Appalachian (Pro- & Con-)Fusion

Public perception of Appalachia is mixed. Many persons laud the pride its inhabitants take in its hardscrabble traditions on the one hand yet revile the poverty from which it originates on the other.

This contradiction grew apparent during the course of the Poughkeepsie Public Library’s presentation of “Appalachian Fusion” at the historic Bardavon Theater on Saturday, October 19, 2019. As part of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read 2019, the program celebrated the culture and spirit of Appalachia through spoken word, dance and song.

On the pro-fusion side of the ledger, all the performers handled their assignments ably and well. Michael Kingsbaker, Gavin Maendel, and Maggie Low in particular excerpted haunting stories from Ron Rash‘s Burning Bright and Mary Knight‘s Saving Wonder. The modern dance troupe, Vanaver Caravan, kept things hopping with their sprightly interpretations of clogging and other traditional American dance forms accompanied by a quintet of musicians headed by banjoist Bill Vanaver.

The confusion arose from the choices in the readers’ subject matter. Two of the three stories, “Corpse Bird” and “Hard Times” in particular revealed the harshness and squalor that characterizes Appalachia in the public mind much as William Faulkner‘s Gothic tales of Yoknapatawpha county crystallized the mid-20th century south for many Americans.

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Song choices such as “Motherless Children” and “O Death” emphasized the beaten-down, vale-of-tears stereotype many of us associate with Appalachia. Only the sprightly performances of the dancers suggested the resilience, determination, and joy that enabled these people to survive the hard times. The photos and stories from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Library of Congress date from The Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. but the economic injustice and hardship of Appalachia are not a feature confined to America’s distant past but continue to the present day. Though well-intended, the literary essence of this presentation perpetuates unhealthy stereotypes of the region and its people.

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