Be it the spoken word of an old story or rhythmic strumming on a homemade banjo, there is a sound in some voices, and in the fingers of some musicians, that can make you remember things you haven't even experienced. There is something powerful in the combination of gritty-sweet intonations, dialectic twists, and verbal shortcuts that can be found in some Virginian voices. These qualities are especially pronounced throughout Virginia's Appalachian region.
Thankfully, many of these souls' stories and music were recorded by adventurous and adept researchers such as ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Lornell's fieldwork comprises a large part of the audio recordings held in the Blue Ridge Heritage Archive of the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College. This extensive collection has preserved several hundred sessions of guitar picking, fiddle playing, traditional ballad singing, joke and storytelling, animal calls and impersonations, and downright normal conversations about the weather, foodways, and religious convictions. Until recently, the tapes have remained in the archives, available only for researchers willing to make the trip to Ferrum.
I have been blessed with the temporary occupation of digitizing recordings and contributing them, along with descriptive metadata, to the Digital Library of Appalachia (DLA). This resource is a project of the Appalachian College Association, and contains contributions from volunteers at more than a dozen of the ACA institutions. The library is a growing database of historic and culturally relevant documents, photographs, artwork, manuscripts, and sound files. The audio portion of the library constitutes the majority of the library's 12,000 items. Now the archived recordings made by Lornell and others, which have remained somewhat inaccessible to the greater public, reside in that global public forum so pervasive in today's educational realm, the Internet.
Access to the library is as easy as visiting the website ( http://www.aca-dla.org ). From the home page you may choose to browse individual institution collections and DLA categories or search for a particular term. The search term may be anything: a favorite instrument, a musical genre (a lot more than just old-time and bluegrass), a specific historical figure or musician, or a place name. If you are at a loss for search terms, click on the "advanced search" link, make sure only one institution is highlighted (Ferrum, Warren Wilson, and Berea have the largest audio collections), click on "selected fields," and then on "show terms." You will be presented with a list of all the terms contained in that field. Choose one and go from there. While browsing items, a simple click upon any hyperlinked (blue) word in the metadata will initiate a search for that word in the collection in which the item is contained.
The Blue Ridge Heritage Archive and, subsequently, the DLA contain a wide variety of audio tape beyond what was collected in the 1970s and 1980s by researchers. Personal collections of musicians and announcers who participated in the early live radio broadcasts from Roanoke constitute possibly the largest such collection in existence. This Roanoke Country Radio collection includes the music of professional bands in the early days of country and bluegrass (even before it was known by that name), as well as local string bands, comedians, hilarious commercials, and political songs so telling of the era. Many of the bands show the strong influence of the popular western swing of the 1940s and 1950s, mimicking groups such as the famous Sons of the Pioneers from California, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Another unique collection is comprised of the Southern Gospel music programs of radio host and musician Dewey Hill, broadcast by WBOB in Galax, Virginia, and WPAQ in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. These recordings were made in the 1950s and 1960s, and each one includes a number of different groups from varied denominational singing traditions. Among the other recordings housed in the archives are shape-note singing from Mennonite gatherings in the Shenandoah Valley, copious examples of Piedmont-style blues guitar, and recordings of now-rare African-American banjo players hailing from a tradition of square dances and harvest party music-making.
Needless to say, you'll hear more than fiddles and banjos when browsing through the DLA. There are recordings of mouth bow playing, hambone-style hand-patting, and the music of accordions, harmonicas, autoharps, bantars, dulcimers, quills, at least one ukulele, and more old-time music being played on pianos than you could listen to in an Alaskan summer day.
Whether you are an expert in cultural studies of Appalachia, consider yourself to be an enthusiast, or are simply curious about our regional heritage, there is plenty to learn from visiting the DLA site. The database is not only a digital warehouse of regional gems, but also a free opportunity to expand your musical awareness of some authentic Virginia entertainers.