Music of Appalachia
Tennessee native, Charles Priest, shared the music of Appalachia at his March 27 presentation.
Lydia Freeman, Jacqueline Puglisi
April 10, 2012
Charles Priest captured his audience through stories, use of his instruments, and a genuine passion for Appalachian music during his March 27 presentation at Bluefield College.
“Appalachian music is part of my identity; it means just as much to me as a Beethoven symphony,” said Priest, assistant professor of music at BC. “In fact, it means more. If I had to choose, I would choose this.”
Dr. Charles Priest playing the fiddle
Originally from Tennessee, Priest grew up around the instruments he shared with the audience.
“Most of the instruments I am sharing tonight aren’t instruments I have formally studied on,” said Priest. “I finally took guitar because I figured out that it was a way to the ladies’ hearts.”
Though he has not studied any of the instruments formally, he said he does practice with them in his spare time. Though Priest is able to read music, he said most people who play instruments like the banjo and mandolin learned by listening. It is an oral tradition.
To introduce his topic, Priest played a clip from the 1987 movie “Matewan,” based on the Matewan massacre in the 1920s. During the clip, coal miners of different ethnicities play music together. Priest commented on the different ethnic groups portrayed, and he said these instruments were brought in to the mountains of Appalachia through different settlers and ethnic groups. It was also common for people to form town bands and coalfield community bands that included a variety of different instruments.
“Throughout the coalfield towns you didn’t have people mining coal and doing nothing else,” said Priest. “They had schools, churches, hospitals… every good thing and bad thing was in these towns. These towns also had coalmine bands.”
During his presentation, Priest covered five different instruments associated with Appalachia: the guitar, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin, and fiddle.
Priest discussed the European roots of a guitar, different tuning methods, and the musical diversity of a guitar.
“With a guitar you can play one song with rhythm, harmony, melody, and bass,” said Priest.
Priest demonstrated the guitar by focusing on and then combining each of these elements.
Following the guitar, Priest showed the audience his banjo.
“Where did the banjo originate from?” Priest asked the crowd.
One man towards the back spoke up with a surprising, but correct answer: Africa.
“The banjo has some really neat origins,” said Priest, who told the audience he was a third-generation banjo player while displaying a photograph of him as a small child with his grandfather, who had a banjo on his lap. “Playing the banjo is a family thing for me. I will never make records. I don’t care. I play on a rocking chair on our back porch staring at East River Mountain.”
Priest quickly changed from sentimental to humorous.
“This instrument is also fun to scare people with,” said Priest. “During our family reunion, I’ll sit on a cabin that’s near our trail until a very naive looking family walks by. Then I’ll start playing. You can see them trying to get their children to move faster. It’s a lot of fun to mess with people.”
As he told this story, he strummed the opening chords of the familiar “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance.”
Priest then presented his dulcimer, which can also be called a hammered dulcimer or a lap/mountain dulcimer. With four strings it can be played with a pick, a sliding note or even a bird’s feather. Priest said when all the notes are played at once it sounds a bit like a bagpipe. The dulcimer is similar to a German instrument called the scheitholt.
Priest demonstrated its simplicity and played several songs. He repeatedly encouraged the crowd, explaining that the dulcimer was an easy instrument to learn to play.
“You don’t have to be good at anything to play the lap dulcimer,” said Priest. “You just have to be able to do something without hurting yourself.”
Priest also described the courting dulcimer, which has two dulcimers side by side.
“I really want a courting dulcimer,” said Priest. “I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter, and if she has a boy over, they can play together. As long as the music is playing, both of their hands are busy. As soon as the music stops, out comes the shotgun. I’ve been telling my daughter that I am going to teach her to play courting dulcimer and she cannot have any boys over unless they know how to play too.”
Priest was able to engage the crowd through humor, genuine passion, and showcasing his musical talents.
“Just to warn you, I’m bad at playing the fiddle,” said Priest. “The term fiddle means anything you play with a bow. If you see a big upright bass, it is often called a bull fiddle. People may ask what the difference is between a fiddle and a violin. The joke is that a violin has strings and a fiddle has ‘straings.’”
Priest took a pen and began to play on the fiddle. He laughed.
“Ever heard the term ‘fiddlesticks?’”
Priest also discussed the mandolin, explaining its origin and demonstrating its capabilities.
At the end of the lecture, Priest shared a life lesson with his audience.
“The things you learn in a classroom will not stay with you as long as the things you learn on your own.”
Through Appalachian music, Priest shared passion and history alongside a lasting wisdom.
Missy Hubert, a BC sophomore said she thought Priest’s presentation had been the best yet.