Beauty of Barbara Allen | The American Word

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Beauty of Barbara Allen

Nicole Russo | 1/16/15 2:40pm
| Updated 1/16/15 3:47pm

The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest mountains in North America, stretching all the way from Newfoundland to Alabama. They are also home to one of the most remarkable musical cultures in the country: Appalachian folk music. Since the early 19th century, musicians, journalists and scholars have traveled to the region with the intention of studying, recording and assessing Appalachian folk music and culture. Many times, however, the fascination some of these early visitors held with Appalachia prevented them from presenting the reality of Appalachian culture. They sought out an Appalachia that would fit their premeditated and romanticized narratives of rugged Appalachians living a simple life amongst the picturesque backdrop of mountain peaks and valleys.

Today, Appalachian culture seems to be on the foreground of only a few people’s minds. Jackson Anthony, an AU student, happens to be one of these people. This past summer, Jackson decided to travel through Appalachia with his two brothers, filming Appalachian folk musicians to make a documentary preserving their music. Jackson began the project by reaching out to over one hundred musicians in the region including balladeers, fiddlers, auto harpists, dulcimer players, Cherokee singers and claw-hammer banjo players. After hearing back from a handful of artists, like folk legends Lee Saxton and Shelia Kay Adams, Jackson started an Indiegogo campaign to fund the project and set-off to travel around 3,000 miles across six states in just one month.

When Jackson left for the Appalachians, he had preconceived notion of what to expect from the Appalachians, like so many of those who traveled to the area before him. However, what makes Jackson’s project so different and all the more inspiring was his complete willingness to let his narrative fall to the wayside, allowing Appalachia to really speak for itself. He allowed the artists to share their own stories in the best way they know how to: through music. He recorded all the scenes, imagery, and sounds of Appalachia without concern of creating a pre-planned narrative. By doing so, he was able to truly show the complicated history of Appalachia and all it’s many contradictions. For example, one moment Jackson and his brothers were listening to a Cherokee musician singing on a reservation and the next they were standing in front of a Burger King. The beauty of a serene mountain top can engulf a scene in one instant, but then disappear in the next when the only view is of a mountaintop destroyed from mining.

And while modern-day advancements and industries are creating several economic, societal and environmental changes in Appalachia, the perseverance of the Appalachian people will undoubtedly continue to be shown through their unique musical culture that dates back hundreds of years. The title of Jackson’s documentary, “The Beauty of Barbara Allen,” refers to a folk ballad nearly 350 years old and passed down from generations of Scottish, Irish, and English families who brought the song to America when they immigrated to the Appalachians. “The Beauty of Barbara Allen” may not only allude to the beauty of one of the most widely sung folk songs, but also to the beauty found in Appalachian folk musicians who manage to hold onto musical traditions while living at a crossroads of contradictions and exploitations of modern society. “He turned his pale face to the wall/And death was on him dwellin’/’Adieu, adieu, my kind friends all/Be kind to Barbara Allen…’”

Click here to view the trailer!