By Ed Simon
“I’m going back to West Virginia when this is over. There’s something ancient and deeply rooted in my soul. I like to think that I’ve left my ghost up one of those hollows and I’ll never be able to leave for good until I find it – and I don’t want to look for it because I might find it and have to leave.”
Writer Breece D’J Pancake in letter to parents, 1976
From the world’s largest ball of paint in Alexandria, Indiana to the Sputnik crash site in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, the fabled 2003 Mothman statue of Point Pleasant, West Virginia remains in my own heart one of the most singular examples of road-side Americana strangeness. Commemorating the wintertime 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge into the Ohio River and the supposed intercession in that tragic event by the terrifying, supernatural cryptid known as the Mothman, and the titular creature is rendered by sculptor Bob Roach in twelve-feet of winged metal, two glowing red hubcap-sized eyes peering out from the sides of the monster’s insectoid head. “They are not from here,” writes paranormalist John Keel in his pulpy classic The Mothman Prophecies, “There is no need for them to be. They have always been here.” However literally you want to take Keel’s contention, it’s at least true that something like the Mothman has always been with us as a way of using the collective language of metaphor and imagination to render our loves and hates, desires and fears into narratives that impart meaning.
Belief in the Mothman always has had a bit of the tongue-in-cheek about it, so that Roach’s statue is a wonderful evocation of a particular Lynchian strangeness. The way in which a tragedy for Point Pleasant – 46 people died in that bridge collapse – has been mediated through something bizarre, wonderful, and a bit funny is a lesson in how culture, art, and folklore provide succor for people. Appalachia generally, but West Virginia specifically, has often been a domain on which the wider country projects assumptions and stereotypes, classist bigotries and fears. Yet the Mothman statue – every goofy and wonderous square inch of its chromed surface – reflects a far more complicated reality. Roach’s statue, and Point Pleasant’s celebration of the Mothman, is ironic and festive, even a bit avant-garde. A fitting reminder of the complexities of West Virginia, that absurdly beautiful mountain state, and a rebuke to those who so often make it the punchline of jokes.
Former state folklorist Emily Hilliard has made it a central part of her career to not just dispel the perceptions which some people in the wider United States have about West Virginia, but also to preserve and complicate the understandings which residents may themselves have about their home. As Hilliard brilliantly explicates in her indispensable new study from the University of North Carolina Press, Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore & Everyday Culture in Appalachia, folklore isn’t just collecting legends and fables, but also considering the semiotics of coleslaw on hotdogs, the cultural history of Saturday night independent professional wrestling, the rhetoric of protest sign slogans during the teachers’ strike of 2018, and digital post-apocalyptic Appalachian wastelands as rendered in the video-game Fallout. “I have spent much of the past six years traveling in and across West Virginia,” writes Hilliard, “crisscrossing mountains, hollers, creeks, and rivers along dirt roads and highways on fieldwork trips to interview quilters, fiddlers, striking teachers, gospel singers, miniature makers, independent pro-wrestlers, neon sign makers, herbalists, marble collectors, gamers, woodworkers, playwrights, pastors, turkey call makers, and more.”
At the center of this practice, honed in an earlier career working with the venerable Washington DC-based Smithsonian Folkways Records, is a commitment to “visionary folklore,” a collaborative method of empirical research that allows communities to speak on behalf of themselves. There is an ethical dimension to Hilliard’s research, especially when considering a state so often maligned by outsiders, and so frequently the victim of the brunt of capitalist excess. She writes in Making Our Future that the “challenges West Virginia faces are not unique to the state. Environmental hazards and climate change, postindustrial fallout, a disintegrating social safety net, loss of land and community, corporate malfeasance, structural racism, and a widening gap between the rich and poor.” In this regard Appalachia just got to these problems a bit sooner than the rest of the nation, because no part of the country is untouched by such maladies. In examining the folklore of West Virginia, Hilliard offers all of us a vision of creative resistance, of collective action, of joyful rebellion, and of loving imagination. I had the pleasure of interviewing Hilliard through email over the course of November, and my questions and her answers are below.
I was very much struck by this idea of “visionary folklore” which you write about, and the ethics and methodology of more collaborative field work, where those whose culture is being studied are active participants in the work itself. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this approach, and what you see as being important about it?
Collaborative ethnography is a methodology I learned in my graduate studies in folklore. In collaborative fieldwork, interviews are approached as conversations between equals, where both parties—the folklorist and the interviewee—are considered experts in their own experience. As the folklorist, I may have a sense of some of the things I want to talk about in the interview, and the interviewee probably does too, but I don’t come in with a script, and I’m listening closely for indications of what the interviewee would like to discuss. We’re both shaping the direction of the conversation together. Then drafts of any outcome from the interview–whether it’s a transcript of our conversation, a written story, or a radio piece—are shared with the interviewee for feedback. Sometimes during an interview, interviewees share something personal with me in the moment that after reflecting, they don’t want to become part of a public archive, and ask for parts of an interview to be removed from the record, which I of course honor. The collaborative, dialogic process also allows us to have conversations about representation, challenge any assumptions I may have unknowingly made, and fact check any errors. This methodology is very different from journalistic approaches, but it ensures that the subject of any public-facing piece has a voice in how their work and self are being represented. I think this is particularly important and useful when doing work in communities not our own.
