Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Way back in the tall grass, last night I called home
I walked down to the rail yard in the misty grey dawn
Heaven showed me her mercy, threw my bag inside
From the Old Number Seven I watched the sunrise

I hear that bull coming, I pray he takes heed
My visions of mother are all that I see
That bull up in Cleveland gave me a broke arm
Dear Lord, let him spare me – I wish him no harm

My breath full of cinders, the wind blows me cold
The sounds of that freight train in my body are old
For twenty-three years now I’ve not seen my home
Tomorrow is Christmas and she’s all alone

Sunny Carolina, I’m wishing her back
‘Cross two thousand miles of standard gauge track
One last sip of whiskey to warm these old bones
We’ve just hit Kentucky and daylight I’m home

Sam Quinn (Benton, Tennessee – near Old Hop’s Hideout)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An Inexpensive Christmas Gift Idea

Old Man Sam Ward’s History of the Gee-Haw Whimmy-Diddle

some folks say
the injuns made ‘em
like lie-detectors
called ‘em
hoo-doo sticks

in Salisbury, Noth Caylini
made the first
whimmy-diddle I seen

I whittle seven
kind: thisuns king
size, thisuns jumbo, thisuns
extry large

here’s a single, here’s one
double, here’s a triple and why right here
here’s a forked ‘un

been whittlin’ whimmy-diddles come
ten year, I reckon you’d
care to see my other toys,
boys, I got some fine
flipper-dingers, fly-
killers and bug-roarers, I can

kill a big fly at 60 feet

watch here

Jonathan Williams (Asheville, North Carolina, 1929 - )

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Lesson

Our oldest son David is eager to read Henry Hazlitt’s book, Economics in One Lesson. The “one lesson” expounded therein is summarized by Art Carden:
If we are going to evaluate policies — whether they be policies enacted by governments, corporations, institutions, or individuals — we have to look at how those policies affect everyone, not just favored constituencies or select groups (emphasis added).
David is an industrious 14 year-old who already has a part-time job in a fabric warehouse. Expensive, imported fabrics are brought to the facility where our young man rolls them onto bolts and prepares them for shipping to retailers. When asked about his job, David jokes that he is “employed in the textile industry.” He doesn’t like the job particularly – it requires demanding, physical labor. But he loves receiving his wages and making deposits into his credit union account. He is dreaming of his first car, and the freedom to drive himself to bigger and better jobs down the road.

But he did something recently that a 14 year-old is prone to do – he lost one of his paychecks. That placed him in the awkward position of approaching his employer, explaining what had happened and asking if the lost check could be canceled and a new one issued. David knew the risk: the possibility that his employer’s opinion of his trustworthiness would be diminished by his carelessness.

At the dinner table we discussed the vulnerable position young workers like David are in. In the current economic “downturn” (actually, a necessary market correction), the first employees to be terminated in small businesses are typically the younger, minimum wage earners. Carl Menger’s principle of diminishing utility comes into play: an employer will part with his least valuable assets in the first stages of reducing hard costs. He will do so unless the market price (wage) for those assets is allowed to fall to a new level.

And here’s the rub: if young workers like David had the right to negotiate lower wages, they might make a cost-effective case to remain employed. By offering to work for fewer dollars per hour, they could 1) impress their employers of their dedication to the job, and 2) help reduce company costs. But the minimum wage law prohibits the employer from entertaining that option. In effect, minimum wages eliminate the abilities of younger or lesser-skilled employees to bargain with their employers.

Remember our buddy Frédéric Bastiat? He wrote of “what is seen and what is not seen.” What is seen is some career politician, boasting to his/her constituency of the “social good” attained by guaranteeing a “living wage” for lower-income workers. What is not seen is the damage done to younger, less-skilled workers who are usually the first to go when a company has hard decisions to make. While the State supplants religion as the savior of mankind, hourly wage-earners are driven out of employment by unsustainable costs – which, in turn, create more clients of the State.

This was Hazlitt’s one lesson. The actions of economic players do not have equal reactions. Often, the effects of do-gooder policies result in devastating consequences, spread across the well-being of numerous individuals.

As it turned out, David’s kind-hearted boss was understanding of his young worker’s mistake, and wrote him a new check. But for David the lesson is being learned.

Monday, December 1, 2008

“Count No ‘Count”

The Friday morning after Thanksgiving I was stretching at the breakfast table in my mom’s cozy little abode in Dumplin Valley, lower Jefferson County, East Tennessee. Glancing to my right I saw, hidden at one end of a lower shelf in a bookcase, a copy of Lewis Leary’s William Faulkner of Yoknapatawpha County (1973). The worn little cloth-bound volume was missing its dust cover; it had been purloined from the Dekalb (GA) College Library in November of 1974. I asked mom if I could take it back with me to North Carolina to read, and she laughed, “Yeah, but you’ll have to pay the late fees on it!”

Faulkner is, in my mind, the greatest novelist of all time. Of course, this comes from one who has not read all the greats; but in Faulkner I get the sense that it would be unnecessary to do so. When he names his magnum opus after a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there is the hint that he is going to wad the whole of life and history into a ball and bowl you over with it. Faulkner had stories to tell the size of the universe, all set in the rural backcountry of mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.

I relate to Faulkner on a personal level. I had my picture made beside his bronze, bench-sitting statue on the square in Oxford, MS, back in 2005. In this college town the University affectionately called “Ole Miss” sits off to one side. At its center is the Lafayette County Courthouse, graced with a massive Confederate Memorial on the front lawn. All the main roads from the country spoke into the square, and one has to drive around the towering obelisk to the Lost Cause in order to get to another main route out. Here, Faulkner literally sat on the benches watching plain folk and listening. This was the hub of the universe, not New York City or London or Paris.

