Preserving Southwest Virginia’s Folklore

by Ramond Burgin

from Inquiry, Volume 1, Number 2, Fall 1997, 6-9

© Copyright 1997 Virginia Community College System

Return to Volume 1, Number 2


Burgin has begun the time-consuming process of preparing an inventory and indexing the vast archival collections gathered by students in American Folklore classes at MECC and by the Southwest Virginia Folklore Society.

The southwestern tip of Virginia is unlike any other part of the state. Geographically, the region is separated from the rest of Virginia by the Blue Ridge, which forms its eastern boundary. Economically, it has long been dependent on coal mining rather than agriculture or industry, and thus has more in common with the eastern Kentucky and West Virginia coalfields than with other areas in Virginia. The coal companies are leaving; unemployment is high, and rising.

Historically, the region was settled primarily by Scots-Irish frontiersmen who made their way down along the Blue Ridge from Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century, with some Germans from the same state and some Highland Scots from the North Carolina mountains. The area retained its frontier atmosphere very late, with few towns growing up until the beginning of coal exploitation after the Civil War. Slavery was never widespread in Southwest Virginia, and pro-Union sentiment was strong, often leading to sharp divisions between and even within families. The African-American minority remained very small in Southwest Virginia.

Politically, there may occasionally be some justification for the “stepchild complex” of many Southwest Virginians who feel that the state government cares little about the region or its needs.

Isolated geographically, economically, historically, politically, and even geologically (it has its own geological province, the Valley and Ridge), Southwest Virginia has developed and retained its own highly individual traditional culture, similar but not identical to that of other parts of the Southern Appalachians. Ballads, songs, tunes, tales, legends, customs, beliefs, material culture, and folklife techniques have survived in the oral tradition of this region long after their extinction in most of the English-speaking world. Many of these cultural artifacts were already ancient when they were brought in by the first Scots-Irish settlers; many were born here as direct expressions of the specific local historical background. Physical isolation, both of the region itself and of family and other small groups within the region, contributed to the growth of this distinctively regional oral tradition, which is rich, varied—and dying.

Many, if not most, of the younger generation in Southwest Virginia are acutely sensitive to the negative “hillbilly” stereotype with which the area has long been stigmatized. In their determination to fit into the mainstream of American youth culture, to avoid being labeled “hillbilly” or “hick,” they reject the often centuries-old traditions of their parents and grandparents. In Southwest Virginia, the generation gap is a culture gap.

Other factors, such as media proliferation and the general homogenization of American society, have contributed to the breakdown of oral tradition and the elimination of its natural folklife contexts. The country store, a haven for storytellers, has been replaced by Wal-Mart. The old-time traditional music is still heard, but it is rapidly being drowned out by the sounds of rock, Nashville country, and the ubiquitous modern bluegrass.

Concerned about this situation, I began actively collecting the folklore of the region in 1990. Starting in the following year, with the inauguration of my American Folklore (ENG 281-2) classes at Mountain Empire Community College, I was able to train and enlist students in the work. A Folk Music (MUS 127) class was initiated last year.

In late 1992 I founded the Southwest Virginia Folklore Society, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and disseminating regional traditions. It currently has about 20 active volunteer members living and working in the seven Southwest Virginia counties of Lee, Scott, Wise, Dickenson, Buchanan, Russell, and Washington. Supporting members are spread from Massachusetts to Mississippi. The Society is currently working on the second issue of its irregularly-published journal, Southwest Virginia Folklore.

The Society also operates an Archive of Southwest Virginia Folklore, currently located in Pound. The Archive will house a rapidly growing collection, which at this writing consists of over 400 field recordings on cassette tapes, over 75 videotapes, and about four linear feet of manuscripts, all collected by members of the Society, my students, and me. This is small in comparison to major archival collections, but it is comprehensive enough even now to provide an accurate overview of oral tradition as it currently exists in the region. The collection is growing almost daily and will continue to expand.

