Performance as Public Service: the social activism and spiritual songwriting of Rising Appalachia

The alternating ridgelines and valleys of the Appalachian mountain chain create a barrier to east-west travel.  The mountains have protected its communities from the fast moving world outside, fostering the unique Appalachian culture within. Their music is one of the best known manifestations of their culture, and the band Rising Appalachia is one of the best modern examples.

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Rising Appalachia brings a collection of stories and songs to the stage that are rich in tradition and world culture. They weave banjo, fiddle, double bass and acoustic guitar with percussion from around the world, such as the West African djembe and the Irish bodhrán. This echoes traditional Appalachian music where stories are passed down through Scottish and English ballads, saturated in Irish fiddle music and heavily influenced by African- American blues.

Rising Appalachia is led by the collective voice of sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith, and joined by percussionist Biko Casini and bassist/guitarist David Brown. Collectively, they connect a deep respect for folk music with a passion for justice; according to Leah Song on their website, “Music is the tool with which we wield political prowess…. Music has become our script for vision--not just for aural pleasure, not just for hobby, but now as a means to connect and create in ways that we aren’t taught by mainstream culture.” This is no surprise as Appalachians have a long history of fighting against the mainstream for political rights and independence.
Take, for example, the introduction of a whiskey tax in the 1870s when Appalachians feuded with federal tax collectors. Although the media often depicted them as feuding hillbillies, the leading participants were typically well-to-do local elites with networks of stakeholders who were fighting for local political power. The feuds of the past no longer plague the Appalachian region, but the fight for independence and preservation of tradition continues today.

Rising Appalachia founded the slow music movement. Leah Song explains on their website that the movement is an effort to “… take the glitz and glam out of the music industry and bring performance back to its roots--that of public service. A service where musicians are not just part of fast-paced entertainment world, but instead influence the cultural shift as troubadours, activists, story tellers, and catalysts of justice.”
A recent review describes their work as “Juicy, powerful, and refreshingly versatile, …. blending fiery soul with lively banjo and fiddle riffs, while throwing in a contemporary twist.  Representative of the kinship between old-timers by the fire and young poets on adventure, they take raw bits of tradition and experience and weave them into an inspiring story.”  Hannah Bober, Front Row Focus

Colleen Bedford