Exhibits Archives - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Once Upon a Time: Remembering and Sharing Family Stories

“Do you remember when…?”

“Let me tell you about your grandmother’s apple butter…”

“Uncle Roger, I want to hear the story about the time you thought you’d swallowed a water dog!”

November is Family Stories Month, and even though we are still in the middle of a pandemic right now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t share family stories with each other – whether it be in smaller, more socially distanced gatherings; through Zoom or WhatsApp or FaceTime; by writing them down in journals and scrapbooks; or whatever method takes our fancy!

Recording and telling stories – especially family stories – is a big part of southern and Appalachian culture and tradition. From fictional folk tales to the recording of your clan’s names in the family Bible, from the poetry and the storytelling of the region’s music to the family anecdotes we share around the table – all of these are ways for us to pass on our history, big and small, and to remember the good and the hard times.

My family is full of story tellers (my Uncle Roger DID think he swallowed a water dog once, and it is my favorite story to hear, over and over again – for those who don’t know, water dog is another name for a hellbender salamander). On my mother’s side of the family, meals and gatherings are filled with tall tales, stories, remembrances, exaggerations, all told in a southern fashion – in other words, slow and often rambling into other tangential realms. On my father’s side of the family, a cousin’s interest in genealogy has led to family trees and records way beyond the stories we’ve told to each other about more recent ancestors and descendants.


A hellbender is a type of giant aquatic salamander – also known as water dog, snot otter, and mud devil, amongst others. How my uncle was convinced that he had swallowed a water dog – in all probability an impossibility – involved my mother and her sister and their desire to make their younger brother sweat. Image from Wikimedia Commons, photographer: Brian Gratwicke

Family stories – and other historical and personal recollections – told through oral histories is one way that museums and other cultural institutions “collect” data and content for exhibits, research, archives, and programs – and for future generations. Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum we have incorporated oral histories and family stories into our exhibits and programming in multiple ways:

  • Upstairs in our permanent exhibits, a display titled “I Was There” shares excerpts from interviews with Ralph Peer, Ernest Stoneman, Maybelle Carter, Georgia Warren, and Clarice Shelor, giving first-person accounts of the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
  • In 2015 we held a “Tennessee Ernie Ford History Harvest,” an event where we invited members of the public to come to the museum to share any photographs or paper items, objects, and stories related to Ford, his life in Bristol, and his career. We scanned the images, newspaper articles, and other documents; photographed the objects; and spent several hours recording stories and memories of Ford, still a Bristol hero to so many. Not only did this give the public a chance to explore local history more deeply, but the resulting materials are now part of the museum’s archive and can be used for future educational and programming purposes. We hope to hold other “history harvests” in the future – for instance a hoped-for partnership with Black in Appalachia to record stories of African American musicians in this region.
  • At the museum’s symposium on the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions in 2017, we recorded oral histories by many of the descendants of the 1927 Bristol Sessions artists to learn more about the musicians who played and recorded here, to give context to the wider history, and to explore the impact that moment had on them, their families, and beyond. We have also interviewed different family members for blog posts, such as our post on Hattie Stoneman.

Recent educational work has focused on creating learning activity sheets, including one related to Real Folk, a special exhibit at the museum earlier this year. This activity sheet encourages children to find master artists or artisans in their family by talking to their parents, grandparents, and other relatives about special talents or skills they have or activities they enjoy doing, another route to learning more about your family.

Left: Focus in one "I Was There" panel shows the quote "I Was There" in a speech bubble at the top, three photographs interspersed with text, and a TV screen with the oral history video running.
Center: Two blondish/white-haired women sit on a bench laughing and talking with an man with glasses, short white beard, and overalls.
Right: The activity sheet has the title "Interview a Master Artist" at the top, with descriptive text and a list of interview questions below the title.

Left: The exhibit panel “I Was There” includes text, images, and a short video recording the memories of the 1927 Bristol Sessions by Ralph Peer and several musicians. Center: Roni and Donna Stoneman, daughters of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, share memories and stories with a member of the public at the 90th Anniversary of the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Right: The “Interview a Master Artist” activity sheet provides some prompt questions for discovering your family’s hidden talents. All images © Birthplace of Country Music

There are lots of articles and guides out there to help you tell and record your own family stories. Here are just a few that can help get you started:

And if you want some inspiration, check out StoryCorps whose mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” Over the years, they have recorded the stories of more than half a million people – from family stories to moments of history, from the small things to the big things in lives lived.

There are also tons of websites and books that will help you with some prompts to get the ball rolling on learning more about your family. Why don’t you try out a few of these questions at your next socially distanced family gathering?

  • What is your favorite story about your grandmother/father?
  • Where did you go to school, and what was your favorite subject?
  • Did you ever play a musical instrument? Which one?
  • Tell me about the places you have traveled.
  • What was the best concert you attended?
  • Did you play a sport in high school or college?
  • What is YOUR favorite family story?
  • Do you remember how you felt or what it was like when the Berlin Wall fell/Barack Obama became President/the Challenger space shuttle blew up – and, one day, when the COVID pandemic hit?

Finally, one last thing to remember: Family can be what you make of it – in other words, family stories can be those told by your relatives, but they can also be those told by the family you have created with your friends. All of these are part of your personal history and remembering them over the years will always bring you – and those you share them with – pleasure.

So start the conversation. Ask a few questions. Pull out some photographs to prompt the memories. Become the record-keeper and storyteller – for your family and friends!

The Power of Music: Suffrage Songs

Today is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In other words, it finally gave American women the right to vote and be represented.

Congress ratified this amendment on June 4, 1919, but it still needed to be affirmed by 3/4 of the states in order to become law. Suffragettes and their supporters had been working for this day since 1832, and the very first amendment for women’s right to vote was introduced in 1878, taking 42 years to reach ratification. The road was long and hard with women fighting through words, negotiation and diplomacy, and acts of civil disobedience to gain the right to vote. American democracy has been a beacon to many outside our shores, but it makes one pause to think that women only gained this basic right 100 years ago.