Faulkner came back to Oxford after the Great War (the one that was supposed to “make the world safe for democracy”) limping in a British airman’s uniform – he had joined the Canadian Air Force when the U.S. Army Air Corps rejected him on account of his stature. Both accessible and distant, he carried himself about like an English snob. A few disgusted local folk referred to him as “Count No ‘Count” behind his back.

Faulkner was himself a lost cause, and most people around town knew it. He could not live up to the legend of his poet-warrior great-grandfather, a genuine hero of the War Between the States, or his grandfather, a successful businessman. With each passing generation the Falkner clan was sliding downhill. William painted and drew and took random classes at white-columned Ole Miss (but not a degree). He was mostly a hard-drinking, Bible-pondering, people-watching layabout.

I am slowly sipping Leary’s sketch of Faulkner’s life and work like a hot cup of spiced-chai on a dreary afternoon – a welcomed respite from Carl Menger’s Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre (Principles of Economics). But it’s not pleasure reading. I find myself confronted with my own proclivity to romanticize the past and hate the present.
[Faulkner] denies himself the luxury of direct statement. Almost everything that he writes is qualified by modifiers or by parentheses which extend or obscure simple meanings. For a statement is final and static, arresting motion. It is incapable of capturing the constantly moving experience of living. Nouns which name need modifying. No man is simply a man. He is a kind of man, and to describe his kind requires subtle nuances. Any attempt to snare words arrange themselves as elusively and unexpectedly as do the forces, past and present, of shame, despair, or jubilation which twine and twist together to make him what he is…

…in his story “The Bear,” in which the boy Ike McCaslin can come near to the great beast only when he puts aside his compass and watch and gun, instruments which provide precise direction in time or place, or which accomplish the cessation of life – like assertive sentences which are exact but deadening, Faulkner must be read as a poet is read…

In life, he seems to say, no story is ever finished. Lovers die, but not love. The secrets of no person are ever completely revealed. Life is motion. To arrest motion is to make it inert and static, like the carved or painted figures on a Grecian urn of young men who forever chase but never catch young girls…
Actually, the more I think about it, I suspect ol’ Menger would have been tickled with Faulkner. His Volkswirtschaftslehre was based entirely upon the premise that people act, and no mathematical formula can quite explain it.

But a benchwarmer can get right close.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Joy of Inequality

Suppose, while milling around a flea market, I come upon a man selling some old silver coins. Raking through his pile I find a 1939 Walking Liberty half dollar. After inspecting it I offer him $5; of course, he wants $7.50. We haggle a little bit, I let on that I’m about to walk away, and he abruptly cuts his price to $6. I accept his revised offer and stuff the old coin in my pocket.

In the hypothetical example above the selling price is $6. But is this really the value of the coin?

Only God, who made all things, knows the intrinsic value of anything. In exchange, however, human beings assign value to things according to their own perceived needs and desires. This valuation process is highly subjective and has little to do with the intrinsic qualities of a particular item. Only if an item satisfies perceived needs will it be exchanged between two parties.

So now, how much was that silver coin really worth? It was worth more to me than the $6 I paid for it; were it not so I wouldn’t have let my cash go for it. On the flip side of the exchange, the $6 of folding money was worth more to the seller than holding the silver coin. If this were not the case he would not have let the coin go. What we have here is (not a failure to communicate but) a double inequality. I valued the coin more than my folding money; he valued my cash more than the coin. The double inequality of the exchange assures that we, buyer and seller, have mutually benefited from the sale. Apart from such an outcome we would not have carried out the transaction.

Therefore, one cannot say that the 1939 Walking Liberty half was worth $6. It was actually worth more than that to me, and less than that amount to the seller. Value is subjective, at least on the human level.

Moreover, the transaction reveals another difference between the seller and me. Because he wanted my cash, at that particular moment he had a higher time preference than me. In other words, he needed the immediacy offered by the cash, probably in order to make the purchase of some other good (maybe he had mouths to feed that very evening). In my case, I was willing to hold a commodity for a perceived future benefit – I reckoned I could sell that coin for a higher price at a later time. Because I invested in the coin and deferred to a potential future income from it, my time preference was lower.

Children, teenagers and elderly folk typically have high time preferences; people in their prime working years tend to have lower time preferences.

Down here in the South the terms value, price and cost are interchanged carelessly. Riding by a palatial home a friend might ask, “Wonder how much that house cost?” Oh, do you really want to know? The cost of any commodity is the sum of charges made for land (if applicable), labor, capital and the producer’s profit. No one really knows or cares how much a house actually cost. The real question being asked is at what price would it most likely exchange. Real estate appraisers define “market value” as the most probable price a property would exchange for in an open market between a typically motivated buyer and seller (that is, assuming no duress or derangement on the part of either party). But, as we demonstrated above, the true value is, in the mind of the buyer, actually greater than the exchange price; to the seller, it is less. Were it not so they would not engage in a sale.

Inequality in the assignment of value is what causes free exchange to occur. The marketplace is where value-assigning actions are carried out by many individuals, each seeking to improve his lot in life.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Between Then and Now

Michael J. Panzner is the Canadian editor of Financial Armageddon. Here, in its entirety, is his latest post:

Many TV pundits, ivory tower economists, and clueless Wall Street permabulls keep trying to make the case that, despite the bursting of history's biggest credit and housing bubbles and the chaotic unraveling of unprecedented excesses and global imbalances, the sharp downturn that is already underway won't be anywhere near as calamitous as the one that took place nearly 80 years ago.

