Folklorist Loyal Jones, hailed as ‘the father of modern Appalachian studies,’ and an ‘indefatigable and beloved interpreter of Appalachian life and culture,’ passed away in Black Mountain, North Carolina, on October 7, 2023. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and earlier this year had decided that he didn’t wish to continue treatment. Jones was 95 at his passing.
Born in Marble, North Carolina, on January 5, 1928, Jones grew up, one of eight siblings, in Cherokee and Clay counties in south-western North Carolina, the son of a tenant farmer. As a youngster, he enjoyed reading Zane Grey novels during his leisure time.
He graduated from Hayesville High School, North Carolina, in 1945 and in the following year he joined the US Navy. After shipboard service and a stint as a farmer and horse trainer, Jones, at the suggestion of a woman associated with the John C. Campbell Folk School (in Brasstown, to where the family had moved when he was 12) suggested that he enroll at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky. He earned a BA degree in English there in 1954.
Jones received his master’s degree in English (and became certified to teach) from the University of North Carolina in 1957. After graduation he taught in the US Army and, for a year, at Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky.
He then became a staff member at the Council of Southern Mountains (CSM) in 1958, eventually serving as the council’s executive director from 1967 to 1970.
From 1970 to 1993 Jones directed Berea College’s Appalachian Center. In 2008, in recognition of his distinguished career and notable accomplishments as the center’s founding director, the college trustees voted to name it after him.
Jones began writing in college but did not publish any of his work until several years later. He was a prolific writer with 13 books (see list below) and dozens of published articles concerning Appalachian culture and its people to his credit.
“One characteristic of Jones’ writing is [his] optimism about the resiliency of mountain people and their culture,” says Ron Eller, a retired University of Kentucky history professor, author, and leading historian of Appalachia.
“I tried to write about what I thought the real values of the Appalachian people were, rather than the negative things, like moonshining and feuds,” Jones said in an interview. His favorite, and most popular, book is Appalachian Values, which was published in 1995 with photographs by Warren Brunner.
Eller continued …
“Loyal represented a whole generation of mountain young people who discovered their Appalachian identity in the 1960s and 1970s, and dedicated themselves to improving the region and celebrating mountain culture. In the manner of traditional mountain storytellers, Loyal was able to relate the dignity of mountain life and culture throughout his writings, lectures, and many media appearances. As a scholar, he is widely respected today as a leading authority on Appalachian culture, humor, and music.
Jones’ message has been that Appalachia should be judged by its own values—family, land, traditionalism—rather than mainstream values of accumulation, wealth, and power.
In many ways, he represents the best of Appalachia, the part of Appalachian society that values people for what they really are.”
His books include:
- Appalachia: A Self-Portrait (1979)
- Radio’s ‘Kentucky Mountain Boy’ Bradley Kincaid (1980, revised Berea College Press 1988)
- Minstrel of the Appalachians: The Story of Bascom Lamar Lundsford (Appalachian Consortium Press, 1984, revised in 1988, reprinted in 2002; The University Press of Kentucky 2021)
- Reshaping the Image of Appalachia (1986)
- Appalachian Values (Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1995)
- Faith and Meaning in The Southern Uplands (University of Illinois Press, 1999)
- Country Music Humorists and Comedians (University of Illinois Press, 2008)
- My Curious and Jocular Heroes: Tales and Tale-Spinners from Appalachia (University of Illinois Press, 2017).
With Billy Edd Wheeler, Jones co-authored:
- Laughter in Appalachia: A Festival of Southern Mountain Humor (1987, August House 2005)
- Curing the Cross-Eyed Mule: Appalachian Mountain Humor (August House, 1989)
- The Preacher Joke Book (1989)
- Hometown Humor (August House, 1991)
- More Laughter in Appalachia: A Festival of Southern Mountain Humor (August House, 1995)
Jones penned the foreword to Truman Fields’ Remembering the ’40s: In the Heart of Appalachia (AuthorHouse, 2009)
Also, he edited the humor section and numerous entries in Encyclopedia of Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press), edited by Ruby Abramson and Jean Haskell, and published in 2006.
A musician and lover of music of all kinds, Jones was involved in various recordings, writing the notes for:
- Bascom Lamar Lunsford, George Pegram, and Red Parham – Music From South Turkey Creek (Rounder Records 0065, 1976)
- Sheila Adams Barnhill’s Loving Forward, Loving Backward (Granny Dell Records GDR-3107, 1985)
- The Ballad Tradition (1986)
- Philip Kazee – Rocky Island (Berea College Appalachian Center AC006, 1995)
- Bascom Lamar Lunsford – Ballads, Banjo Tunes And Sacred Songs Of Western North Carolina (Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40082, 2007)
He co-produced and wrote the notes for Celebration! Old-Time Music at Berea (Appalachian Center AC-001, 1976), and Buell Kazee (June Appal Recordings JA009, 1978).
Additionally, Jones was the production coordinator for John Morgan Salyer’s Home Recordings 1941-1942 (Berea College Appalachian Center AC003, 1993) and Home Recordings 1941-1942 Volume 2 (Berea College Appalachian Center, 2003).
As well as his extensive award-winning literary works Jones spoke widely about his beloved Appalachia, where he spent most of his life and served many organizations, notably on the advisory committee for the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum; as a member, agenda, or program committees, Appalachian Studies Conference, 1980-84, 1986-89, chairman, 1989; as co-director, Festival of Appalachian Humor, 1983, 1987, 1990; and as a Trustee for the Berea College Appalachian Fund.
Summer Reunion 2013
In 2017 he won the Tony Turner Award from the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation.
Jones was a 2022 inductee into the Kentucky Writers Hall Of Fame.
Union College acknowledged his humanitarian and philanthropic contributions to society with an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.
The 50th Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music takes place on October 12-15, with events taking place at Berea College, the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, and Union Church Berea.
Loren Crawford wrote this of a fellow poet …
If I had a name like Loyal Jones
I’d stand tall and straight as a mountain poplar
and though I may sway and bend a little in the wind
I would not be moved.
I would be a landmark people depended on
to know where they were.
I’d be there to lean on
for the traveler who needs to rest,
and for those who want to stay,
I would be home.
If my name were Loyal Jones
I’d always turn toward the sun
because I’d know exactly who I was
and where I belonged.
Jones is the father of Carol Elizabeth Jones, of Jones & Leva, the husband-and-wife folk duo from Virginia that specialises in Appalachian Mountain music. She has two siblings, Susan and Scott.
R.I.P., Loyal Jones