Telling Stories About Appalachia: An Interview With Adam Booth About Poverty Culture and…

Telling Stories About Appalachia: An Interview With Adam Booth About Poverty Culture and Storytelling

by Diana Clarke

Adam Booth is a native Appalachian and professional storyteller who teaches Appalachian Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. This spring, I saw him speak at a session on new Appalachian stereotypes at Marshall University, where he discussed moving away from the pop-cultural barefoot-and-pregnant image, and into a reclamation of traditional practices and crafts like canning, foraging, square dancing, and quilting. Booth characterized the young people in their 20s and 30s who are doing much of this reclaiming as “Super Appalachians” who make themselves vessels for their cultural heritage. Immediately I knew who he was describing — and they reminded me of people I know in Brooklyn. I started thinking about the rising popularity of old-time culture in both urban and rural areas across the United States, and got in touch. We spoke by phone about Appalachian identity, the fetish for poverty culture, the popularity of story slams, and the coal economy.

I was really excited when I heard your talk because I just moved from New York City to Pocahontas County, West Virginia last fall. It’s been a really interesting experience, just to be living here, and to be part of the culture that is both totally American and completely unlike anything I grew up with. So that got me thinking about Appalachia, and even little things like — the bar I used to live next to in Manhattan serves their cocktails in mason jars and of course that’s a very hip, cool thing to do now.

Of course, right. Mason jars, and then you go to the [Union] Square Farmers’ Market and ramps are like $15 a pound.

Oh my god, I know! People here don’t believe me when I tell them that [Ed: Ramps are native to the Appalachian region, and are so prolific here that they sell for $2–5 a pound]…so I was wondering if you could just start by giving a brief overview of yourself and what you do.

I grew up on the far western side of West Virginia, and now I live on the far eastern side. I am a professional storyteller, which for me includes my area of expertise, or at least what’s becoming my area of expertise — my walk as a contemporary Appalachian. It might sound a little self-centered to say that I am my own area of expertise, but actually it’s something that people are really intrigued by, especially because I moved away from Appalachia and then made a conscious decision to come back, and turned my energies towards looking at what Appalachia has been and what it is today, particularly through story.

That’s a really hard thing, to embrace an identity and have yourself stand for it. Could you speak to that a little bit?

Yeah. So how did I get to this? Well, my college and my graduate work is in music. And the critical theory I studied, that was crucial in showing me that outsiders can have a really interesting and powerful spin on the way people perceive the cultural products of a particular group of people. That being stated, all the while I was working on storytelling just as a hobby, coming back to West Virginia and competing and doing some folklife work. Initially, I was just looking at storytelling culture, and maybe how I could make that a career, especially with the music I was doing. But I realized that a lot of what people advertise as being Appalachian — like if you hear of an Appalachian festival, an Appalachian movie, Appalachian foods — it was all Appalachia from 400 years ago through like 60 years ago. It wasn’t a contemporary Appalachia. Which was when I realized, as a young, contemporary person from Appalachia who now has some educational training in the research process, why not try to take those efforts and see where we’ve come from, but really focus them on where we are now, including myself as someone who is a contemporary Appalachian creative?

Where do you think that fixation on the past comes from in Appalachian storytelling heritage?

Storytelling is an interesting art form in that orature is always changing, unlike literature, where, once a work is recorded, it’s always going to be the same. Orature is different. Let’s take a folktale like “Cap-o’-Rushes.” That tale is going to be a little bit different every time it’s told, especially once you get the generational tellings in. Three generations from now that story is going to be very different, especially if it remains in the orature. Folks in the 20th Century started coming around to collect remnants of the past, and the volumes that were produced from that have become really good resources, but they’re also period resources, you know? They let us know what storytelling and orature was like at that time. But when you pause a text like that — just because we think literarily these days — it’s going to say that what’s collected in this particular book or that particular book is what orature is. Even though time moves on, we rely on the past for our storytelling traditions.

Another part of it is that a lot of Appalachian tradition and culture was for a very long time like tradition and culture always was: someone older taught it to you. Then when you were old enough to hob yours as a trade, you taught it to someone else. And that was always the way it was for as long as humans have known it up until the post-World War period, or maybe if we want to be a little more generous, once we get into radio. Once media gets into the way that we transmit information from person to person. So because Appalachia was for a number of reasons — well, had a harder time keeping up with the times as United States society changed, as it industrialized, modernized in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s — those old methods were preserved in Appalachia, at least for another generation or two. So storytelling is just part of these wider art forms in Appalachia that always look to the past.

What do you think that has to do, if anything, with the rise of broadly American, non-regional storytelling programs? Think about This American Life. Think about The Moth, which has these installations in big cities all over the country.

