A crowd stands watching musicians perform on stage underneath a shelter with a vaulted, latticed, ceiling.
Students of the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School perform a recital at the Appalshop Solar Pavilion. (Photo: Rebecca Stern)

In the halls of Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College during the day, and on the grounds of Cowan Community Center at night, the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School [CCMMS], referred to by staff and participants as “Cowan,” did more than just celebrate Appalachian music.

After two years of Covid-19 prevented a safe in-person learning experience, Cowan returned, this time with a renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion. The overall structure of the program has not changed. It features morning classes, with students ranging from kids to older adults, that are taught in a call and response style, rather than with written music. Lyrics are not googled. For tunes like “Groundhog,” the beginner class created their own lyrics or got them from another staff member. Every afternoon, there are masters concerts, jam sessions, and workshops like beginning flat foot dancing and Old Regular Baptist line singing. At night, there are outdoor faculty concerts and square dances.

A square dance held at Cowan Community Center with students and staff dancing and playing music. (Photo: Rebecca Stern)

A More Diverse, and Inclusive, Appalachian Music School

What made this year’s iteration of the music school unique were the extra steps administration took to make the old time Appalachian music camp and community more inclusive of people not traditionally represented or talked about in Appalachian music.

Efforts included a workshop on breaking the silence around LGBTQ+ people in traditional Appalachian music; a faculty member — an immigrant to Kentucky from Ecuador — who taught Andean music and instrument-making; and a public recognition of all the tunes Cowan teaches from the Appalachian repertoire that have links to the African-American community. There were classes on the African origins of the banjo, and the school welcomed a primarily-female Latin Alternative group, LADAMA, whose ensemble included four women from four different countries.

“I absolutely think [Cowan] is where we get to build the Appalachia we want for everybody,” said Larah Helayne, a 20-year-old queer, Appalachian musician and teacher’s assistant for the beginner banjo class at CCMMS.

Larah Helayne, left, and Montana Hobbs, right. Helayne uses a rainbow strap for their banjo to highlight their LGBTQ+ identity. Others at Cowan did the same. (Photo: Rebecca Stern)

During a workshop on the lived experiences of some of the LGBTQ+ staff at Cowan, Helayne and two other panelists spoke and led the community in songs about being queer in Appalachia and queerness in Appalachian music. Panelists, including Helayne and Sue Massek, a member of Reel World String Band, which is sometimes called “Kentucky’s feminist hillbilly band,” opened-up conversation about feeling a need to hide queerness when performing, experiencing microaggressions, and the lack of public recognition for queer people in Appalachian music.

Hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, Sue Massek wore a Bans Off My Body pin on at a student recital. (Photo: Rebecca Stern)

“You have to understand that marginalized people, Black people, queer people, Latinx people, and other people of color have always been in Appalachia,” said Helayne. “We have always been here and we always will be, and we’re not going anywhere.”

The Importance of Community

Community is integral to Appalachian music. Several times throughout the camp, participants were reminded that this music was meant to be played together, in jams with other instruments, not solo. Helayne spoke about the joy of finding themselves at an all-queer jam at the Parkway Inn (a traditional night jam spot, given that the Parkway is where most participants and staff stay during the week).

LADAMA members also recognized the importance of community in Appalachian music, sharing translations for words like “jam” and “square dance” in their own languages.

Maria Fernanda Gonzalez, a member of LADAMA from Venezuela, explained that “for us, it’s important to come here to find the connections and the bridge that we can build with music that’s made around community.”

An afternoon LADAMA concert at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. (Photo: Rebecca Stern)

Fernanda Gonzalez also addressed the lack of gender diversity in the music industry, an issue that exists across borders. “As a woman ensemble that creates music, as a collective…we are writing original music and that’s still rare… It’s important to talk about the diversity of the music industry,” she said.

“No matter what country we’re from, we’re still facing challenges as women,” added Daniela Serna, a member of LADAMA who is from Colombia.

Change Is a Process

Staff emphasized that there are other important steps Cowan must take for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Helayne named some things they would like to see, like more faculty of color and an endowed scholarship for students of color, as well as pronouns on name tags to avoid misgendering.

Executive director Carla Gover said that making these adjustments, and giving audiences and program participants a fuller picture of Appalachian music, is very important to Cowan. But these changes are not seamless and don’t always come quickly in a community that puts so much emphasis on tradition.

“There were concerns expressed about how we should be a music school and not explore political issues, fears of attack from right wing groups that have made trouble for some other organizations in Eastern Kentucky of late, and a worry that some parents might not let their youth attend camp if we openly speak about LGBTQ+ issues,” said Gover.

Ultimately, the CCMMS administration decided that because Appalachian music has always been political — from songs about coal mining unions, to tunes about environmental awareness by artists like Jean Ritchie — Cowan would continue to strive for more diversity, inclusivity, and cultural-historical context.

Gover added that this year’s focus on diversity and inclusion doesn’t supplant the school’s original mission to center the living traditions of Kentucky artists and educators. Cowan is still committed to honoring this aim, especially because there is a long history of non-Appalachians teaching, explaining, and performing Appalachian music. At times this has led to misinformation, harmful stereotypes, and even cultural appropriation for financial gain, what Gover jokingly calls faking “holler cred.”

“We want to make sure that ‘Y’all are welcome’ means ‘All are welcome,’ and that folks of all stripes and persuasions can feel that. Which sometimes means creating a space for tender or difficult conversations — bookended by songs, of course!” said Gover.

After all, at the end of the day, Cowan Creek Mountain Music School is really about the music.

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