A line of women crowd in front of a building. They are wearing early 20th century clotes, and one of the women looks out from the line and directly at the camera.
Women line up to vote for the first time in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, after passage of the 19th amendment. Image courtesy of Bristol Historical Association

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is fortunate to have two poster exhibits that explore this complex history, the people who fought to be recognized, and the acts that brought them to victory on August 18, 1920. The first – Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence – comes to us from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This exhibit traces the story of women’s suffrage, of inclusion in and exclusion from the franchise, and of our civic development as a nation while also examining the relevance of this history to Americans’ lives today. The second – To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote, created by the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives – digs deep into the history of the woman’s suffrage movement, Tennessee’s dramatic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the years that followed. Both of these exhibits will be on display by September 1 and are definitely worth a visit over the next few months!

Right: The introductory panel for Votes for Women bears text and images on the subject, including a woman dressed in classical garb in front of a government building and a portrait of Ida B. Wells. Center: The graphic poster reads "Votes for Women" and "Equality is the sacred law of humanity" and bears the image of a woman's head with wings at her hair and a sculpture of a double-headed axe behind her. Left. The introductory poster for To Make Our Voices Heard has portraits of several suffrage leaders, text, and a picture of suffragettes marching.
Right and left: The introductory panels to the Votes for Women and To Make Our Voices Heard exhibits. Center: Graphic poster from the suffrage movement. Equality Is the Sacred Law of Humanity, c. 1903–1915; Lithograph by Egbert C. Jacobson Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

As a music museum, there is one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact, and so I wanted to explore some of the songs that helped fuel the suffrage movement. Artists have long used songs to throw light on the world around them – for instance, Hazel Dickens and other musicians who highlighted the tribulations and dangers of Appalachian coal mining communities or the anthems, often with their origins in African American spirituals and traditional hymns, that powered Civil Rights activists in the struggle. Music is a way for people to express their contemporary burdens and their dreams for a better future.

The women of the suffrage movement also lifted themselves up with song, highlighting the rights they were fighting for and inspiring them in that fight. The lyrics to these songs were often set to popular tunes or traditional hymns, thus making them easier to sing and remember. For instance, “Human Equality,” written in the 1870s by William Lloyd Garrison, was sung to the tune of another popular song used in support of labor reform and abolition. While not about women’s right to vote, the poem”Rights of Woman,” written by “A Lady” in 1795, declared women free and was later set to the tune of “My Country Tis of Thee.” “Daughters of Freedom” was published in 1871 and was composed by Edward Christie with lyrics by George Cooper, while a song by Frank Boylen from 1881 asked “Shall Women Vote?” America being the melting pot that it is, some songs also came from immigrant sources, such as “Damen Rechte (Suffragettes),” a popular Yiddish song that not only called for women’s right to vote but also extolled other freedoms and equality in society at large. Some songs were also written specifically for suffrage marches and meant to be played by brass bands, such as “Fall in Line.” Around 1880, D. Estabrook wrote “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” which on first glance seems to be anti-women’s rights with various men declaring that women should stay in their traditional roles and not expect equal rights. However, the last verse turns this notion on its head with the assertion:

I asked him “What of woman’s cause?”
The answer came sincere —
“Her rights are just the same as mine,
Let woman choose her sphere.

Left: The sheet music cover has bold script with the title of the song, and notes that it is for solo quartet and records the names of the composer and lyricist. Center: A female suffragette band marches down a wide city street. Left: The cover of the Songs of the Suffragettes album is bright pink and has an illustration of a suffrage meeting, with several people around a large table and an audience ranged behind them.
Right: Cover of the sheet music to “Daughters of Freed! The Ballot Be Yours.” Library of Congress. Music Division, Microfilm M 3500 M2.3.U6A44
Center: National American Woman Suffrage Association parade held in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. LC-B2- 2505-7, Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress
Left: Unfortunately, very few suffragette songs were recorded at the time of their usage, but you can hear many of these rousing songs on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight.

Where there was a fight for women’s rights, however, came societal and political push back – also expressed through music. Songs that mocked the suffragettes’ struggle and emphasized women’s “proper” place abounded, such as “Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette,” “The Anti-Suffrage Rose,” “Mind the Baby, I Must Vote Today,” and “Your Mother’s Gone Away to Join the Army” both published in the early 1910s. Various songs also questioned the other changes women were embracing, often deemed as “unladylike.” This was especially true as women pushed for less restrictive clothes like the “Bloomer costume,” which was attacked in the 1851 song “The Bloomer’s Complaint.” Women riding bicycles were also seen as a sign of these times; indeed, Susan B. Anthony viewed bicycles as doing “more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.” “Eliza Jane,” a song from 1895, brought all these horrors together – less restrictive clothing, bicycles, and the desire to vote!

Was there any connection between suffrage and the songs of early country music? I don’t know of any hillbilly songs that embrace the suffrage movement in song, but there are certainly a few songs that reflect the changes that were happening on this front and give hints to women moving beyond their stereotypical roles. For instance, The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions and sung only by Sara and Maybelle, contrasts the freedom of the singleton with the restrictions a married woman bears taking care of husband, babies, and home. And as with the anti-suffrage songs, there were also reactions from hillbilly musicians to the ways women’s roles were changing. Blind Alfred Reed, another 1927 Bristol Sessions singer, later recorded “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?,” which declared that “every time you bob it, you’re breaking God’s command,” and “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since,” which bemoaned the early days of Eve in the Garden of Eden and all the ways women were trying to be like men in contemporary society. More disapproval of women’s ways can be found in Ira and Eugene Yates recording “Powder and Paint” from the Johnson City Sessions in 1929.

