The Mustang String Band presents songs from The Skyline Farms Band

By Marla Ballard

The Mustang String Band album release: Skyline Farms Project will be presented at the Tom Bevil Lyceum, on the campus of Northeast Alabama Community College on Friday, May 10 at 7 p.m. The Mustang String Band has re-recorded many of the songs from the Skyline Farms Band and will present them live on May 10. The Skyline Farms Band performed at the White House in 1938 and has an interesting history.

The Alabama Tourism Department and the town of Skyline erected a historical marker in Skyline that reads in part, “Skyline Farms was an effort to build a ‘new world’ in rural America where tenant farmers hit hard by The Great Depression would become self-sufficient landowners and live in an idyllic village. The program was started by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1934 and operated later by the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration.”

“Skyline Farms, carved out of the mountain wilderness, was one of some 40 farm communities established during President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. The Federal Government acquired some 18,000 acres of land for Skyline Farms initially called ‘Cumberland Mountain Farms.’ This program was intended to help tenant families get a new start in life by acquiring a home and eventually their own 40-acre farm. The program also provided work for the unemployed in the area through construction of roads and buildings. Additionally, the government built a small factory at Skyline and then leased the facility to a private company.” – Historical marker information was taken from excerpts of articles written by Dr. David Campbell, president of Northeast Alabama Community College.

Dr. Campbell wrote his college thesis on the Skyline Farms Project, here are his thoughts on the subject.  “Having grown up and lived in Scottsboro and Jackson County most of my life, I had heard mention of the Skyline Farms project, a New Deal program that took place on Cumberland Mountain in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nothing specific was known about it and that intrigued me. So, when I began work in a post-doctoral program at the University of Alabama, Skyline Farms became my subject. I read as much local and secondary sources as I could find and interviewed some people who had been at Skyline Farms. But my research took me much further away. I went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to review the boxes of information about Skyline and the New Deal that were kept there.”

“I discovered that Skyline Farms was a unique, experimental program started by the federal government. While it was meant to help get unemployed farmers back on their feet during the hard times of the Depression, it was much more than that. It was an effort to create a vibrant community on Cumberland Mountain where people could live by farming 40 to 80-acre farms, while living in their own homes. The families chosen for the project were to pay back loans made to them and ultimately be independent farmers.”

“The government wanted people to enjoy their lives at Skyline Farms, which originally had been called Cumberland Mountain Farms. Baseball teams, arts and crafts, square dancing, healthcare, children's folk games, and music were all established for people to enjoy. A band was organized that was so good it was invited to play at a Garden Party hosted by Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt on the White House lawn in Washington, D.C. Skyline Farms musicians and square dancers made the long trek to Washington and played for and met President and Mrs. Roosevelt.”

“While researching the project at the National Archives, I found that the Skyline Farms Band had been recorded on this trip by famed folklorist Alan Lomax and another folklorist, Herbert Halpert, had recorded the musicians on a field trip to Skyline. I bought copies of the recordings from the National Archives and once at home I edited them into a cassette that I named Skyline Jubilee. This is the music that Mr. Stacy Morris and our wonderful String Band have re-recorded. Indeed, one band member, Hillary Green, is the great granddaughter of one of the musicians (the late Hubert Green.). It is joyful music, but of course at times reflects a little of the hard and stressful times of the Depression.”

“I will say that I collected enough other material such as photographs to do an exhibit and reunion at the Jackson County Heritage Center about Skyline. Some 2,500 people came to that event. I was thrilled! The exhibit of photographs made by FSA photographers at Skyline was seen by thousands more around the state, including those at the City Stages Music Festival in Birmingham. During this process I got to see and meet Mr. Chester Allen, a great musician and entertainer who was a member of the band. (Whether it is true or not I do not know, but at Skyline today many tell how Chester asked Mrs. Roosevelt to dance with him!)”

“Our NACC Band Director Mr. Stacy Morris plays and sings Chester Allen's parts in the re-recording and due to the magic of technology, Hillary Green sings right along with her great grandfather's fiddle playing. Kudos NACC Sting Band, you make Northeast Proud!”

“Ultimately my research found that the Skyline Farms Project did not work out economically.  Crops failed and when the economy got better many people left.  But at one time the community reached a population of some 1,000 people and the town of Skyline was created. For those who were there, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience with family, friends, and neighbors that got them through the hardest times of the Depression. They were great, hardworking families who were chosen for the project based largely on their good name and character to begin with. It was an honor for me to discover and define Skyline Farms and to bring to life this aspect of our heritage. Bless the memories of those who were there and enjoy their music!” – Dr. David Campbell, president of NACC.

Plans are being made with Cindy Rice from the Skyline Farms Heritage Association to get together some items from the museum for display at the concert at NACC. Among these will be Chester Allen’s guitar.

The Mustang String Band ensemble consists of music instructor Stacy Morris; Malia Edwards, acoustic guitar; Rilee Stephens, Ukulele; Kyle Fortner, mandolin and guitar; Konner Fortner, upright acoustic bass; Andrew Hall, acoustic guitar; Hilary Green, percussion and vocals; and Austin Wilson, acoustic guitar.

“I am lucky to have these hard working and talented students for this group,” said Morris, “They have really impressed me with their work ethic and musicianship.”

“Being able to preserve the musical legacy of the Skyline Farms Band, especially the legacy of my great-grandfather, with my talented peers has been a dream come true,” said Green. “I am so proud to be a member of the Mustang String Band, and I cannot wait to release this incredible piece of history.”

“I am very excited about our upcoming album and very thankful to be a part of the band,” said Stephens. “I think the story behind the Skyline Jubilee is a very interesting piece of Alabama’s history. I have been involved since 2015 and it is a huge part of my everyday life.”

“I am looking forward to the release of the album and getting to hear the finished product,” said Hall. “A lot of the songs on the album are songs I’ve listened to for years.”

“Being a part of the Mustang String Band is more about camaraderie and musical collaborating that reflects the original purpose and intent of the Skyline Farms Project during the Great Depression,” said Edwards. “This is a great opportunity to reflect that even during difficult times, we may encourage each other with music and camaraderie.”

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