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Whiddon scores documentary film on 1930s Appalachia

Scott Whiddon

Writing, rhetoric, and communication professor Scott Whiddon was searching for something unique as he worked on the music to accompany a documentary film on Appalachia. He found his inspiration by going back to the music of the 1930s, the era portrayed in the film, and specifically to what the people of a particular region of Virginia were listening to at the time.

“I wanted to see if there were any recordings of musicians from that area and that period, and there are—a very few,” Whiddon said.

The film, Rothstein’s First Assignment, tells of the forced displacement by the Commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government of 500 families living in the mountains of Virginia in an eight-county area that was targeted to become part of Shenandoah National Park. It was directed by photographer, writer, and filmmaker Richard Knox Robinson.

Whiddon used the Digital Library of Appalachia and the Special Collections and Archives of Berea College to locate the recordings of J. W. “Peg” Hatcher, an old-time fiddle music player of the region and era.

He also spoke with Hatcher’s daughter, Irene Burnett, who allowed the filmmakers to use her late father’s music.

As he composed original music for the film, Whiddon worked with Duane Lundy, owner of Lexington’s Shangri-La Studios, to create the recording. Whiddon’s own music makes up about 60 percent of the score, with the remainder being archival recordings. His compositions, all instrumental, use piano, guitar, violin, and banjo in various combinations, with Whiddon playing the guitar. Josh Motley ’10 contributed some de-tuned banjo parts.

“I wanted to respect the traditional music, but also do something different,” Whiddon said. “Duane and I gave my music some interesting sound design elements—ghost tones and echo and feedback. The result is music that builds off those traditional Appalachian forms, but is more textural.”

At one point, Whiddon sent Robinson a portion of the recording that he felt very good about, but the director was not satisfied. “He wanted a darker hue, something more jagged,” Whiddon said.

The end result, however, was very pleasing to Robinson.

“The archival piece of music by Peg Hatcher that Scott’s diligent research uncovered set the tone for the film,” Robinson said. “Beautifully recorded, Scott’s piece then meshed perfectly with Hatcher’s recording, providing the bridge I was looking for between past and present.”

The film’s title refers to New Deal photographer Arthur Rothstein, who was sent to the mountains of Virginia in 1935 to photograph the residents of the Appalachian backwoods and hollows before they were displaced for the national park. Robinson retraces Rothstein’s steps by interviewing descendents of the mountain people and weaving those pieces together with a 1964 audio interview with the photographer, archival newsreel footage, and clips from the 1964 documentary Hollow Folk.

Scott Whiddon and students
Scott Whiddon works with junior Bobby Puckett, left, and senior Erin Brock in the Transylvania Writing Center.

Robinson uncovers evidence that Rothstein’s images were not always pure documentation—that some were staged for the camera. This creates an aura of propaganda that suggests complicity between Rothstein’s work and the involuntary displacement. The film also digs further into the forced institutionalization and sterilization of mountain people, done in the name of eugenics.

“This is a highly disturbing film,” Whiddon said. “It’s a scary story about a complex moment in our nation’s history. Richard has done a masterful job of telling not only the story of this event, but of how truth is constructed rhetorically.”

The film draws extensively from the writings of Katrina Powell, whose books “Answer at Once”: Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934–1938 and The Anguish of Displacement: The Politics of Literacy in the Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park chronicle the stories of the displaced families. Powell was Whiddon’s dissertation director at Louisiana State University and the one who called Whiddon to offer him the film work. She is co-producer with Robinson on the film.

This was Whiddon’s first film score, though he’s been a musician since childhood, has played with several bands over the years, and has been involved in four or five major recordings.

“Working on this project was easily one of the most amazing experiences of my artistic life, my research life, and my intellectual life,” he said.

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