Interview with Donavan Cain

Rick Stowe

I recently had the opportunity to interview Father Donovan Cain. Father Cain will be one of the featured artists at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival in June. However, he is not only an excellent musician but also an Episcopalian Priest in Paris, Kentucky. These two aspects of his life give him an interesting outlook on the preservation of the traditional mountain music that he participates in.

Emancipator: Can you talk about the connection with the spirituality of the region and the evidence of that in the music of the place?

Cain: I think mountain music from the hills and hollers of Appalachia is soul musicin one of its purest strains.Now, there are certainly religious songs from the mountains that are specifically “spiritual” from the prospective of Christian faith, but I find that ALL the music of the mountains has spirit and soul within it.For me, the spirituality of mountain people is bound up tightly with everything else in mountain culture- family, work, the natural environment, life and death, and religion.Music from the mountains, then, naturally is imbued with the same spirituality.It comes from somewhere deep inside the soul and communicates the stories, the struggles, the pain, and the joy of mountain life from mountain people, and therefore, much like Negro Spirituals, the Blues, and the traditional Irish and Scottish Airs, mountain music is spiritual music in one of its most grassroots forms.

E:the music and spirituality of the region are connected, do you think that preserving the traditional music goes hand in hand with maintaining the spiritual nature of the region?

C: I think preserving traditional music can go hand and hand with preserving that deeper spiritual nature of the region that tends to transcend any specific religious group.Certainly, there are the great hymns of the Pentecostal and Holiness churches of Appalachia, as well as the songs and hymns of the Old Regular and Primitive Mountain Baptists, and preserving traditional music will include the preservation of these particular varieties in the music.Beyond just that though, preserving mountain music also helps preserve that piece of the heart and soul of the region that has always been part of how Appalachia talks back to itself and to the world.Music has always been at the center of it all, from the front porches, to the mines underground, to the dance floors on Saturday night, and the church house or wilderness cathedral on Sunday morning.Preserving our music is preserving our very soul, I believe.To me, the learning, performing, and passing along of mountain music has helped create and sustain every battle that’s been fought in the past 100 years to save mountain land and people, from the struggles to Unionize in the 1920s and 30s, to the fight against the destruction of the mountains by Mountain-Top Removal Strip Mining today.You preserve the music, you preserve the heart and soul of this region.

E: I know that both dedication to music and pastoral duties can be very time consuming. How do you balance these two important aspects of your life?

C: The truth is that’s one of the most difficult challenges I’ve had to face in my private life since I made the decision to answer God’s call and become a full-time pastor and priest.

continue to be passionate about listening to music, new and old, and especially traditional roots and spiritual music.I still love to dig up music and discover new sounds.After a trip to the Holy Land a few years back, I’ve really gotten into the spiritual music of Islam and the Sufi traditions of the Middle East and Northern Africa.It’s hard to spend time in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem and in the West Bank, be a music lover, and not be fascinated by the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer 5 times a day.To me, it reminded me so much of the old Elder giving out the first line of hymn in an Old Regular Church in the mountains.Music breaks down the barriers that the world throws up, so I’m constantly listening, and listening is not so difficult to balance with my other duties.

, it’s the creation of the music, the playing and performing, that’s gotten more and more difficult to find time for in the midst of trying to be a priest and pastor.I try to play when I can and have found that one of the most helpful things has been getting invitations to perform.That at least pushes me to play as regularly as I can.It’s been one of those blessings that I feel is God’s way of telling me that music is important and that there is a place for it in my ministry.Also, my daughter has recently started getting into the music a little and learning some of the old Carter family songs and singing with me.That’s been another blessing for me and has also begun to help me keep music close to the heart of what I do.

E: It sounds as if these portions of your life complement each other rather well. Do you agree?

C: They do complement each other, if nothing else then in how I find pastoral care for myself.I think music has been a type of pastoral care for mountain people from the beginning, back in the days of the Circuit Riding pastors who might not make it through a mountain community much more than a few times a year.To cope with what the world throws at us, music is one of the important ways, as I mentioned earlier, we talk back and communicate our thoughts and feelings, both outwardly and inwardly.Sometimes it’s just as important to find a way to make sense of something for yourself than it is to sing it out to the world, and music can help with that also.

’ve also found that music can speak to people in a way few other things can. Last year at our church, I did a traditional music series for the season of Lent, which is the penitential season in the church year that leads up to the Holy Week and all the drama of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.The music of the mountains communicates better than almost any other style for me the dark places in our souls that life sometimes brings us to, while at the same time never letting go of hope for the coming of light into the world somehow for redemption and salvation.To me, the songs that came out of the coalfields are a prime example. Mountain music and the old Negro Spirituals are always part of my Lenten walk toward the Cross.

E: You definitely have a great insight into both musical and religious parts of life. What are your thoughts on how music is so important to the spiritual, or religious, experience?

C:Music, I believe, speaks the language of the divine better than any other.Music can speak straight to our souls without even using a word. The sounds, the harmonics, the rhythms can be like the deepest of prayers, whether it’s Bach’s Mass in B minor or John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” or the Staple Singers singing “If I could hear my Mother Pray Again” or Morgan Sexton from up on Line Fork in Letcher County playing “Shady Grove” in his haunting two-finger banjo style. E: Your musical interest seems to span many different genres, from Islamic to Classical. Considering this why are proud to play the traditional Appalachian music?

C: I’m proud to play Appalachian music because this music is my inheritance from my ancestors as a native Appalachian.It’s what the ancients left us to pick up and to carry on and keep alive.It’s a testament to their struggles, their triumphs, their faith, and their memories, and to an early way of life that has made this country and its people what they are today.I guess I’m also proud because mountain music is my music in a way no other music can be.I’m proud to be able to share it with people and set it up alongside other varieties of traditional music, music of the regular people, from all over the world. : What is the most important thing to you about playing this kind of music?

C: Being true to those who came before and respecting the stories they wanted told through this music.I try to make the music my own, while at the same time holding on as best I can to the way the person who entrusted me with it chose to present it to me, whether it was Sarah Ogan Gunning, Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens, Jim Garland, or Aunt Molly Jackson who put their music down on recordings in the past or whether it was my friends Rich Kirby at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Randy Wilson on Red Bird Creek in Leslie County, or the late great Ray Slone from Hindman, KY, who shared their music with me in person over the years.

, it’s most important to me to share this mountain music with anyone who’d like to hear it and to pass it on to the next generation anytime the opportunity arises.I like to tell folks now who know me more from the traditional music community, when they find out I’m an Episcopal priest, that I have two gospels to share with the world, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of traditional Mountain Music.