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Shenandoah Valley Folklife

Shenandoah Valley Folklife

Scott Hamilton Suter
William Lynwood Montell General Editor
Copyright Date: 1999
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  • Book Info
    Shenandoah Valley Folklife
    Book Description:

    Bordered by the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley forms a natural corridor to the western parts of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Early American settlers followed the valley as one of the first routes westward.

    In Shenandoah Valley Folklife, Scott Hamilton Suter documents the many peoples who have left their marks on the folkways of the region--Native Americans, Germans, Swiss, Scots- Irish, and African Americans. His research reveals how the first settlers there built homes, how they worshiped, and how they passed on legends and musical traditions that continue to play a role in the community today.

    Throughout the book, Suter argues that the valley's past plays a definitive role in its present. He finds family traditions still thriving in crafts like white oak basketmaking, as well as in cooking and architecture. To illuminate the change and continuity in religious life, he focuses on Old Order Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and Baptists in the region.

    Using both historical sources and his own field work, Suter shows how folklife remains a powerful, resonant force in the Shenandoah, and how new immigrants are adapting and adding their own traditions to long-standing customs.

    Scott Hamilton Suter is curator of the Shenandoah Valley Folk Art & Heritage Center in Dayton, Virginia. He was a Senior Fulbright Scholar and University Fellow at The George Washington University and wroteTradition and Fashion: Cabinetmaking in the Upper Shenandoah Valley, 1850-1900and has had articles in theFolklore Historianand theVirginia Explorer.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-667-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    The wordShenandoahhas been used over and over for the names of towns, schools, mountains, caverns, and businesses and has even been given to a battleship of the U.S. armed forces. The name, however, is most often associated with Virginia’s Shenandoah River Valley. Still, despite such a specific geographic location, there is debate about just what area is encompassed within the region known as the Shenandoah Valley. If you ask five residents of the valley where it begins and ends, you may receive five different answers. Through the years even scholars have disagreed on the answer to this question....

  6. Part One: Settlement

    • CHAPTER 1 People of the Shenandoah Valley
      (pp. 3-14)

      Although comparatively little is known about the Native American tribes that inhabited the Shenandoah Valley, archaeological finds over the past few decades have revealed more and more about the cultures of the people who lived in the region ten thousand years before the first Europeans built houses there. Evidence suggests that these early inhabitants would have encountered giant animals such as the woolly mammoth and the American mastodon—animals that they may have hunted, perhaps unsuccessfully. For example, one archaeological find revealed the bones of a mammoth that showed no signs of human butchering but included more than eighty projectile...

  7. Part Two: Performance

    • CHAPTER 2 String Music
      (pp. 17-30)

      Valley musician Cameron Nickels often humorously introduces an audience to his band’s style of music by proclaiming, “The music we play is more eclectic than esoteric.” Although intended as a joke, this statement aptly describes the string music that has become traditional in the Shenandoah Valley. While old forms of music continue to be played, popular music has also blended with the traditional, and this “new” music has become a part of the musical repertoire of valley folk musicians.

      String bands, so called because they usually consisted entirely of stringed instruments, began to spring up in the valley in the...

    • CHAPTER 3 Belsnickeling, Kriskringling, and Shanghaiing
      (pp. 31-36)

      Many people in the Shenandoah Valley experienced Lester Ryman’s “big time” during the Christmas and New Year’s season. Ryman describes an evening of belsnickeling (or pelsnickeling, as Shenandoah County residents call it), a tradition widespread in the Shenandoah Valley up to the early 1960s, when it died out. This custom was a large part of some valley residents’ Christmas celebrations for years, and it represents a significant traditional activity.

      Belsnickeling, and its close relatives kriskringling and shanghaiing, originated in Europe. Folklorist John Stewart notes that the wordsbelsnickelandkriskringleare derived from German: “Belsnickelcontains the wordPelz(fur)...

    • CHAPTER 4 Folk Narratives
      (pp. 37-44)

      Folklorists use the termfolk narrativeto describe traditional stories that are told directly to an audience. These stories have many forms but most often fall into the broad categories of myth, legend, and tale. Dan Ben-Amos has summed up succinctly the differences among these three types of oral narrative, suggesting that they “are taken to differ from one another in their relation to cultural conceptions of truth and reality. Myth (from Greekmythos) is believed to be true, legend (from Latinlegenda) purports to be true, and folktale is inherently untrue—only fiction and fantasy.” These types exist in...