Among the reasons: policymakers are more sophisticated than they used to be, and people have wised up quite a bit since the time when the world was poised on a cliff overlooking a dark abyss. More realistic types would argue otherwise. In fact, Jim Rawles, an author, lecturer, former U.S. Army Intelligence officer, and publisher of, sets out some compelling reasons why the current economic downturn could turn out to be far worse than the Great Depression in "Letter Re: The Depression of the 1930s--Why No Societal Collapse?"

There are some substantial differences between our society in the early 21st Century, and America in the 1930s. With these differences, our society is now much more fragile and vulnerable to collapse. Here are a few that come immediately to mind:

Consider the Attributes of America in the 1930s :

A largely agrarian and self-sufficient society. (Now, just 1% of the population operating farms and ranches feed the other 99%.)
Not heavily dependent on computing and communications, technology, grid power, and petroleum-based fuels.
Shorter chains of supply. Most food was grown within 100 miles of where people lived.
A very small underclass that was dependent on charity or public welfare.
Lower property tax rates and lower (or nonexistent) license fees, vehicle registration fees, et cetera.
The majority of workers lived near their work.
Most displaced workers were willing to accept lower-paying jobs--even doing hard physical labor.
The entire nation was economically self-sufficient and could carry on without many imports.
Far greater self-sufficiency at the household level (domestic water wells, windmills, wood burning stoves, home vegetable gardens, home canning, and so forth)
A much lower level of indebtedness (public and private). At the outset of the Depression most families had cash savings. (We are now a nation of debtors.)
A sound currency, still backed by specie. (Although
FDR's administration seized most privately-held gold in 1933, the currency was at least still fully redeemable in silver coinage until 1964.)
Lower percentage of corporate employment--so there were less risk of huge layoffs that would devastate communities.
A significantly more moral society that still had compunctions and a prevalently law-abiding attitude.
A homogeneous population that largely shared common Judeo-Christian values. A much larger portion of society attended church regularly.

A simpler, less extravagant lifestyle, with tastes in cooking and entertainment that did not require large outlays of cash.
Most families owned only one car (with proportionately lower registration and insurance costs), and they lived in smaller homes that were less expensive to heat.

In summary, in the 1930s it cost a lot less to live (as a percentage of income) and people were willing, able, and accustomed to "making do" without. When people lost their jobs, in many cases they didn't lose their homes because they were paid for. Many folks could simply revert to a self-sufficient lifestyle and earn enough with odd jobs to pay their property taxes....

The bottom line: If America were to experience a Second Great Depression, given the high level of debt and systems dependence, there would be enormous rates of dislocation and homelessness. And with modern-day immorality and the prevalent "me first " attitude, I have no doubt that riots and looting would absolutely explode.

Friday, October 3, 2008


“…what has given the South her identity are those beliefs and qualities which she has absorbed from the Scriptures and from her own history of defeat and violation: a distrust of the abstract, a sense of human dependence on the grace of God, and a knowledge that evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”

Flannery O’Connor (1925-64, Georgia)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Q & A

Q: What kind of Catholic are you?
A. Bad.
Q: No. I mean are you liberal or conservative?
A: I no longer know what those words mean.
Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A: I don’t know what that means, either. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: Yes.
A: Yes.
Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.
Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism.
A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing.
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: Yes.
Q: Why?
A: It’s not good enough.
Q: Why not?
A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression.
Q: But isn’t the Catholic Church in a mess these days, badly split, its liturgy barbarized, vocations declining?
A: Sure. That’s a sign of its divine origins, that it survives these periodic disasters.
Q: You don’t act or talk like a Christian. Aren’t they supposed to love one another and do good works?
A: Yes.
Q: You don’t seem to have much use for your fellowman or do many good works.
A: That’s true. I haven’t done a good work in years.
Q: In fact, if I may be frank, you strike me as being rather negative in your attitude, cold-blooded, aloof, derisive, self-indulgent, more fond of the beautiful things of this world than of God.
A: That’s true.
Q: You even seem to take certain satisfaction in the disasters of the twentieth-century and to savor the imminence of world catastrophe rather than world peace, which all religions seek.
A: That’s true.
Q: You don’t seem to have much use for your fellow Christians, to say nothing of Ku Kluxers, ACLU’ers, northerners, southerners, fem-libbers, anti-fem-libbers, homosexuals, anti-homosexuals, Republicans, Democrats, hippies, anti-hippies, senior citizens.
A: That’s true – though taken as individuals they turn out to be more or less like oneself, i.e., sinners, and we get along fine.
Q: Even Ku Kluxers?
A: Sure.
Q: How do you account for your belief?
A: I can only account for it as a gift from God.
Q: Why would God make you such a gift when there are others who seem more deserving, that is, serve their fellowman?
A: I don’t know. God does strange things. For example, he picked as one of his saints a fellow in northern Syria, a local nut, who stood on top of a pole for thirty-seven years.
Q: We are not talking about saints.
A: That’s true.
Q: We are talking about what you call a gift.
A: You want me to explain it? How would I know? The only answer I can give is that I asked for it, in fact demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by any calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense. So I demanded it. No doubt other people feel differently.
Q: But shouldn’t faith bear some relation to the truth, facts?
A: Yes. That’s what attracted me, Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that other religions are more or less false.
Q: You believe that?
A: Of course.
Q: I see. Moving right along now –
Walker Percy (1916-90), excerpt from Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself (Self-Interview, 1977)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Stone is not Stone