The collected material is useless, however, until it is inventoried and indexed. This cataloguing is the bottleneck in the whole collection-preservation process. To be of any value, it requires that the cataloguer possess a fairly sophisticated level of specialized knowledge about the material and about academic folklore studies. Folklore field collecting can be done by volunteers with a minimum of prior training; inventorying and indexing the collected folklore cannot. So far, the only volunteer with an adequate technical knowledge of the field has been me.

Teaching a typical load of at least 15 semester hours, plus collecting in the field whenever possible, left me very little time to catalog the collection. As my frustration level rose, rescue appeared in the form of the Virginia Community College System. The announcement in 1994 of the VCCS Professional Development Initiative offered the one thing I needed most: time. I jumped at the chance, and was the first applicant from my college. I was awarded six semester hours of released time in the fall of 1994, and, in a second grant, an additional three semester hours in spring 1995.

Cataloguing was an important goal of my professional development grants; the other goals were increased field collecting and journal publication based on the collection. A fourth goal, the outlining of a projected book-length study of the material, was added between semesters. Also there was one more goal, stated in the subtitle of the project’s name: “A Study of Southwest Virginia Folklore: Qualitative Research for English 281-2, American Folklore.”

These goals were simply continuations of the work I was already doing, but the grants allowed me to do much more of that work. My field collecting did increase greatly during those semesters. Also, based on the traditional music in the collection, I have written a long article, “Folk Music in Southwest Virginia Today: A Preliminary Glimpse,” which will be published in the coming issue of Southwest Virginia Folklore and will later be a major part of my planned book. Tentatively titled The Southwest Virginia Songbook: Traditional Music from the Coalfield Counties, the book was outlined during the spring 1995 semester. Work on it has since proceeded to the selection of songs and ballads for inclusion. A fringe benefit to all of this has been a marked improvement in my teaching of ENG 281-2 (and, later, MUS 127) as I have learned more about the rich oral traditions of this region.

The greatest value of the Professional Development grants, however, lay in the increased time they allowed me to spend on cataloguing. The contents of the first 50 audio tapes in the collection have now been thoroughly inventoried. The same is true for the first 50 documents (a total of 646 pages) and for the first fifteen videotapes. Some of this work was done either before or after the VCCS grants, but much of it was accomplished during those semesters; in fact, the Archive could not be established until those grants allowed the cataloguing of enough material to establish it. The Archive opened, admittedly on a very small scale, in November of 1994, with twenty audio tapes, 27 documents, and no videotapes. It has more than doubled in size with the addition of the newly inventoried material.

At the Archive’s opening, only the musical material in it was indexed. Since then (beginning in the spring of 1995), everything inventoried and deposited in the Archive has been indexed. The one index has now grown to six, most of which are divided into a number of subdivisions. The indices make the archival material usable for research at any level of scholarship.

Only a small fraction (roughly an eighth) of the total collection has so far been inventoried and indexed. Cataloguing is still a bottleneck. Obviously, the growth of the inventories and indices will continue to lag considerably behind the growth of the collection. On the other hand, despite this limitation, they already contain a large amount of material, enough to make them eminently usable for scholarly research. For example, the Inventory of Audio Tapes is currently 57 single-spaced pages long. The Index of Narrative Material is 20 pages; the Index of Folklife, Traditional Techniques, and Material Culture, 27 pages. The Secular Songs portion of the Music Index is 62 pages long. The value of these inventories and indices will increase with their size, but it is already considerable.

The indices and inventories (and, with certain restrictions, the collected material itself) are freely available to any interested party in the VCCS. Contact Ramond Burgin at Mountain Empire Community College, P.O. Drawer 700, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219, (540) 523-2400, e-mail Eventually, the inventories and indices will be put on an Internet Web site now in the planning stage.

The folklore of Southwest Virginia is rich, diverse, and endangered, and the Virginia Community College System has played a valuable role in helping to preserve it.

Ramond Burgin is the founder and president of the Southwest Virginia Folklore Society. A former professional actor and director, he is an assistant professor of Speech and Theater at Mountain Empire Community College.