“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser
West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina make up the central Appalachian region. Nestled in these valleys are communities made up of people and of stories.
These stories are kept in various mediums, oral histories, music, poetry, and visual art. Story, in its many forms, is integral to the cultural identities of residents. The stories of Appalachia are preserved in oral history and folklore special collections libraries across the region. This story-keeping of our most revealing stories—those told about us by us—is necessary, since unfortunately, our diversity and complexity is often underrepresented in favor of simplistic stereotypes still perpetuated in mainstream culture, i.e., the corncob-pipe smoking hillbilly, ignorant, isolated, and lazy in the face of disaster or societal ills.
Central Appalachia is a diverse landscape home to a diversified and complex people with strong regional cultural identities. There is beauty in Appalachia, certainly, but the place also has its share of ugly realities. The region has experienced environmental and industrial disasters, currently has high rates of opioid drug overdoses and rising unemployment as an old industry declines, but the stereotype of the “lost and lazy” attitude is not found in the communities of artists and activists throughout the region.
Much of the art and scholarship out of Appalachia responds to these harsh realities and in a way that inspires reflection and change. I have chosen three entirely different artists, each working with three different mediums but each native to West Virginia, the heart of central Appalachia.
While the three artists I describe in this series each tell stories through their art, they aren’t merely “story-tellers” but what I call “story-keepers” of Appalachia. Story-teller isn’t a negative term, but in this case, inadequate.
Singer-songwriter Jeff Ellis, poet-activist Crystal Good, and writer-photographer Roger May, don’t merely “tell” of life and of Appalachia in their work.
“Telling” implies a mere putting forth of information. Their work is active, in-motion, inspiring, reflecting, and affecting.
I sensed each holding stories of our region close—their neighbors, families, communities—while creating distinctive art, even when the piece was not overtly region-specific. Certainly, many of their pieces are not.
There’s a sense of grounded-ness in place in their voices and a gorgeous, simultaneous stretching into the beyond, a touching onto thematic elements as basic to people in Appalachia as much as to any people anywhere on Earth—love, yearning, home, grief, beauty, death, hope—specific but universal, authentically Appalachian, but not given to romanticizing positive stereotypes or embracing negative ones.
I spoke with Jeff Ellis, a singer-songwriter raised in southern West Virginia who has been writing and recording music most of his life and now resides in a more urban center of the state.
Ellis is well-known for his soulful voice and poetic lyrics. One music reviewer described his music as a crisscross of “heartland rock and lean rock and roll” with a “60s/early-70s sound” when referring to his latest electric and acoustic rock album of 2014, Learning How to Live.
He has appeared on National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage twice in recent years. In one interview, Larry Groce, Host & Artistic Director of NPR’s Mountain Stage, said, “…there was a toughness about his vocals and songs that transcended artifice. He’s grown into a singer and songwriter whose music has a powerful, almost visceral effect. Maybe it comes from the same place that makes him a soldier. Maybe it grew out of his West Virginia roots. It’s not a quality you can buy or learn. I hope he never loses it.”
When I asked Jeff if he considers himself an Appalachian artist, a label some artists from the region find limiting, he answered, “I proudly consider myself a West Virginia artist […] West Virginia is woven into my songs just as it is into my being. I dreamed of leaving as a teenager and quickly got my wish granted by Uncle Sam after 9/11.” But Jeff made it back home safely to record more music about the place he now says is “as close to Heaven as it gets in a world full of bad.”
Ellis enrolled in the US Army Reserves in 1998. His tours of duty in the Middle East impact his work as well with tracks about the personal and political realities of war like “The Line” and “In Harm’s Way.”
Ellis’ work speaks to issues as relevant to the region as industrial disasters, specifically, the Sago Mine disaster, and other vital issues non-region-specific such as poverty and homelessness, and of course, he has plenty of songs about everyday obstacles and relationships.
His upcoming album set for a 2016 release Modern Time Blues includes a track about one of the largest chemical leaks in American history, the 2014 Freedom Industries chemical storage facility leak. The Elk River was contaminated for weeks, affecting water for 300,000 residents around Charleston, West Virginia. The track is titled “Must Be Something in the Water.” The region is no stranger to these kinds of industrial disasters.
The coal industry, once a leading source of employment in the region, is on the decline. Coal features prominently in stories of central Appalachia, going back to the coal-company-owned “camps” and the battle of Blair Mountain to more recent upheavals.
Ellis’ track “The Men in Sago Mine,” from his 2008 album Covering the Distance, is a moving meditation on an old issue impacting Appalachia: safe working conditions for coal miners. More than that, it’s a piece of an important story, one that needs to be kept.