There was a time when stone was stone
And a face on the street was a finished face.
Between the Thing, myself and God alone
There was an instant symmetry.
Since you have altered all my world this trinity is twisted:

Stone is not stone
And faces like the fractioned characters in dreams are incomplete
Until in the child’s inchoate face
I recognize your exiled eyes.
The soldier climbs the glaring stair leaving your shadow.
Tonight, this torn room sleeps
Beneath the starlight bent by you.
Carson McCullers (1917-67), from Georgia.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

“We are, we are: the youth of the nation…”

Pedro Garcia, 13, Smith Academy of International Languages, Charlotte: I believe that the economy is like a cycle. Say if people don’t buy from this company the company won’t have money and goes out of business. Bush is damaging our economy because he is wasting much money in the war in Iraq, buying weapons, cannons and tanks. Instead of giving that money to companies that we can benefit on. Gas and food prices are affecting my family these days. I could even buy a pair of shoes with 25 gallons of gas a week. Seriously the government should have an eye on businesses to make arrangements about it.

Sarah Kerman, 12, Piedmont Open I.B. Middle School, Charlotte: I believe the U.S economy is in a recession, no doubt about it. We need federal bailouts because they’ll help get our economy back on track. But we must start with the source of the problem. It’s like fixing a leak, do you try to patch up the leak or patch the source of the leak? The leaders of our country didn’t regulate who could get certain kinds of loans and the government let lenders get greedy. The lenders took advantage of lack of government regulation and gave loans to people who didn’t know what they were getting into. Now those people are in trouble and it’s affecting the investors on Wall Street. We need more rules!

Danielle Blake, 14, North Stanly High School, New London: I think that the government should be overseeing more businesses. I think that if the government did put regulations on businesses, then fewer businesses would get in financial trouble and not over charge people. The government should regulate more businesses in order for our economy to be go up instead of go down. If the government would oversee more businesses, then gas prices probably wouldn’t have gone up so much in the past few weeks. My family is feeling the effects of gas going up. We cannot go as many places as we used to.

Samantha Chandler, 14, North Stanly High School, New London: I think the government should oversee the businesses. Especially the gas business!!! I think our country is charging way too much for gas!!! I understand that gas is not cheap right now but that is not the way to earn the money back!! Gas prices rise and drop all the time, but not dramatically like it did that night when it jumped almost two whole dollars! Gas prices are the main reason for our country’s economical state along with the rising prices of groceries. A gallon of milk is like double the price it used to be! We need to bring all prices down on essentials like gas and groceries. Maybe our country thinks everyone needs gas so they will buy it no matter what the price might be. If the people would just stay at home, or walk, or ride the bus, gas prices might come down. I am afraid of what the gas prices are going to be when I drive in a year and an half!! We need to seriously do something about this!!!

Sarah Baucom, 14, North Stanly High School, New London: Right now, we are having one of the worst times in the United States. Gas prices are going up everyday, companies are going bankrupt, and more and more people are unemployed. I believe that the government should be in more control. The government needs to be in control of the way banks give loans out to future-home buyers. If the government watches this, then there will be less foreclosures and possibly even unemployment. Also I believe that if the government is completely in charge of the gas prices, then maybe the prices would be at a more reasonable price.

Camren Summerlin, 14, North Stanly High School, New London: I think that the economy is struggling because of the rising price of gas, which is what has sent us plummeting down in our economics. As the price of gas goes up, everything else goes up because we are an oil-based country. If that could be changed, it would help this economy. The money is out there but it’s just back in to the same hands that distributed it. What I am saying is that everyone who has money is who is responsible for the gas prices. I think that the government should do something about this gas crisis.

Sierra Wyrick, 14, North Stanly High School, New London: I think that the government should not raise the gas prices up any higher because some people don’t have the money for gas. The government shouldn’t raise it any higher because of people losing their homes. They shouldn’t just focus on themselves; they should think what other people think. I think that everyone is getting frustrated because the government is against what everyone thinks and they have the money to buy the gas while other people don’t. It goes up ten or more cents everyday.

Tiffany Weaver, 15, North Stanly High School, New London: I think that if we would’ve planned for things like this in the past then things would’ve been a little better in the future. The government should oversee gas prices and control them so they could possibly lower the prices. I don't think that individuals should control the gas prices. To make things right, all the problems should be put in the government’s hands so they can help solve the problems that we’re having today.

Whitney Thorpe 14, North Stanly High School, New London: The government should be seeing that many families don’t have a lot of money and can’t pay $5 for a gallon of gas. Many people have to get to work and take their kids to school. I think that the government should be trying to lower gas prices and quit raising them. Soon everybody is going to lose their jobs and kids are not going to be at school. Many people will go into poverty. Also places and restaurants are going to be going out of business since nobody will be going out to eat or going anywhere. My family is suffering through this same problem. We don’t go out as much and I don’t get to go out and hang out at the movies or the mall with my friends. The government should really start changing and lowering the gas prices.

Source: The Charlotte Observer

Friday, September 19, 2008


I’ve heard that holy madness is a state
not to be trifled with, not to be taken
lightly by jest or vow, by lover’s token
or any green wreath for a public place. Flash
in the eyes of madmen precious fountains,
whose flesh is wholly thirst, insatiate.

I see this graceful bird begin to wheel,
glide in God’s fingerprint, a whorl
of night, in light a thing burnt black,
unhurried. Somewhere something on its back
has caught his eye. Wide-winged he descends
like angels to the business of this world.

