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American Folklife Center Collections: West Virginia

This guide provides access to ethnographic resources documenting expressive culture in the state of West Virginia at the Library of Congress.


Lyntha Scott Eiler, Photographer. John Bowman (right), in his garage, explaining the workings of a moonshine still to Mary Hufford and John Flynn. Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008). Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

American Folklife Center collections from West Virginia document the diversity of its expressive culture. AFC collections for West Virginia begin with the Robert Winslow Gordon Cylinder Collection (AFC 1928/002) which includes nineteen 10-inch tapes (copied from 825 wax cylinders) recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon 1922-1928 in California, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. This collection represents a cross section of American folksong including blues, spirituals, British-American ballads, gospel singing, sea shanties, recitations, and miscellaneous recordings such as the inauguration of President Coolidge. Recent collections include the Emily Hilliard collection on West Virginia ballad singer Phyllis Marks, September 8th 2016 (AFC 2017/045) and the StoryCorps collection, 2003-2018 (AFC 2004/001).

Foodways to Fiddlers in the Mountain State

Two particularly interesting online presentations to explore include the Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia collection and the Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection.

Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

This collection presents excerpts of sound recordings, photographs, and manuscripts from the American Folklife Center's Coal River Folklife Project Collection (AFC 1999/008). The project documented traditional customs and land use of the mountains of southern West Virginia’s Big Coal River Valley throughout 1992 to 1999. There are extensive interviews with local residents on the season harvesting of natural resources—ginseng, ramps (wild leeks), berries, nuts, fish, and game—on occupations, including coal mining and lumbering; and on the impact of large scale industries such as logging and mountaintop removal mining on local communities. Also included are cultural and religious community events, such as baptisms, cemetery customs, as well as community dinners and storytelling.

Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection

This collection presents traditional fiddle tunes performed by Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Virginia. Henry Reed's fiddle music provides an excellent example of the historical dynamics of folk culture in the Upper South. Born in 1884 along the Virginia-West Virginia border in the Appalachian Mountains, Henry Reed learned fiddle and banjo before the turn of the century and showed an amazing ability to absorb and remember music wherever and whenever he encountered it. His repertory thus presents a sort of aural encyclopedia of the history and cultural life of one of America's most important and influential cultural regions.Documentation includes 184 sound recordings, 19 pages of fieldnotes, and 69 musical transcriptions from two collections in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress: Alan Jabbour duplication project part 1 (AFC 1967/007) and Alan Jabbour duplication project, part 2 (AFC 1969/008).

Additional Collections of Interest

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Podcasts and Blog Posts

Public Programming

Watch the recording of Homegrown Concert of Flatpick Guitar & Fiddle Music from Kanawha County, West Virginia, performed in the Library's Cooldige Auditorium, August 16, 2012. Bobby Taylor, Robert Shafer and Robin Kessinger, three of the Kanawha Valley's best traditional musicians, have played together over many years at various musical events in the Valley and throughout West Virginia. They were heavily influenced by the musical talents of Clark Kessinger, a world renowned fiddler. Clark Kessinger recorded many tunes on the Brunswick label from 1928 to 1930, and later, five albums in the 1960s. Kessinger lived near where Robert, Robin and Bobby grew up in the Kanawha Valley, and Robin is his great nephew. This trio uses Clark's beautiful arrangements as a foundation for the music they play. Just like Clark Kessinger, who used every technique possible, they continue to explore new and exciting ways to play the great old tunes.

Homegrown concert performance by Gandydancer, old-time stringband music from West Virginia. Recorded at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., December 12, 2007.