January 2024 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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A Blog of Soundtracks and Books

Connections between the Hunger Games and Appalachian Traditions and Music in the Hunger Games

By Erika Barker, Curatorial Manager

Sometimes people discover new passions in unexpected places. The 2023 release of the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is helping introduce new audiences to Appalachian culture and country music. Although it might be surprising that a dystopian young adult novel about children being forced to fight to the death could even loosely be based on real cultural and physical landscapes, this is not the first time a Hunger Games book has sparked a conversation about Appalachia. 

The first Hunger Games book was released in 2008 and spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Since then, the series has been translated into 52 languages and sold over 100 million copies worldwide. The first three books have won a combined 77 literary awards with the film series grossing over $3.3 billion worldwide and is the 20th highest-grossing film franchise of all time. The books are about a totalitarian country that forces two teenagers from each of its subjugated districts to fight as tributes in a highly publicized battle to the death called the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are an annual reminder of the Capitol’s power and the failed rebellion of previous generations from the districts. Although the series is fictional, through the popularity of these books, and their respective movies, a wider audience has been subtly introduced to some of the places, people, and music that makes Appalachia unique.

So, how does the Hunger Games make people think about Appalachia? Well, Suzanne Collins’s fictional country of Panem is set in North America at an unspecified date in the future after an apocalyptic event has left the continent with little resemblance to the Americas we know today. The country is divided into a Capitol and 13 districts. Each district has a distinctive export that symbolizes that region, such as luxury items, textiles, grain, livestock, fishing, or electronics. Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the original trilogy and Lucy Gray Baird, a protagonist in the prequel, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes are both from District 12, a district centered around coal mining. These two characters give us a glimpse at the fictionalized traditions inspired by real Appalachian people. Here are just a few examples of real Appalachian music, landscape, and cultural connections found in the world of The Hunger Games. 

Two images show a group of coal miners walking forward in the open. The image on the left is a scene from the 2012 Hunger Games movie and shows citizens from Panem wearing helments, dark clothing, and carrying lunch boxes. The image on the right features a historical image of coal miners in the same setting from the mid 20th century.
Left: Still of miners from District 12 in The Hunger Games (2012) film. Right: Miners Line Up to Go Into the Elevator Shaft at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #4 near Richlands, Virginia. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 556338.

Mining and southern stereotypes 

District 12 is based in the southern Appalachian region, an area that has historically produced and exported coal as a resource across the country.  Several movie scenes were filmed in North Carolina where interested fans and movie buffs can visit those locations and experience the natural beauty of the region firsthand. Although Katniss and Lucy Gray both think fondly of the woods and natural landscapes of the district, they are not blind to the plight of the people living there. 

District 12 is the poorest district, with industry centered on coal mining. Throughout all three Hunger Games books and the prequel, many citizens of Panem look down on District 12. Outsiders talk about the district in ways that resemble the real-life negative stereotypes often placed on the people of Appalachia

In Appalachia, the coal industry has sustained mountain communities for over a century despite being a notoriously dangerous profession. In addition to being an intensely physically demanding job, occupational hazards such as collapses, explosions, accidents, and ailments like Black Lung disease have ensured coalfield communities are consistently among the least healthy. Oppressive business practices, like those portrayed in the Hunger Games reflected in the Capitol’s treatment of District 12, led to even worse living conditions and quality of life for coal miners and their families. 

Beyond the surface-level similarities between the fictional and real-world regions, there is also a strong underlying similarity in the history of resilience and resistance found in the people of Appalachia. It is fitting that the location of the West Virginia Mine Wars was the inspiration for the birthplace of the girl who was brave enough to defy the Capitol with compassion and spark a revolution.

Protest Music

Appalachia has a strong tradition of turning current events, especially tragic events, into songs. In A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Lucy Gray Baird writes a song after witnessing a hanging. Lucy Gray’s “The Hanging Tree” is reminiscent of Florence Reece’s Which Side Are You On,” which Reece wrote after a raid on her house during the Harlan Country Wars. The song became a popular protest song and has been used for many causes since. In the same way, Katniss Everdeen sings Lucy Gray’s “The Hanging Tree” over 60 years later, turning the tune into the anthem of a revolution. Just like how music reaches people on an emotional level, often inspiring them to action in the books, music has been used as an outlet for frustrations and a rallying cry for solutions throughout much of Appalachian’s history. 