I’ve heard that saintly hermits, frail, obscene
in rags, sack-fleshed, eyes like jewels, kneel
in dry sand among the tortured mountains, feel
at last the tumult of their prayers take shape,
take wings, assume the brutal rush of grace.
This bird comes then and picks those thin bones clean.
George Garrett (d. 2008), former poet laureate of Virginia

Monday, September 15, 2008


In the necessary field among the round
Warm stones we bend to our gleaning.
The brown earth gives in to our hands, and straw
By straw burns red aslant the vesper light.

The village behind the graveyard tolls softly, begins
To glow with new-laid fires. The children
Quiet their shouting, and the martins slide
Above the cows at the warped pasture gate.

They set the tinware out on checkered oilcloth
And the thick-mouthed tumblers on the right-hand side.
The youngest boy whistles the collie to his dish
And lifts down the dented milk pail:

This is the country we return to when
For a moment we forget ourselves,
When we watch the sleeping kitten quiver
After long play, or rain comes down warm.

Here we choose to live always, here where
Ugly rumors of ourselves do not reach,
Where in the whisper-light of the kerosene lamp
The deep Bible lies open like a turned-down bed.

Fred Chappell, poet laureate of North Carolina

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Favorite Passages: Richard M. Weaver on Robert E. Lee

The tendency to see a thing in its moral relationships, to discipline egoistic impulse, and to subordinate self to a communal idea of conduct appears in Lee’s often quoted saying that duty is the most sublime word in the language. It is fairly certain that he did not intend here the narrow military sense in which mission is accepted and executed. His conception seems much nearer the celebrated categorical imperative, that sense of obligation to act as one would have others act, out of a love of order and accomplishment.

…The ideal of duty is related to the quality which above all else gives Lee an antique greatness, his humility. He believed that there is an order to things. That order is providential in the sense that mortal wisdom is not to be compared to infinite wisdom. This truth, however, conveys nothing of fatalism or determinism; the individual is not exempt from exerting his will in the world and seeking to influence the course of things according to his light. Man cannot withdraw; he must weigh and wager, and abide the consequences. To assume that his light is always sufficient is pride. Education is discipline and education is lifelong; indeed, we have Lee’s own statement that no man’s education is completed until his death. If one has respect for the order of things, it is then possible for him to accept failure as instruction rather than as total repudiation. I do not see how Lee’s serenity in the face of crisis and self-possession in the days of distress can be explained save through this conviction, which is in essence the answer of Christianity to the paradoxes of existence.

As we approach that time at which his education was complete, we are eager to know whether, on the broad issues of this life, he stood with the pessimists or the optimists. This is putting the matter in simple terms, of course; but humanity has a clear mind on this issue; it will not have for its great teachers those who despair of the condition of man. It will read them for excitement; it will utilize them as corrective, but it will not cherish them as the final oracles. It prefers Aristotle to Diogenes and Augustine to Schopenhauer. It does not wish to hear said, however brilliantly, that life is a tale told by an idiot; it wants an unmistakable, if chastened, recommendation of life.

From this point of view too we may say Lee is philosophically sound. Despite failure in the great effort of his career, and despite a twilight of five years during which, it seemed to Stephen Vincent Benet, “He must have lived with bitterness itself,” he gave no sign of despondency. His expression, we are told, took on a look of settled
sadness, but he never allowed feeling to assume control. Whatever of doctrine Lee knew was derived from Christianity, and there we read that God sometimes appoints to men the task of contending and falling in a righteous cause. …Lee has survived in the national mind as a hero in defeat; and it is inconceivable that he could have done so had not his own philosophy accommodated the idea of temporal failure.
Richard M. Weaver, “Lee the Philosopher” (1948), from The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, (Liberty Fund, 1987; George. M. Curtis & James J. Thompson, ed.), pp. 176-178.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Favorite Passages: A Yankee Speaks

I speak and write uneasily on the Southern (conservative) tradition, an unpopular subject that has been gnawing at me for more than three decades. I am a native New Yorker who was born and raised in New York City and who has spent almost all except the last eight of his sixty-three years as a resident of New York State. My pretensions to being a Southerner – for, alas, pretensions are all they are – rest on my having become fascinated with Southern history while an undergraduate at Brooklyn College and on having settled my heart in Dixie soon thereafter. Certainly, I am devoted to the sentiment expressed in the bumper sticker: “Get your heart in Dixie or get your ass out!” There are a great many reasons for Southern partisanship, the most important of which arose from my early recognition that the people of the South, across lines of race, class, and sex, and as generous, gracious, courteous, decent – in a word, civilized – as any people it has have been my privilege to get to know. And yes, I know that I am open to the charge made against all converts of being plus royaliste que le roi, plus catholique que le Pape.

…I am alarmed at the “modernization” that is transforming the South. Doubtless, the transformation has much to recommend it, especially with respect to long overdue if incomplete justice for black people. But I increasingly suspect that its desirable features are coming at a price Northerners as well as Southerners, blacks as well as whites, will rue having to pay and need not pay. That price includes a neglect of, or contempt for, the history of Southern whites, without which some of the more distinct and noble features of American national life must remain incomprehensible.

The Northern victory of 1865 silenced a discretely Southern interpretation of American history and national identity, and it promoted a contemptuous dismissal of all things Southern as nasty, racist, immoral, and intellectually inferior. The Northern victory did carry out a much too belated abolition of slavery. But it also sanctified Northern institutions and intentions, which included the unfettered expansion of a bourgeois world view and the suppression of alternate visions of social order. In consequence, from that day to this, the Southern-conservative critique of modern gnosticism has been wrongly equated with racism and white supremacy.

