What is Appalachian Culture?

Appalachia has a culture unlike any other region, where people live in mountain hollows and speak their own dialect. But what actually makes Appalachia, Appalachia?

Oct 16, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

what is appalachian culture


Michael Maloney of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition says that Appalachian culture is to be found “​​in honestly looking at the stories of our families and our people as a whole, the things that build us up and the things that drag us down.” Appalachian culture is a mix of language, art, geography, and class, just as any other culture. To outsiders, Appalachia is a strange world apart from the rest of the United States. For most of us, this begs the question of what is Appalachian culture?


The Roots of Appalachian Culture

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A postcard depicting the Treaty of Watauga, where the Cherokee sold Kentucky to the Transylvania Land Company, via Explore Kentucky History


Native Americans arrived in Appalachia over 16,000 years ago, and the remnants of those first inhabitants can still be found in archaeological sites throughout the region. These hunter-gatherer societies built the foundations for the tribes that would later inhabit the region: the Cherokee, Iroquois, Powhatan, and Shawnee. European settlers first explored the southern areas of the region, from Tennessee to the Carolinas, beginning in the 1500s. A Spanish expedition led by Conquistador Lucas Vazquez de Ayllõn in 1526 also brought enslaved Africans to the region.


During the 16th century, Europeans traveled throughout the region, encountering numerous Native American societies. However, by the time English settlers began trickling in during the 18th century, the land was controlled principally by the Cherokee to the south and the Iroquois and Algonquin to the north. After the discovery of the Cumberland Gap, settlers poured into the region, mainly those of German and Scotch-Irish origin, and they brought enslaved Africans with them. The census in 1790 recorded about 15,000 enslaved people alongside European settlers.


Appalachia, known in those days as the “backcountry,” was a symbol of discovery and adventure. No one in American history embodied this spirit of new frontiers more than Daniel Boone. Boone wore a coon-skin hat and buckskin clothing and carried a long rifle into the wilderness. He took on a legendary quality that, for early American settlers, represented the wild adventure that awaited them in this region.

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daniel boone cumberland gap
Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap by George Caleb Bingham, c.1851-1852, via the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis


The Scotch-Irish, who comprised about 90% of the European settlers in the region, brought traditions from home, including storytelling, Protestantism, and an intense dislike for overreaching government. The name “hillbilly,” often associated with Appalachian culture, comes from the Scotch-Irish, who were supporters of the Protestant William of Orange. During a war with King James II in Ireland, the followers of William, called “Billy Boys,” carried out sneak attacks while hiding in the Irish hills. When the Scotch-Irish descendants settled in the Appalachian hills, the nickname came too, and many Appalachian settlers came to be known as hillbillies.


Germans from the Palatine region, largely Anabaptists, also settled in the northern parts of Appalachia. Their descendants became the Pennsylvania Dutch of today. They are not often conflated with Appalachia simply because they kept their culture largely separate from that of the Scotch-Irish, Native Americans, and African Americans.


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Mary Faust and her two children, “Coon” and “Sis,” standing outside of their log cabin near Andersonville, TN in 1910, via Smoky Mountain Living Magazine


While Scots and Germans are the most well-known settlers of the region, influences that are typically not discussed also affected Appalachian culture. Scandinavian immigrants, mainly from Finland and Sweden, introduced woodworking to Appalachia, which gave rise to the symbolic log cabin in the hollow of the region. African Americans were also present, though in smaller numbers, in Appalachia. The region was not suited to plantation work like the deep south, but the southern half of Appalachia saw the enslavement of many African Americans, both by white and Cherokee owners.


In 1860, the region’s population was about 10% Black. Though many enslaved African Americans lived in the southern part of the region, freedmen also settled in the hills, where the majority of the white settlers did not enslave people, either due to moral beliefs, the inhospitable land, or poverty.


Early on, stereotypes of the region emerged. Appalachians were considered “backwater” or “white trash” by many when in reality, they were simply hard-working, self-reliant people who lived off of the land. But isolation, coupled with poverty, led to a rather negative image from the culture’s inception.


How Geography Influences Appalachian Culture

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, via the National Park Service


The geography of the Appalachian region is a principal factor in determining its culture. Namely, isolation has formed an insular community with no basis in the “outside world.” As aforementioned, early Appalachian settlers were inherently distrustful of government after years of fighting in their homelands. This created the desire to live individually, almost to a fault.


The land was and is unforgiving, making life a matter of survival rather than comfort. The United States largely moved forward without Appalachia. Its geography and isolation meant that Appalachian people were often left behind regarding education, technology, and funding. This built the stereotype among Americans that Appalachians were backward, inbred, and living off of welfare when the culture was much more complex.


