalshop has changed over the years, specifically in the 1980s, referring to this time as a "maturing" time in the organization's history. He talks about the million-dollar renovation of the new building, and how it was in itself a statement to those who doubted them. The new building showed people that Appalshop was there to stay. He talks about how their fundraising capacity increased, allowing them to take on more work and begin new projects (e.g. WMMT radio station, Roadside Theater, etc.). Smith also talks about the opposition to Appalshop, saying that it was primarily rooted in generational differences. He says that, for example, WWII veterans couldn't understand what they were doing, and didn't like that they were criticizing the country while America was at war with Vietnam. Smith says that the work of Appalshop, and any cultural organization, is cumulative--over time, the body of work becomes more than each of its parts.

Keywords: Activism; Fundraising; Generational differences; Media; War on Poverty

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalshop, Inc.; Roadside Theater (Organization : Whitesburg, Ky.); Vietnam War, 1961-1975; WMMT-FM (Radio station : Whitesburg, Ky.); World War, 1939-1945