In Appalachia, music helps heal body, mind and soul – National Geographic

In Appalachia, music helps heal body, mind and soul – National Geographic

Jonesvile, VirginiaRodney Harmon of Floyd County, Virginia, has been flatfooting for 60 years, but never had he danced in a health clinic. He can thank Joe Smiddy for the pleasure.

Smiddy, an allegedly “retired” pulmonologist, is the volunteer medical director of the Health Wagon, a nonprofit that provides care to those in the region most in need. On a mild Saturday in September, Harmon is among patients who’ve traveled to the Remote Area Medical (RAM) pop-up clinic in the rural southwest Virginia town of Jonesville to take advantage of free healthcare services, those offered by Smiddy and the Health Wagon among them.

The queue for care began forming outside Lee High School in the wee hours. Folks now wait patiently, quietly, in the gymnasium. Smiddy, taking a break from pulmonary screenings, straps on his banjo. Dressed casually, as is his custom, he steps out on the gym floor and becomes a wandering troubadour. Approaching a woman, he asks, “Now, what town are you from?… Oh, I know your folks.” Together they sing “Amazing Grace,” “how sweet the sound.”

For another, he serenades with a few verses of “I’ll Fly Away.”

Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

Then comes another favorite, “I Saw the Light.”

No more darkness, no more night
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light

Harmon dances to “Rocky Top,” giving it his all. Winded, and much obliged for the music and care, he heads home.

Son of a legend

Smiddy is the son of the late Papa Joe Smiddy, a university chancellor, Appalachian music preservationist, and banjo player—a legend. Dr. Smiddy has played music all his life; it would make no sense to him not to incorporate it into the healthcare he administers.

Joe Smiddy, a pulmonologist, poses for a portrait outside of Healing Hands Health Center in Bristol, Tennessee. As the volunteer medical director of Health Wagon, a nonprofit that provides care to those most in need, Smiddy offers both medical services and music to patients.

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The free medical, dental, and vision care services are what folks have come for, but Smiddy sees further opportunity.

These mountains of southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee are home to a rich musical tradition shaped by the ballads and fiddle music of the British Isles, the banjo (an African instrument), hymns, the blues, and a smattering of other influences. It’s expressed in old time, bluegrass, country, gospel—the borders of genre are often indistinct.

The more traditional music is channeled through flatfooting, a dance style in which the feet stay close to the ground, as well as clogging, a full-body, high-stepping affair. Everyone in these parts was brought up dancing, or so it seems. Harmon judders, beckoning a muscle memory. He’s no more self-conscious dancing in a health clinic than he would …….