Great Smokies music revived, receives Grammy nomination

art frHe went east to discover the final frontier.

In 1937, Californian Joseph S. Hall was a 30-year-old graduate student. Hired by the National Park Service for a summer job, Hall was commissioned to seek out and capture the essence of the unique people, places and things amid the high peaks and hollers of the Southern Appalachian Smokies.

With notepad in-hand, he jumped into a pickup truck and headed into the isolated landscape, coming out with innumerable pages of stories told in a unique dialect — one that evolved partly out of the Scotch-Irish and German ancestory of mountain settlers, and partly, it seemed, from the mountains themselves.

“He loved his work, and the mountain people loved him,” said Steve Kemp, interpretive products and service director for the Great Smoky Mountains Association. “He spent months in the work camps, at people’s houses, in the fields, at church and funerals. He immersed himself in the culture.”

But, it wasn’t enough.

These people he interviewed had a variety of distinct accents and created beautiful music, things that ink and paper couldn’t do justice to. He knew he had to come back, and did in 1939. Gathering up his primitive recording equipment (which included phonograph cylinders), Hall set out again for the Great Smoky Mountains, this time to be a fly on the wall, simply letting the music play and speak for itself.

Since then, those recordings have ended up at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute and in the archives at the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Recently, the GSMA decided to compile the material and release it as an album for public consumption. Kemp, one of the co-producers of Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, was overwhelmed by the response to the record.

“I’ve been working on projects like this for over 25 years,” he said. “But, I’ve never been one where people wrote long letters about how thrilled they were, hearing their grandfather play guitar and how many memories it brought back about the people and the music.”

But, the biggest surprise was yet to come.

Earlier this month, the collection was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category “Best Historical Album.” Other contenders in the category are Sir Paul McCartney and The Beach Boys. Ironically, the late Woody Guthrie, whose immense impact on Americana and folk music ripples throughout the entire music industry, is also a nominee.

“It was about the most shocked I’ve ever been in my life,” Kemp chuckled.


Let the music play

As the record unfolds, one immediately hears the crackle and snap of history coming alive through the speakers. You hear voices and musical instruments — sounds uncovered and dusted off after several decades lying dormant. They are faces and names long gone from everyday life, but here and now, a reawakening occurs.

Your thoughts begin to drift. Those abandoned barns and quiet fields you wander by each day start to peak your interest in what was, and how it translates to today. The ground below your feet exposes its many rich and sacred layers, each footstep moving across the depths of history in your own backyard.

“People of the Smokies, even today, are very musical,” Kemp said. “It’s a family tradition and very common to play music, to get together and just play. There is nowhere more true to that in the Great Smokies.”

But, the recordings are bittersweet, something even Hall knew while out on assignment. Much of the thought behind obtaining these words, sounds and images was in preparation for the controversial government actions soon to forever change the landscape.

It was the height of the Great Depression and Southern Appalachia was particularly hit hard. With the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, scores of deeply rooted families were displaced from their farms and homesteads to make way for the half-million-acre national park.

“They realized the culture was going to change forever,” Kemp said. “And, they wanted to preserve some of it before it was too late.”

A few years later, along came the construction of Fontana Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which again shuffled around families trying to find footing in their homeland.

Since then, plenty has been said and written about that isolated Southern culture, for good or ill. Regardless of historical or opinionated implications, Hall wanted to paint an honest and accurate portrait of the region, one that showed the world how intricate and finely tuned the heritage actually was.

“[Hall] always insisted that none of these materials would be used to belittle mountain people or cast them in a negative light,” Kemp said. “These recordings also undo a lot of [misconceptions] about mountain music. There was blues music, modern-for-the-day country music, old ballads and influences from the British Isles.”

Though he went back to California, Hall never forgot the remarkable people and lifelong friendships he forged, many of which he nurtured and kept in touch with until his death in 1992, at age 85. He cherished his time in Southern Appalachia, a place where, with this latest record, he will forever be linked to, with the beauty, grandeur and lore of the Great Smokies.

“This is the history of the land, the people and the music,” Kemp said.


Want a copy?

Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music is available for purchase from the Great Smoky Mountains Association. The album is $14.95, with proceeds going to the benefit of the park. You can find the record at or at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the entrance to the park outside Cherokee. It will soon be available on iTunes.

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