The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition and Back Porch Music
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Jul 19, 2016
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: The Queen Family: Appalachian Tradition and Back Porch Music

The Queen Family represents one of the last pure strains of authentic Appalachian tradition. Sheltered by the forbidding and rugged landscape of Jackson County, North Carolina, their community has retained a keen sense of its own history. Mountain tradition, and the closeness of family and neighbors, are here expressed in exuberant folk music played together with family and neighbors, outdoors on the porch. The songs come in many forms, from many sources. By and large, they are folk songs, telling stories and offering entertainment, instruction or consolation. The music itself is by turns joyful, comical and light-hearted, or dark and moody, a distillation of the soul of the culture.

 Family matriarch Mary Jane Queen is ninety-two years old and still strong enough to climb the mountain paths behind her house each day. She has a vivid recollection of the songs and lore learned in childhood days, including an encyclopedic knowledge of wild medicinal herbs. Her youth in the Prince family home looked little different from family life of centuries earlier, based almost entirely around farming, gathering, and bartering. The tales and ballads she learned in those days do indeed date back several centuries, though they have been altered in their passage across the generations.

When Mary Jane married Claude Queen in 1935, they united two of the most gifted musical families in their part of Appalachia. Their eight children grew up in the mountain wilds, with music ever-present in the home. Over time they accumulated their own instruments, and learned to pick and play by ear. In the words of the eldest son, J.R. Queen, "We'll play for three or four hours with nobody else around, just the family. Maybe a couple of friends'll come by and want to listen to us. We enjoy doing it. We do a little bit of everything bluegrass, country and gospel. All of it. I guess mother termed it the best when she said 'mountain music.'" Mary Jane Queen can still recite hundreds of ballads, and her singing style retains the authentic cadence and delivery of the original Irish sean-nos song form.

The Queen Family captures true Appalachian culture and authentic American folk music traditions at their source, in all their unvarnished charm.

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