Rarely these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South. The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany. Courses on the history of the
modern South ignore an array of movements and individuals, including the Fugitive poets, the Agrarians, Richard Weaver, and such intellectually impressive successors as the late M.E. Bradford and those engaged in today’s political and ideological wars. These nonpersons have nevertheless constituted a movement that, by any reasonable standard, ought to be acknowledged for its outstanding contributions to American social, political, and cultural thought.

To speak positively about any part of this Southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity – an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white Southerners, and arguably black Southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity. They are being taught to forget their forebears or to remember them with shame. …It is one thing to silence people, another to convince them. And to silence them on matters central to their self-respect and dignity is to play a dangerous game – to build up in them harsh resentments that, sooner or later, are likely to explode and bring out their worst.

Recall that great speech by Martin Luther King in which he evoked a vision of the descendants of slaves and of slaveholders, sitting together on the hills of Georgia as Southern brothers. …Black Americans have good reason to protest vehemently against the disgraceful way in which their history has been taught or, worse, ignored, and to demand a record of the nobility and heroism of the black struggle for freedom and justice. But that record dare not include the falsification or obliteration of the noble and heroic features of the white South. To teach the one without the other is to invite deepening racial animosity and murderous conflict, not merely or even primarily in the South but in the North. For it is worth noting that our most vicious urban explosions are occurring in the “progressive” North and on the West Coast, not in the “bigoted” and “reactionary” South.

It is one thing to demand – and it must be demanded – that white Southerners repudiate white supremacy. It is quite another to demand that they deny the achievements of their own people in a no less heroic struggle to build a civilization in a wilderness and to create the modern world’s first great republic – to demand that they repent in sackcloth and ashes not only for undeniable enormities, but for the finest and most generous features of Southern life.
Eugene D. Genovese, The Southern Tradition: the Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. ix-xiii.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To a Tired Clerk

...the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance...

The ungodly shall see it, and it shall grieve him; he shall gnash with his teeth, and consume away; the desire of the ungodly shall perish. - Psalm 112: 6, 10

To a Tired Clerk, by Jesse Wills

Do not despair, though you are clipped with chains
Of petty drudging, clangor and grime will heal.
In loneliness your city’s bones and steel
Will rust, green-tendoned; only the cool rains
Will whisper down old thunder-roads of trains;
And centuries long as today Ninevah counts
Will fret the marbles of old soda-founts
With sands which now are hotel window-panes.

It yet may be, when glittering frost has thinned
The leaves that hide, by westering yellow fires
Nomads, bronze-armed, shall note where mystery carves
Your firm’s worn name, and dread their wizard sires,
Curbing their foam-necked horses, while their scarves
And ruddy hair are strung upon the wind.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

To a Park Swan

Stanley Johnson was among the more obscure Fugitive Poets living and writing in Nashville, TN during the early 1920’s. One of his best works was To a Park Swan.

I work in a downtown setting. Every morning around 7:00 I walk several blocks, about a mile one way through an uninspiring urbanscape, to get a cup of tea. Usually, I encounter a large flock of Canada geese on the broad lawn of the First Baptist Church. They raise their long necks from grazing and nervously look me up and down as I pass. They remind me of this poem depicting a man whose thoughts are arrested and deflated by the presence of necessity - a hungry park goose.

I caught your shadow in the deep pool,
A naked sword of beauty in the dark.
And I read of the white swans at Coole,
And heard the printed voice of the skylark.

The skies were lifted quick from this dull place;
Like Lohengrin I heard the silver bell.
I saw the maiden of Leda’s neat disgrace;
My vision beat historic wings - and fell.

For what of the albatross and wild swan,
Skirting a black sea patch on a salty morn,
While I stand empty - and the voices are gone -
And you cram peanuts and the white popcorn.

I have not known the swan song, though my prayer
Has beat with cygnet wings no slight emotion
To find inanity itself astare,
A goitered goose upon a festered ocean.

And what of Eve, Semiramis, and Sappho?
It is enough - the tale brings tragic hush.
There was a time - but it was long ago!
Perhaps old Moses saw the burning bush.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ten Years After...

A personal note: this past Monday, August 4, my wife and I celebrated our 1oth wedding anniversary.

To say our first decade together was tumultuous is a consummate understatement. But someone forgot to tell the Devil and a legion of woe-wishers that adversity has a way of binding people more closely. Monday night we sat together and recounted the waves and billows the Lord brought us through. We are older and and more refined, knowing the Lord and ourselves more than we did yesterday. Our marriage has, as my wife put it, gotten better like fine wine.

With His help and mercy, I shall enjoy more years with a treasure of a wife.

An excellent wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Hunter

“But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of…” – 2 Timothy 3:14
After we buried Granny we gathered at my aunt’s house for the customary deluge of food provided by several local churches. We sat at one end of the downstairs great room with my cousin Ken (on leave from the army) and my cousin Tammy with her two sons, Cody and Mac.

Cody is a tall 15 year-old whom I hadn’t seen in over two years. His voice has changed; before, he could make a turkey call without the aid of a diaphragm. He hunts deer, crows, doves, and turkeys with rifles, muzzle-loaders and shotguns. His goal this upcoming deer season is to hunt with a bow. He is not ashamed to admit that up until this point he hasn’t been strong enough to properly draw a bow. He is reverent enough to acknowledge that a man ought not use a bow unless he can put the arrow clean through his quarry’s heart. An animal that suffers brings shame upon the hunter.

His speech was punctuated with “sir’s” and “ma’am’s.”

