Sustainable Music


Sunday, August 31, 2014

So help me Kentucky: music, culture and poverty according to the New York Times

Illustration by Kelsey Dake. New York Times Magazine, 6/29/2014
Not long ago, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine, on rural poverty in general, and eastern Kentucky in particular. Kelsey Dake's illustration of an imaginary license plate fronted the article. In it, the author, Annie Lowrey, reviewed  government efforts to help the poor people of this economically-distressed region, becoming even more distressed as ever fewer workers are needed in its coalmining-dependent economy. Coal itself is under pressure from environmentalists, government regulations, and from reduced demand for coal in the US. She concluded that given the history of failed efforts to aid the people through welfare, and to better the educational, health, and public works infrastructure of the region, efforts that span the period from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s to Barack Obama’s 2014 declaration of the region as one of five “promise zones” targeted for federal aid, it would be best for the people to pack up and move where the jobs are—to the fracking economy in North Dakota, for instance, or to cities like New York that “punch their weight” economically.
    Predictably, scholars and activists in Appalachian Studies punched back, skewering Lowrie as another of those hit-and-run journalists, those instant experts from away who think they know how to solve Appalachia’s problems and don’t mind telling everyone how to do it. But instead of advocating for more economic aid, or libertarian incentives such as lower taxes, her solution was get out and find your fortune where the jobs are; go to the cities. Lying behind this solution lurks a hipster mentality: cities are happening places and maybe you can be lucky enough to relocate there.
    Laughable if it weren’t so pathetic, the Times’ reporter’s diagnosis and prescription fails to understand the real economic causes of the people’s difficulty: a collusion among business leaders, many of whom are absentee coal company owners, and corrupt politicians, to colonize the region and exploit its population along with its natural resources. Since the 1960s, Appalachian Studies economists have drawn the analogy to third-world countries, with king coal as the empire and Appalachia as the exploited colony. Having earlier this year published an essay on “Music and Poverty” with Appalachia as one focus, I too am counted among those who pointed out the history of economic exploitation and corruption as the major reason for poverty, in opposition to the libertarian diagnosis of a culture of dependence, or the liberal diagnosis of a lack of opportunity and infrastructure. In fact, I argued that my colleagues in folklore and ethnomusicology had overlooked the economics of poverty when considering cultural sustainability; and that prescriptions for cultural and musical sustainability that did not also take economics into account were doomed. Now I want to argue for the other half, the idea that prescriptions for economic sustainability are doomed without considering culture.
    Culture comes into play in the Times’ reporter’s essay in a potentially productive way only at the very end, and the reporter fails to recognize it for what it is. She quotes a regional official as telling her that her prescription—pull up stakes and leave Appalachia—is “a really hard pill to swallow. People are really connected to place here. For a lot of people, [pulling up stakes and moving out] is the last thing they’re doing. They’re holding off until they have no other choice.” The Times reporter fails to ask why they are so attached to place. Undoubtedly they’re more attached to their lives in their homeplace than she is to hers in New York. She is mobile; they should be too.
    The Times reporter is blind to the positives in Appalachian traditional life, the reasons why so many of them want to stay there. Why the blindness? The only good thing about Appalachia she will concede is that the countryside is pretty. Indeed. The article notes that a team of Times economics experts rated counties all over the US on the “quality and longevity of life” based on “six basic metrics.” Before continuing, suppose we do a little experiment. What would you say are among the six qualities you look for in the quality of your life, related to place? Clean air and water? Closeness to nature? People who are kind to one another, who take care of their elders and children rather than farming out care to so-called professionals? A place where you know your neighbors, and if you’re going to live next to them for a length of time, where you and they will give one another the benefit of the doubt and be slow to anger? A place where people aren’t fixated building McMansions or connoisseurship in fine wines, fine arts, fine living and boasting of it to others? Places that are real places instead of just addresses, rungs on a ladder to success?