Video: Black Lung was written by Hazel Dickens about her brother’s struggle with the miner’s disease.


Murder Ballads are one of the most popular forms of balladry in folk music today. Ballads are a narrative form of songwriting that tells a story, in this case, one of murder. The book, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is written in much the same way as a traditional murder ballad and explores many of the same themes commonly found within the genre. Murder ballads often expose the weakness of humanity in much the same way Coriolanus Snow realizes the brutality of hunger games in the books. 

The Carter Family

To the left is a promotional black and white photo of the Carter Family holding guitars and facing the camera. AP Carter is seated in the middle sitting on decorative furniture while Maybelle and Sara are standing on both sides of AP. Sarah and Maybelle are both holding guitars. The image on the right features a scene of a young women holding a vintage Gibson guitar and singing on a dimly lit stage, a scene from the recent film.
A publicity still of The Carter Family – Maybelle holds her Gibson L-5 guitar. From the collection of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University. Still of Rachel Zegler as Lucy Gray Baird in The Hunger Games: A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

The early country music scene of the 1920s and 1930s is easily spotted in the dance scenes at the Seam – referring to the most distressed area of district 12 – in A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Collins even pays homage to The Carter Family when Maude Ivory sings “Keep on The Sunny Side.” While many of the songs are inspired by the real music of Appalachia but written as originals for the books and movies, “Keep on the Sunny Side” is one of the few cover songs that make an appearance. Lucy Gray’s vintage Gibson L-10 guitar is another notable nod to the Carter Family. While Lucy Gray’s guitar may not be the exact same model, it is clear that an effort was made to match Mother Maybelle’s iconic guitar.

The soundtrack

Much like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack from 2008, the 2023 soundtrack for A Ballad of Song Birds and Snakes is making waves and bringing new attention to country music styles. Many roots and Americana musicians are represented on the soundtrack including Billy Strings, Sierra Ferrell, Charles Wesley Godwin, Bella White. Molly Tuttle contributed her version of another Carter Family classic, “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” which they first recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions! Tuttle also lends her guitar skills to the character of Lucy Gray. She and Dominick Leslie provided the guitar and mandolin parts for much of the film. 

May the music be ever in your favor.

Erika Barker is the Curatorial Manager at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. 

The Power of Music: Five Songs for Civil Rights

January 15th is recognized as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In recognition of Dr. King’s important work and fight for the equal rights of  black Americans during the Civil Rights movement, this blog details the music of the movement.  Originally  posted on December 29, 2018 and written by Rene Rodgers. 

Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, we’ve spent the past month and a half exploring the power and impact of visual imagery through the NEH on the Road exhibit For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights (on display until January 7, 2019). But we’re a music museum, and one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact too.

And that is certainly true when you think about the music of the Civil Rights movement. Many of these songs had their origins in traditional hymns and African American spirituals, and while they weren’t all originally about freedom and social justice, their message was clearly relevant. Some were also revised to include new lyrics that spoke directly to the issues people were facing, such as voting rights. Others grew out of the musicians’ personal experiences or observations of the discrimination around them.  These songs – often and rightfully called anthems – inspired determination and bravery, helped to lessen fears and steady nerves, focused activists’ passion and energy on the task at hand, and acted as motivators to protesters and observers alike. They were delivered by professional musicians and groups like the Freedom Singers, but more importantly they became the unified voice of ordinary people displaying extraordinary courage at rallies, marches, and protests and in churches, meetings, and workshops.