Well you know, I think when a lot of the United States started to embrace convenience and technology in the mid-twentieth century, people didn’t share stories with each other like they had before. They weren’t sitting around collectively working on a quilt, or making apple butter all day, or canning things for the winter. And so the communal times that people had always up until then, they didn’t have anymore. And when you lose that you lose a lot of your tradition and your culture, and thank goodness some people have come along and seen that void and said let’s start telling stories again. If you want to think sociologically, a program like This American Life fills that gap for people who didn’t grow up hearing stories or telling stories or being part of a storytelling culture. Appalachia retained that, at least a lot longer than the rest of the United States.

These contemporary metropolitan storytelling traditions often require money. In my mind it’s one more iteration of the way industrialization and technological dependence forces us to merchandize and commodify really basic things.

Well, I’m on the fence to be honest. As a storyteller I grew up with one foot in the oral tradition. I spent a lot of time as a kid with very old people in my family who just talked and told stories about all kinds of things. Because I have that background, and I now try to make my living as a storyteller and want to be paid for it, at the same time I also produce a storytelling series and need to pay the storytellers I bring in for that — see, my perspective has changed about this in the last year. A lot of people within my circle in this mid-Atlantic area, they have storytelling events but they don’t charge for them. It’s like a suggested $10 donation, but it’s not required.

Now here’s what I’ve noticed: At the one that I run, you have to buy a ticket to come into it. I have seen the audience at the one I run grow and grow. And I’m sure it’s not just because of the admission I charge, but I have noticed that the folks who come to this event, they take the art very seriously because they’ve paid for it. They research the artists beforehand, they want to buy the merchandise afterwards, and they also stay and talk. There’s a sense of reverence for the storyteller who’s up there, and it’s really, really interesting. My friends who say, well, there’s no cost and you can donate something for it, they might have five people who show up in the audience, and what that means is that they can’t pay the storyteller what they’re worth for their art, if indeed it is an artful storyteller.

Up until last year, I would have said “Storytelling is for everyone! Everyone needs stories!” And we shouldn’t be paying for it — it’s a folk art. But it’s an art form, and there’s a lot of people who spend a lot of time crafting stories and trying to communicate messages with their stories. Hundreds of years ago, the same thing was happening with music. Music is still a folk art, but I pay now to go to a contra dance and hear the band, I pay to go to a folk concert, why would I not pay to hear some storytelling? Even if the person is talking about contemporary issues, or their own life, it’s still a folk art. What’s happening today is going to be part of someone else’s past. It’s their history and their folklore. It’s at the point right now where I think it’s important to pay for it. Which is a funny concept because the people I learned from would never, ever have accepted money for talking.

That makes a lot of sense, as a writer who puts things on the internet.

Can I add one more thing to that? One thing that I really like about paying to see storytelling, and also paying storytellers, most of the storytelling circuits that are in the United States, whether that’s the festival circuit or the slam circuit, most of them are not industrialized, which means when we’re paying the artists, we’re actually paying the artists. We’re not paying some giant conglomerate that then gives one half of one percent to the artists. You’re actually paying the storyteller to do what they do.

In arts fields that I’ve worked in, there’s an expectation that you should put in time because you love something in a way that idealizes the art while ignoring the fact that the people who make it need to live and eat and also need to have the mental space and time to do their art.

Absolutely. And a lot of my perspective on that came from being an adjunct professor at a university for many years. Here’s this army of instructors who actually make the university run as far as the courses are considered, the courses which most of the students take, and we’re paying them a fraction of what the professors earn, and of what they actually deserve, and they have no time to work on what they’re really passionate about because in most cases they’re teaching these introductory classes — if you have a Ph.D. in English, it’s kind of like teaching someone the alphabet rather than what you want to be doing or what you’re trained to be doing. That absolutely bleeds over into the world of art, whether you’re a journalist or a storyteller or a basket-maker. Give people what they deserve, you know?

Out of these folk-crafts, people make jokes about underwater basket-weaving, but here you are actually teaching storytelling at a university, in Appalachia no less. So how does that translate? Are most of your students Appalachian? I’m wondering how your teaching and your classes are received, how your students react to being taught what, in some cases, could be construed as their culture.

For the Appalachian Storytelling class, even though we’re at the last edge of Appalachia, we’re almost part of the D.C. Metro area here, what I see is that about half the students who take the course are from Appalachia. Now, of the fifty or so percent who are from Appalachia, most of them are from this area, not from Central Appalachia, which is what we think of — the mountaineer people, the coal mining people, the people who lives up in the hills and highlands. This is government-designated Appalachia, like “You are part of the war on poverty, you’re part of West Virginia, you’re part of this region.” Most of the students who take the class are from here and know the term, but don’t really know what it means. “I didn’t grow up with anyone in my family that ever dug coal. I’ve never seen coal, actually” — that kind of thing.

