Peasant, Poet, Provocateur

Don West established the Appalachian South Folklife Center in West Virginia in 1965. A half century later, the education and cultural center is still helping invigorate the “southern mountaineer spirit.”

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By the time Don West created the Appalachian South Folklife Center in southern West Virginia in 1965, he already had many accomplishments as a poet, labor organizer, and educator. But the institution he established near the mountain town of Pipestem became his biggest legacy, according to friends who gathered to honor the center’s 50th anniversary earlier this year.

West devoted his life to creating radical political change in the South. But, like the folklife center he founded, he wasn’t tied to doing just one thing.

He was “kind of all things to all people,” said his friend Yvonne Farley.

West wore many hats – some of them controversial – said Warren Doyle, West’s immediate successor of the folklife center. But West’s identity as an artist was central, Doyle said.

“He wasn’t a communist, or maybe he was,” he said. “He wasn’t an agitator, or maybe he was. But he was a poet. And that explains why he moved through the world in the way he did.”

Doyle was among many of West's friends attending the 50th anniversary Folklife Festival at the center in July, listening to music and sharing oral histories about the center and West, who died in 1992 at the age of 86.

It’s a rich history, filled with lessons about organizing progressive education projects in rural communities.

 

Don West: Educator, Agitator, Artist

West was the son of a Georgia hill farmer. Before establishing the folklife center, he had organized miners in Kentucky, started a democratic education project in rural Georgia, written several books of poetry, and helped found the Highlander Research and Education Center with Myles Horton.

Like the Highlander Center, West’s Folklife Center drew inspiration from the Danish folk-school model, which are mostly rural institutions that provide popular education to adults.

“Don had traveled in Denmark when he was a young man, and there he had seen these folk schools,” said Meno Griffith, now board chair for the center. “Those were the model of what he wanted to build here – a place for people to learn to be self-sufficient.”

He focused on rural livelihoods and traditions, and he placed a high value on the knowledge of people who lived off the land, said Farley, who lived at the center during the 1970s. “I think Don was a peasant at heart,” she said.

West saw mountain culture and heritage as an avenue toward political change.

West faced fierce opposition throughout the 1960s and 70s. He was the kind of man who would walk into the Princeton Times offices to confront the editor who had denounced him as a communist. He ran off officials of the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture who were on his land to investigate his political leanings. He left small radical libraries in local bars.

His actions could be controversial. “My husband stayed up at his place one night because Don was worried some men with guns were coming,” said Edith Bell.

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching,” his friend David Stanley remembers West saying. His dining hall burned to the ground in the 1970s, and West always suspected arson, his friends remember.

His experiment in Pipestem, in the heart of rural West Virginia, offered a chance to live out some of his ideas about radical education, Appalachian identity, and political revolution. It was a combination that fit well into the social upheaval of the 1960s.

Photo by Jack Powers
The festival's hillside stage. West thought that the celebration of Appalachian culture was a natural path toward radicalization.

 

A Revolutionary Appalachian Identity

Like other social reformers, West valued rural Appalachian crafts, music, and heritage. He considered the folk arts to be a way to a radicalize Appalachia. (He was likely an underground member of the Communist Party, some friends believe, but he always said that was not true.)

West thought pride in Appalachian identity would inspire political upheaval and social revolution. Appalachia’s poverty, he thought, came from outside interests like coal mining, timbering, and banking. The folk arts, in contrast, offered a way to undo the ravages of industrialization.

The folklife center focused on children and held a summer camp.

“He would get kids from all over Appalachia, not just West Virginia,” said David Stanley, a friend and former center director. West would go out in his pick-up truck and come back with loads-full of kids, he said. He emphasized racial diversity and included African-American children in the program, Stanley said.

“He would take kids who just wouldn’t even look you in the eye, and make them feel like they were someone.”

West taught the young campers a fiery interpretation of Appalachian history, said Farley, who was also student of Don. “He’d tell the kids about the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears, the Underground Railroad, striking miners, the Battle of Blair Mountain.”

He said “mountaineers” (as he liked to call Appalachian residents) opposed slavery and were some of the first independence militants before the American Revolution.

