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February 16, 2023

Emily Hilliard's Playlist for Her Book "Making Our Future"

Making Our Future by Emily Hilliard

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Emily Hilliard's Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia is a fascinating exploration of folklife in West Virginia as well as the role folklore plays in culture.

The Southern Review of Books wrote of the book:

"A fascinating example of folklore fieldwork in West Virginia. People from the state . . . will find places and concepts they recognize thoughtfully and respectfully represented, and outsiders will gain an understanding of the deeply complex and communal past and present of the Mountain State."

In her own words, here is Emily Hilliard's Book Notes music playlist for her book Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia:

Though in Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia there is only one chapter expressly devoted to music, music runs throughout the book, much as it does through all of the West Virginia folkways practices the book traces—from the gospel group Flying Colors of the multiracial, multiethnic coal camp community Scotts Run, to the Tom Petty, Rihanna, and Twisted Sister songs that West Virginia educators sang during the 2018-2019 Teachers’ Strike, to the square dance held under an effigy of Old Man Winter during the Swiss town of Helvetia’s annual pre-Lenten festival. And at the culmination of nearly every event or celebration, there’s “Country Roads”— In West Virginia there is always “Country Roads.” Though many of the songs on this playlist link directly to chapters in the book, others have a more abstract connection—providing an ideal sonic atmosphere for the book to be read. Most are by West Virginians.

“They’ll Never Keep Us Down” - Hazel Dickens

Themes of labor run across the disparate chapters in Making Our Future—from the “curb girls” who work often low-wage precarious jobs at West Virginia’s beloved hot dog joints, to local professional wrestlers who identify as workers, to a full chapter on the expressive culture of the 2018 West Virginia Teachers’ Strike. West Virginia’s own Hazel Dickens was not just an advocate for working people—from Appalachia and beyond—but wrote from her own experience as a worker. One of the teachers' strike signs that appears in the book quotes this song with a choice edit: “We won’t be bought/We won’t be sold/ To be treated right and fix PEIA*/ Well that’s our goal.

*The state-sponsored health insurance that was at the center of the educators’ demands during the strike.

“Grandma’s Hands” - Bill Withers

Is Bill Withers the most famous musician son of a West Virginia coal miner? Probably so. I believe this song is about his grandmother Grackus Monroe Galloway, who was born enslaved and who Withers was close with as a child growing up in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

“Castles in the Air” - Grandpa Jones

This song was written by West Virginia native Shirley Campbell (1949-2021), the sister-in-law of old-time musician Ola Belle Reed and one of four women whose music is featured in the chapter, “So I May Write of All These Things,” on the private, familial, and/or communal creative practice of nonprofessional women songwriters in West Virginia. Shirley was a teenager when she wrote it and her father took it down to Nashville and pitched it to Jones. She is credited on the Grandpa Jones 1970 live album it appears on as “Shirley White.”

“No More Hot Dogs” - Hasil Adkins

When I first moved to West Virginia in 2015, I quickly learned that hot dogs were really important in the state. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about who made the best ones and what went on a West Virginia hot dog (generally chili, slaw, mustard, and onions, unless you are north of the “Slaw Line,” which is sort of like a Mason-Dixon of condiments). I would be doing fieldwork in a tiny town in the coalfields, and there would be a cement-block business claiming to have the “Best Hot Dogs in Town.” Boone County, West Virginia native Hasil Adkins (whose hometown of Madison is highlighted in the wrestling chapter) has apparently had his fill.

“One Day More” - Elaine Purkey

Labor songwriter Elaine Purkey (1949-2020) of Lincoln County, West Virginia is also featured in the women’s nonprofessional songwriter chapter. Elaine wrote “One Day More” in twelve minutes on her way to a rally for union steelworkers at the Ravenswood Aluminum plant in Jackson County, West Virginia after they were locked out by the company and replaced with non-union scabs. The song appears on Smithsonian Folkways’ Classic Labor Songs, in the liner notes of which Elaine writes, “No matter how long the company or the corporations can stick around, we have enough strength, friendship and camaraderie about us and belief in what we’re doing, we can be there one day more; whatever they do, we’ll be there the day after.”

“Fisher’s Hornpipe” - John Morris

I had to include a song from my friend John Morris, a fiddler, guitar and banjo player, and songwriter from Clay County, West Virginia, and a 2020 NEA National Heritage Fellow. John and his brother David saw traditional mountain culture as a source of empowerment for Appalachian people in their struggle against exploitation by the mining industry, and in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s hosted the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival at their family home place. That festival model, located in the rural areas where the tradition and its practitioners lived and which encouraged sharing between locals and outsiders, young and old, became the gold standard for a community-based traditional music festival in Appalachia. This tune came to John from Clay County fiddler Ira Mullins.

