Early Days

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  A Brief History of Blue Ridge Music: Early Days
By Joseph Wilson and Wayne Martin (excerpt)

Settlers in the Tidewater region of the New World did not anticipate the flowering of new musical styles in the mountains that lay to the west. The powerful Cherokee tribe inhabited the southernmost part of the region and the Cherokee, Shawano and other tribes used the middle and upper areas as hunting grounds. Some colonists feared conflict with the Indians and dangers associated with isolation if they ventured into this frontier region. To those who sought land, however, the Blue Ridge represented opportunity.

Approximately one hundred years passed after the founding of Jamestown before colonists began to immigrateaen masse to the region. The Great Wagon Road-or Valley Road, as it was called in Virginia-proved to be the best way into the mountains. The Valley Road followed old Indian trails for some 700 miles, starting near Philadelphia and running down the Shenandoah Valley. Near what is now Roanoke, Virginia, some travelers turned south along the Carolina Road into the Piedmont of North Carolina and South Carolina. Others continued into the mountains of southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, and beyond.

In 1730 a community of Germans settled an area near what today is Luray, Virginia. The Germans were followed by English Quakers, who were followed by Scotch-Irish, French Huguenots, Irish, Welsh, and more English. African American slaves were brought into the Blue Ridge by some of these settlers. Other African Americans came with owners who moved into the region as Tidewater lands were worn out by the unrelenting planting of tobacco.

By 1805, a year in which the population of the entire nation was only two million, as many as 10,000 travelers passed through Abingdon in the far southwestern corner of Virginia. By some estimates, fully one-fourth of the present population of the United States has ancestors who used this route to move westward.population of the United States has ancestors who used this route to move westward.

Groups traveling the Valley Road brought cultural traits and skills from many homelands and from diverse sections of those lands. A few of these traditions have survived to the present day, but most cultural attributes blended with those from other cultures and changed into something altogether new as people moved and settled together.

The musical exchange among these groups proved particularly potent. Perhaps the Blue Ridge insulated its inhabitants from the more rigid class distinctions and elite cultural practices adhered to by planters living in the East. Settlers could see London from Baltimore or Richmond, but not from Gap Creek or the Meadows of Dan. The old authority did not reach that far. Fresh ideas, including ways of thinking about and playing music, flourished in this environment.

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