Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Tradition, Race, and Gender in the Celebration of Traditional Music

Appalachian Sound Archives Fellow Deborah Thompson focused on the ways race and gender are represented in Appalachian music, particularly in the context of such events as Berea's Celebration of Traditional Music.

Audio Highlight

Grandpa, Ramona, and Alisa Jones - Davidson County, TN
"Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies," 10-28-1978.
Celebration of Traditional Music, (AC-OR-005-103)

Gender in the CTM

In order to understand the effects of gender on the CTM, the artists themselves can be examined. Is there a pattern in the instruments that are played by the different genders? For example, are female musicians more likely to be vocalists than their male counterparts? Are traditional fiddle players usually male? What roles do different genders take on in the festival atmosphere and in the music world?

Because traditional music is often passed on through families and close neighbors, family music groups are very common in the CTM. Almost any combination of related persons might be found, such as wife-husband duos (Annadeene and J.P. Fraley); parent-child duos (Lily May and Tim Pennington or Lewis and Donna Lamb); grandparent-grandchild (Addie Graham and Rich Kirby); or larger family groups (McLain Family Band or Grandpa, Ramona, and Alisa Jones).

All artists have a gendered experience, and this is often expressed in the music they choose to sing. Janette Carter, for example, sang a song in the 1978 CTM she wrote about her experience as a mother. One of David Morris’s 1977 songs was dedicated to a man who helped him survive his experience as a Vietnam War veteran.

In investigating the influence of gender on the festival, I found, through a survey of the 1974, 1984, 1994, and 2004 programs, that the first festival had the largest representation of women proportional to the total musicians (40%), with a drastic drop in the 1980s (18%) and a gradual increase, but still low, to 25% in 2004. The percentage of women serving in a leadership position throughout the years is significantly lower than the percentage of men, with only two women, Betty Smith and Jean Ritchie, filling most of these capacities, serving as emcees, members of the Traditional Music Committee, or workshop leaders over the years. Women, again, especially these two exceptional female musicians, have dominated in leadership of the sacred music portion of the weekend on Sunday morning. This is consistent with other cultural patterns in which women are often more associated with church attendance, and female leadership is more accepted.