24 September 2014

A Blue Ridge Treasure - Lynn Coffey

Billy & Lynn Coffey
Photo source
I have been wanting to write this post for a very long time. I first met Lynn Coffey in the early 1990's, though I had been a reader of her monthly newspaper, Backroads for over a decade. Lynn's website gives some of this amazing woman's background:
In 1980, when Lynn Coffey moved to the tiny mountain hamlet of Love, Virginia, she realized the Appalachian culture was slowly ebbing away and somehow needed to be preserved. Without any formal training in journalism, Lynn started a newspaper called "Backroads" and began recording oral histories and taking photographs of her elderly neighbors, publishing their stories in the monthly newspaper. For the next twenty-five years (December 1981-December 2006) Lynn roamed the hills and hollers around Love, writing stories that captured the heart and soul of the Appalachian culture, lending dignity and importance to an oft-overlooked and misunderstood people and their rugged way of life. When Backroads ended, the cry of the mountain folks' words, "Don't let our stories die with your retirement," haunted Lynn so she began compiling many of the articles from the former newspaper, putting them in book form.

Lynn's first book, Backroads; Plain Folk & Simple Livin' was published in November of 2009 and was an instant success. One year later, the second volume, Backroads 2; The Road to Chicken Holler came out to the delight of those who enjoyed the first book. The third book in the series, Backroads 3; Faces of Appalachia completes the Backroads trilogy.

In August of 2013 Lynn published her 4th book about the mountain culture called Appalachian Heart, containing the current oral histories of 19 native people still living in the Virginia highlands where the author makes her home. The material is new, fresh and full of rich history taken from those who can remember what life was like before electricity, telephones and indoor plumbing; before technology became a household word. It was a time when survival depended on how well the crops and gardens grew. A time when the labor was hard but brought an inward satisfaction to those living the old way. When the last generation of mountain folk are gone most of the knowledge of the rugged culture that nourished and sustained them will be gone as well. In a few short years reading books like Appalachian Heart and the Backroads books will be the only way people can know about a culture that is almost forgotten.
Lynn Coffey's work is representative, in so many ways, of the rich contribution that many of the unsung "amateur" local historians and chroniclers of American culture make to our unique history - particularly here in the South. While academic historians seem to stumble over each other on a daily basis in an attempt to rewrite and reinterpret our history with some "new" (and most often negative) perspective, local historians plod slowly along, researching, digging, writing, preserving and documenting the history of their local communities and culture. Their approach always seems to be so much more respective of the history they're researching and writing about. The difference in the two approaches is palpable.

With no formal training, Lynn's work telling and writing the stories of the people and culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains is truly amazing. The volume of knowledge she possesses is, quite frankly, staggering. And it came in a way none other can equal - by experiencing it first hand.

Though not originally from the area, Lynn quickly settled in and embraced the culture surrounding her. She is quite a woman. She worked with local craftsman to build her own log cabin on top of Love Mountain from scratch and also took a 1950 Ford Pickup down to its frame and rebuilt it. She also married local preacher and pastor (and cousin to my wife), Billy Coffey who is himself a walking encyclopedia regarding much of Appalachian culture. They make a perfect team.

I recall receiving a phone call from Lynn (Billy and Lynn live only a few miles from my home  - I live at the foot of the Blue Ridge, they live on one of its peaks) shortly after I authored my book about Stonewall Jackson and his black Sunday school class. She was thinking about compiling the best of her newspaper articles into a book, but was having doubts. She also wanted some advice about picking a publisher. I did my very best to encourage her knowing she had the talent, passion and knowledge to produce something truly worthwhile. I was so proud and grateful when she took the time to thank me for my encouragement in her acknowledgements of that first book.

If you're so inclined, take some time to watch the videos below. I promise you'll learn something worthwhile. The first one is an introduction to a documentary about Lynn, the second one is the complete documentary about the woman from Love, Virginia.

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