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The Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with troops moving through during the Civil War, via sonofthesouth.net


In addition to the isolation creating stereotypes, it also meant that Appalachian culture differed significantly from “traditional” Southern ideology. Though many states within the region seceded during the US Civil War, many residents of the hill country were Unionists. The region was physically and emotionally scarred by the war’s brutal battles, such as those in the Shenandoah Valley or the Chattanooga area of Tennessee. The war destroyed farms, killed livestock, and sent Appalachians into further reclusion, distrustful of the actions of outsiders after the havoc wreaked by Union and Confederate troops.


The landscape also established a large facet of the region’s economy. Coal mining was introduced to the region in the early 20th century and quickly became synonymous with the name Appalachia. The culture was shaped around coal-mining towns; logging and mining companies controlled large swaths of the population. In short, the industries brought about due to the land’s natural resources eventually contributed to the poverty and lack of modern advancement that shaped much of Appalachia’s 20th-century culture.


Myths, Superstitions, & Folklore in Appalachian Culture

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An 1894 illustration of an attempt to burn the Bell Witch, via Keith Dotson Photography


Owing to the tradition of European fairy tales and Cherokee folklore, Appalachian culture is centered largely around its legends and superstitions. In an effort to explain the unexplainable or foster morality, oral storytelling was passed down through generations. Tales are similar to those of the Irish faeries or Native American cosmology.


As with all other aspects of Appalachian culture, its myths have a basis in many different cultures, including African, Native American, British, and German stories. Some of the most famous are the “haint” stories, like the Greenbrier ghost, or Jack Tales, which, borrowed from British stories, tell of the main protagonist Jack and have a moral lesson.


Folklore was a way of connecting people in Appalachia and grounding their culture in a moral code. This is evident from the lessons often learned in folk stories and the incorporation of Biblical elements. Stories also center around the strange and supernatural, enhanced by the mystery of the surrounding forests and untouched hills. Supernatural beings such as Bigfoot, the Mothman, the Wampus Cat, and the Bell Witch are all tales of hauntingly strange things happening in the hills. This tradition of eerie and spooky stories provides an added layer of isolation to Appalachians, as outsiders find the folklore mysterious.


mothman appalachian legend
An illustration of the Mothman, a famous Appalachian folk monster, via Blue Ridge Outdoors


Another element of Appalachian culture is its superstitions, some of which apply to other parts of America as Appalachian settlers moved further west. Some are unique to the region and protect against very region-specific problems. These include warding off a storm by putting a double-sided ax into a stump facing the storm, running a chicken over your baby to prevent chicken pox, and only planting crops during a full moon. However, others have made their way into trans-American superstitions and practices, including eating black-eyed peas and ham on New Year’s Day, throwing a pinch of salt over your left shoulder after spilling the salt to prevent bad luck, and avoiding walking under a ladder lest you have bad luck.


In the Ozarks, the deep south, and the Midwest, these traditions have survived outside of Appalachia, but inside the region, superstition and folklore are still taken seriously and are a large part of the culture itself.


Art in Appalachian Culture

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A community quilting bee in Jackson County, North Carolina, via The Laurel of Asheville


Art in Appalachia began as a necessity for everyday life. Weaving, quilting, pottery, and woodworking were not crafts dedicated to decoration but to survival. Over time, however, early Appalachian settlers began combining the aestheticism of the natural world with the traditions and folklore of their homelands.


Throughout history, art has served several purposes in Appalachia. In the beginning, it was to make vessels and textiles that could help the settlers survive, and then it began its evolution into decorative art. This took on different iterations, whether a celebration of the land around them or subtle political and social messages imbued within the imagery. Appalachian artists borrowed practices from the Native American tribes around them, including pottery and Tennessee basketry, a craft that has endured for thousands of years.


appalachian art and artists
Solomon’s Nectar by Bethann Parker, 2022, for Appalachian Narratives: Dreamscapes via Terrain.org


The quilting, woodworking, metallurgy, and painting techniques that early settlers brought from Europe were also influenced by the world around them. Native and African American stories and aesthetics were incorporated into those of Scotland, Ireland, and Germany and created a style of folk art that represented the lives and struggles of the people. They used their art to express their ways of living, and they continue to do so today.


Music in Appalachian Culture

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Roscoe Holcomb, a banjo player from Kentucky, who eventually became famous for his work via The New Yorker


Appalachian music, as was the case with many facets of the region’s culture, was made up of the influences of the people. It combined the hymns, ballads, and fiddles of Britain with the soulful pre-blues music of African Americans and the yodeling of Germany and Scandinavia to create a style of music unique to the region but that helped build several genres of modern mainstream music as well.


