NOTE: WVPB airs the documentary “What Will You Do for Your Hills? The Legacy of Don West,” 7 p.m., Sunday, June 7, 2020. This is the first half of a two-part WestVirginiaVille package on West. Here’s Part 2.
Poet, educator and labor activist Don West is one of the more fascinating figures who has transected West Virginia history. At 7 p.m., this Sunday, June 7, West Virginia Public Broadcasting will screen the hour-long documentary “What Will You Do for Your Hills? The Legacy of Don West,” on West and the Appalachian South Folklife Center he and his wife, Connie, founded in 1965, near Pipestem WV. WestVirginiaVille editor Douglas John Imbrogno tossed ‘5 Questions’ about West to Concord College professor, musician, and Folk Life Center Program Director Tim Mainland, who knew West personally.
WVVILLE: What was the impetus for this documentary?
TIM MAINLAND: The Appalachian South Folklife Center he founded had a 50th year celebration five years ago. Meno Griffith, a lifelong champion of the center, had the idea of doing a documentary and I got involved. We used Concord University facilities for a symposium and the center itself for meetings, discussions, readings, presentations, and music. There is a long tradition of the arts associated with Don West’s work and family. We asked Jon Averill—who does beautiful and fastidious videography work—to make a documentary. He took on the project with energy and seriousness for this whole time and it is just now done.
WVVILLE: West was a controversial figure in his day. What role did he play in the culture at the height of his influence?
MAINLAND: I knew him to be an agitator—in the best sense of the word. When I met him he challenged me directly and offensively to explain why I was there. I did not enjoy that. But the result was that I had to supply my reasons—and had to think about them. That was his role: to set up good and meaningful programs and force you to justify your inclusion in them. He was not a creator of comfort. He was a creator of action. His passion for the “Mountaineer” did not have any bounds.
He was not a creator of comfort. He was a creator of action.
WVVILLE: What was he like—good, bad and in-between?
MAINLAND: He came across as confrontational and mean-spirited. But the reasons for this—see Question 2—were strong and meaningful. He was not a “warm fuzzy,” but the resulting compassion and constructive involvement that he advocated took root. I remember him both with annoyance and admiration. His programs continue, his following has grown, his ideas were solid. I am here for this in “the long haul,” as are many others.
WVVILE: What do you feel is West’s legacy is today?
MAINLAND: Don’s original work was in civil rights. He was an associate of Miles Horton and—to some extent—Martin Luther King. He was motivated by the social aspects of New Testament teachings. (He was an ordained minister who never had a church, per se). However, I do not find a single word of sectarian proselytising in any of his work.
He, like Ralph Abernathy, saw poverty from exploitation as the root of current evils and he worked to get people from many backgrounds to address it with their labor. The legacy that lives on most strongly can be found in the invitations to come and work, to meet people, to be involved and to be a solution. The most visible part of this legacy is in the work camps that we run every summer at the Appalachian South Folklife Center the center he and his wife, Connie, founded near Pipestem.
He, like Ralph Abernathy, saw poverty from exploitation as the root of current evils and he worked to get people from many backgrounds to address it with their labor.
WVVILLE: Can you sum up his influence on you and your view of him?
MAINLAND: He was cantankerous and difficult, but driven by compassion and visions of deep fairness and love (quite a paradox!). He made you question why you came, and what your personal motivations might be. He left no chance of alliance with his movement for the wrong reasons. His path was not an easy one. He was a straight arrow.
West’s rural roots were deep and never forgotten. He wrote poetry that reflected his mountain background and his left-wing politics. He attended Lincoln Memorial University in the same class with Appalachian novelists Jesse Stuart and James Still, and received a divinity degree from Vanderbilt University where he was influenced by Social Gospel teachings. Studying in Denmark for a year, West discovered the Danish Folk School Movement, which also had a strong influence on him. He was a cofounder of the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee, which was attended by many activists, including Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. In the 1950s, West was a non-cooperating witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
His best-known books include O Mountaineers: A Collection of Poems (1974) and In a Land of Plenty: A Don West Reader (1982). West retired from the Folklife Center in the late 1980s and lived at Cabin Creek, Kanawha County, until his death.
~ From the West Virginia Encyclopedia Entry on Don West, written by Yvonne Farley
Tim Mainland and Crystal Atwell have organized a $28,000 GoFundMe fundraiser on behalf of Appalachian South Folklife Center and its work programs. Donations are 100% tax deductible.
MORE ‘5 Questions’
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