- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

Anyone who has ever gazed westward from Washington, if only to watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge, could gain much by watching “The Appalachians,” a three-part television documentary scheduled to air beginning Monday on WETA.

In a format made familiar by filmmaker Ken Burns, “The Appalachians” chronicles the social, economic and cultural history of the region, encompassing 23 million people and more than 195,000 square miles in 13 states.

Yet, owing perhaps to executive producer Mari-Lynn C. Evans’ roots in West Virginia, American Public Television’s “The Appalachians” focuses largely on the Mountain State — of the 13, the only state wholly within the confines of Appalachia.

Writer and producer Phylis Geller threads historic still photographs, paintings and film footage with sonorous narration and interviews of regional scholars, professors, historians and politicians. She adds breathtaking mountain scenery to the mix, as well as images of quaint country churches and farms. That alone makes “The Appalachians” worth watching.

The big drawing card for the series, though, is its roster of country and bluegrass music stars seen in performance snippets and relating anecdotes about growing up amid the region’s mountains and hollows, spiced with telling details about the landscape’s impact on its people and their work.

Among these is the riveting final film interview with Johnny Cash and his daughter Rosanne Cash. In the third installment, drawing connections between Appalachia’s music and some of its Celtic roots, the two sing “Forty Shades of Green,” a song Mr. Cash wrote about Ireland. It is moving, almost painful to behold, knowing that the aged, ailing Mr. Cash would not survive to see the film on the air. He died Sept. 12, 2003.

Loretta Lynn’s story of growing up a coal miner’s daughter also features prominently in the series, as do appearances by Marty Stuart, Little Jimmy Dickens and Ricky Skaggs.

The music of Appalachia has been inextricably intertwined with the region’s history, an interrelationship “The Appalachians” illustrates by deftly weaving in songs to move the story along. The airy fiddle in “East River of Shannon” is the series’ theme (not unlike Mr. Burns’ use of “Ashokan Farewell” in his Civil War documentary).

Also featured are songs and archival film and stills of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the first successful “hillbilly” music recording artists, as well as music from country, bluegrass and folk stalwarts Mac Wiseman, Jean Ritchie, the Blue Sky Boys, the Osborne Brothers, Grandpa Jones, Sam Bush, David Grisman and Tony Rice, among others.

One of the few forms of entertainment available to the isolated people in the mountains, music also was a means of documenting old-country heritage and current events through ballads and oral tradition.

Later, as the Depression gripped the region and many of its residents fled to find work in the flatlands, the music — now recorded and airing on radio — served as a reminder of home and country values.

The series honestly confronts the region’s struggles, and the second hour is by far the most moving. Not only does it cover the Civil War and the forced march of the native Cherokee people to reservation land in Oklahoma — the Trail of Tears — but it also compellingly documents the first coal-mine strikes at Cabin Creek and Paint Creek and the nationally significant Matewan uprising in Mingo County, W.Va., in 1920. There, 12 people were killed in armed confrontations between miners and Baldwin Felts detectives hired by mine owners to break the strike.

The unlikely hero was Sid Hatfield — yes, a descendant of those Hatfields who feuded famously with the McCoys. As Matewan police chief, Hatfield killed detective Albert Felts, who had been trying to evict miners from their company-owned houses.

A little more than a year later, Hatfield was shot dead by a Baldwin Felts detective as he entered a courthouse to face trumped-up charges brought by coal-mine operators in anti-union McDowell County. The detective and other gunmen who fired on Hatfield and other witnesses were never charged.

Part 3 of the series details the Tennessee Valley Authority and its damming projects, which brought electricity to the rural mountains but also permanently dislocated some family farmers. The episode also touches on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and its Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Omitted, unfortunately, is any mention of the heart-wrenching relocation of hundreds of families from the Blue Ridge as the CCC built Virginia’s Skyline Drive, where the Shenandoah National Park was created in an effort to preserve the mountains and bring tourist dollars to the region.

Following the region into modern times, “The Appalachians” looks back at West Virginia’s role in the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy and the subsequent War on Poverty of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The series delves into strip mining and the current controversial “mountaintop removal” method of extracting coal.

Reclamation of the devastated landscape is required, and the results are depicted, but those interviewed in the series — including miners themselves — attempt no sugarcoating. The landscape is permanently disfigured by mining, and, to boot, mining jobs have given way to more mechanization.

Despite having some of the richest resources in history, modern Appalachia is almost synonymous with poverty and fierce pride. “The Appalachians” attempts, with some success, to dissolve lingering stereotypes of the region’s residents as backwoods hillbillies.

As more people embrace mountain isolation as a desirable alternative to urban and suburban life and as more folks emulate the mountain people’s unique sense of community, “The Appalachians” has yet more history to chronicle — history that is still unfolding in the mountains and hollows of America’s first frontier.

WHAT: “The Appalachians,” Part 1

WHEN: 10 p.m. Monday (Parts 2 and 3 follow April 18 and 25)

WHERE: WETA-TV Channel 26 (check local listings or weta.org for rebroadcast times)

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