The parts of Appalachian bands were made up of their regions of influence. The presence of  fiddle in the band hailed from England and Scotland. The mountain dulcimer was another element of European influence. Thought to have come from several other horizontal stringed instruments of Germanic and Norwegian origins, the dulcimer is played horizontally, with a narrow fingerboard and a larger soundbox that produces a similar sound to a mandolin and is still heavily used in folk music. Another important instrument in Appalachian music, the banjo, was brought to the region by enslaved Africans in the 18th century. The banjo is thought to be a variant of a West African instrument called an akonting or a folk lute.


Singing in Appalachia has several styles and hails from several different backgrounds. Harmonies and verbal dexterity were brought to Appalachian songs from African American vocalizations, as was the call-and-response structure of songs. Yodeling was incorporated into Appalachian music after immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia carried the traditional style of communication from their homelands, where it was used to reach others in a similar landscape to the Appalachians.


carter family music appalachia
The Carter Family toured the US with their “hillbilly music” while their family labored on farms in Poor Valley, Virginia, via American University’s WAMU 88.5


Appalachian music was established in the mainstream after recording sessions in Bristol and Johnson City, Tennessee, proved to music executives in the 1920s that there was a market for “hillbilly” music. The Carters, a traveling family band of Appalachian musicians, became one of the most popular acts in America during the 1920s. So, too, the style of these acts and other Appalachian musicians influenced the establishment of several genres, including bluegrass and blues music.


The popularity of “hillbilly music” continued to grow as Appalachian-born music until the success of the Grand Ole Opry moved the industry largely to Nashville, Tennessee. While Appalachian music was popular, music executives wanted to move the style more into the mainstream of American music, and in doing so, eliminated the connections between the region and the style of music they had popularized, changing the genre from “hillbilly music” to “country music.” Though Appalachian music survived, it was not brought back into the mainstream of country music until Appalachian musicians like Dolly Parton, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, and Loretta Lynn brought traditional styles into their music.


The Appalachian Dialect 

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Mr. Jones, a miller in North Carolina, one of the sources of information for the Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English, via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The Appalachian dialect is one of the most distinctive in the United States. Though it draws heavily from southern dialects, the style of speaking in Appalachia was largely developed in isolation, which means that the sounds of the accent are also closely related to the accent from which they descended. In this case, the Appalachian dialect is thought to have descended mainly from Scottish lowland accents, but it has evolved as it mixed with southern shifts and drawls to form the distinctive accent of today.


While the Appalachian accent is a hallmark of the region’s culture, so are its grammatical structures. In Appalachia, the grammar style is unique in its use of the “a-verb-ing” style, such as the phrase “He’s a-runnin’.” In addition, past participles of verbs are dropped in exchange for past participles of strong verbs such as “do.” Instead of saying, “I did my work,” someone from Appalachia might say, “I done my work.”


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An Appalachian town with several wilting log houses, via the Wall Street Journal


Several facets of vocabulary are also unique to Appalachia. Some of the most fascinating and famous words of the region, which are not used in America as a whole, are airish (chilly, cool), britches (pants, deriving from “breeches”), holler (a valley between two hills, a “hollow”), and yonder (an adverb that describes distance).


Unfortunately, the accent of Appalachia, which is often stronger than those of other areas in the south, connotes a lack of education on the part of the speaker. This stereotype is not necessarily always true, but it plays heavily into the modern stereotype of the Appalachian people as a whole as being uneducated, poor, and backward. Today, however, linguists and activists from Appalachia advocate for the appreciation of the dialect, as it is a marvel of American English, developed, for the most part, in isolation and helps the society of the region run as it does.


Appalachian Culture Today

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A cow grazes on the grounds of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee, via the Museum of Appalachia, Norris, Tennessee


For much of the 20th century, Appalachia was seen as a backward and impoverished region that was too far gone to keep up with the progress of the rest of the nation. This was due in large part to the fact that Appalachians were often unable to attend traditional schools, were all but forced into menial labor, and were isolated by the lack of infrastructure in the region. Until the New Deal took effect, much of Appalachia was illiterate and did not have electricity or modern facilities. The presence of modern roads, railways, electricity, and several education programs have turned this stereotype around, along with the influence of a few very famous Appalachians.


Today, the culture of Appalachia is being shared with Americans more often, and Americans are fascinated by it. It is no longer solely a matter of morbid curiosity for the impoverished and isolated but a genuine interest in a culture that is uniquely American in its melding of several different traditions. Appalachian natives have a thriving culture, and it is, luckily, being continued for the benefit of younger generations to come.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.