Cody’s younger brother Mac is a frail, bespectacled youth; my son notes, “He always looks nervous.” Cody was aware of his brother languishing beside me on a folding chair, so he inserted, “Now, here is the fisherman in this family. Nobody can catch a fish like ol’ Mac” – a statement that drew my attention to the younger boy, who relayed his story of placing first in a bass tournament at age 5, winning a boat his parents promptly sold. “Oh, it was awright,” he drawled, “we already had a nicer bass boat, anyway.”

While Mac talked Cody got up and asked each of us if he could collect our paper plates for the waste basket. When he strode away I leaned over to his mother and said, “You have raised a gentleman.”

I have found hunters to be among the gentlest and contemplative of man’s race. Cody is following in the lineage of great men who reverence God and His creation. I wanted to pull him aside and whisper in his hear,

Don’t ever change, son. Continue to do right for its own sake, especially when this world punishes you for it. For you will not be rewarded in this life for doing good; you will instead be hated and despised and slandered. It is then that your faith and goodness will be proven. Your Father above sees when no one else will.

May God continue to send Cody’s into this age until it ends.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Glory to God for all things

“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” - Romans 8:18

Lord, how good it is to be Your guest; the delicately scented wind, the mountains stretching to the sky, the waters reflecting like infinite mirrors, the golden rays of sun, the airiness of clouds. All nature secretly whispers, full of tenderness, and even the birds and beasts bear the mark of Your Love. Blessed is mother earth with her transient beauty, longing for the homeland which is eternal and where an imperishable beauty rings out: Alleluia.
You brought me into this life as into an enchanting paradise. The sky is a deep blue vessel of azure out of which rings the sound of birds; there is the rustling sound of the forest and the sweet sounding music of the waters; the fragrant and sweet fruit and honey which we eat. It is good to be with You on earth, joyous to be Your guest:
Glory to You, for the festival of life,
Glory to You, for the fragrant lilies of the valley and the roses,
Glory to You, for the delectable variety of berries and fruits,
Glory to You, for the morning dew, shining like diamonds,
Glory to You, for the smile of awakening enlightenment,
Glory to You, for all that is heavenly, foreshadowing eternal life,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

Every flower is fragrant through the power of the Holy Spirit, in a delicate flow of aroma and tenderness of color; the beauty of the Great contained in what is small. Praise and honor to God Who gives life, Who spreads forth the meadows like a flowering carpet, Who crowns the fields with golden ears of wheat and azure basilisks, and the soul with the joy of contemplation. Let us rejoice and sing to Him: Alleluia.
How beautiful You are in the triumphant festival of spring, when all creatures come to life again and in a thousand ways joyfully call out to You: You are the source of life; You are the victor over death.
To the song of the nightingale, the valleys and forests stand in snow white bridal array by the light of the season. All the earth is Your bride, waiting for the immortal bridegroom. If You clothe even the grass in such a splendid way, how will You transfigure us in the future age of resurrection, how will our bodies be made light and our souls be made luminous:
Glory to You, Who brought out of the earth's darkness diversity of color,
taste, and fragrance,
Glory to You, for the warmth and caress of all nature,
Glory to You, for surrounding us with thousands of Your creatures,
Glory to You, for the depth of Your wisdom reflected in the whole world,
Glory to You, I kiss reverently the footprint of Your invisible tread,
Glory to You, Who kindled before us the bright light of eternal life,
Glory to You, for the hope of immortal, ideal, incorruptible beauty,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

How you bring sweetness to those who think of You, how life-giving is Your Word, it is softer than oil, it is sweeter than honey to talk with You. Praying to You brings Life into us and gives us wings. What trembling then fills the heart. What dignity and greatness and wisdom there are in nature and all of life. Where You are not there is emptiness. Where You are there is richness of soul, a torrent of life: Alleluia!
When sunset descends over the earth and the peace of eternal sleep and the stillness of the fading day come to reign, I see Your abode in the guise of glistening palaces and clouds hovering in the evening light. Fiery red, gold and azure speak prophetically of the unutterable beauty of Your world and cry out triumphantly: "Let us go to the Father!"
Glory to You, in the stillness of the evening,
Glory to You, Who have bestowed great peace to the world,
Glory to You, for the last rays of sunlight,
Glory to You, for rest and the gift of sleep,
Glory to You, for Your presence in darkness, when the world is so remote,
Glory to You, for prayer from the depth of a heart touched by You,
Glory to You, for the promise of awakening to the joy of the eternal,
unending day,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

The storms of life are not frightening to one in whose heart shines the light of Your Fire. All around the weather is bad; there is darkness, horror, and the howling wind. But in the soul of such a one there is peace and light. Christ is there! And the heart sings: Alleluia!
I see Your heavens glittering with stars. O how rich You are, how much light You have! Eternity looks at me through the rays of distant worlds; I am so small and inconsequential, but the Lord is with me, His loving hand is everywhere protecting me:
Glory to You, for Your constant care of me,
Glory to You, for providential encounters with people,
Glory to You, for the love of relatives, the devotion of friends,
Glory to You, for the gentleness of animals who serve me,
Glory to You, for the luminous moments of my life,
Glory to You, for the bright joys of my heart,
Glory to You, for the happiness of living, of moving and contemplating,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

How near You are in the days of illness; You Yourself visit the sick. You Yourself bend down to the bed of the sufferer and the heart speaks to You. In times of hardship and suffering, You illumine the soul with peace; You send unexpected help. You are consoling, searching and saving love, and to You we sing the song: Alleluia!
When as a child I consciously called to You for the first time, You answered my prayer and my soul knew a wonderful peace. Then I understood that You are goodness; blessed are those who seek You. I began to call to You again and again, and call to You even now:
Glory to You, Who grant my wishes when they are good,
Glory to You, Who watch over me day and night,
Glory to You, curing hardships and losses with the healing course of time,
Glory to You, for Whom there is no such thing as a hopeless loss; You give
eternal life to all,
Glory to You, Who have made immortal all that is good and lofty, Who
have promised our desired reunion with those who have died, Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