Finally, it’s worth noting a couple of great songs that teach the history of the suffrage movement and celebrate its achievement. The first is from a much-loved slice of my childhood, Schoolhouse Rock“Sufferin’ till Suffrage,” sung by the wonderful Etta James. And then, of course, there is Dolly Parton (it’s ALWAYS Dolly…). In 2018, she contributed to 27: The Most Perfect Album, “a collection of songs about the Constitutional amendments that have shaped our democracy, and yet are often at the center of fierce political debate.” Dolly’s song about the 19th amendment starts with a brief spoken introduction to the suffrage story, and soon transitions into a rousing song about the fight for the vote.

Real Folk: A Few of My Favorite Things

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, in partnership with the Virginia Folklife Program. While the COVID-19 situation meant that for three months no one was able to visit the exhibit – except virtually – we have now reopened, and the exhibit is waiting to be enjoyed through its closing date in August!

This is one of my favorite special exhibits that we’ve had on display at the museum – the images by photographers Pat Jarrett and Morgan Miller are stunning, the stories of the master artists and apprentices told by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman are fascinating, and the range of crafts, trades, and traditions astounding.

Here are just a few of the interesting things I’ve learned from Real Folk:

A Virginia Town’s Salty Past

Saltville – found in the Southern Appalachians – is named for its unusually high number of salt marshes, or as locals call them, salt licks. Not only is the salt source extensive here, but the salt from Saltville is also especially salty – around 10 times saltier than ocean water! Saltville’s natural salt deposits have influenced the history of the region from the late Pleistocene period, when they attracted Ice Age mammals and Paleoamericans to the area, to early European traders to the Civil War when nearly two-thirds of the South’s salt was produced in Saltville and two bloody battles were fought here.


Jim Bordwine’s family has lived in and around Saltville since the 1770s. He has dedicated his life to educating the public about Saltville’s history and continuing its traditional craft of making salt, including passing down this knowledge to son Baron through an apprenticeship. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Quilt Signals

We have quite a few quilt connections in our museum – from the huge Birthplace of Country Music quilt hanging in our atrium to the quilt “tapestries” on sell in The Museum Store to the museum’s color scheme based on old quilts and flour sacks. Master Artist Sharon Tindall has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages integral to the success of the Underground Railroad, codes that told enslaved people about what to expect next on their journey and how to find safe haven.


Sharon Tindall specializes in early African American quilt patterns and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She shared her experience with apprentice Nancy Chilton. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

A Connection Between Music and Language

The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord or one-stringed instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Playing the đàn bâu can create microtones capable of imitating the six essential tones and variations of the Vietnamese language, nearly impossible to achieve with any other instrument. Traditionally, it is also used as an accompaniment to Vietnamese poetry readings.


Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing an instrument called the đàn bâu at 17, later touring and performing throughout the United States with her family. She is seen here with her apprentice Anh Dien Ky Nguyen. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

From Everyday Object to Musical Instrument

Music has often been made from everyday objects – for instance, think of a washtub bass or the spoons. The steel drum, or “pan” as it is called in the Caribbean, was invented in Trinidad around World War II, when island locals resourcefully crafted these instruments from oil drums left behind by the U.S. Navy. Contemporary pans are created when a 55-gallon steel oil drum is hammered concave, a process known as sinking. The drum is then tempered and notes are carefully grooved into the steel, resulting in a melodic percussive instrument that can play three full octaves.


Master Artist Elton Williams, who worked with apprentice Earl Sawyer, grew up in Trinidad and immersed himself in every aspect of steel bands. He is a musician, composer, tuner, and now one of the few steel pan makers in the U.S. © Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program

For the Love of Fonts

Prior to the advent of photocopiers, short-run quick print, email, and social media, the local letterpress was the primary producer of the vast majority of materials for mass communication – from church bulletins to wedding announcements to commercial advertisements, and so much more. My favorite elements of letterpress are the individual letters used in the printing process (and so many possible fonts!) and the wonderful act of rolling out the ink ready to print. We have our own letterpress studio here in Southwest Virginia at the Burke Print Shop in the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts.


Left: Images from the letterpress apprenticeship between Garrett Queen and Lana Lambert in the Real Folk exhibit. Right: Letter blocks at the Burke Print Shop. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program; © Rene Rodgers

Different Dulcimers

When I used to think of a dulcimer, I thought of one particular type – an hourglass-shaped instrument – because we had one like that hanging in our home when I was a child. Since then, I’ve learned there are many types of dulcimers (all from the zither family) that are played in many places throughout the world – from the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer to the banjo dulcimer and the bowed dulcimer – with different shapes and different ways of being played. The dulcimer from my house – and the one most familiar around our area – is the mountain dulcimer, a fretted string instrument that first appeared in the 19th century among Scots-Irish communities. It is also known as the lap dulcimer.


Left: Phyllis Gaskins, seen here with apprentice Anna Stockdale, plays the Galax dulcimer, which is lozenge-shaped, has four strings all tuned to the same note, and is played with a turkey or goose quill. The Galax dulcimer is intended to be an equal instrument in old-time string bands, mirroring the fiddle. Right: Master Dulcimer Maker Walter Messick apprenticed Chris Testerman, an award-winning fiddler who is already considered one of the great up-and-coming luthiers in the region. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

An Unorthodox Route to Creativity

The late Pastor Mary Onley, known as “Mama-Girl,” was a self-taught artist who came from generations of farm laborers, working in the fields herself at the age of 12. Severe allergies resulted in several hospitalizations, and during one of these, she reported being visited by a spirit who instructed her to create art out of paper and found objects – something she had never done before. She went on to become one of the most celebrated folk artists on the East Coast, creating lyrical newspaper and glue sculptures that reflected her inner visions and unique creativity.


In 2016, Mama-Girl taught son David Rogers her unorthodox artistic techniques and how to open his mind to receive his own divine artistic inspirations. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

Catching Up with Virginia’s Real Folk

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Two weeks later the museum closed its doors in accordance with the state mandate in response to the COVID-19 situation. Sadly that has meant we haven’t been able to share this wonderful exhibit with very many on-the-spot visitors, but happily we are able to share some of it with our virtual visitors! The curatorial team is hard at work on pulling together a virtual tour of Real Folk (so watch this space!), but in the meantime, we wanted to give you the chance to learn a little bit about the exhibit and the apprenticeship program right now.