West thought that Appalachian people were different and that awakening a “southern mountaineer spirit” would result in the population overthrowing their “oppressors,” Farley said.

“Don believed in an Appalachian exceptionalism,” said Bell, who helped West start the center's children's program in the 1960s.

West thought the roots of a radical Appalachian identity grew from the region’s folk traditions like music, crafts and subsistence farming.

Photo by Jack Powers
The Morris Brothers, John and David, perform at the 1972 festival. The Morrises went on to produce their own festivals and work in the folk-arts field.

 

A Vibrant Space

Which was why, in 1969, West started the center’s Folklife Festival, bringing musicians like Pete Seeger (1919-2014), West's daughter, Hedy West (1938-2005), and traditional musicians from down the ridge to perform together on his outdoor stage. Thousands of people attended, and his festivals inspired musicians regionally to focus on traditional music and start their own festivals.

“I just cannot remember: summer of 1969 was the first Folklife Festival, or maybe [that year] was Woodstock,” said David Morris, a folk singer. He credits Don as being his mentor. “You know, we went to Don’s festival, and we saw the possibility.” Morris and his brother produced festivals and built careers in Appalachian folk music out of their hometown – Ivydale, West Virginia.

West also did economic development projects. He wanted to build cooperatives and do other projects to help people hold wealth in their communities. That work fit well with the federal War on Poverty, which got its start in 1965.

West developed a Heifer International program, opened a weaving cooperative, and even tried to start a printing operation. Many of these endeavors didn’t get far. Most were undercapitalized and had structural issues.

 

A Legacy

The Folklife Center also served as a gathering place for people interested in social change. The Miners for Democracy held meetings there, and so did the United Mine Workers of America locals during the Pittston and Massey strikes of the 1980s and 90s. Back-to-the-landers fleeing cities for cheap land in West Virginia held conventions at the center in the 1960s and 70s.

“The Folklife Center was a place where I met like-minded people,” said folklife center board chair Griffith, who was attracted to the center because of its music festival. At the time she was serving in Eastern Kentucky as a VISTA, one of the War on Poverty programs.

Keeping the grounds clean for festivals to come.

“When I left [the festival], there was a flier on my car. It was on everyone’s windshield, warning us about the dangerous communists and the outside agitators that were coming to the folklife center to stir up trouble and foment revolution. And I said, ‘I like a place like that, I could be involved in a place like that.’ ”

Jim Gill also found himself at the folklife center during the War on Poverty, administering a cooperative and a community action group. The center helped him and others from outside Appalachia to find a place in the region.

“If you needed a place to meet, you could always go to the Folklife Center,” Gill said. “If you needed a friend to talk to, you could always go down to the Center.”

As West’s role in the center faded as he aged, younger leaders stepped into leadership, focusing on three areas: education, cultural celebration, and providing a space for progressive movements. Mountain Justice, which opposes mountaintop removal coal mining and has conducted civil disobedience campaigns, has met at the center. It was also used in organizing the successful fight against the PATH, a proposed high voltage transmission line. And the summer camp for children remains today, focusing on Appalachian identity and history.

 

The Future

The folklife center did not foment the social revolution West once envisioned. But it has become an important institution for children and people in the area. And dreams still live on there.

 “I credit the folklife center with my understanding of who I am,” said Este Griffith, Meno Griffith’s daughter. “I was born to a family that is not from Appalachia, but I grew up there. And I think that’s what the Folklife Center was meant to do – to help me understand what it meant to be from that place.”

As a younger generation comes to take leadership at the institution, Este Griffith sees a possibility for a new role for the center. “There’s a lot there for kids in southern West Virginia… who need to learn about where they’re from,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one at Princeton Senior High who felt a little out of place, who felt like I wanted to have a purpose and a place. But not everyone had a place to go to like the Folklife Center.”

She hopes the center will be a place where Appalachian youth grow and connect with each other to build a new Appalachia.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Oral histories of the Appalachian South Folklife Center are being archived at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Appalachian Oral History. They hope to make them accessible online within the next year. Appalachian South Folklife Center is currently seeking volunteers to help archive the material. For more information, you may contact the center via snollygasters@gmail.com.

 

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