David Hoffman’s Music Makers of the Blue Ridge is considered the first documentary on Appalachian music. Not sure about that claim. In fact, there’s a paucity of information about the film on the internet. There’s not even a listing for it on IMDB. David Hoffman, a documentarian from New York who has done a number of music docs over the decades, followed the great Bascom Lunsford around western North Carolina to find some of the best old-time music players. Lunsford had recently found success because of the folk movement entrancing northern young people in the early 60s and likely attracting Hoffman’s attention. Western North Carolina in 1965 was still a poor and fairly isolated place, although many young people were already heading to the cities by then. Thus even in 1965, you have a culture that feels like it is slipping away. Of course, documentaries have focused on the decline of traditional cultures, usually with sadness, since their invention. It’s often a cliche and change is pretty easy to bemoan when you live a sweet life with indoor plumbing. What makes this one special is Lunsford, who was not only a tremendous musician, but unlike most old-time artists, was a member of the regional elite. A graduate of Duke Law School and a major player in the North Carolina Democratic Party during the early to mid-20th century, Lunsford had more cultural capital than most musicians. It shows too since although he was friends with the people we visit, some of them don’t look very comfortable being filmed. Lunsford is in his 80s at this time, but is still spry and passionate about his region’s music.
Looking back on this film after nearly 50 years, one wonders to what extent this culture still lives. To some extent, it does, but mostly, it really has changed. There are certainly people still playing bluegrass music. But the 1960s was a time when bluegrass was pushing out the last old-time musicians, and the two styles are really quite different. Bluegrass is slicker, more commercial, contains slightly different instrumentation (more mandolin, less dulcimer), and perhaps most important had a homogenizing effect on old-time music. Even bluegrass is largely old people’s music these days, although again, it survives and even thrives to an extent. With the passage of Doc Watson a couple of years ago, the last famous musician playing truly old-time music is gone. And you can see that in the film. One band has an electric guitar. 1932 this is not. What’s really gone is the Appalachian form of dancing, although I’m sure it is still practiced from place to place. When I lived in Knoxville, it was fashionable for hippies to take classes in it. Not exactly the same thing.
This film is obscure enough that I’m not even sure the year of its release. Fandor, where I saw it, claims 1964. But Hoffman narrates the film as traveling around with Lunsford in 1965. So I’m not sure. Am going with the latter since I’m sure it’s not 64 and could be 66.
Definitely worth watching if you have any interest in the music.