BEREA — Loyal Jones grew up in a tenant-farming family, growing corn and hay in western North Carolina, near the Georgia and Tennessee state lines. He went to Hayesville High School and the Baptist church in town.
But he also got interested in another area institution, the John C. Campbell Folk School, which brought in traditions from outside western North Carolina but also aimed to emphasize and deepen students' understanding and appreciation of their own culture,
"The folk idea was to know your own culture and to be at ease with that," Jones says, "which, I think, is good for all people, anywhere, to come to some terms with their perception — at least — of the culture they come from and what to do with the culture you may be entering. It seems to me you need to not have a great conflict there. You need to see the positive as well as the negative, and perhaps draw some strength from it.
"It's the sort of thing Wendell Berry writes about: a place on earth and the people and the community and the culture, and the community and learning to get some strength from that — at least be at ease with who you are.
"That is the whole thing of identity."
Helping people of Appalachia appreciate and feel comfortable with their culture was a driving force of Jones' career at Berea College, which has earned him numerous accolades, including this year's Folk Heritage Award in the annual Governor's Awards in the Arts.
"I've been an administrator and teacher, so I was very surprised with the folk arts award," Jones said earlier this month in the study of his modest home in Berea, just a few blocks from campus.
He was probably the only one surprised.
"We all think it's overdue," says Chad Berry, current director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, which Jones founded and directed from 1970 to 1993.
"Loyal is a bridge between the common folk and the high-falutin' academic types," Berry says. "He can move between a field, talking to a man in his overalls, to a room full of pointy-headed academics and be equally comfortable in both places. Loyal accepts people as they are, and that's been a driving force of this center."
Jones quietly enters the center on a Friday afternoon, but soon everyone knows he's there. He is talking with old colleagues and current students about projects that are happening in the center. He has come for a lecture that is part of the 37th annual Celebration of Traditional Music, a festival that he founded at Berea and always attends. Berry says Jones is always at the center's events unless he or his wife, Nancy, is ill.
Listening to a lecture by new faculty member Josh Guthman about mid-20th-century mountain musician Roscoe Holcomb, Jones nods with recognition at music samples that Guthman plays and the mention of John Cohen, the manager and filmmaker who promoted Holcomb's career.
Later, tooling back home in his white Toyota, Jones talks about his own relationship with Cohen, and other projects he did, aside from his work with Holcomb.
In the years since Jones joined Berea's faculty in 1970, he has met, worked with and helped chronicle almost anyone who did significant work in Appalachia. Becoming director of the center, which was later renamed in his honor, Jones thought his mission was similar to the Campbell Folk School back in his home state.
"I was interested in introducing the students at Berea, who mostly come from the mountains, to their own values and folk heritage," said Jones, himself a Berea alumnus, class of 1954. "It seemed to me that students who came here, mostly from disadvantaged circumstances, needed some help in accepting where they came from as they went into their higher education and learned about other things.
"The only problem I have with liberal arts is they ain't liberal. Generally, the canon is pretty well set, and they don't like someone coming along and saying, 'Let's do black literature,' or 'Let's do a course in women's literature,' or 'Let's do Appalachian studies and things.' So there is some resistance to dealing with the folk as folk, and I personally think every college ought to have a course that would get into ideas of musicology and folk arts and folk heritage, to appreciate people as they are.
"Higher education often alienates a person from his own people, and you have to live in two different worlds. You use one set of words and way of talking in college and another way at home with your cousins and your parents, if you come from a different culture from the people who are teaching you."
Jones' own introduction to Berea was fortuitous.
After high school, in the years immediately after World War II, he went into the Navy, but he eventually received a hardship discharge after his father became ill. Young Jones ran the family farm until his dad got better, and then he started thinking about college.
Jones' designs originally were on Western Carolina University, but the director at the folk school said, "You need to go to Berea," because the diversity of the student population would be better for him.
He initially wanted to major in art, but he found that the Bauhaus style then being taught at the school was foreign to what he wanted to do. He does not call himself an artist, but Jones is a wood carver and works in other media, and has learned to play banjo and guitar to enhance his understanding of the music he chronicles.
As a Berea student, Jones eventually turned to the English department, where teacher Emily Ann Smith encouraged him to write about what he knew: the mountains.
After a stint in the Army during the Korean War and earning a master's degree at the University of North Carolina, Jones returned to his alma mater to help open the region's first Appalachian studies center, documenting the mountains and their people, including their work and challenges to their religion, music and humor.
He has written numerous books, including Appalachia: A Self-Portrait (1979), Faith and Meaning in the Southern Uplands (1999) and Country Music Humorists and Comedians (2008). He also has contributed to many books, written numerous articles, and logged countless hours of field recordings of Appalachian artists; those recordings are being digitized at the center.
Well into his 80s, Jones is an active computer user, communicating by e-mail, Googling subjects he wants to know more about and appreciating that the center's work can be viewed and listened to worldwide on the Internet.
"He is the grandfather of Appalachian studies," Berry says.
An important part of studying that culture, to Jones, has been encouraging it to continue.
"A lot of people have said we have to collect these songs in an archive and save them," Jones says. "Well, if you just save them, it's not the same as when you encourage them and encourage the younger generation to start performing them and carry on the tradition."
So Jones is heartened that the center and the festival have endured, with younger people studying and performing. And they in turn celebrate him with the center, which was renamed for him after his retirement in 1993, and in congratulating him on his Governor's Award, the latest in a long string of honors.
"Being the Governor's Award, a state award is very impressive to me," Jones says.
But then, as he does several times when asked about the award, Jones' conversation trails back to the focus of his life: the mountains and their folk.
Rich Copley is the recipient of the 2011 Governor's Award in the Arts for media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.