Various Artists

Rough Guide to the Music of the Appalachians

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The Appalachian Mountains stretch from New England to Georgia, encompassing 18 states during their southward sprawl. The music of the area began with folk tunes imported by Scots-Irish and British settlers, pockets of whom were landlocked for decades. Visiting missionaries and schoolteachers were sometimes surprised to find small groups of their descendants still speaking antique English and singing songs that had long since been outmoded back in Great Britain. Outgrowths of this tradition became known as old timey music and was primarily played on instruments like the dulcimer, fiddle, and harmonica. However, with the coming of the railroad and the proliferation of the radio and other forms of mass-market communication, these populations not only began to learn from each other but to pick up outside influences from banjo-picking freed slaves, black and white church services, and Grand Ol' Opry broadcasts. The result was bluegrass, a string-driven, high-and-lonesome amalgam of several local styles that spread out from Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and the Virginias, eventually taking the South and then the rest of the country by storm. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Appalachians compilation concentrates primarily on the latter, showcasing agile fiddlers, guitar flat-pickers, and the sweetly nasal, high-pitched, close-harmony singing that characterizes the genre. But a few other tributaries are also represented. Ginny Hawker's plangent modal twang and Ralph Stanley's rough-hewn tenor both hark back to 19th century front-porch singalongs. Joe Thompson, born in 1918, was an African-American fiddler, a much-revered icon for generations of younger players. But Rafe Stefanini is something of a wild card -- he moved from Bologna, Italy, to Pennsylvania, where he is now a respected old timey fiddler and violin maker.

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