Even those folks who take the class from outside the region want to know, number one, what is Appalachia, and they come in thinking we’re going to spend most of our time on Cinderella stories and the Moth Man — that’s Appalachian storytelling. Well it is, and that’s part of the class, but that’s not the whole class. We look at balladry. We look at the contributions of people whose ancestors were from Africa and Europe, we look at the old stories that have been passed down and collected. We also look at contemporary stories, we look at modern stories, stories that were collected at the beginning of the 20th century. We look at ghost stories, we look at all types of stories. Not only do the students have to listen to traditional stories, they have to go out and learn stories from someone who is alive and Appalachian right now. Those often turn out to be family stories. We also look at Cherokee stories. We look at so much in that class, and a lot of what ends up happening is that the students say, ‘Wow, I never knew this was all Appalachia. I thought Appalachia was old and white people who were Protestant and coal-mining.’ They leave the class saying Appalachia is so much more than that, and the stories reflect that. The stories aren’t just Jack and Old Dry Frye, it’s the stories of people who are living here today.

Not that this is fair, but since what you’re trying to do in your life is ask and maybe offer some answer to the question, what is Appalachia? — what do you think you can say about Appalachia’s reality for you?

I’m not a lot of the things that you’d think of as the traditional Appalachian. People look at me and think, you don’t talk like you’re from Appalachia, or at least you don’t have a really thick accent. I grew up in a not very rich household, but we had means to get by. I’m very well educated. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community, but I’m also a very faithful person who has a lot of these Appalachian religious beliefs. Half my family’s Jewish! And so part of my mission as an Appalachian storyteller and cultural representative, is to say Hey, here’s what Appalachia can be. Here’s what it is. I’m from the inside. I know a lot of people who are immigrants or the children of immigrants — who had an experience that wasn’t what the news reported in the 1960s about what Appalachia was, which all my life has shaped my perception of what Appalachia is.

I grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, which is a city, by Appalachian standards, but it’s a town by the rest of the country’s standards. I grew up there but had a lot of family in really rural areas and spent a lot of time there, running around the hills and playing in creeks catching crawdads and skipping stones and learning how to call birds and identify plants and things like that. So I have this really interesting background influencing what I think Appalachia is, and so it’s important to me to know my roots and know what came before me. To understand my family — a lot of my family came from Europe, but way back in the bloodlines there’s probably, as far as we’ve been able to tell, a little bit of African ancestry, and a little indigenous ancestry, and that’s part of the Appalachia I want to share with people when I say “This is what Appalachia is.” Like I was saying, I want to know what my roots are, I want to know what my heritage is, but the unfortunate stereotype, like when you meet someone and they say “You have all kinds of teeth and wear shoes!” Well of course I do, but now that you’ve noticed that let me tell you some more about Appalachia and what Appalachia is. It’s this really diverse ecosystem, and a diversity of people and their beliefs is included within that.

What you’re saying both fits into and pushes back against this American narrative of the melting pot, this sometimes very damaging mythology of pulling up by your bootstraps, and this broader American dream which I think is getting dismantled. There’s something very interesting to me about the way you describe both your identity within Appalachia and the necessary complicating of Appalachian stories and Appalachian identities to people who are asking about them. I guess I was wondering if you had something to say connecting Appalachia to the broader American story and especially to money and the kind of life a person can imagine.

Oh, this is a touchy one for me right now because I’m really developing — I don’t even know how to say this, you can tell I’m excited because I can’t even get the words out. I’m trying to develop what I believe about the Appalachian story and its relationship to that normative American experience, especially as it relates to wealth and especially the capitalist myth of the United States. We often agree that a lot of Appalachians are very independent, they’re rather loyal to whatever’s happening — unfortunately that’s shifting now, it could be loyalty to prescription medication rather than a loyalty to the land or something like that. But independence, there’s loyalty, there’s a tradition of hard work. The backstage of what the United States is today, particularly because of the fossil fuel deposits in Appalachia and how they relate to what the United States has turned into and how they relate to the energies needed to maintain what the US has built up in terms of its economic system.

The whole coal-mining history, the present history of hydraulic fracking. The whole idea that we should be so proud of the coal that comes out of Appalachia because it keeps the lights on in the rest of the United States. And me, I’m proud of the people who mined that coal, but I’m not proud of the [economy] that keeps the people of Appalachia fettered to that profession, you know? And that’s such a hard concept for me to deal with because it goes against everything I was raised to believe. But the more I think about it, the more I think it has put a cloak on Appalachian identity, and how we fit in with the rest of the United States. We fit into this economic system, we’re part of this system and this society, but there’s been a long tradition of making us feel inferior, and I think that storytelling has shown to me that the stories that are told to us from the outside are part of what’s making that persist, and I think it shouldn’t persist. I think Appalachia is too wonderful of a place and I think the people are too unique of a resource not to allow that story to continue to be told. And I think that we are brothers and sisters with the rest of the U.S. experience.