On January 2nd, 2006, an explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, West Virginia, resulted in 11 miner deaths by carbon monoxide poisoning and one miner killed by the initial blast.
Families gathered at Sago Baptist Church in vigil. The local community, indeed, the nation, held its breath for three agonizing days, during which time the media spread a report that all 12 trapped men survived. Devastatingly, after families celebrated this news, the report was retracted. There were not 12 survivors, but one.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators issued a long list of citations yet concluded these were not what led to the disaster while the United Mine Workers union’s report disputed this, pointing to the larger issues that led to the tragedy.
The events of Sago reached Ellis while he was serving in the military overseas. He recounts events as follows:
“I was serving a tour of duty in the Middle East with the U.S. Army and was sitting in a Morale Welfare Recreation tent on the Iraq/Kuwait border when I saw the initial, jubilant news story on Yahoo! News that reported the men as making it out of the mine alive. […] The story mentioned friends and family members [of the miners] lighting candles at the Sago Baptist Church and praying for the lost and their families. I was deeply moved by the story and angered at how badly the media screwed it up trying to rush the story. I tried to imagine how the family members must’ve felt going from the high of hearing that their loved ones had made it out alive, to the crushing blow of learning they’d been misled and that their loved ones were gone forever. I printed copies of both stories out, ran back to my tent, and picked up my guitar. I probably had the song in less than an hour.”
While Ellis doesn’t consider himself an activist, he said, “It’s important to remember our history […] so that we can learn from it and try to do better in the present to prevent more disasters in the future.” He says his aim is to tell good stories, to make good music, but adds, “If my work is used to bring about change for the greater good, that’s really just a spiritual bonus for me.”
The song’s immediate driving rhythm quickly instills a sense of urgency and tension in the listener. Much like in the Appalachian-rooted tradition of bluegrass which is informed by the story-telling tradition of Irish and Scottish ballads, the song is in story-form. The song begins, “Early January in the West Virginia hills 13 men went down into the ground…”
While it isn’t a “traditional” bluegrass song, the “high lonesome” sound of bluegrass comes through in the fiddle rising above the accompaniment, which you can hear in his studio-produced version here. Or, check out Jeff singing the song solo in this Voices of Appalachia production below.
It is a haunting retelling of one of the darkest stories in our state’s recent history.
These fictional characters are at times, he says, partly inspired by actual people, sometimes those he hasn’t met, like in the case of the homeless character of “Russell,” from The Forgetting Place. He said he sometimes saw the local man while driving to his college classes. Russell was locally known as living in the streets and likely suffering with mental illness. Ellis began wondering what Russell’s real story was.
The resulting of those imaginings is “Russell and Honeybee,” a portrait of a man Ellis never even met, that tells a fictional story of Russell’s lost love, Honeybee, whom he still dreams of even through his hardships on the streets. Ellis humanizes an often dehumanized population. The composition isn’t a story about a homeless man, but a story about a man who became homeless. The result is a song in which the listener is unable to avoid seeing Russell as a person, when oftentimes, people like him go unacknowledged by the public.
These fictitious characters, even the ones inspired by real ones are, according to Jeff, “People with good stories that are worth telling and re-telling for years to come. Occasionally, you get a good story that also has a moral or social lesson in it. Those are the songs that you pray and wait for. Those songs are the ones that marches are built around.”
The world of this particular Appalachian singer-songwriter seems to be one in which stories come to him of their own volition.
Stories come to those who “pray and wait” and Jeff Ellis turns those stories into song. The stories are safely kept in his music for others to use as they will: to inform their own stories, or even to build a march around.
“If it [a song] helps bring about inspiration to change the way people think about mine safety, if it does nothing more than inspire another songwriter or artist, I’m satisfied that it’s done what it was intended to do.”
Jeff Ellis’ upcoming album Modern Time Blues will be released later in 2016. Until then, you can find his music on iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon, Pandora, YouTube, and follow him on FaceBook at www.facebook.com/jeffellismusic.
Andrea Fekete is a poet and novelist born and raised in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, granddaughter to Mexican and Hungarian immigrants. Her debut novel, Waters Run Wild (2010 Sweetgum Press) is a work of historical fiction about the coal mine wars of West Virginia. It was warmly received by local and national publications including The American Book Review and New Letters Magazine. The novel has been featured in various university and high school literature courses. She has one poetry chapbook, I Held a Morning (2012 Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in such publications as: Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Kentucky Review, The Montucky Reivew, The Smithville Journal, The Adirondack Review,ABZ, and in collections such as Wild Sweet Notes II among others. She has a few college degrees related to writing and sometimes teaches writing and literature and resides in West Virginia. Follow her current writing projects on FB at http://www.facebook.com/andreafeketewv.