Appalachia is a rich and beautiful land steeped in tradition and open to change. It is home to countless storytellers and stories without end. Both its lushness and its rockiness teach us to make our way in the world, but Appalachia never leaves us.
—  Henry Louis Gates, Encyclopedia of Appalachia

LUSH LIFE, APPALACHIA – West Virginia & Pennsylvania

I know little of Appalachia - certainly not enough to offer anything more than the observations of an outsider. As a child I used to travel every summer from Maine to West Virginia in an old Plymouth without air conditioning for a week’s vacation with my family. We’d visit with our distant relatives but I don’t remember anyone ever using the term Appalachia or referring to it in any way. I guess we were so close to it no one needed to speak the obvious.

I do remember getting off the highway once in rural Pennsylvania because of snarled traffic on the turnpike and continuing on local roads. We weren’t the only ones to make that detour as all the cars crawled together down the main drag of some small town like an early evening parade. And like a parade all the residents were watching. I think what they were really doing was escaping the heat after a day of work. Neighbors must have been especially intimate as the houses were positioned next to each other like books on a shelf and everyone sat on their narrow porches just above the sidewalk, probably hoping for a breeze. Somehow I knew we were in coal country; my dad likely told me so.

My early takeaway was all those little porches and the way that main street rolled down with its blocks of businesses and homes. And then outside of town you would find this landscape of lushness threatening to overtake anything that wasn’t maintained.

About a month ago, decades past that childhood, I had reason for a 3000-mile road trip for business that would take me through the region again. As is my practice, I left time in the schedule to get off the highway to snap some pictures. The porches and the overgrown landscape were again familiar, but on this trip the takeaways were the abundant display of religion and Dollar General stores. Also the empty businesses, the gutted motels and the abandoned houses. If those were there back in the 1970s I hadn’t noticed. Somehow it dimmed none of the beauty; somehow I already knew they’d be there.

I can’t wait to go back to that lush life.

* * * 

Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. He curated The American Guide’s first zine, Rural Life. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land

Documentaries on Appalachia

Appalachia and the media have a very strained relationship, and with good reason. Representations of Appalachia haven’t changed for the last 50 years, except perhaps to get worse. Even documentaries on the area that are meant to provide a great deal of verisimilitude often fail and leave the area worse than they found it. For better or worse, however, they educate. Here’s a list of some of the more popular and easily accessible titles, from earliest to latest:

  • The Forgotten Frontier (1931) about the Frontier Nursing Service, a group of nurses on horseback who traveled through the mountains, founded by Mary Breckenridge in 1925.
  • Holy Ghost People (1967) looks at the Pentecostal Christians of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia and their traditions of snake handling and speaking in tongues. Watch here.
  • Before the Mountain was Moved (1969) focuses on the inhabitants of Raleigh County, West Virginia as they fight against Mountain Top Removal and fight for environmental protection. Watch here.
  • The Darlene Chronicles/Visiting with Darlene (1970-94) started as a look at poverty in rural Pennsylvania and quickly turned into a sad and disparaging look at an Appalachian family through the eyes of housewife Darlene and her daily struggles. This one paints an ugly picture and can be rather hard to watch, here. 
  • It Ain’t City Music (1973) films the National Country Music Contest in Warrenton, Virginia and hears from people reminiscing on their rural homes and the hard times they’ve endured. Watch here.
  • Buffalo Creek Flood (1975) shows the disaster and irresponsibility of the Pittston Company when a coal waste dam collapsed in southern West Virginia, killing 125 and leaving 4000 homeless.
  • Harlan County, USA (1976) follows the Brookside Strike of the coal miners (and families) working for Duke Power Company in southeastern Kentucky. This documentary explores the issues of workers’ rights and the union in coal country. Watch here.
  • The Heartland Series (1984) is a series documentary from Tennessee focusing on different aspects of Appalachian life and culture, including the land, the history, the struggles and the trades of the mountain folk.
  • A Singing Stream: A Black Family Chronicle (1986) traces the history of the Landis family of Granville County, North Carolina, through family reunions, gospel concerts, and the word of mouth from 86-year-old Bertha Landis. Watch here
  • Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986) documents the UMWA strike against Massey Energy, one of the largest coal corporations in America, and their CEO Don Blankenship. Watch here
  • Dancing Outlaw (1991) tells the story of the now infamous Jesco White of Boone County, West Virginia, the eponymous Dancing Outlaw. Jesco’s story and his colorful family are the focus of this documentary and its followup “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” (2009). Watch Dancing Outlaw here. 
  • American Hollow (1999) depicts a stark look at the Bowling family of Hazard, Kentucky, an impoverished family that has lived in the same hollow for seven generations. Watch here
  • Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait (2000) follows the lives of seven girls in a coming of age story about leaving their family farm and the bonds that hold them together.
  • Stranger With A Camera (2000) is a fascinating documentary that looks at the murder of filmmaker Hugh O’Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky while he was shooting a piece on Appalachia during Johnson’s War on Poverty. It addresses questions of how Appalachia is represented versus how it is viewed by its own people. Watch here. 
  • Sludge (2005) chronicles the Martin County Sludge Spill accident that occurred when coal sludge broke through an underground mine and into the Tug Fork River.
  • Heaven Come Down (2006) is another documentary that looks at Appalachian sects of Pentecostal Christians.
  • Country Boys (2006) follows the life of two teenage boys from David, Kentucky and their struggles against poverty in a rural area from 1999 to 2002. The boys face individual family and educational issues.
  • Mountaintop Removal (2007) looks at strip mining in West Virginia and how it has affected local communities.
  • Burning the Future: Coal in America (2008) also focuses on the environmental effects of Mountain Top Removal, such as disfigured mountain ranges, extinct or endangered species from the deforestation, and pollution.
  • Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie (2008) is the story of Dallas and Wayne and their journey as Bigfoot Researchers. It’s an American Dream story of a passion in Portsmouth, Ohio, an impoverished Appalachian town, that is equal parts sad, delightful, heartbreaking and heartwarming. Watch here
  • Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People (2009) is a 4 part PBS documentary that focuses on the role of Appalachia in the nation since its beginning.
  • Blowing Up Mountains: Destroying the Environment for Coal (2010), a VICE piece, examines how and why massive corporations choose to extract coal by creating environmental ruin instead of going underground. Watch here
  • The Last Mountain (2011) again fights against strip mining, looking at the environmental and health impact. This documentary and the book it derives from (Crimes Against Nature, Kennedy) proposes a wind farm for clean energy in place of deforestation and mining. Watch here.
  • Oxyana (2013) is a portrait of the once thriving small town of Oceana, West Virginia, which has fallen hard and fast due to the spread of the Appalachian Oxycontin epidemic. Rent to watch here.
  • Overburden (coming soon) follows the life of a coal miner’s brother and an environmentalist grandmother in their attempts to take down the coal company in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 in 2010. Check out this teaser.

There are plenty more special reports, TV shows, exposé films, and degrading travel-channel sorts out there, and I know there are some actual documentaries I’ve forgotten, so if there is anything you think should be included in this let me know.