Since 2002, the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program has drawn from a wide range of communities and traditional folkways to pair more than 150 experienced master artists with dedicated apprentices for one-on-one, nine-month learning experiences, in order to help ensure that particular art forms are passed on in ways that are conscious of history and faithful to tradition. The master artists are selected from applicants in all forms of traditional, expressive culture in Virginia – from decoy carving to fiddle making, from boat building to quilt making, from country ham curing to old-time banjo playing, from African American gospel singing to Mexican folk dancing. These crafts and traditions come from the Appalachian hills to the Chesapeake shore to new immigrant traditions brought to the state  – and everywhere in between! The Folklife Apprenticeship Program helps to ensure that Virginia’s treasured folkways continue to receive new life and vibrancy, engage new learners, and reinvigorate master practitioners.

Out of these apprenticeship pairings, deep friendships and relationships have grown as the master artists pass on their knowledge, skills, and passion for the various crafts and traditions, along with the history and cultural importance that attaches to each. For instance, Sharon Tindall, who worked with gifted quilter Nancy Chilton in 2014, specializes in early African American quilt patters and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She is also a quilt historian and has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages that were integral to the success of the Underground Railroad.

Close up of Sharon Tindall's hand holding a bright red pin cushion, filled with yellow head pins, over a red and white cloth.
Sharon Tindall holds a pin cushion above some brightly colored cloth. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

Several apprenticeships have focused on music, from music making to instrument building to the related art of dance. The variety of traditions on display within this realm is astounding, including African American gospel, Chickahominy dance, bluegrass fiddling, mandolin making, Sephardic ballad singing, steel drum making, and so much more. Because music is so central to the cultural heritage of southwest Virginia, numerous musicians, singers, and makers from this area have taken part in the program. Musician and luthier Gerald Anderson spent more than 30 years apprenticing in the shop of legendary instrument builder Wayne Henderson in Rugby, Virginia. Fellow musician Spencer Strickland recognized his mastery and skills, and asked if Gerald would take him on as an apprentice. Their time working together in 2005 turned into a deep friendship, musical partnership, and one of the longest running and most successful apprenticeships in the program’s history. Though barely out of his teens at the time, Spencer took to building instruments immediately, and the two soon opened their own shop in Gerald’s home in Troutdale. They also played and toured together as a duo and with the Virginia Luthiers. Gerald passed away unexpectedly in 2019, and Spencer has continued to build instruments and carry on Gerald’s memory.

Black-and-white image with a close up of two hands carving the body of a mandolin.
Working on a mandolin in Gerald Anderson’s workshop. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Morgan Miller

Many of Virginia’s cultural traditions have been brought here by immigrant communities, and the state is all the richer from this. These immigrants have shared their heritage not only within their own communities, but also more widely through educational programs, touring and performances, the creation of larger cultural organizations, and partnerships with other groups. For instance, Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing the đàn bâu at 17, later touring throughout the United States with her family as the Nguyen Đinh Nghĩa Family and performing at prestigious concert halls and festivals. The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord (one-stringed) instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Guitarist Anh Dien Ky Nguyen met Nam Phuong while playing at a music club, and he asked her to teach him the đàn bâu, partnering with her in the apprenticeship program in 2011.

Nam Phuon Nguyen in a green dress stands beside a seated Anh Dien Ky Nguyen in a brown vest. He is playing the instrument while she instructs. The shelves behind them are full of knick knacks, bottles, and sculpture.
Nam Phuon Nguyen and Anh Dien Ky Nguyen work together on mastering the art of the đàn bâu. © Virginia Folklife Program; photographer: Pat Jarrett

These few images are just a taste of this fascinating and beautiful exhibit, and we hope that you will be able to visit it later in the year. In the meantime, you can engage with the exhibit in another way by listening in to Radio Bristol’s Toni Doman as she talks with Virginia Folklife photographer Pat Jarrett about his work with the apprenticeship program — check out Episode 60 on March 12, 2020 in the Mountain Song & Story archives here. And you can support the artists who are so important to Virginia’s cultural heritage by going to Virginia Folklife’s website and exploring TRAIN (Teachers of Remote Arts Instruction Network). Created in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on the livelihoods of artists, TRAIN connects interested students of all skill levels with a diverse range  of master musicians, craftspeople, and tradition bearers offering online instructional opportunities. Start your lessons today!

Finally, keep an eye on our website for a virtual tour of Real Folk coming soon!

The Origin Project: Children Telling Appalachian Stories

Every people has to have its own stories…
If we don’t have our own stories then we don’t have our own soul:
we don’t have our own deepest possession, which is ourselves and our own unfolding…
Unless we cherish and savour our own [stories],
then we’re not going to know who we are and…we’ll become strangers to ourselves…
We’ve got to hold up a mirror to ourselves and create our own stories.
                                                                        ~ Leonard N Cohen

Writing is a valuable, sometimes vital, tool in human endeavour. 

Story writing is a particular talent: the memorialisation of personal experiences, tales, and narratives bequeathed by family or friends, teachers or mentors. 

The Origin Project is an in-school writing program co-founded by best-selling author and film director Adriana Trigiani and myself, an education advocate and long-time friend. It sprouted six years ago from the idea that Appalachia’s stories are national treasures, and its children should celebrate their roots. Our program inspires young people to discover and liberate their inner voices through the craft of writing about their unique origins; it celebrates diversity and inclusion. The Origin Project provides young people with the literary tools and confidence to harvest their unique heritages; it galvanizes their curiosity about, and respect for, each other.