The album cover shows the CORE logo, the title, and a series of music notes in the form of diner counter stools.
The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) produced a record of “sit-in songs” in 1962, which included “We Shall Overcome.” The musical notes are in the form of diner counter stools. This record went along with the Freedom Highways project, when activist volunteers worked to integrate chain restaurants along the main federal highways. Image from https://library.duke.edu/exhibits/johnhopefranklin/civilrights.html

There are many accounts of this music history and the songs of the Civil Rights struggle in books, audio collections, and films such as Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, We Shall Overcome: A Song That Changed the World, Let Freedom Sing: The Music of the Civil Rights Movement, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966, Freedom Song: Young Voices and the Struggle for Civil Rights, and Soundtrack for a Revolution (screened at the museum in November). All of these are worth exploring to get a better understanding of the place and significance of music in the fight for civil rights over the years.

A blog post about this music would be incredibly long – it’s a long and interesting history and each song has a story! And so, we’ve chosen just five songs that highlight the power of this music, including a brief history or description of each, to get you started on an incredibly inspiring musical journey.

“Uncle Sam Says,” Josh White (1941)

Josh White’s 1941 record Southern Exposure: An Album of Jim Crow Blues, co-written with poet Waring Cuney, was called “the fighting blues” by author Richard Wright, who wrote its liner notes. One of its songs, “Uncle Sam Says,” highlighted the frustration felt by African Americans when faced with the continuing effects of Jim Crow even as they fought and gave their lives for their country. It was inspired by White’s visit to his brother at Fort Dix in New Jersey where he saw the segregated barracks and unequal treatment of the black servicemen. After the album was released, White was invited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House for a command performance, the first black artist to do so.

“This Little Light of Mine,” Rutha Mae Harris

For many of us, “This Little Light of Mine” is a song of our childhood sung at school or church. But the song has a much more interesting history within the Civil Rights movement and beyond as a “timeless tool of resistance” – check out this NPR piece from August 2018 that celebrated the song as a true “American Anthem.” The song, both a spiritual popular in the black churches and a folk song, became even more impactful when it was employed by Civil Rights protesters and activists who often personalized the lyrics to the situation or as a way to name the oppressors they were facing. Original Freedom Singer Rutha Mae Harris demonstrates the energy and power of the song as she leads a contemporary group in its verses at the Albany Civil Rights Institute:

“I Shall Not Be Moved,” The Harmonizing Four (1959)

This African American spiritual is based on Jeremiah 17:8—9, reflecting the idea that the singers’ faith in God will keep them strong and steadfast. The song became a popular resistance anthem during the Civil Rights movement, especially in relation to sit-ins; it was also used as a labor union protest song. As with “This Little Light of Mine,” the lyrics were sometimes altered to speak to the specific cause. Maya Angelou’s poetry collection I Shall Not Be Moved was named after the song.

“Why Am I Treated So Bad?,” The Staple Singers (1966)

The Staple Singers met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 after a performance in Montgomery, Alabama. Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the band’s patriarch, said afterwards: “I really like this man’s message. And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.” The group went on to write and perform many Civil Rights songs, including “March Up Freedom’s Highway” and “Washington We’re Watching You.” “Why Am I Treated So Bad” was written in reference to the treatment of the nine African American children at the forefront of integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. It became a particular favorite of King’s and was often sung before he spoke to a crowd.

“We Shall Overcome,” Mahalia Jackson (1963)

One of the most well-known songs of the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome” exemplifies the resilience, determination, and hope of the activist leaders and the everyday protesters alike. Its origins stretch back to the early 20th century with Charles Tindley’s “I Will Overcome.” Striking workers took up the song in the 1940s, later sharing it with Zilphia Horton at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a center for social justice and activism. White and black activists came together at Highlander for workshops and planning during the Civil Rights movement, and some of that work involved learning songs and how to employ them in protests. Musical director Guy Carawan learned a version of the song from Pete Seeger; Carawan later introduced the song at the founding convention of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. (To hear Candie Carawan talk about the work at Highlander and the power of music during the Civil Rights movement, check out December 19’s archived On the Sunny Side show on Radio Bristol; her interview is towards the end of the show.)


Finally, did you know that there is a connection between Carter Family favorite “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and civil rights? The song has been sung by various activist musicians, including Jimmy Collier and the Movement Singers and Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, and an audio history of the Civil Rights movement takes the song title on as its name.

Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.