Michael Kline and Carrie Nobel met in western Massachusetts at a human rights rally to support a family which lost its home to the IRS in lieu of war taxes, a seizure widely believed to be a violation of international law. The two soon discovered a shared love of social activism, folklife documentation and old-time singing. Michael was staff folklorist for the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society (PVFS) conducting field research in a rapidly changing Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts from Springfield to Northfield, with special emphasis on local resistance to governmental taxes supporting the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Carrie was an organizer and events planner for the Institute for Community Economics helping to create affordable housing nationwide through community land trusts. She had recently completed a degree in the politics and cultures of the U.S. at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
The two were euphoric about their immediate musical connection, her strong and endearing melodic singing and his high, tight harmonies. They also knew dozens of the same Appalachian ballads and work songs, having lived and worked in many of the same coalfield communities and folk schools in Virginia and West Virginia a generation apart.
Carrie soon began an internship with PVFS and the radio project in progress to celebrate local expressive culture. With a grant from the Mass. Council on the Humanities and help from other interns, the group completed two radio documentaries exploring the diversity of the region reflected in the songs and stories of New Americans from Tibet to Timbuktu. Gratified by the results of their work and singing nightly by woodstoves and campfires, the two joined in marriage in 1992. They continued with the documentary effort, now as “the Klines,” until Massachusetts folklore programs went belly-up in 1993 through a major statewide recession.
While facing an uncertain future, Michael and Carrie received a call out of the blue one day from a U.S. Park Service staffer inviting them to come to Wheeling, West Virginia, to conduct an extensive ethnographic survey of the people, neighborhoods, and industries of this classic, rustbelt city on the Ohio River. Wheeling was in the early stages of seeking Congressional designation as a National Heritage Area. This compelling opportunity bringing the Klines back to West Virginia proved to be both challenging and deeply satisfying.
The products issuing from their 165 field recorded life story interviews averaging ninety minutes included a number of broadcast-quality spoken history components of exhibits highlighting various chapters of Wheeling’s fast-moving story. The Klines also published 32 installments of newspaper articles for a Sunday series in the Wheeling Intelligencer based on verbatim transcripts of recorded local voices. They also produced a 22-part radio series of fifteen-minute programs, “Talking Across the Lines,” based on human rights issues growing out of the recorded voices. This series was aired twice in 1994 over WWVA, the station known for the Wheeling Jamboree. In just a few months the Klines had turned a government-financed research project into a public forum that sparked progressive visioning for the city’s future as well as preserving memories of bygone eras.
At the completion of the project they lingered in Wheeling to pursue stories of the Underground Railroad that had surfaced in their interviews. As the Klines signed on to teach Spoken Arts at the Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, the trail of research soon led to a connection with Quaker alumni whose ancestors were participants in the movement to free slaves traveling through Ohio. These aging alumni brought history alive in the classroom for young, curious, highly motivated students. The research collaboration went beyond classrooms, however, with visits to an African-American church that was founded by freed slaves from Virginia in the mid-1860s and still attended by descendants of the original members. Two more audio CDs, Riding Freedom’s Train and its companion of recorded songs associated with the period, I Believe in Angels Singing were the fruits of these collaborations: many recollections woven together, a tapestry of voices and songs telling a local story. Both CDs were recognized with a Media Arts Award from West Virginia Arts and Humanities in 1997 and both have aired periodically over West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
And then came a call from the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District, requesting a 25-year update in its institutional history. The Klines contracted to record sixty 90-minute interviews with past and present employees and with special contractors, such as towboat crews plying the Ohio, shoving fifteen barge tows through a system of locks and dams constructed over a 75-year period by the Huntington District of the Corps along a 312-mile stretch of the Ohio River.
In the course of this tricky dance through the arena of public history, the Klines found their way back to Elkins and Michael’s old home on Boundary Ave. This beloved place became the center of their activities for the next nineteen years, with interludes of folklife contracts in distant places like Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina that kept them for weeks, months, even years at a time. The Klines still make their home in Elkins, now living downtown on the Tygart Valley River.