  8. Part Three: Social Institutions

    • CHAPTER 5 Folk Religion
      (pp. 47-57)

      A well-known folklore textbook states that “religious folklore is folklore that has to do with religion.” The simplicity of this remark is deceiving, however. How do we find traditions within institutionalized religions, and what, if anything, separates the mythology of written holy texts from the traditional beliefs of the people who make up a particular religious group? These are difficult questions with which many scholars have struggled, and entire books have not answered them successfully. Here, I simply present traditional aspects of three religious groups—Baptists, Mennonites, and Brethren—that are historically associated with the Shenandoah Valley, offering a comparative...

    • CHAPTER 6 Folk Medicine and Beliefs
      (pp. 58-66)

      A region’s traditional beliefs are often closely tied to its religion. Most residents see no discrepancy between a faith in God and a wise way to heal a sick child or keep away bad luck. Folk medicine, or traditional cures, are those learned primarily through the process of oral tradition, providing an accurate reflection of a community’s medical beliefs and practices. Because of this oral quality, many observers consider traditional medicine to be a vestige of the past, no longer current or valid in today’s culture. Such, however, is not the case: folklorists, anthropologists, and medical scholars have found that...

    • CHAPTER 7 Fairs and Festivals
      (pp. 67-74)

      Nearly everyone who has spent much time in the Shenandoah Valley has visited a county fair. County fairs conjure up images of quilts and canned fruits mingled with tractor pulls and miniature pig races. One academic described fairs as “local festivals, which have predictable schedules and are marked by expressive public forms such as parades, rituals, and competitions that serve educational, social, economic, and symbolic functions.” Fairs, then, offer a microcosm of the community that produces them; as a result, they provide a rich resource for displaying traditional culture.

      Agricultural fairs have been held in the valley for more than...

  9. Part Four: Material Culture

    • [Part Four: Introduction]
      (pp. 75-76)

      The Shenandoah Valley has a rich legacy of traditional crafts and arts, many of which continue to be maintained today. The indelible influence of the Germans, Swiss, and Scots-Irish remains evident in both historic and contemporary examples of the region’s folk art, while the mark of popular culture from outside the valley is also unmistakable. When the valley was settled in the eighteenth century, subsistence farming was the norm, and residents crafted the items they needed to survive. This trend continued until the middle of the nineteenth century, when improved transportation and communications with the rest of the nation led...

    • CHAPTER 8 Folk Art and Craft
      (pp. 77-89)

      As in all cultures, Shenandoah Valley folk art exists within the realm of traditional crafts. The decoration of useful, everyday items has long been a way to lighten the load of the hard work required to subsist on farms or toil in the city. In all cases, folk art reflects the beliefs and acceptable motifs of the community that produces it. Folklorist John Michael Vlach asserts, “The essential characteristics of folk things stem from their communal nature. Because they are shared expressions they are not unique but typical and even commonplace; they are not usually monumental but ordinary and familiar;...

    • CHAPTER 9 Architecture
      (pp. 90-96)

      Folklorist Henry Glassie’s statement that “Buildings, like poems and rituals, realize culture” suggests that built structures can be read like texts, offering meaning to those who build or use them as well as to others who wish to learn from them. Glassie’s pronouncement holds true in the Shenandoah Valley: traditional buildings tell the story of the migration of different groups of people and how they organized their lives according to tradition and changed them as new cultural choices presented themselves. The structures tell of a blending as time moved forward.

      Explaining the value of exploring the meaning of traditional, or...

    • CHAPTER 10 Foodways
      (pp. 97-104)

      Like music, tales, buildings, or any other aspect of traditional life examined in this book, food communicates culture. Foods are, in many ways, such everyday items that they often receive little thought. Many foods are certainly nationally and even internationally consumed and have no traditional aspects left; fast-food chains, for example, do not reflect regional cultures but instead betoken American mass culture. Conversely, however, most regions of the United States do maintain certain food traditions. Use of the termfoodwaystakes a discussion beyond the food itself and looks at how foods intersect with culture. When are certain foods eaten?...

    (pp. 105-106)

    A study of folklife in the Shenandoah Valley paints a portrait of the past, but it is a portrait with contemporary faces. Much of the culture of the region’s earliest European settlers has disappeared; however, their influence on late-twentieth-century valley culture is unmistakable. Agriculture remains the most important enterprise in the region, a reflection of subsistence farming in the eighteenth century, and although the techniques have changed, the land remains, and many families continue to work the same farms that their ancestors did, now literally feeding the world instead of just their relations.

    Religion, too, offers glimpses of past traditions....

    (pp. 107-110)
    (pp. 111-118)
    (pp. 119-126)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 127-129)