Left: Adriana Trigiani standing on stage at the Barter Theater with an audience full of school children. Center: Three 4th-grade students holding Cynthia Rylant's book and copies of the school project lap books. Right: Adriana Trigiani posing with a young student in the Barter Theater.
Left and right: Adri and The Origin Project students at the Barter Theatre Kickoff Celebration in 2018. Center: Flatwoods Elementary School 4th-grade reading students with lap books made in response to When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. Photographs courtesy of Linda Woodward

Starting from 40 students in Big Stone Gap, Adri’s hometown, The Origin Project has grown organically to serve more than 1,500 students in 17 schools. We regularly import renowned authors – so far, David Baldacci, Meg Wolitzer, Margot Lee Shetterly, Mary Hogan, and Laurie Eustis – to meet with the students and share their personal writing experiences. 

Each fall, our students are given a personal journal and thereafter work on multiple projects or stories that speak of and to their heritage. Their work is professionally published at the end of the year in an anthology, presented to each student and made available in school and public libraries. The Origin Project is integrated with the Virginia Standards of Learning curriculum and collaborates with each student at her/his skill level to conceive, develop, and hone ideas into short stories, poems, plays, interviews, or other art.

The cover of The Origin Project Book Four (2018), which looks like a stained glass view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Origin Project Book Four, published May 2018. Photograph courtesy of Linda Woodward

It is a joyful surprise to read our students’ work, witness their growth, and observe the budding of their self-esteem. Through their creative writing with The Origin Project, our students “hold up a mirror” to themselves and thereby reclaim their “own deepest possession”: themselves and their “own unfolding.”

When Adri asked me to join her in founding The Origin Project, I had never been to Appalachia; upon my arrival, I even mispronounced its name. Over the past six years, I have fallen in love with the rolling blue mountains framing this extraordinary place that is home to magical people with unique stories to tell. Listening to students share tales of their heritage – of celebrations of Mamaws and Papaws and of personal successes and heartaches – has enriched my own life. I believe other readers of our annual anthologies experience similar reactions. Virginia has become my home-away-from-home.

Nancy sitting in a rocking chair in a school classroom, surrounded by 2nd-grade students as she reads to them.
Reading Lorraine: The Girl Who Sang the Storm Away by Ketch Secor to Flatwoods Elementary School 2nd graders. Photograph courtesy of Linda Woodward

Last year The Origin Project embarked on a collaboration with the Birthplace of Country Music. We brought a group of our students to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to tour For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, a temporary special exhibit made possible through NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Mid-America Arts Alliance. The experience provided a unique opportunity for our young writers to discover, through imagery portraying eye-opening events, some of the history of the Civil Rights movement in Appalachia and beyond. As Head Curator René Rodgers guided and informed our students, we learned that much of what was portrayed in this exquisite exhibit was rarely read or discussed in their curriculum. The culmination of the visit to the museum was a poetry workshop led by Langley Shazor, poet and president of The Casual Word. Langley provided the students with typewriters to drop them into the timeframe of the exhibit, and after a lesson on how to operate them, the students created emotional, profound poems that will be published in this year’s anthology.

Left: Langley Shazor, wearing a cloth cap, and Rene Rodgers, in a plaid flannel shirt, standing in front of the opening panel to For All the World to See (a picture of Gordon Parks with his camera). Right: Langley stands behind several students working on typewriter's in the museum's Learning Center.
Left: Langley Shazor and René Rodgers talk to The Origin Project students about For All the World to See and using the exhibit’s visual imagery for inspiration. Right: Students use old-fashioned typewriters to tap into their creativity after visiting the exhibit. Photographs courtesy of Linda Woodward

In the weeks ahead, we look forward to exposing as many of our students as possible to Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature, another temporary special exhibit on loan from the East Tennessee Historical Society and currently on display at the museum – one that will provide a priceless opportunity for them to “walk into the pages of a story of childhood in Appalachia!”

Eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Origin Project Book Five, we are busy planning five unveilings to celebrate the creations of our published authors. We are thrilled and excited to hold one of these events at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in May. We are deeply grateful to these new partners and friends, and look forward to many collaborations in the future!

Radio Bristol Book Club: Sounder

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Inspired by the museum’s current special exhibit – Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature – readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library are coming together each month to celebrate and explore one book featured in the exhibit. We invite you to read along and then listen in on Radio Bristol (via 100.1 FM, the website, or the app) on the 4th Thursday of each month at 11—11:30am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Our first book is Sounder by William H. Armstrong, which we will be discussing on-air on Thursday, March 28.

Sounder is the award-winning book that tells the tale of a sharecropper family and their beloved coonhound Sounder in the late 19th-century South. Life as a sharecropper is hard, and the father and Sounder must hunt for food for the family every night. When food is scarce, the father resorts to stealing to provide for his starving family. Not long after, the sheriff and his deputies come to arrest the man, and Sounder is shot in the process. What follows is a story that is at times gut-wrenching and yet hopeful as we learn lessons in the loyalty, love, and courage one needs in the face of overwhelming adversity.

William H. Armstrong’s Sounder was the recipient of several awards, most notably the 1970 Newbery Medal; this award honors the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” and is celebrated annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. In this installment of Radio Bristol Book Club, we will discuss the place that Sounder holds in literature, especially Appalachian literature. We will also discuss the way the author chose to tell this story and how effective this method was, both then and now.

Selfie of Amy Kimani peeking over the top of her copy of Sounder
You’ll find me always with a good book, and here I am reading Sounder! Photograph courtesy of Amy Kimani

We are so excited to bring Radio Bristol Book Club to you and cannot wait to discuss our first book! We hope you will join us and read Sounder for yourself. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local bookstore or stop by the Bristol Public Library and check out a copy of Sounder today! The librarians at the library will be happy to help you find a copy of the book in the format that suits you best, from book to audiobook to e-book.

Make plans to join us at 11:00am on Thursday, March 28 for Radio Bristol Book Club! And be sure to visit the Reading Appalachia exhibit, on display at the museum now through June 30, 2019!

Selfie Expression: #MuseumSelfie Day at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Today is #MuseumSelfie Day, a chance for museums across the globe to show the fun side of museums – and it’s not just for museum people! You can join in the fun by sharing your own selfie in our museum, or others!