When people hear the world “folklore,” especially in relation to a place like West Virginia, they have certain preconceived notions. It makes a lot of folks think of bluegrass music and quilts, the Hatfields and the McCoys, coal country and moonshine, all of that sort of stuff. And that is part of folklore and folklike as you explain, but your book deals with things like Saturday night wrestling and the videogame Fallout 76, regional hot dog variations and literary tourism. What are the benefits to a more expansive understanding of folklore? What have reactions been when you describe this broader understanding?
When I moved to West Virginia, I encountered some of those preconceived notions of what folklore is, and often that was something to the effect of “the old timey ways of white folks in the mountains.” But folklore is not a whitewashed nostalgic glance backwards or reenactment, and representations of it as such are frankly dangerous and have been used as dog whistles and symbols of white supremacy and white nationalism. The way I think of folklore is the creative expressions and practices of everyday life that are rooted in place and/or community, so it is something that everyone has and is a part of. In West Virginia, that means all the people and cultural communities who make their home in the Mountain State. Folklore is living and breathing, always evolving, and part of contemporary life—the twist you add to an heirloom recipe, a lullaby sung to a child at bedtime, the in-jokes that emerge among families, the vocabulary unique to a particular occupation, the beloved foodways of a certain place, the meme altered and shared among friends. I’ve found that that understanding of folklife seems to resonate with most people, probably because it feels familiar.
Could you talk a bit about what exactly a state folklorist is, what your tasks and responsibilities happen to be?
Most states now have a state folklorist and often those positions are housed at the state arts council, though sometimes they’re at the state humanities council, as in West Virginia, or at a university or another organization. When I took the West Virginia state folklorist position, the priority mandate of our grant was to conduct a statewide folklife fieldwork survey, documenting folk and traditional artists, practitioners, and cultural communities across the Mountain State. That was not only to create a publicly accessible archival resource (which is now housed at WVU Libraries as the West Virginia Folklife Collection), but to also hear from those artists and communities how best a statewide folklife program could support them and their work. We aimed to do that through our subsequent programs, like the West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, which offers a stipend to teaching artists to mentor younger practitioners in their respective art forms over the course of a year, ensuring that the tradition is passed on to the next generation. We hosted concerts of traditional musicians, oral history workshops so residents could learn how to document members of their own communities, and other events. I also shared fieldwork through written published pieces, radio stories, videos, and social media. Overall, the mission we drafted for the West Virginia Folklife Program was to document, sustain, present, and support the state’s vibrant cultural heritage and living traditions. Most state folklorists operate under a similar directive in their respective places.
I appreciate this question, because I don’t think the national, publicly funded cultural preservation work that happens through state folklife programs is particularly well known, but it’s very important, and timely, with the recent calls for a revisiting of the WPA and Federal Writers’ Project post-pandemic. Some of that type of work is already happening through folk and traditional arts programs but could benefit from greater support and awareness.
How did being originally an outsider to West Virginia – a “flatland foreigner” as one of the people you talk about half-jokingly refers to you – affect your way of doing your work?
I was well aware of the history of extraction—of both cultural and natural resources— in the region before I moved to West Virginia, so I was careful and cautious about how I approached my work as someone not from there. Because of that, I really relied on collaborative ethnography as a framework for equitable fieldwork to challenge my own assumptions and positionality and ensure our programming and documentation was to the benefit of the communities whose creative practices were been highlighted. I did find that if someone commented on me being an outsider, it was usually not that I wasn’t from the state, but rather not from their specific community, or was seen as a “city person” from Charleston and perceived as being a representative of a state institution. That reminded me that there are many overlapping ways of being an insider and outsider, and often these distinctions are made on hyper-local community levels. Also, sometimes being an outsider can be advantageous, as I might notice something that those within a community interact with so often they might take it for granted, or may have gotten used to its significance or importance within their own lives.
Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular are places that the broader country often reduces to stereotype. What do you think is the most erroneous and damaging belief about West Virginia which people from outside the state hold? What’s the worst misconception?
I’m reluctant to answer this question as I don’t want to be in the position where I’m giving voice to an offensive stereotype! But I would say that any belief about the state that disempowers, erases, or simplifies a group of people or attempts to deprive them of their humanity is misguided and damaging.
One thing that struck me while reading Making Our Future is the surprising diversity of West Virginia. For those of us who live not far from the northern panhandle, which can be similar to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the wider Rust Belt, there’s always been an awareness of how the demographics of the region reflect waves of immigration during the early twentieth-century, but your book deals with longer and more enduring histories of diversity in the state as well. Could you talk a bit about West Virginia’s diversity?