    Of course, the Times experts didn’t consider any of those qualities. Instead, they considered educational attainment, household income, jobless rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity rate. Obesity rate! Imagine using that as a criterion in, say, a Pacific Island paradise. Educational attainment? Well, it raises a person’s income, but also their desire for more. And it raises the blood pressure. How can one measure what a person knows, who they are, by their terminal degrees? How many well-educated fools do we have running the show in DC? Come on. Household income? That family taking care of children or an elder is going to take an income hit. No question about it, but for some people it’s a quality of life tradeoff: lower income, better quality. Think about it. Disability rate? Couldn’t that be related to things like how dangerous your job is? Farming is the most dangerous. Coal mining isn’t exactly in the safety zone, either. I’ll bet McDonald’s employees get in plenty of accidents also, despite degrees in hamburgerology. What about sitting in front of a computer screen networking your way to entrepreneurial happiness? Pretty cushy if you can make it work, and even if you can't. Oh yes, your ankles swell and your eyes go bad, but it takes years before the effects are felt. Besides, just go to the gym to counteract the effects.
    The Times reporter points out that among the bottom ten counties in the US rated on those six metrics for quality of life and longevity are six from eastern Kentucky, including Magoffin County. Interesting. Magoffin County, like so many eastern Kentucky counties, is rich in tradition. The music of Old Regular Baptists in the region is the oldest English-language singing tradition in the US, a rich, powerful expression of faith that is among those cultural expressions that keeps the people there. Richness, not poverty: rich in cultural tradition, rich in hope. Eastern Kentucky is home to a rich literary tradition as well, and not just literature but also the language of everyday expression. Ever heard it? You have to stay there awhile before you will. Magoffin County produced one of the finest traditional fiddlers of the 20th century, John Salyer. He was a farmer. The town he lived in, Salyersville, was named after his grandfather. He played music for local dances and entertained at parties, face to face, where everyone from the community knew each other. And it was a community. His farm was reckoned the third best farm in the county. He refused an offer to make commercial recordings. The story goes that the record scout heard of his prowess, came to visit and sign him up, found him outside plowing his field, and offered him a contract right then and there. But Salyer saw right through it: the pay for the fiddler was miniscule compared to the company’s share. Same as the share for the coal miner compared to the coal executive. “Get up, Sal,” he said to his horse, “we can do better plowing.” And so he was content to make music so that people he knew could lift their feet on a Saturday night. Cultural richness is not measured by the six metrics the Times experts used. What do they know of the quality of life? Are they happy, or driven?
    The Kentucky license plate that illustrates the article (see above) shows a thoroughbred horse, a map of the state in outline, and the words “HELP ME” in bold letters. Characteristically, Appalachia is under erasure: it is nowhere to be seen in this symbolic license plate. Anyone who didn’t know eastern Kentucky as a poster child for poverty in America would think that “Help Me” was directed at the entire state, or maybe the Kentucky racing breeders represented by the horse. The Times article reminded me of something Elwood Cornett said when 25 years ago I asked him how he felt about people coming into eastern Kentucky and studying Old Regular Baptist people and their music. “We’re not anxious to be studied,” said the leader of the largest Association of Baptists in the area. People, he said, have “flown in and flown out, and taken a shallow look at us, and what they have written about us is just as shallow.” He could have been talking about the Times article. But, he added, when people visit who are respectful, and serious of purpose, “we don’t mind” being looked at. “We are just who we are,” and who we appear to be, he said. The Times reporter, like so many, didn’t stay long enough to take in anything other than what she expected to find. How unfortunate that she had such a platform as the Times, to perpetuate the Appalachian stereotypes, mis-diagnose, mis-prescribe, and then fly back back to New York, where she may already have moved on to the next rung of her career ladder. “Annie Lowrey was, until recently, an economics reporter for The Times,” the blurb accompanying the article informs us. She was 6 years old when Cornett told me about people who fly in and fly out. Born in 1984, she was educated at Harvard. Prior to being an economics reporter, she covered economic policy for the Times. Before that, she was the "Moneybox" columnist for Slate Magazine. What is her new job? I don't know, but I don't guess she's looking to move to eastern Kentucky: no moneybox for her there. Pity; she might learn something if she stayed there a while.


  1. I so appreciate the sentiments this article expresses. Heartfelt resonance with your call to reflect on what truly matters and how/where it might be found. Bravo.

  2. As we are wont to say in the mountains of North Carolina (southern Appalachia, that onerous place!), "Well, Bless her heart. She doesn't know any better."