Our BCM staff are pretty passionate about the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and they’ve stepped up on #MuseumSelfie Day before. This year I asked them to take a selfie in front of a panel, photograph or object in the museum’s exhibits that shared some surprising or particularly interesting information. Check out their picks below – and then come out to the museum, take your own selfie, and share it on social media with the tags #MuseumSelfie and #BCMMuseum.

Summer Apostol, Toni Doman, Kris Truelsen (Producer), Josh Littleton (Engineer & Technical Administrator), and Lawrence Inscho

You might have listened to our in-house radio station, Radio Bristol, but if you haven’t visited the museum yet, you might not know that not only is it a live, working radio station but it is also an integral part of our museum exhibits. Visitors can regularly see our DJs at work and be part of the audience for some of their live performance shows. Guests like Lawrence Inscho, a regular on On the Sunny Side, always bring a new and interesting perspective to our radio listeners, and Kris, Josh, and other members of the Radio Bristol team share their enthusiasm for their work every day! As Toni notes, it’s wonderful to see so many talented artists and guests visit the station and be continuously inspired by the museum, and hosting her own radio program, Mountain Song & Story, is also a blast especially when Summer stops in to help her out with sound effects for the show!

Scotty Almany, Digital Resources Manager & Catalog Associate

Did you know that the fiddle has also been called “the devil’s box”? This is my favorite piece of information in the museum. It has been used to stump many who have wagered that they knew the answer, be they docent, visitor or co-staff member. Diabolical knowledge!

Erika Barker, Sales & Business Development Manager

The Anatomy of a Hit panel talks about how 78rpm records could only play about four minutes of sound on average. Most early songs and ballads are much longer than that, and therefore they had to be rewritten and shortened to fit on the records accordingly. I had known since I was young that most songs on my old CDs and on the radio even today are about 3-4 minutes long, but I never knew why that length had been chosen as the music standard until reading this panel. Just goes to show how much early record recording techniques and equipment still influence the music industry today!

Rene Rodgers, Head Curator

There are so many wonderful objects in the museum, and I particularly love the early music playback machines from large phonographs within cabinets as can be seen here to phonographs with visible morning glory horns to portable cylinder players. What’s interesting to me is that these machines, along with the cylinders and records played on them, were usually sold in furniture stores, rather than dedicated music stores. Phonograph needles are also slightly surprising in that they were only good for a certain number of “plays” – so you had to keep buying them!

Summer Apostol, Frontline Associate

As a history major, and general lover of history, I think it’s critical to connect the past to the present – to show people that history is relevant and important! The museum does a beautiful job of showing its visitors that the 1927 Bristol Sessions are, in fact, very important and relevant. One way this feat is achieved is with the kiosks that let you listen to covers more modern musicians (like Nirvana) have arranged. One of the coolest spots in the museum, in my opinion!

Emily Robinson, Collections Manager

I’ve always associated old-time music with banjos and fiddles, so when you visit the museum and see the wide range of instruments that are part of that music, such as kazoos and ukuleles, it comes as a bit of a surprise. I was particularly interested to see that Alfred Karnes (possibly) played a harp guitar at the Bristol Sessions!

Toni Doman, Frontline Associate

Any time I get the chance to dance, I’ll take it! Here I am swinging with Pokey LaFarge in the museum’s Immersion Theater. Several of the images in the museum have been taken at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, and it’s great when people come to visit and then get to see themselves as part of the museum’s exhibits. A wonderful surprise!

Nathan Sykes, Production Assistant

One of my favorite ideas that is explored in the museum is the idea that genre is a concept that was made up to sell records. Before the record industry put terms such as “Hillbilly” and “Race” on the music, it flowed freely and transcended culture, and musicians played whatever music was called for. From breakdowns to blues to ballads, musicians adjusted their set lists to fit the occasion. To put it simply, good music is good music, and everything from polka to hip hop to bluegrass has value. When we set aside our preconceived notions of genre, our ears and minds are opened to new ideas and experiences we couldn’t imagine if we only think of music along strict genre lines.

High-Tech Vintage: Technology and the Delivery of Old-Time Sound

January 6 is National Technology Day – and so it seemed the perfect time to explore some of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum from the technology side of things! We’ve picked five elements of the content or the museum itself that tell just a little of the technology story here:

Recording and Playback Machines

The museum shares the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but it also explores how sound technology shaped their success and evolved over the years. Inventions such as recording and playback machines played important roles. For instance, in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which was instrumental in distributing music in the early 20th century, including the songs recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Writing an article in 1878 on “The Phonograph and its Future,” Edison listed other possible uses for his invention beyond playing music, including elocution and other educational lessons; audio books (before Audible and iTunes!); to create sound effects for children’s toys; and most intriguingly, “family records,” where the last words of dying family members could be saved for posterity, like that of other great characters of the day.

Other innovators contributed to the development of this type of playback technology. In 1881, Alexander Graham Bell invented the graphophone, an improved version of the phonograph developed by Edison, and in 1894, Emile Berliner invented the disc gramophone method, which used different machines to record and then to play back the sound. Where earlier recording and playback machines used cylinders, either coated in tin foil or wax, Berliner’s gramophone used flat disc records.

Left: Large room filled with musical instruments, a large phonograph and other equipment and furniture; center: A cylinder phonograph with rose red horn with cylinders and another machine nearby; right: A close-up showing the needle on a record disc.
Left: Thomas Edison’s Phonograph Experimental Department in the early 1890s; Center: A cylinder phonograph with rose red horn; Right: Record playing on a disc phonograph. Images are Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-90145] (left) and © Birthplace of Country Music (center, right)
Acoustic Design

The museum is a high-tech, interactive experience, one that is filled with music and sound. And because of that, it had to be designed strategically and carefully in order to provide the best possible experience to our visitors. For instance, the acoustic engineer advised the architects and exhibit designers on ways to define walls and ceilings to contain sound or keep it from bouncing around the open gallery spaces or the theater. The firm also worked closely with the technology team and media producers to define how the sound of each audio or audio/video production is delivered into the space. The goal was to provide an immersive experience, yet minimize unwanted “bleed” of sound between programs. Innovative acoustic wall panels and fabric mean that the acoustic technology is seamless and becomes a part of the museum experience itself, while speakers embedded underneath the pews in the chapel theater space mean that visitors feel like they are right in the middle of the congregation and they can often even feel it in their seats!