“Count On Me” - Cora Hairston

Cora Hairston, another one of four women featured in the nonprofessional women’s songwriter chapter, is a musician, songwriter, and author, who has written two fictionalized accounts of her childhood growing up in a Black coal camp in Logan County, West Virginia, Faces behind the Dust: The Story Told Through the Eyes of a Coal Miner’s Daughter (on the Black Side) and Hello World, Here Comes Claraby Rose: An Adolescent Black Girl Coming of Age. Though she practices her songs daily as part of her regular devotional practice, I was thrilled that she finally recorded an album of her original songs this year for all to enjoy.

“People Have the Power” - Patti Smith

With its message of the power of people working together creatively as a collective, this song could be an anthem for all of Making Our Future. What a lot of people outside the state don’t know is that one of the song’s writers, Fred Sonic Smith, was born in West Virginia (very close, in fact, to where Elaine Purkey was born and lived all her life). For both those reasons, I think of this as a very West Virginia song.

“Links on the Chain” - Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs was writer Breece D’J Pancake’s favorite musician. Chapter 4, “Something Deeply Rooted,” explores the invisible landscape of Pancake’s hometown of Milton and the settings which inspired many of his short stories. I don’t know which Phil Ochs’ songs Pancake was especially partial to, but as he was a Wobbly for a stint and references William Haywood and “The One Big Union,” in his story “The Honored Dead,” this one feels like it could have been a favorite.

“Wild West Virginia” - Daniel Johnston

There’s a common trope in songs about West Virginia in that most of them are written from the position of someone who is no longer living in the state, but wants to go home. This is true of the last three songs on this mix, including this one by Daniel Johnston, the visual artist and lo-fi alt musician who grew up in the northern panhandle. He does sing in the lyrics that he doesn’t like John Denver—sorry, Daniel.

“Take Me Home Country Roads” - John Denver

I was unloading the Uhaul to move into my first apartment in Charleston, and within 15 minutes heard a crowd singing “Country Roads.” Though it’s often mentioned that the song wasn’t really written about the state, it is truly a song that is sung and heard all the time in West Virginia, as a group sing-along culmination to many activities—protests, sporting events, bonfires, bar karaoke. I have to say, I’ve become partial to it, as now it evokes those collective experiences, of for example, a sea of striking teachers and public service employees all wearing red, with their arms around each other, singing and swaying on the steps of the state capitol as they fight for better benefits, working conditions, and futures of their students and communities.

“West Virginia, My Home” - Hazel Dickens

Any John Denver merits a Hazel Dickens chaser, and I do wish her “West Virginia, My Home” got at least as much airtime as “Country Roads."

Emily Hilliard is a folklorist and writer based in central Appalachia. She is the former West Virginia state folklorist and the founding director of the West Virginia Folklife Program. Find more of her work at

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Sara Gran's Playlist for Her Novel "The Book of the Most Precious Substance"

February 6, 2022

J.T. Bushnell's Playlist for His Novel "The Step Back"

February 4, 2022

Swan Huntley's Playlist for Her Novel "Getting Clean With Stevie Green"

February 3, 2022

Joshua Kornreich's Playlist for His Novel "Cavanaugh"

Jen Winston's Playlist for Her Memoir "Greedy"

January 31, 2022

Peter Mann's Playlist for His Novel "The Torqued Man"

January 28, 2022

Dani Putney's Playlist for Their Poetry Collection "Salamat sa Intersectionality"

January 27, 2022

Michelle Ross's Playlist for Her Story Collection "Shapeshifting"

January 21, 2022

Andrew Lipstein's Playlist for His Novel "Last Resort"

January 20, 2022

Manon Steffan Ros's Playlist for Her Novel "The Blue Book of Nebo"

January 18, 2022

Sequoia Nagamatsu's Playlist for His Novel "How High We Go in the Dark"

January 12, 2022

Hasanthika Sirisena's Playlist for Her Essay Collection "Dark Tourist"

January 11, 2022

Antoine Wilson's Playlist for His Novel "Mouth to Mouth"

January 10, 2022

Thrity Umrigar's Playlist for Her Novel "Honor"

January 1, 2015

Book Notes (2018 - 2021)