Somebody Died, Babe: A Musical Coverup of Racism, Violence & Greed

tags: racism, railroads, North Carolina, musicology, Folk Music, convict lease, Zebulon Vance

Kevin Kehrberg, musicologist, and Jeffrey A. Keith, historian, met in graduate school at the University of Kentucky, where they both earned doctorates. As graduate students, they founded the University of Kentucky String Band ensemble and learned to sing "Swannanoa Tunnel" before they even knew where Swannanoa was. Now both of them teach at Warren Wilson College, located in the Swannanoa Valley east of Asheville, North Carolina. This project emerged from a team-taught course they offered on work and music in Appalachia back in 2012. As part of that class, the two sought out a kudzu-covered trail east of town that snaked down to active train tracks, and they looked up a handful of state records about the tunnel's construction. The rest is in the article.

There’s a reckoning taking place in Asheville, North Carolina. The Vance Memorial, a towering obelisk long considered a staple of the city skyline, has been shrouded in black because Zebulon Vance, a former governor and U.S. Senator, was a slaveholder who fought for the Confederacy. On the street surrounding the shrouded sculpture, local artists have painted the words “Black Lives Matter.” Elsewhere, the city removed a bronze statue honoring Robert E. Lee. And on July 14, 2020, the city council unanimously voted to pass a resolution aimed at increasing generational wealth among African Americans through reparations. 

In front of the Buncombe County courthouse, a Confederate monument is gone, and county commissioners will vote today, Aug. 4, on a "Resolution to support community reparations for Black people in Buncombe County.”

Another reckoning is taking place in the traditional music world that claims Asheville as a prime hub. Performers of bluegrass, old-time, and folk music celebrate the multicultural roots of these genres, but the traditional music scene has been predominantly white for more than a half century. Now, many musicians are urging one another to engage with the complexity of lyrics and songs rooted in the Black experience. For the past eight years, we have been doing this work by studying a single song - one called “Swannanoa Tunnel” - that commemorates a long railroad tunnel just beyond the city limits east of Asheville.


The Swannanoa Tunnel transformed the Blue Ridge Mountains. This 1,832-foot tunnel is the longest in a complex of six tunnels completed between 1875 and 1879, and the railroad that goes through them connected the mountain’s primeval forests to the Atlantic seaboard. Within a decade of the tunnel’s completion, Asheville grew from a rural town of 2,600 people to a small city of 10,235. Lumber crews scoured the mountains, reducing old-growth trees to sellable timber. 

As white scholars of Appalachian history and music, we had assumed this much accounted for why a song about the tunnel existed, but then we learned three critical facts that forever changed how we think about this tunnel and its song. First, the Western North Carolina Railroad (WNCR), the state-owned corporation in charge of building the line, used mostly Black people on its construction crews. Second, those workers labored at gunpoint. Third, this was their song.

Read entire article at The Bitter Southerner