Left: The curved wall of the timeline with an oval white disc hanging above it; center: Several patrons sit in the pews of the chapel as they view the chapel film; right: The acoustic tile is a light beige color with several cut-out dots in a variety of patterns on its surface.
Left: A hanging acoustic panel above the timeline in the museum’s atrium exhibit space focuses the soundscape down towards visitors who stand in this area; Center: The sound design in the chapel helps patrons to feel like they are part of the congregation as they watch the film; Right: High-tech acoustic tile in the museum’s Performance Theater helps to make the sound experience in this space truly special. © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Neil Staples; © Hillmann & Carr; © Birthplace of Country Music

Orthophonic Technology

Orthophonic reproducers were an outgrowth of the electric microphones being used to record performers in the late 1920s. Electric recording captured a wider range of sound frequencies and produced recordings in which the instruments and voices sounded much more like live instruments and voices than they had on previous acoustic recordings. These reproducers were designed to be more sensitive to the nuances in the electric recordings, making the listener’s experience more pleasurable and true-to-life. The Bristol Sessions in 1927 were recorded using this process and many claimed that the Orthophonic recordings sounded even better than the live performances! Electric recording and Orthophonic machines, like later compact discs or HDTV, were a technological revolution that helped change the shape of the music industry.

Two sides of an Orthophonic reproducer -- one looks like the front of an old-time microphone, while the other bears the name Victor Ortophonic. Both sides are made of silver metal.
These Victor Orthophonic reproducers (front and back), donated by Bob Bledsoe, are the pieces of the Orthophonic Victrola that connected the record to the sound horn. A listener would insert a needle into the reproducer, which would follow the groove on the record. The groove created vibrations that were made into sound waves by the reproducer and amplified by the sound horn. © Birthplace of Country Music

The Radio Station

During the planning stage of the museum, the exhibit content team discussed ways to make the space focused on radio history into an engaging experience for our visitors. The result? Radio Bristol, a live radio station! With help from a team of radio industry advisers, BCM applied to the FCC for a low-power FM license, secured the antennae, transmitter and equipment necessary for broadcasting, and created a working radio studio in the museum. And that’s where the technology gets really interesting because the station uses vintage equipment from older Bristol radio stations, refurbished and repurposed for today. For instance, a Raytheon console from 1940s WCYB Radio, sourced from local radio buff and collector William Mountjoy, was rebuilt by engineer Jim Gilmore, retired engineer from TNN. One of the mics in the radio studio is from local station WOPI and was used by Tennessee Ernie Ford when he was a DJ there. And there are numerous ways to deliver music in the station – from a record turntable to a live recording booth to the digital ease of tablets and MP3s. The station is what we call high-tech vintage!

Left: A view of the radio station from outside the booths showing a DJ in the smaller room to the left and a band recording live in the larger space to the right; center: A view of the console, turntable, and other equipment in the DJ booth; Right: A musician on banjo plays while Martha Spencer flatfoots live on the Farm and Fun Time stage.
Left and center: The radio station in the museum has a booth for the radio DJ and a larger room for performers and musicians to record live; the DJ booth is fitted out with 1940s equipment upgraded to digital capability. Right: Live performances in the Performance Theater, such as this Farm and Fun Time show, can also be broadcast live from the museum and streamed on Facebook. © Birthplace of Country Music (left and center); © Birthplace of Country Music, photographer: Billie Wheeler

Technology Lessons

Finally, sometimes the technology isn’t an object from our collections or an innovative way to present the museum’s content. Rather it is found in educational programs where we share the story of that technology. For instance, for the past two years, museum staff and volunteers have participated in the Kingsport Mini Maker Faire where we have presented information about the museum’s exhibits and engaged in a variety of sound demonstrations, including an example of amplification and a homemade Chladni plate! We also offer a “History of Listening” lesson, available in the museum and to schools and other groups. Throughout history music has been experienced in a variety of ways, especially as advances in technology have developed over time. This lesson explores these technological changes and then compares how listening to music transitioned from being a mostly community-based activity, often through live performance, to listening either alone or together in person via technology and the virtual environments of cyberspace.

Left: A young girl listens to an explanation of amplification while looking at the equipment held by the head curator; Top right: A metal plate covered in blue sand sits between a museum volunteer and a young girl in one picture while the second shows the geometric pattern formed by the sound from the sound waves that have been directed to the metal plate; Bottom right: A drawing of the acoustic and electric methods of recording on a white board at a school in the first pic, while the second pic shows two tables bearing a variety of different playback machines such as a record player, a CD player, a tape player, and several cylinders and records.
Left: Museum head curator Rene Rodgers demonstrating sound amplification to a young visitor at the Kingsport Mini Maker Faire in 2017. Top right: Museum volunteer Matt Wood explains the Chladni plate to a child at the Kingsport Mini Maker Faire in 2018; the resulting pattern produced by sound waves. Bottom right: A basic drawing (very basic!) to differentiate the acoustic and electric recording methods during the “History of Listening” lesson at a local school; museum staff and volunteers demonstrate the lesson to teachers during a summer in-service. © Birthplace of Country Music

 

 

The Power of Music: Five Songs for Civil Rights

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.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTyKJjj2oC0

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.

The Great Golden Gathering: African-Americans Living History through School Traditions

The Great Golden Gathering celebrates the 14 former African-American elementary and high schools in upper East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and the surrounding areas that all closed for integration in 1965. Formed in 2015, the Great Golden Gathering reunites all of the alumni, bringing them together every two years to relive friendships, camaraderie, and their shared heritage.

