TRADITION, CULTURES, AND COMMUNITIES: Exploring the Potentials of Music and the Arts for Community Development in Appalachia

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In the face of modernity and a host of social and economic challenges facing our communities, the loss of traditional cultures and ways of life has become an ever increasing concern. This is particularly disturbing in areas characterized by strong oral traditions and unique characteristics largely shaped by their cultural behaviors, such as storytelling, music, and social integration mechanisms. The concern for personal, social, and community well-being is a palpable one in many small communities that have been devastated by contemporary economic, technological, and political influences. Tunnell (2006), for one, presents a bleak picture of what he describes as the “social disorganization” of many parts of rural America. In Appalachia, for example, the places that once provided venues for interaction and opportunities for social gatherings to discuss family life or debate politics—the country stores, town halls, seed and feed stores, local garages and small diners—have descended into a terminal decline. In this setting, many small communities have witnessed a persistent exploitation of their human and natural resources, resulting in socially unsustainable economies, depopulation, school consolidations, and the loss of key services. This experience is all too often part of what has been characterized as one of “disaffection” (Lulo & Swanson, 1995).

The scale and pace of change in small communities is of course a variable one, but the message is clear: the interactive dimensions and spaces that can be argued as key to the formation of “community” (Bridger et al., 2009; Wilkinson, 1991) are changing, in ways unrecognizable to older generation members and quite often with dramatic consequences for the well-being of younger and other residents. Such polarized conditions hinder the interaction between generations, directly contributing to a loss of culture, socialization, and interge- nerational transfers of knowledge.

Such conditions are often seen as indicative of the loss of community (Warren, 1978). In this setting the need for community-based solutions focusing on arts and traditional cultures is essential. Nonetheless, for many observers, community persists in our modern, sometimes disconnected world. It exists in, and through, its distinct cultures, traditions, and symbols (Cohen, 1985). However, despite the central role of culture and cultural traditions in shaping local life, there is scant community development based research and theoretical literature exploring this process (Brennan et al., 2009). In the current environment of change and cultural loss, we believe that aspects of traditional culture deserve more attention in understanding contemporary community change and positive development (Phillips, 2004). Based on exploratory research conducted throughout Appalachia, we explore the process and significance of creative cultural practices, particularly based on “tradition,” as mechanisms for generating community interaction, retaining and communicating collective knowledge, and the implications of such practices on community and social well-being.

As such, we present an integrated conceptual model to demonstrate what we see as significant connections and justifications in making the case for endogenous culture and traditions as beneficial to the emergence of “community.” To illustrate our case we draw on several examples of traditional practices: old time music and dance; the oral tradition of storytelling; and the craft activity of quilting. In exploring the importance of traditional cultural outlets as a strategy for community and intergenerational development, we utilize an interactional approach to community. While most theories of community revolve around structure, the interactional approach is tied to a dynamic process. This perspective focuses on diverse local citizen interaction, mobilization, and residents across different ages working together as they address issues important to their communities and culture. Before presenting our conceptual framework, we first present a brief overview of the broader literature within which our study is framed and details of our exploratory research study.

Review of Literature

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