Deborah Thompson coordinates country dance programs at Berea College, where she combines her love of old-time music and dance with her desire to pass it on to others. Since 1976, she has performed both solo and with various groups. She currently performs with the old-time and Americana band, Skipjack.
Deborah Thompson, Professor, Berea College; Hisel, Kentucky:
“I’ve lived there (Hisel, Kentucky) since 2001. Before that I was in Barbourville, Kentucky for about 10 years. I’m originally from Baltimore, Maryland area and moved a lot when I was a kid. Been in Kentucky since 1991.
I was at Union College in Barbourville, teaching a program called the Appalachian Semester. We would get students from other colleges to come to our little college and kind of do a study abroad. We would travel around the region and use the community members as our teachers. The students would do internships and get sociology credit for that. I’m also a teacher at Berea College.
I consider myself to be a resident, an ally, a student of Appalachia. I identify with being here, but I wouldn’t claim it as my own. I feel most comfortable here, but I grew up with parents who are from the Great Plains and I grew up all along the east coast. When I finally came to Appalachia as a college student myself, I felt most at home here than anywhere else I’d been. So, it’s complicated, but I hesitate to say I’m Appalachian because I didn’t grow up here, and I think that is an important thing.
[Pronunciation of Appalachia] It is interesting how just that pronunciation can make a big difference. I lived in West Virginia for a while, and that’s definitely Appalachia. Except they say App-a-lay-sha. They have a little more northern culture, but still mountain. So, it’s what part of the region you’re from. I also realize that Appalachia is a huge area. Northern Appalachia, I’ve been in Pennsylvania and it looks just like Kentucky and the culture is very similar. And people there would say App-a-lay-sha. I’m trying not to be snobbish about that myself, but it is kind of an insider outsider kind of a marker.
Hillbilly is interesting. I think it’s something that people who live here can claim as a powerful symbol, a powerful identifier. A lot of people use it very sloppily, and it can be used very hurtfully. I try to avoid it unless I know who I’m talking to, and unless I make it clear what I’m meaning by it, or if I use air quotes. It’s a very loaded term that it’s not very comfortable for a lot of people, and so I try to be careful and not try to alienate people. Appalshop certainly talks about hillbilly nation, and in that context, it’s a very powerful term. I think it is something that people can use and I respect that, but I will be careful with it.
My passion is the kinds of things we do here at the Hindman Family Folk Week, which is people participating in their own lives and building community through cooperative music and dance and participation. My passion is for people to not think they can’t do something because somebody told them. You know, somebody told them they can’t sing. Well I don’t believe that. So, helping people appreciate and learn about this kind of music and dance and feeling empowered to do that for themselves, that’s my passion really.
[About Appalachian culture and traditions] I don’t think they would be kept alive if they didn’t have some meaning for people. When you talk about, “I’m going to do this to keep it alive,” it’s as if you’re resuscitating a corpse and what’s the point of that? It’s got to mean something for the people who do it, and just doing it for the sake of keeping it alive is not enough.
I think making it relevant, or for me those things are relevant and part of it maybe a little bit of paranoia on my part thinking this world could just disintegrate with all the crap that goes on and all the nuclear weapons and everything. And so what’s gonna happen if the grid goes out? It does periodically. I like to be as self-sufficient as I can be. Not to be apart from people, and to only do for myself, but I want to be able to keep myself. It’s making your own fun, and not having to rely on a television set or paying money for your entertainment. You can make your own entertainment and you forge relationships by doing that. The value of that is that someday we’re gonna have to do for ourselves again. I just can’t imagine that all of this digital technology is going to stay around forever.
Place has a big part of who we are, it’s very important and you’re history affects who you are. People have specific histories, and so that’s why we need to know our own history. We can learn a lot from that. I don’t think we should blindly follow our traditions, but I think we should use them to build on, and acknowledge the value of the people who went before us who did all these things that a lot us can’t do now. There are power situations going on. It’s worth fighting for making sure that the people maybe who are less powerful still have their history told.
When I talk to people about it, I use a quilt analogy where you have a lot of the same pieces in a lot of different cultures. You have family, you might have education for children or work or gender roles, all these pieces and you might share some of the same pieces with another culture but it’s the way it’s put together that makes it unique. You might have a quilt that’s all made of triangles, but if you put it in a different way it looks different. It’s a particular combination of things. Around here, southerness but not too southern, mountain, rural, different ethnic groups that make this up. You have your Scotts-Irish, some German, African American and some places like coal camps you have some other ethnic groups like Hungarian or something. And then it’s influenced by the land that’s here. So, I guess it would be that particular history and that particular combination of things.
I agree with some of what Loyal Jones says about personalism. It’s part of the southern thing; part of the rural thing. People really appreciate people as persons, and want to relate to them in that way. Religion is really important in Appalachia. Even if you are not part of an organized religious group, people have more of a knowledge about Christianity, Protestant Christianity, and maybe a little more autonomy with that. Language use and then some of the cultural things, the way people play music and the way they dance and the way they cook and the stories. Story telling is really important. That’s the way people tell their history and relate to each other. Like, who are your people? Oh, you’re part of those Thompsons? No, my Thompsons come from Canada. But still, I live at Hisel. I know these people and these are my neighbors. You find your place in the world. Place is super important here.
A lot of the Appalachian people I know continue to have hurtful memories and stories about people talking about them being barefoot or you know, incest, or other kinds of really bad parts of the stereotype. I think that people will accept that or identify with that if they’ve been politicized maybe somehow. Here’s a story that maybe will help illustrate it. I was teaching a elder hostel, or Rhodes Scholar program in Berea. Somebody had gone to some local restaurant and they saw a t-shirt that said, “you know ten ways you can tell you’re from Kentucky,” and there was stuff about you brush your tooth and stuff like that. And the woman said what’s wrong with you people? Here you’re selling these t-shirts. No wonder people keep making fun of you. And I was saying, what’d you mean you? You know who are you talking about? Are you talking about the restaurant owners? Are you talking about me? Are you talking about the person that works in the gas station?
You know there is no consensus about we are the Appalachian people and we’re going to stand together. That idea of having a solidified identity around some issue, or around skin color or around religion or whatever. People will come together when there is something really drastic like a sludge spill or something like that, but once that gets cleaned up, people go back to their life. They may not even realize it. But they’re comfortable. And so it’s uncomfortable to be always pushing back.
One of the things that drew me to Appalachia actually in the 1970’s, ‘80’s, from outside was because I felt like the people who lived here were living their lives the way they felt like they should. And so, when strip mining protests were going on in the ‘70s and ‘80s that was the thing that really drew me here because I thought, you know they are standing up for what they believe in and not just caving in to middle class capitalist culture.
And I still feel that way. That is one of the things that I like about living here is that people are more comfortable living the way that they think they ought to live, and speaking the way they want to; even if it’s not acceptable in middle class mainstream culture.“