Two alumni hold a large white banner with gold lettering announcing the Great Golden Gathering 2015.
Banner welcoming the participants to the first Great Golden Gathering in 2015. Photograph courtesy of Calvin Sneed

The 14 former African-American schools are:

Austin High School, Knoxville, Tennessee
Arty-Lee High School, Dante, Virginia
Bland High School, Big Stone Gap, Virginia
Douglass High School, Bristol, Virginia
Douglas High School, Elizabethton, Tennessee
Douglass High School, Kingsport, Tennessee
George Clem High School, Greeneville, Tennessee
Langston High School, Johnson City, Tennessee
Morristown West High School-Morristown College, Morristown, Tennessee
Nelson-Merry High School, Jefferson City, Tennessee
Prospect Elementary School, Gate City, Virginia
Slater High School, Bristol, Tennessee
Swift High School-Swift College, Rogersville, Tennessee
Tanner High School, Newport, Tennessee

While many of the individual school alumni associations occasionally hold their own get-togethers, the idea of a universal mega-reunion was introduced in 2015 as a way to celebrate former football and basketball rivalries between schools in the all-black former Tri-State Athletic Conference. Through those competitions, young African-American children got to know their neighbors in nearby cities pretty well. The rivalries quickly grew to include academic competitions like spelling bees, art competitions, and high school band and choral concerts.

Left pic: Two alumni greet each other with a hug; right pic: Several tables of alumni fill a room for the Great Golden Gathering banquet.
At the Great Golden Gathering in 2015, alumni greeted each other for the first time in years and came together for a celebratory banquet. Photographs courtesy of Calvin Sneed

The relationships forged years ago live on during the Great Golden Gathering, as alumni celebrate their connected histories and the legacies of the schools they attended.

“After all, we have always been really good friends,” says Langston High School graduate Bill Coleman. “By attending the Great Golden Gathering, we are celebrating the opportunity to come together one more time while we still can.”

The first Great Golden Gathering was held in Bristol, Virginia in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of the schools closing for integration. Alumni came from several states to renew friendships, laugh, joke, and rekindle – with good humor – old rivalries. It was also a chance to share displays from the alumni associations and to recognize achievements.

Calvin Sneed poses with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who holds a clear plaque honorarium.
Great Golden Gathering President Calvin Sneed presenting an honorarium to Reverend Jesse Jackson. Photograph courtesy of Calvin Sneed

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, noted statesman and founder of Rainbow/PUSH, sent a video message to the group banquet, commemorating the Gathering’s purpose and congratulating the participants for keeping the spirit of their schools alive. The 2015 guest speaker was Ms. Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee NAACP. Both received honorariums from the alumni for their service to the cause of civil rights. Enthusiasm was so high among the alumni at the inaugural event, that they all agreed to schedule a Gathering every other year, as many individual African-American school alumni associations do.

Purple Great Golden Gathering 2017 banner with yellow lettering including the names of the schools and a map of upper east Tennessee and southwest Virginia.
Welcoming banner for the 2017 Great Golden Gathering. Photograph courtesy of Calvin Sneed

The Great Golden Gathering 2017 was held in Kingsport, Tennessee, with the goal of “keeping all of the visiting alumni so busy, that they would forget they were tired”! After many activities, alumni were spellbound by the banquet speech of Tennessee State Representative Johnnie Turner of Memphis, a soldier in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1950s for which she was also given an honorarium from the group. Her speech on the struggles of African-Americans during segregation and integration was a familiar story, one that everyone identified with and understood.

“Each Great Golden Gathering is a good fellowship with people that you love,” says Douglass-Kingsport graduate Douglas Releford. “We’d had folks on walkers, in wheelchairs, and on canes attending the Gatherings, and some of them bring their grandchildren and great-grandchildren with them. We always have activities for them, and through displays, they can learn about the heritage of the schools their ancestors attended.”

“It’s not just our history,” he continues. “It’s their history, too.”

Several tables filled with alumni at the Great Golden Gathering banquet in 2017.
The second Great Golden Gathering in 2017 in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photograph courtesy of Calvin Sneed

Many Gathering attendees have lamented the fact that their collective histories are vanishing with the passing of alumni, and when that history is gone, it could be gone forever.

Larry Bell, who graduated from Slater High School, told the Bristol Herald Courier at the first Gathering reunion that in the past, many younger African Americans would respond in disbelief when he told them he “grew up in an era when blacks and whites attended separate schools. They could not understand that at one point in our history, blacks could not sit at the same lunch counters as whites, use the same restrooms, or drink from the same water fountains.”

A line of alumni hold hands as they gather together in prayer at the Great Golden Gathering.
School alumni forming a Prayer Chain after the Great Golden Gathering’s Memorial Prayer Service. Photograph courtesy of Calvin Sneed

I know that how we overcame those inequities is wrapped in the histories and legacies of these wonderful schools that taught us that we are people too. It is the single most important thing that we as alumni can pass on to our descendants through the Gathering. Along with reading, writing and arithmetic, life itself was taught to us in our schools, as integration loomed ahead. We were taught how to survive outside segregation.

And so there is an urgency to the Great Golden Gathering mega-reunions. Our numbers are deteriorating fast, and we don’t want to not be able to see each other – and of course, there’s going to be a time when we want to see each another and cannot. That’s why we have got to enjoy each other now, the hugs and laughter as we once did, right now, because tomorrow is not promised.

Three alumni post for a selfie together.
School alumni saying goodbye after the Great Golden Gathering Memorial Prayer Service in 2017. Photograph courtesy of Calvin Sneed

The next Great Golden Gathering is scheduled for Johnson City, Tennessee, in 2019. The idea is to rotate each Gathering among the schools’ alumni bases. You can learn more about a few of the African-American schools in this area at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s current special exhibit, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, which includes a supplementary display on Slater and Douglass schools in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia.