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Tom Chaney: -R728: Roots of local music. Lynwood Montell

Tom Chaney. Of Writers and Their Books. Book Review by Tom Chaney Roots of local music. on Monroe Co., KY native and Oak Grove, Warren Co., KY author Lynwood Montell. First printed 17 September 2006 in the Hart County Herald.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Tom Chaney, No. R727: True Crime Stories from the Bluegrass

By Tom Chaney

Roots of local music

Our debt to William Lynwood Montell is great. For those not in the know, Dr. Montell has made a career in the study of the folkways of the upper Cumberland region and south-central Kentucky. He is emeritus professor of folk studies at Western Kentucky University and incisive interpreter of folk customs in this region.

Lynwood Montell, at Spout Springs, Adair Co., KY, Sept. 17, 2011.

Well-known folklorist and emeritus professor of folk studies at WKU, Dr. Lynwood Montell, read from some of the nineteen books he has authored on local Kentucky life and culture at Saturday's "Kentuckians Reading Kentuckians" book readings at the Giles House, 203 Spout Springs Road, Columbia, KY near the Village of Knifley Above Green River Territory of Adair County. The reading is an annual event sponsored by the Giles Society. About 25 people gathered for the readings by 18 Kentucky authors. Photograph by George Kolbenschlag<, Saturday, September 17, 2011.

Click to Full Size Photo

Montell's Ghosts Along the Cumberland: Deathlore in the Kentucky Foothills; The Saga of Coe Ridge: A Study in Oral History; and Don't Go Up Kettle Creek: Verbal Legacy of the Upper Cumberland are all seminal studies enriching our understanding of who we are and from whence we come.

During years of teaching and primary research Dr. Montell has developed a veritable army of resource personnel for all matters folkloric.

One of my favorite of his studies is Singing the Glory Down: Amateur Gospel Music in South Central Kentucky 1900-1990. Published in 1991 the book is an excellent discussion of the development of gospel music in the twentieth century from the rise of singing schools at the beginning of the century through the demise of shape-note schools and singing conventions after World War II leaving in their wake the amateur gospel quartets which yet persist.

The useful appendix of Singing the Glory Down lists the active and once-active gospel quartets by county after World War II and identifies singing school teachers by county. The Hart County list contains 46 quartets and ten singing teachers.

Now fifteen years later Montell has edited a companion study to the earlier work. His Grassroots Music in the Upper Cumberland (University of Tennessee Press, 2006) is a county by county study of local music in the sixteen counties of the upper Cumberland region with a chapter devoted to each county. The Kentucky counties consist of Adair, Clinton, Cumberland, Metcalfe, Monroe, Pulaski, Russell, and Wayne. In Tennessee the counties included are Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Fentress, Jackson, Macon, Overton, and Putnam.

In the best written chapters, among which are the ones on Monroe County (Kentucky) by Montell and Clay County (Tennessee) by Myra Burnett, the standards of scholarship are high, and the threads of influence are easily followed.

The various chapters include thumbnail sketches of various artists of the county. There is a bit of pushing and shoving when an artist is from one county with ties to another.

The focus of Grassroots Music is on a much broader range of styles than is Singing the Glory Down. While the latter is narrowly focused on gospel music, this later volume deals with a broad range of musical types -- English ballads, bluegrass, modern country, rock and roll as well as gospel.

Grassroots Music places musicians with national reputations within their upper Cumberland context. Musicians such as Lester Flatt, Stringbean Aiken, Finley Belcher, and the Headhunters are placed in the local traditions out of which they emerged.

And, of course, the stories. Always the stories. The reader can begin to see how the legacy of music is transmitted from generation to generation.

Professor Montell has done fine service to the folk origins of music in south-central Kentucky and the upper Cumberland Plateau in these two volumes. Both deserve a space on the Montell shelf of those who would learn how we have come to live and speak and sing.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-09-18 07:13:47
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