Why the Blues in Appalachia Matter to Hipsters and Hip Hop

On November 18, 1993 a shaggy blond rock singer closed his band’s set for MTV Unplugged with a cover of an old blues song. The man, then a pioneer of grunge rock, now a pop culture icon and legend, was Kurt Cobain. The song that he and Nirvana closed their set with was called “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

I remember the first time I heard their rendition of the song, squished in my couch, hunched over the glowing screen where I had been avoiding sleep by watching Youtube. The words were menacing, the melody was haunting, and Kurt’s sharp guitar notes chugged along, metallically clanking as if a recording playing from a vinyl—it is beautiful in the darkest way.

You can trace the brooding track back to the Grateful Dead, who recorded it in 1966 (though the recording did not make it onto an album until 2001 on The Golden Road). Though a significantly earlier presence of the song than Nirvana, the American psychedelic jam-rock band did not write or arrange the song.

One can trace it back further to the streets of Greenwich Village. The “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” Dan van Ronk recorded a version in 1959. Though both Jerry Garcia and van Ronk are archetypes of American music, one has to trace the Nirvana cover back even more.

Many songs that modern music lovers attribute to 1960’s rock can find their origins much further in the past.  Moreover, sounds and subjects that were popularized in rock and pop find parentage in Appalachian blues and folk. Jimi Hendrix, Taj Mahal, Joan Baez, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and many others tapped into this pool to create their own music. Though many bands stretching from 60’s rock to present day pop music have actively embraced this tradition (think Gary Clark Jr., Taj Mahal and the Black Keys), countless others have unknowingly carried the same heritage in their music.

Before playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (also known as “In the Pines” and “Black Girl”), Kurt Cobain acknowledges Lead Belly as the original arranger of the tune. Huddie Ledbetter (also known as Lead Belly) recorded the blues tune in the 1940’s at the same time as such bluegrass legends as Billy Monroe (who was famous for an altered version of the song).  

“In the Pines” was a traditional Appalachian folk song which was first arranged by Lead Belly and adapted countless times up until the present. The same story applies to Lead Belly and a number of other early Appalachian folk/blues tunes (another prime example is “The House of the Rising Sun”).

This tradition can be seen heavily in modern music.  If one wishes to find blues roots in releases of even the past few months, they need to look no further than Childish Gambino’s newest album “Awaken, My Love!

Soulful, aching vocals bemoaning the hardships of life and love with blues scales and rhythmic instrumentals unmistakably bear the marks of the Appalachian blues/folk tradition. One finds the same corollaries in such albums as Parquet Courts’ “Human Performance,” Whitney’s “Light Upon the Lake,” and Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”

I must clarify that I am not asserting that the blues were the beginning of American music, nor were they the first songs to use soulful vocals or sensitive lyrics. Most of the songs mentioned above can be traced to the mid-19th century and perhaps earlier. Nor am I merely saying all this because I am a Kentucky native and know, just as does any good Kentucky native, that it is the home of Bluegrass music (not Virginia). Nor am I arguing that the only influences in American music are Appalachian folk/blues.

I certainly recognize that American music is much more complex and to simplify the argument to a tradition of only Appalachia is to cheat countless musicians of their contributions to the music world.

So then why is this important? Why are these more than just fun facts you can whip out to your hipster friends? Musical heritage is important.

It seems appropriate to quote Dr. Davis here and say that “we need to take responsibility for the way we think,” (or listen to music in this case). The music we appreciate and herald as excellent owes more than we recognize to these Appalachian songs.

When we listen to modern music, we hear the songs of African American slaves and freed slaves and white Kentucky coal miners and criminals in Virginia. They are songs of love, songs of hope, and songs of pain.  Each one tells a story and they lend their storytelling tradition to us.  When we recognize who gave us the tastes, styles, and skills we find important, it helps us appreciate what we have more and give credit where credit is due.