Everyday Folkways in the Mountain State: Emily Hilliard’s “Making Our Future”

In Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia, Emily Hilliard explores and shares the varied expressive culture of West Virginia, presenting information from her own extensive fieldwork in narrative form. Each chapter “serves as a case study of how a specific community engages with a different form of expressive culture.” These forms include things we might expect – such as songwriting and foodways – as well as things we might not – like wrestling and video games. However, in every chapter, Hilliard’s thorough research and clear writing invite readers into the communal spaces this folklore represents.

Hilliard’s introduction sets up the work of the entire book by defining folklore and explaining the scope of the project. Though Hilliard is an academic and professional folklorist, Making Our Future is intended for a general audience, and the writing style throughout is not only accessible but also humorous and personable. There are a few terms that may be unfamiliar to some readers, but Hilliard takes time at the beginning of the text to provide definitions and explain her methodology, including the weighted term folklore. Hilliard defines folklore as “the art of everyday life – creative practices we learn by living our lives, passed informally from person-to-person rather than through formal training.” With this definition in mind, she dedicates each chapter to a different creative practice.

In the first chapter, the Scotts Run Museum and the community counternarrative that arises from it are discussed, and in the second chapter, Hilliard documents the songwriting practices of four West Virginia women. For both topics, images and example texts are included to further illuminate the folkways of the people and their communities. Although she is an outsider – raised in Indiana and having lived in Washington, D.C. before accepting the position of West Virginia state folklorist –, Hilliard works to employ a collaborative ethnographic methodology in which interviews are open-ended and mutually directed. This approach allows people who might appear as “objects” of a different study to be more fully represented as creators of expressive culture. The chapters are presented in narrative prose form, rather than using an interview format, and this structure allows space for Hilliard to provide context and background alongside the personal stories of her collaborators.

In chapter three, Hilliard turns her attention to foodways in the Swiss community of Helvetia. She notes that “To call the presence of a Swiss community in a remote area of the Mountain State unlikely would be to deny the history and impact of the waves of immigration and relocation to Central Appalachia by diverse ethnic and cultural groups.” Helvetia is a very small community, with a population of only fifty-nine at the time of Hilliard’s writing, but its existence and persistence allow Hilliard to better underscore some of her main points in regard to the elasticity of traditions and the ways in which “tradition puts the past and the future in conversation.”

With another focus on a small community, chapter four examines the ways that Breece D’J Pancake’s stories are intertwined with the landscape of Milton, Breece’s hometown. In true collaborative ethnographic fashion, Hilliard toured the town with Rick Wilson, another Milton native who admired Breece. Rather than focusing on Breece’s writing, this chapter explores how Rick employs his knowledge of Breece and his writing “to evoke a sense of place that twines experience, narrative, and landscape.”

This interest in experience, narrative, and landscape extends to later chapters including chapter six, which focuses on the West Virginia hot dog, as well as chapter eight, which examines the video game Fallout 76. The zooming in and out on a variety of forms of expressive culture is a particularly effective strategy in Hilliard’s book. The first four chapters are narrowly focused and grounded in small communities, but in chapter five, the book turns toward more outward-facing folkways.

Chapter five is especially interesting as it takes up the 2018 West Virginia Teacher’s Strike as a site of expressive culture. The Teacher’s Strike was deeply embedded in the labor history of the state – drawing support from the United Mine Workers of America and engaging the visual rhetoric of red bandanas, “a reference to the Mine Wars of 1912-22” – but it also made extensive use of memes and pop culture references to convey the message to the broader public. This chapter is fascinating for its close examination of signs created by striking teachers as well as the historical context it provides.

Hilliard takes a similar approach in chapter seven where independent pro wrestling is discussed. As I suggested above, Hilliard’s collaborative ethnographic methods allow the insights of participants in these folkways to be incorporated throughout the book. For this particular chapter, Hilliard has interviewed Shirley Love who hosted Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ for WOAY TV in Oak Hill, which was broadcast from 1954 to 1977, and she also interviewed wrestlers and event promoters. It is clear that Hilliard took the time necessary to engage in conversation with active members of the communities she studied, and the result is a depiction that is neither overly romantic nor dismissive.

Due to its collaborative ethnographic methods, wide-ranging case study topics, and accessible writing style, Emily Hilliard’s Making Our Future is a fascinating example of folklore fieldwork in West Virginia. People from the state – especially those currently living elsewhere – will find places and concepts they recognize thoughtfully and respectfully represented, and outsiders will gain an understanding of the deeply complex and communal past and present of the Mountain State.

Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia
By Emily Hilliard
The University of North Carolina Press
Published November 22, 2022