Monday, June 28, 2010

The Missing Generation?

A friend pointed out recently that there is a generation missing at folk festivals and old-time music festivals. It's the 30 and 40-year-olds, he noted that are just not there. Oh, there is a smattering of them in the crowds but the majority of attendees are those over 50 and surprisingly the teens and 20's groups.

Why the hole in the age groups? Is it that the middle generation is not interested in the cultural history of West Virginia? Does the music, traditional dancing and food not appeal to them? Or is it something beyond their control?

Buddy Griffin and Mack Samples, 2009

These questions have been on my mind ever since my friend's comment, and I think I might have hit on a possible answer. I think that what happened was timing. Thirty and forty years ago, West Virginians were leaving the state to seek work elsewhere because the economy here was in poor condition with the loss of many underground mining jobs and the gradual shift of other industry to the sunbelt regions in the south. Interstate highways had passed the state by because of the complexity and expense of building roads through rugged terrain. Those who remained either had good jobs as teachers, doctors, postal workers and in the remaining plants, or they were struggling to get by on incomes below the poverty level.

The families with good jobs also had access to television and saw what the rest of the world was doing. Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet and other shows extolled the suburban way of life and that might have had an impact on people who were smarting from the negative media publicity the state had received in the early 60's. They might have aspired to join mainstream America, with the brick rancher, two cars and food from the grocery store. They might have wanted to listen to the popular music of the day, eat at drive-in restaurants and buy clothes and furniture at department stores.

The old ways might have been disdained. Who wanted to eat beans and cornbread if they could eat at McDonald's like the rest of the world? Why make quilts when you could buy lovely bedspreads with matching shams and curtains? Why can and preserve when there were grocery stores filled with canned and frozen food? Why even grow a garden? Television people didn't have gardens and cellars filled with canned food. They had modern kitchens and cabinets stocked from the store. Andy and Aunt Bea, of course, continued to portray the old way of life with folksy humor, and the shows, though popular, seemed to be a charming reminder of how things were, rather than how things are.

The children growing up in this environment of keeping-up-with-America were only exposed to West Virginia's traditional life when they visited their grandparents or family homeplaces or perhaps the occasional canner of beans was prepared at home. Gardens were relegated to out-of-the-way places if there was a garden at all, and were primarily for eating fresh. Music came from the pop or country radio stations instead of from family members playing their instruments on the porch. Folk festivals sprang up, and as a historian once told me, whenever they start having a festival for something, it's a lost art. So craft fairs celebrating the old mountain crafts, old-time music festivals and others sprang up. For some, these events were not a celebration of a past way of life, but of the way they were still living. The generation born in the 1950's and before continued to garden, farm, can and play music, but as years passed their numbers grew smaller and many gave up the old ways to join the traffic jam to new culture.

So most of the 1960's and 70's children grew up in a different way of life. Their parents were eagerly embracing new conveniences and saw no reason to teach their children about the old, even possibly embarrassing way their parents had lived. They wanted new, streamlined, modern, and automatic, not old, traditional, and manual. These children grew up with televisions, microwaves, and air conditioning. Few taught their children to play the fiddle or banjo, or to can green beans, plant by the signs, or any of the many self-sufficient skills taken for granted by past generations. Who needed those skills when a machine or a store could provide the same result with less labor?

Now there seems to be a new interest in traditional life by the new generations, those born in the late 80's and the 90's. Music festival abound in young people with fiddles on their backs and banjos in their hands, giving the old music a new twist and a new life. There are communes in cities where young people grow urban gardens and try to live off the grid. Some who can afford to are moving out, buying land and rediscovering the joy of providing for themselves. Those who are held in towns and suburbs are growing gardens and trying to live as "green" as possible with an environmental awareness that seems foreign to their elders but in place with the traditional ways of living.

Glenville folk festival, 2009

I think perhaps technology, the thing that pulled people away from the old ways, may be partly responsible for bringing the younger generations back as they discover old-time musicians on YouTube, or stumble on blogs that detail how to raise goats and chickens and make jam. the Internet with its far-reaching powers now provides instant access to people who can share their expertise in the most forgotten of arts and who will even chat or talk on forums. There are photos and videos and all sorts of tools instantly available. When I was learning to do things on our land, I relied on books and the neighbors. Now there is a world neighborhood available online.

