As a teenager growing up in West Virginia in the 1970s, I thought string band music was a great way to meet girls and drink beer. 

But when I started working after college as a door-to-door canvasser and community organizer with West Virginia Citizen Action Group, I quickly realized that string band music is more than a low-cost way to have a good time. It also connected me with a progressive network and a tradition of activism going back to early union and civil rights organizing.  

Many of the musicians I jammed with in my early days as an organizer were liberal, college-educated young people who had moved to Appalachia as part of the back-to-the-land movement. Though they were often called “them hippies” by rural West Virginians, these progressive newcomers appreciated mountain music, which helped them build relationships with their more conservative neighbors. 



Many of these back-to-the-landers formed intentional communities in rural corners of the state. I ended up marrying into one of these communities and have played for thirty years in a string band with musicians from another. My neighbors do not think of themselves as community organizers, but they have added vital social capital to their adopted communities — building small businesses, staffing clinics and schools, and launching non-profit organizations providing a wide range of social service and arts programs.

My role as a string band musician has evolved since the early 1980s — from beginner to festival organizer to bass player in a regional weekend touring band. So has my role in progressive politics — from community organizer to organization builder to funder.  What I've learned from all of these experiences is that string band music provides an uncommonly effective way to bring diverse communities together across age, geography, politics, and race — making it meaningful political work as well as soul-cleansing, in-the-moment fun.


Leftists have been playing string band music since at least the 1930s. When Pete Seeger was charged with contempt for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, he carted a banjo into the federal courtroom with the inscription, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” a gentler take on the “This machine kills fascists” that folk-singer Woody Guthrie had written on his guitar a generation before.

String band music was also an essential organizing tool for The Highlander Center, where thousands of civil rights and social justice organizers have trained since the 1930s. Set in the mountains of Tennessee, Highlander celebrated and recorded string band music as part of its practice of sharing the cultural traditions of politically marginalized groups and as a tool to bridge the divide between urban and rural communities. It was at Highlander that Hazel Dicken’s famous They’ll Never Keep Us Down string band album was recorded. 

String band music remains a gathering point for rural progressives in Appalachia today. George Goehl of People’s Action, the most prominent national voice advocating for race-forward rural progressive organizing, plays “old time” banjo. So does Matt Hildreth, of RuralOrganizing.Org, the “boldly progressive, proudly rural” communications hub serving progressive activists across rural America. 

Joe Troop, the banjo-playing leader of Grammy-nominated string band Che Appalachia, is working on the front lines in the North Carolina elections this fall. Best known for a recording inspired by an openly undocumented, queer DACA recipient and rural community organizer, Che Appalachia also placed first in the 2017 “Neo-Traditional Band Contest” at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (better known as “Clifftop”), the largest annual gathering of string band musicians in the world, which I helped found in 1990. I was there that night, and it was clear that the judges and audience were pleased to support a band that not only plays high-quality music but also counters the narrative that rural cultural traditions are intrinsically anti-immigrant. 

In recent years, urban hipster, Black, and Latinx musicians have all flocked to string band music, leading the London-based writer Emma John to assert that bluegrass (the most popular form of string band music) is “the new sound of political protest across the US.” 




But string band music — and the culture surrounding it — is politically complex. There are tensions at work between the older, more conservative string band audiences and the younger, urban, and progressive musicians who are joining the tradition.  

In addition, string band music itself, like many American musical traditions, has a history of racial exclusion and appropriation. As John notes, the Black string band tradition had, until recently, been “written out of bluegrass history” as promoters of hillbilly music saw no place for Black musicians on stage. Thankfully, many remarkably talented Black musicians, led by Rhiannon Giddens and the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, are reclaiming that tradition. 

Even more important, Black string band musicians like Jake Blount are pushing the mostly white string band community to confront the music’s appropriation of Black culture (the banjo was brought to America by enslaved West Africans) and its racist heritage. In so doing, these award-winning Black musicians are enriching the tradition while celebrating their own identities. Giddens, for example, characterized one of her recent recording projects as “part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country.”


String band music is, as Emma John writes, “a rare public space where both sides of the great American divide can and will sit down together. The passion and pride that bluegrassers feel for their music override political, and even personal, animosity, forging unlikely friendships, challenging innate prejudices.” In this way, string band music is like good organizing. 

People’s Action has found that an empathetic, heartfelt conversation with Trump voters can “persuade a complete stranger to change their mind about how to vote in 2020.” As George Goehl, People’s Action’s director, says in his new podcast, To See Each Other, “When we see each other, we’ll understand that we can never give up on each other.” There are no doubt many experiences that have led George to invest in deep canvassing work to bridge differences. But I speculate that his experience playing string band music has helped him appreciate the possibilities that come from sharing a cultural tradition across lines of difference. 

Ultimately, what makes string band music so great has nothing to do with politics. It is good fun. It is uncommonly open and inclusive. It is about community, not commerce. The ten-day festival at Clifftop, where over 4,000 people gather, features only two hired bands on its stage each year — the previous year’s winners of the Traditional and Neo-Traditional band contests. The rest of the stage time is dedicated to contests for anyone who wants to play.



The year after Trump was elected, a group of leading Nashville musicians shared a video version of the protest song, “For What It’s Worth” (aka “Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound”). The group was led by Del McCroury, an 81-year-old musician who played bluegrass for decades when no leading bands included women, much less Black or brown people. 

As the video reveals (12 musicians, none Black or brown and only two female), the string band music world has a long way to go to live out the political possibilities inherent in the genre. But with the help of organizers like Goehl, Hildreth, and Troop, as well as compelling musicians like Rhiannon Giddens, Jake Blount, and Che Appalachia, we are making progress. And having a lot of fun along the way. 


Read the entire issue on Organizing in Rural America here. 


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