I’m really glad you said that. It hits me on a personal note because I work with teenagers and the part of my job that I love is mentoring and tutoring and reading and writing and using that as a tool to open up questions about identity. The part of my job that I hate is college access.

I think that universities are wonderful places, and they’re a wonderful resource for some people, but I don’t think this myth of access to a, quote, better life is doing people good, or just trapping a lot of people in student debt.

What you’re saying reminds me so much of a conversation I’ve had a lot with my roommate. She’s another adjunct — she teaches art at the university. And her dad is a carpenter, and I think that really influenced her art-making, because she learned how to use tools at a really young age, and she learned to put up sheetrock and drywall with a screwdriver, and now she can make sculptures. She said, “You know, there’s this idea that you have to graduate high school and go to college, and then go to graduate school because a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough anymore.” And she said “You know, I teach so many of these kids and I just think, you don’t need to be here. It’s not the place for them.” We joke about plumbers or carpenters — oh, they can’t get another job, or they’re poor, you can see their butt crack. But the thing is, their trade is so important — being a skilled worker!

And I think this relates to Appalachia because people ask me, Why don’t you move away? A lot of my friends have moved away to bigger places. Why don’t you move up to New York? I go up there a lot. Why don’t you move to Los Angeles or down to Houston? I have a lot of friends down there. Because Appalachia is this and that, and there’s no future with it, and it’s like, well, there is a future here. There’s a lot of work to do here. And it’s that same lie we’re being told, like, if you’re a plumber you have a bad life. Actually, I think plumbers make a pretty good salary. And they don’t work long hours, they get the weekends off — and even better, if they’re self-employed, they work when they want to work, and they can have a good family and a good job and be part of a community. And it’s the same thing about Appalachia — why wouldn’t I want to stay here? There’s so many great things happening here, and great people. And I’m not believing the things people tell me because I’m from here and I know about it.

And that future is never going to exist if people interested in it don’t stay to make it happen.

Yeah, and I want to be a part of that.

It’s interesting, what you’re saying about this dismissal of trade work in favor of going to college. In a lot of metropolitan, creative class communities, along with the storytelling, along with the pickles, there’s this fascination with manual labor, with working with your hands. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Modern Farmer magazine?

No, I haven’t seen it, but I can imagine it.

It’s part of this dissonance between what the American narrative tells people they should be — urban and educated, and monetarily successful but not dependent on community — and the fact that manual labor always needs to happen, while in terms of strict, basic animalistic survival, maybe if you’re really rich you don’t need community, but in terms of humanity, you do need that, you know?

That might be that last step in ceasing to be an animal. That you can exist without that community. I think that whole part of the narrative is the great American costume party. I make pickles! I learned what a ramp looks like — although I’ve never seen it in the wild, I know what it looks like! And I’m going to dress up in this costume and live in Williamsburg. But the costume comes off at the end of the day, or at the end of five years, and then it’s like who am I really? Who was I under all that? I had the magazine subscription, I read the articles and I looked at the cute illustrations, but it wasn’t the life for me. What is the life for me?

The narrative of gentrification usually portrays white people moving into a neighborhood whose residents are mostly people of color, but of course class — money — is also involved.

People from D.C. are starting to move here [Ed: to the Eastern Panhandle] and it’s like come on, really? And they’re like oh, it’s so quaint, people do old things here, and you can buy from the farmers’ market. But do they know what else they’re doing? They’re skyrocketing the price of everything by moving here, and now the people who are from here can’t afford to live here. Think about that before you buy that house over there. But also here’s a pot, thanks for coming to the neighborhood.

And it’s a little anthropological too — I’m moving into so-and-so community. I want to be somewhere where there is community. But when you move to a community you have to become part of the community. Otherwise you’re an outsider studying us. And we tell stories about you and you become part of our mythology.

Exactly. Do you feel like there’s anything else that you need to touch on?

Yes. A lot of what I’ve said has talked about identity and community and other people moving in, and an important part of Appalachia that is growing, especially where I live, is a Latino community, and I think it’s pretty different than the situation of the affluent D.C. folks [Ed: because Latin@ immigrants often come here seeking work, or for specific jobs]. And one thing that I think we have to keep in mind when we’re talking about stories and wealth and economy in Appalachia is that part of understanding where your roots are in Appalachia is so you can identify it when there’s a new version of that starting. And I think that’s happening right now, again.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Diana Clarke tries to be a good listener.

Photo: Donnie Nunley

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