I may be way off track in these ruminations, but right or wrong, it makes me happy to see the young fiddle players and homesteaders rediscovering the value of what was taken for granted for so many years.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Anyone care to chime in?

(An interesting observation: the spellchecker doesn't recognize "canner" or "homeplace." Hmmm.)


Country Whispers said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. I am in my late 30's and can identify with this.
I have always had a love of history and traditions however many that are my age could care less.
Our generation was more or less taught to better ourselves. Get out of this hillbilly state and make something of yourself and that is what many did, not even waiting for the door to hit them in the behind.
What they left was family, family traditions and cultures that run deep in our state.
However, over the years many have returned to our state and with them is a new generation and they are taking interest.

Susan at Stony River said...

Interesting! I'll bet you're right for quite a number of people. When I asked our real estate agent what kind of house would make the best investment in WV, he very quickly said, 'retirement house' - a 2-bed rancher for instance, as a lot of people buying houses in our area have just retired in a big city somewhere, and want to come home.

I just had a long conversation on the bus this afternoon too -- we talked about growing up with moon landings and Star Trek and looking forward to new things all our lives; now, our kids seem to be looking back, to history and roots and heritage. I guess that makes sense.

On another note, I'm in my forties and would love to go to these events, but I just can't -- and there seem to be plenty of people my age still in Clarksburg and Bridgeport at least. Unfortunately most of us are taking care of little kids and/or elderly parents on top of a full-time job (or worse, no job) so weekend events are just too expensive when you bring your mob along, or too exhausting to consider when you're the one herding kids and doing the driving, or the festivals just don't even hit the radar on top of Boy Scout meetings and football practice and piano recitals etc.

Maybe it's a combination of it all.

But a 'missing generation' - reminds me of WWI, when Europe lost most of its young men in just a few years. What an intriguing story idea to work on --

Mary said...

My first thought was that that age group is often called the "sandwich" demographic,and between caring for their children and their parents, they might not have as much time for enjoying the festivals.
A librarian friend pointed out once that the library patrons were also younger or older, not in the middle, busier years -- though the tightening belts of this economy have brought many of them to the library now!

Granny Sue said...

Generalizations are always dangerous! And the "sandwich" generation is certainly an apt description and could explain at least partially the absence of some of these people. I wasn't only referring to festivals and weekend events however (although many are free and so could be a good, lowcost entertainment for the whole family) but to the more general lack of interest in the traditions that make Appalachian culture unique. For example, last week I told some stories that I would have considered well-known to anyone growing up here; yet only one or two in the audience had a nodding acquaintance with the tales. Some of my younger friends in the 30-40 age bracket said their parents wanted to leave behind every hint of country, even to their accent, so they never learned things like hunting mushrooms, ramps, etc. Some neighbors in my age range won't eat farm-raised eggs because it's a reminder of growing up on a farm. It seems to be a conscious rejection of the very culture from which they came.

Rowan said...

A really interesting post here, I'd love the chance to visit some of the folk festivals, I love Appalachian folk music and the sound of a banjo sends shivers up my spine - don't know why as, being English, I have no connection whatever with WV or the other American mountain states. Maybe it's a similarity to Irish traditional music which I love too. Oddly I don't like 'country' singers though, find it mostly very dreary stuff. It's that fiddle and banjo sound that's so great.

Rowan said...

It also occurs to me that the lack of Interstates is one reason why the WV culture and folk traditions survived so well. Same in Ireland.

Jason Burns said...

Personally, I love festivals and fairs - and attend them - although not as much as I'd like to. A lot of the time, my days are taken up with house renovation or projects that I have to do around the house. I know that the laundry can wait another day, but when it reaches waist high it's fight or flight.

Perhaps my age group (I'm 34) is in that niche where we're still getting a grasp on the whole being an adult thing and taking care of our houses, families, etc - and don't really think about fun. I know I have trouble doing things I want to do when I know there's work to be done around the house. I'm getting better at it - last Saturday I walked (not drove) to the farmer's market downtown and spent an enjoyable day with friends afterward. It was like I had a life.

