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By John Bealle, Cincinnati, Ohio
Alabama has long been considered by folksong collectors as a state rich in traditional music. This is particularly a result of the waves of Scots-Irish and African peoples that populated the region during the nineteenth century, whose musical traditions were sustained by the enduring agricultural economy and by their relative cultural stability. When twentieth-century folksong collectors and recording-company talent scouts visited the state, they found a wealth of traditional music still embedded in community social entertainment, religious worship, and communal labor. Their collections long defined the breadth and character of traditional music in Alabama.
Later, as the economy diversified beyond its agricultural roots, and as suburbs and shopping malls came to redefine the landscape, musical traditions adapted. The first adaptation was in the major industries, such as the steel mills of Bessemer and the docks of Mobile Bay, where proximity and common experience provided a context for the formation of musical culture. As work and leisure became less communal, traditional music—in community festivals and other recreational events—remained important catalysts for social reaffirmation. More recently, as mass communication and travel have brought Americans closer together, traditional music has served as a means to carve out distinctions, to define what it means to be an Alabamian. Thus it is common now to find music engaged as heritage, invoking its historical roots as a means to achieve distinctive cultural identity.