While in Elkins, Michael and Carrie contracted with the Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation in Beverly, West Virginia, to produce a series of audio CDs looking at life and times along the historic Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, completed from the Valley of Virginia across the Alleghenies to the Ohio River in 1847. In the end they recorded a hundred interviews with residents of the region, primarily from old families living for generations along the old road. These voices paint memorable pictures of life and travel across this rugged terrain from earliest settlement through the tempestuous Civil War and the industrial barrage that followed. This CD series traces the coming of roads and Model Ts, and the Great Depression highlighted locally by the Eleanor Roosevelt Homestead, a simple intentional housing community for two hundred families. Later recordings along the western reaches of the Turnpike explore West Virginia’s move to Statehood, the railroad and discovery of oil and gas. The bridging music in these seven audio productions is all locally performed, many of the songs original and haunting.
In similar manner the Klines documented folklife and local memory in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in the eastern anthracite coal country of northern Appalachia, another National Heritage Area. They worked with the College of the Atlantic both in Guatemala and in documenting folklife along Maine’s Union River. The Klines worked with Historic St. Mary’s City and St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland, making CDs and audio tours and teaching. They also did extensive folklife documentation with the Occaneechi Indians in and around Alamance County North Carolina.
Carrie Nobel Kline branched out in 2001, winning a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship at the Center for the Study of Gender and Ethnicity at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She wanted to learn more about how Appalachian people cope with being marginalized by mainstream society, and whether coping mechanisms people learn in one situation are useful in another. She was particularly interested in how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people draw sources of strength in Appalachian communities. She conducted a dozen interviews, arresting for their openness and honesty. Carrie then scripted a 75-minute staged reading, Revelations: A Celebration of Appalachian Resilience in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender People, by interweaving these stories of people’s path to self-acceptance and love. The uplifting and inspirational play has been performed at regional colleges, universities, churches and conferences a score of times over the past two decades. The Klines offer a community or academic residency which combines producing Revelations with teaching classes and workshops on Appalachian Studies, folklife, music, oral history and gender studies.
Rivers of voices from more than a thousand recorded interviews stream through the hearts and minds of Michael and Carrie Nobel Kline. The voices flow as rivulets, memories and aspirations from every nation, tribe, family and individual citizen from every corner of the earth, who have found their paths to these shores and flourished here as best they could over time. These spoken testimonials resonate with cascading fiddle tunes, ancient ballads, and labor songs that stir feelings of unity among workers worldwide.
The Klines express this fusion with passion and precision on guitars and with vocal harmonies, in live performances and on the five CDs of their music. They balance their musical life with the rigorous documentary work that gives voice to people normally excluded from public conversations. They continue to work closely with interns, all of whom unfailingly make imaginative and lasting contributions to the Talking Across the Lines enterprise. The Klines enjoy offering workshops in “Listening for a Change,” alternative approaches to conducting meaningful field research. And once again this year they are teaching old songs as social history in schools throughout Randolph County, West Virginia.
Educational Background and Earlier Work
Michael and Carrie Kline have been studying and chronicling the history and culture of Appalachia for forty years. Michael, with a Ph.D. in Public Folklore from Boston University, and Carrie, with a Master’s Degree in American Studies from SUNY/Buffalo, have cumulatively written twenty articles for West Virginia’s official folklife journal, Goldenseal Magazine since 1978, when Michael served on Goldenseal’s editorial staff at the West Virginia Department of Culture and History. Michael’s efforts to document 20th Century West Virginia life were supported in the early 1970s with receipt of a Ford Fellowship Award, and with a grant from the West Virginia Humanities in 1980. He has served on the Citizen’s Advisory Board of the West Virginia Humanities Council and has far ranging contacts throughout the State with historians, Appalachian Studies scholars, artists and musicians. He has conducted extensive oral interviews with farmers, home makers and workers in most of the State’s industries and communities.
Michael was employed during most of the 1980s as Folklife Specialist for the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins. While there he researched, wrote and narrated a documentary film on West Virginia traditional music called “Play It For the Trees” for BBC-TV in Cardiff, Wales. His experience in creating public programs extends to Cullowhee, North Carolina, where he was employed by the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
Read Michael Kline’s award-winning essay, A Lifetime of Achievement in Arts for Social Change.