Another problem I think is the advertising. If it weren't for friends telling me, or reading blogs like this, I wouldn't know about a lot of the fairs/festivals/events. And don't put it in a newspaper - who reads those anymore? And tv? There's nothing on but commercials anyway. If you want me to come to the fair/festival/event you'd better call me on the phone or tell my best friend - otherwise I won't notice.

Granny Sue said...

The music derived from the Irish/Celtic tradition, Rowan so it's not surprising that you would be attracted to it. I don't like what is called country music either; it's too repetitive and on the same theme almost all the time. Very trite and cliche driven.

Jason, you make a good point. Traditional advertising doesn't work for your generation. It has to be online and somehow has to find you in some way beyond the usual ads. Recommendations by friends is probably the best advertising an event can get. But it's not just events I'm talking about; you are, like Jessica, keenly aware of your heritage. You know how to do things for yourself and how the old-timers did them, for the most part. It's the ones with no awareness of the state's history and culture that I'm referring to.

Jason Burns said...

True. However that lack of knowledge is even more present in the 20 somethings I know - the ones who grew up with the internet and therefore didn't learn anything about anything because they know they can always "Google it".

Unless parents, teachers, and those of us who care can drag them out of the computer media hypnosis, to where they can think, have an interest in knowledge, and the ability to research without having a starting base of Google - then it is a sad future indeed. TV has certainly destroyed part of my generation's ability to think beyond mainstream stereotypes. I fear to think about what the lack of interest in knowing anything Appalachian will do, simply because our ancestors did not "google" recipes and gardening tips.

This is the age of soundbites and twenty minute gloss overs of ideas - if you can't prepackage it, make it sexy, and give it a kick-ass name, then forget it.

I have a 26 yr old friend who can't sit through a movie without having a laptop in front of her so she can keep up with Facebook. In fact, she spends more time asking what happened than watching the actual film.

Another 22 yr old friend spends his life answering his Iphone and texting constantly - who has time to garden when their attention is being drawn into the hypno-boxes of insipid media overload? It's all a tad ridiculous.

I fear this is also a tide which will not ebb -

Granny Sue said...

I've noticed the same with my grnadchildren, and even with adults--they get so hooked in to social sites that they can't eat a meal or have a conversation without being interrupted and then texting a reply. Attention spans suffer, other more productive work suffers too. I love my Facebook, don't get me wrong, and I love my blog but these have to be part of my day. not my whole day.

I think what may happen is that there will be a technology so that there is no longer need for texting, but something simpler, although I don't know what it might be.

Jason Burns said...

I've actually started treating my cellphone like a landline (not all the time, I do take it with me on trips to the store and such) - but when I have it at home I leave it somewhere and only answer it if I have time. I couldn't stand to have it welded to my hip like some people do. That, and you can't garden with a cellphone - it gets wet and muddy.

Rowan said...

I'm like Jason, my mobile phone spends most of its time on my bedside table where I use it as an alarm clock:) I check every now and again for messages but only take it with me if I'm drivig a distance and might need to use it if the car breaks down or if I'm going to be away from home for a few days.
The Irish-Celtic roots would definitely explain why Appalachian music attracts me - I didn't know about that connection.

Twisted Fencepost said...

I believe you are on to something, Susanna.
I'm one of the odd ones. I was country when country wasn't cool.
Ever heard that song...A Country Boy Can Survive? I think if it ever comes down to it, those city people will rely on us for survival.

laoi gaul~williams /I\ said...

i am the same as rowan here~i love the fiddle and banjo~always have, so maybe some of my irish ancestors travelled across the sea and the memories has travelled across time.
here there has been a big growth in younger folk singers/groups over the last 5-6 years-probably the biggest since the sixties and its wonderful!

Brighidsplace said...

I love mountain music, have an ol lady crush on Geo Strait(he's the only CW artist I like). Never take my cell phone unless I'm going to be traveling, and then it's just there for emergencies.
You have a good point about the lost generation. I did learn to garden, can, sew, raise meat animals, milk cows, etc, because we were farmers and it was expected. Most of my suburban friends thought that was old school.
Googling something is not the same as having to do it to survive.

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