One aspect that I don’t think is considered enough is that while West Virginia is losing population faster than any other state, communities of color in the state are growing. According to the 2020 census, the white population in the state decreased 7.4 percent while the Black and African American population increased 4.3 percent, and the Hispanic and Latinx population increased 56.4 percent. Overall, the diversity index increased from 13.1 percent to 20.2 percent. All of that is to say, the cultural and ethnic makeup of the state is changing, and so the work of cultural organizations should reflect that and make sure those communities are acknowledged, represented, included, and supported.
The historical political radicalism of West Virginia is so notable, despite its reputation for an overreaching conservatism today. The Battle of Blair Mountain, Mother Jones, all of these past examples of union solidarity and labor organizing are still so enduring. I was fascinated by your account of the West Virginia teacher’s strike, which took a lot of journalists in New York and DC (when they were paying attention) by surprise. How does the teacher’s strike connect to the history of West Virginia labor?
Many of the striking West Virginia educators in 2018 and 2019 had familial connections to unionized labor struggle, whether it was through the 1990 Teachers’ Strike, the Pittston Strike, Ravenswood Lockout, or other labor organizing. Striking teachers also referenced the state’s labor history by wearing red bandanas, a symbol of union solidarity during the West Virginia Mine Wars and thought to be the origin of the term “red neck.” I also documented teachers’ signs with slogans that read things like “We are the daughters of Mother Jones,” and cited Hazel Dickens lyrics. It’s notable that most of the major labor uprisings we’ve seen in West Virginia in recent years have happened among care workers, largely in female-dominated professions like teaching, nursing, and service professions, marking in a shift in the dominant type of labor that is now performed in the region.
West Virginia always strikes me as such a fascinating place geographical, at least in terms of how we situate it. In Last Mountain Dancer, Chuck Kinder makes a comment about how at its southern most point its below Richmond, Virginia and at its northern most latitude its above Staten Island. What is West Virginia in terms of region? Does it matter?
When I was moving to West Virginia, my friend and colleague Cliff Murphy, who is director of folk and traditional arts at the NEA and a touring musician, told me that when he was on tour playing in Charleston, West Virginia, he talked to a local who said of the state, “We’re not north, we’re not south, we’re not east, we’re not west, we’re just US.” I thought about that anecdote a lot while I was doing fieldwork in the state, and I think it’s true to an extent. Many West Virginia’s don’t necessarily identify as southern, but they definitely aren’t northerners either. And a lot of the older generation identify more as West Virginians than with a broader Appalachian identity. In any place, the more you zoom in, the more regional and local differences emerge, and culture never strictly moves along or can be contained by borders of any kind—whether state or country or arbitrary regional distinctions.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, we were sometimes maligned in national jokes as “The Paris of Appalachia,” and it’s something that a lot of people blanched at, but more recently I’ve rightly seen people take it as a badge of pride. “Appalachia” is such a complicated concept, and such a huge region. What is the most useful way to think of Appalachia? Is there anything that unites the whole region, or does that risk essentializing things?
Like I said, the more you zoom in on a place, the more regional and local differences emerge, so while there are certainly unifying characteristics of Appalachia, it’s such an expansive region that there are vast differences across it too. Generally, it is a place where the challenges of late capitalism—which make no mistake, affect the entire country—can be more glaringly obvious because of how the region has been approached by governmental and corporate entities effectively as a “sacrifice zone,” with corporate greed of extractive industry and the destruction that inflicts on people and environment. Because of this, and as I say in my book, I do think West Virginia is a good place to examine the power and possibility of folklife because of the way its communities, which have bore the brunt of social and environmental disintegration due to these deracinating forces, have adapted and re-formed in response through outright rejections of austerity (like in the teachers’ strike), perpetual performances of counternarratives, and collective strategies that draw from tradition and leverage expressive culture.
I’ve got to know – Mothman. I’m borderline obsessed with him, and I love the meme you reference about pepperoni rolls being left out for him on West Virginia Day. In all seriousness, what’s his significance? What does analyzing Mothman tells us about the broader culture?
One way you can think about Mothman, and cryptids more broadly, is as embodiments of the fears and anxieties of the communities from which these monster narratives emerge. So with Mothman initially being sighted in the “TNT Area” of Point Pleasant—an ammunition manufacturing plant with mysterious bunkers, which is now a superfund site—that could mean the threat of toxicity, government malfeasance, militarized experiments, or fears of the “other.” Mothman as a folk narrative has gone through many iterations to the point where he’s almost become a folk hero in the state and broader region, which I think aligns with a popular sense of West Virginia or Appalachian pride, particularly among young people.
Any book has things which the author would have wished to include, but for reasons of space have to be left out. What would a follow up to Making Our Future include?
When COVID hit, I had started doing some fieldwork in Moorefield, West Virginia with immigrant and refugee populations who live there and work at the chicken processing plant in town. There were outbreaks in the factory, and some other barriers that could have compromised the health and well being of the communities I’d be working with, so I decided to not pursue it as a book chapter. Clara Haizlett and I did end up producing a short audio piece for West Virginia Public Broadcasting on the coffee ceremony performed by Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants in Moorefield, however. The coffee ceremony is a ritual of hospitality in Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures, and it was such a joy and honor to be offered that experience by our generous host, Trihas Kefele.
Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.