Fireside Chat: 'If You Love My West Virginia': West Virginia's Women Songwriters and Appalachian Politics

On November 4, 2015, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies hosted the second Fireside Chat of the semester. Travis Stimeling, an assistant professor of music history at WVU’s School of Music, staged the presentation, “If You Love My West Virginia,” West Virginia’s Women Songwriters and Appalachian Politics.

The presentation examined the voices of women songwriters in Appalachia. Stimeling advocates, “There are dozens of really remarkable women songwriters here in West Virginia, and Appalachia, that have spoken about things that are important locally, nationally, regionally. They’ve spoken from the perspective of people who were maybe outside of the mainstream.”

Stimeling’s musical project started in 2014 by conducting oral histories with West Virginia songwriters, and how it functions in their communities to help speak about the Appalachian experience. These women used the power of song to capture the deeply personal associations to the environmental and political impacts of the area. Stimeling explains that by, “Learning about these women and singing their songs, I’m inspired and try to catch the essence of their songs. Our story about Appalachia and West Virginia is a male-dominated one.”

After conducting research, to Travis Stimeling, there was one song that stood out the most, Colleen Anderson’s ‘If You Love My West Virginia’. Anderson wrote this song in response to the January 2014 Elk River Chemical Spill that left many West Virginians without clean drinking water for months. Sang in the courtroom following the incident, ‘If You Love My West Virginia’, became a symbol of pride and perseveration for the foothills of Appalachia that “spoke truth to power.”

The presentation also featured the work of several noteworthy Appalachian women songwriters, including, Hazel Dickens, Elaine Purkey and Morgantown’s Shirley Stewart Burns. Stimeling explained, “People don’t ask Appalachian women about their stories, but they have been at the forefront of the political movements. Women have been the constant part of Appalachia. To neglect the women of Appalachia is to neglect who held it all together.”

Heaven L. Hunter