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Remembering Loyal Jones (1928-2023)

The ASA Ancestor You Might Not Know You Had

The Appalachian Studies Association mourns the passing of Loyal Jones (1928 – 2023). We also celebrate his life and his role in Appalachian Studies. Loyal’s steady heart, accepting vision, wry sense of humor, and deep commitment to the region and its people have deeply influenced most long-time members of ASA, and through them, all of us.

Loyal grew up in a family that raised corn in Cherokee and Clay Counties in the North Carolina mountains, and he had never considered going to college until after World War II when one of his neighbors at the John C. Campbell Folk School helped him apply to college at Berea College in 1950.

English degrees in hand, Loyal was organizing national conferences on the region for the Council of Southern Mountains as early as 1959. He became director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College in 1970, which is where, eight years later, he would help the first Appalachian Studies Conference come into being. Eventually he even became president of ASA until 1989, wisely putting off the best part until four years before he retired.

Loyal produced albums by unknown musicians, gave more talks than you can shake a stick at, taught generations of students and scholars, and his last book, My Curious and Jocular Heroes: Tales and Tale-Spinners from Appalachia came out in 2018.

But what exactly did Loyal bring to Appalachian Studies? At the age of 55, I am perhaps the youngest of ASA’s presidents to have known, loved, and been influenced by Loyal, whose memoir I am now editing. But what I might say about his influence is likely better said by himself and others.

When Loyal retired from Berea in 1993, historian Ron Eller shared that for those in Appalachian Studies Loyal had come to mean “the link between who we are in our hearts and who we have become in our heads. Always self-effacing and humble, Loyal has never approached the region at arms-length. He has always found dignity and value in the region’s people and culture, and has challenged us to change, to become more than what we are, without losing the best part of ourselves” (Appalachian Heritage 1994 Summer, 13).

Loyal recounts in his unpublished memoir how he had come to know Edward “Ed” J. Cabell through their mutual passion for traditional music. At the same time, John Stephenson, who was then director of the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center, was an important academic mentor to William H. Turner. Loyal and John then found financial support and provided encouragement to these two quite different visionaries, who would go on to edit Blacks in Appalachia (1985), one of the most important Appalachian studies books in the last fifty years.

What Loyal taught those who knew him was how to be interested in each person they met. In a 1999 interview he got straight to the point that “every college ought to have some kind of course” that taught students how to “deal with ordinary people and try to understand their lives as being important, because they are human beings and this is how they live and this is how they find meaning and that is what they do” (Appalachian Journal 2000 27(4), 401).

As for Appalachian studies, Loyal has written, “Just when I think I have a hold on a definition of Appalachian people, somebody writes a new book or article and leaves me with a handful of air” (Appalachia Journal 1982, 9(2-3), 188). Rather than be frustrated or get upset at somebody else blowing hot air, Loyal felt it was best to invite everyone to the party: “I believe we ought to do what each do best in the hope that all of it will contribute a little bit to the fund of knowledge and that this fund will make wiser thinkers and doers” (1982, 190).

And perhaps that’s the best lesson Loyal gave ASA: to include, to talk, to listen, and to have some fun while doing so.

So, thank you Loyal for helping get Appalachian Studies up and running.

Chris Green, 2013-2014 ASA President

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