by Leigh Ann Henion
Appalachian State University's Fred Hay grew up with the son of legendary singer James Brown in north Georgia. He also knew original members of The Famous Flames, the band that James Brown began his career fronting.
Hay’s upbringing inspired academic interests in anthropology and African Appalachia, but the region he knew was different from the one he found represented in scholarship. Continually, he came across books about Appalachian culture cataloged as “Mountain Whites” by the Library of Congress.
The idea of Appalachia as a diverse place – producing diverse music – is hard for some people to accept. “There are plenty of people that say James Brown isn’t an Appalachian musician. But he’s from Appalachia,” Hay said. “What makes a person Appalachian? To be from Appalachia.”
Fifteen years ago, Hay petitioned the Library of Congress to change the standard subheading for Appalachian biographies and cultural studies. Thanks to his efforts, the go-to subheading is now “Appalachian People.”
The recognition of diversity in Appalachian music has seen an uptick since Hay – the senior ranking faculty member of the University Libraries – began his career. Forty years after he asked Toccoa, Georgia, to recognize Ida Cox, a local blues singer and vaudeville performer, the town hosts a music series in her honor. And Nafloyd Scott, the last surviving member of The Famous Flames, has also received public attention.
Hay finds the developments heartening as both a scholar and former resident there. “You don’t want to exclude voices, nor do you want to fail to recognize their influence,” Hay said. “When I was growing up, the town didn’t want to be associated. We were just emerging from Jim Crow, and people looked down on something as new as James Brown’s music. Now, they’re embracing their own.”
“What makes a person Appalachian? To be from Appalachia.”