The Appalachians

The Appalachians

Fri, 08/12/2011 - 7:00pm - 10:00pm

Pictured: Appalachian mill

Photo credit: West Virginia Film Commission and West Virginia Department of Tourism.

The dramatic history of a land and its people, told in story and song.

The vast Appalachia region stretches across 13 states and is home to more than 23 million people, yet it may be the least understood culture in America. Appalachia has existed for generations as a region apart, isolated physically and culturally by its rugged mountains. The ethnically diverse Appalachian people — including many of the country's first immigrants — played a profound, and often overlooked, part in the nation's history and cultural and economic development. THE APPALACHIANS is a comprehensive historical and cultural overview of this distinctive region. This three-part series documents the unique legacy, courage, character, arts and culture of the central and southern Appalachian people. The film includes the work of outstanding Appalachian historians and scholars, writers and musicians, including Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn and traditional folk artists from the region.

The Appalachians airs Friday, August 12 at 7 p.m. on WXXI World (cable 524/DT21.2).

The Appalachian Mountains have been called America’s “first frontier.” The brave pioneers who settled this great wilderness played a distinctive part in the nation’s history, and their story is the story of America: immigration, settlement, the Revolution and the Civil War, the growth of industry and the use and abuse of land. In addition, Appalachia has had a great impact on American music, folklore and culture, giving birth to what we know today as country music.  The region is home to ten million people who live in the beautiful range that runs through parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. 

THE APPALACHIANS, a three-hour documentary airing on public television stations is the definitive program on this region, and provides a fresh perspective on this rich part of American heritage. Executive producer Mari-Lynn C. Evans was born in West Virginia, and spent five years creating this history of her region. Says Evans: “My goal was to link the past and present through an intimate portrait of the land and its people, to showcase a culture that is still alive and vital today.”

THE APPALACHIANS is a special television event that presents a dramatically human overview of the Appalachian United States.  Following an historical chronology, the narrative thread features the colorful writings of common people and historical figures. Personal stories are told on camera by people whose families have lived in Appalachia for generations.  Along with comments from historians, artists such as Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn and a host of others help to tell this remarkable story through word and song. Says writer/producer Phylis Geller: “We created a format with two parallel strands: the social/economic history, and the music. Each song on the soundtrack was chosen because the lyrics help move the story forward.” 

The documentary finds that the mountains and people of Appalachia have always played a critical role in American history.  They have been closely tied to the nation’s economic fate – in particular, the roller coaster cycles of boom and bust with coal, timber and steel.  The cultural fabric of the nation has been deeply interwoven with the music, literature, folklore and art of the mountain people. 

Hour one of THE APPALACHIANS begins with a look at the earliest settlers of the Appalachians – Native Americans, many of whom were Cherokee.  In the 1700s, Europeans arrive in the area in search of independence and land.  Scots-Irish and other Europeans begin to settle the land and bring many of their music and traditions with them.  By 1730, a third of the Cherokee are wiped out by European diseases.  The settlers are committed to the American Revolution and help to overthrow the British.  Whiskey made by the Scots-Irish began to flourish, leading to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791.  Large religious tent meetings became increasingly common and gospel music helps to influence the country music of the region.

In hour two, President Jackson relocates Native Americans west along the Trail of Tears.  The Civil War splits the allegiances of mountain communities in half.  The Hatfields and McCoys engage in the most famous family feud in American history.  Modernization gradually arrives and railroads slash through the mountains.  Timber and raw materials are stripped from the region. Mining companies drive families off their lands and soon control entire communities in company-owned mining settlements.  African-Americans and European emigrants arrive and mix with white Appalachians.  Miners demand better working conditions and the Coal Wars begin.  The U.S. Army is brought in and shocking violence ensues.

In the third and final hour of THE APPALACHIANS, the Appalachian string band is formed by combining fiddle, dulcimer, mandolin, guitar and banjo.  The phonograph and radio bring the outside world into Appalachia and, in turn, Appalachia to the outside world through country music. The Great Depression devastates the region and many miners move to the cities in search of work. President Roosevelt introduces The New Deal, providing jobs, dams and electricity to the region. Modernization decreases the need for coal.  The practices of strip mining and mountain top removal scar and pollute the landscape.  Despite their hardships, the people of the Appalachians do not let their culture fade away.