That which is broken cannot be restored, but You can set aright those whose conscience has become decayed; You restore the soul to its former beauty in those who have lost it beyond all hope. With You there is nothing that cannot be put aright. You are all love. You are the Creator and the Restorer. To You we sing praise: Alleluia!
My God, You Who know the fall of the proud angel, save me through the power of Your grace, do not let me fall away from You, do not allow me to doubt You. Sharpen my hearing so that every minute of my life I can hear Your mysterious voice, and call to You Who are everywhere present:
Glory to You, for providential coincidences,
Glory to You, for the gift of premonitions,
Glory to You, for the guidance of a secret inner voice,
Glory to You, for revelations in dreams and when awake,
Glory to You, Who destroy our useless plans,
Glory to You, Who sober us from the heat of passions with suffering,
Glory to You, Who humble pride of heart to save us,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

Many times I have seen the reflection of Your glory on the faces of the dead. What unearthly beauty and joy shone from them; how ethereal and immaterial were their features. This is the triumph of happiness and peace received gracefully, as they silently call upon You. At the hour of my death also illumine my soul as I call: Alleluia!
How can I give praise to You? I have not heard the songs of the cherubim. That is the gift of the highest of souls. But I know how nature gives praise to You: in winter I have beheld the moonlight stillness when the whole earth quietly prays to You, clothed in white and sparkling with diamonds of snow; I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in You and the choirs of birds resound in praise; I have heard the forest speak mysteriously of You, the waters murmur and the choirs of stars preach of You with their harmonious movement in infinite space. But what is my praise? Nature responds to Your laws, but I do not! Yet while I am alive I see Your love; I want to thank You, to pray to You, and call out:
Glory to You, Who have shown us light,
Glory to You, Who have loved us with love immeasurable, deep, Divine,
Glory to You, Who have surrounded us with light, and with hosts of angels and saints,
Glory to You, all Holy Father, Who have willed us Your Kingdom,
Glory to You, all Holy Son, the Way, the Truth, and the Life,
Glory to You, all Holy Spirit and life-giving sun of the future age,
Glory to You for everything, O Divine Trinity, all bountiful, Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.

- Akathist of Thanksgiving, by Fr. Grigori Petrov, who wrote this while imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp. He was promoted to glory in 1942.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

“April is the cruelest month…”

The Union general William Tecumseh Sherman said after he burned Atlanta, "I fear the world will jump to the wrong conclusion that because I am in Atlanta the work is done. Far from it. We must kill three hundred thousand, I have told you of so often, and the further they run the harder for us to get them."

Given the sad history of racial oppression in the South for a century after the Civil War, the only thing to regret is that Sherman didn't finish the job.

- Spengler, Asia Times (emphasis added)

Spengler valorizes Sherman, one of our first war criminals, and thinks that we should admire him. Indeed, the postbellum history of most of America’s wars has been marked by an embrace of Sherman-esque brutality from the Indian wars to the Phillipines to Vietnam. There has been no lack of admiration for the man’s methods, regardless of his personal reputation.

There is something far, far more insidious and twisted than cultures of defeat, and these are cults of triumphalism, to which Spengler makes his contribution here. A cult of triumphalism is far more dangerous first of all because it sanctifies violence in a way that Lost Causes cannot do, and because it implies that there are wars that are not only just, but that the victor in war can literally do no wrong (and in any case the defeated deserved whatever they got, according to this circular reasoning, because they lost). A culture of defeat teaches humility and reminds that justice and military strength do not have any necessary direct relationship with one another. Triumphalism teaches the opposite: victory is the proof of righteousness, and not only did the enemy deserve to die, but we should have killed more of them to keep them down longer. Spengler approves here of the abandonment of restraint and total war and endorses the narrative of the victors. In fact, he endorses not just the cause of Unionists, as he specifically does in this case, but the narrative of every victor, whether it is the Mauryans and the Romans or the Mongols, the Ottomans, or the Aztecs… This is the argument of the genocidaire and the totalitarian, and it gives a pass to anyone who would commit genocide against a weaker people.

- Daniel Larison, Taki’s Magazine

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Old Hop’s Hideout

But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet… flee to the mountains. – Mark 13:14

Donald Davidson (1893 -1968) was a Tennessean and a leader of the Fugitive Poets. This poem describes the area where Old Hop and Bill Birchfield lie buried...


You must remember this when I am gone,
And tell your sons – for you will have tall sons,
And times will come when answers will not wait.
Remember this: if ever defeat is black
Upon your eyelids, go to the wilderness
In the dread last of trouble, for your foe
Tangles there, more than you know, and paths are strange
To him, that are your paths, in the wilderness,
And were your fathers’ paths, and once were mine.

You must remember this, and mark it well
As I have told it – what my eyes have seen
And where my feet have walked beyond forgetting.
But tell it not often, tell it only at last
When your sons know what blood runs in their veins.
And when your danger comes, as come it will,
Go as your fathers went with woodsman’s eyes
Uncursed, unflinching, studying only the path.

First, what you cannot carry, burn or hide.
Leave nothing here for him to take or eat.
Bury, perhaps, what you can surely find
If good chance ever bring you back again.
Level the crops. Take only what you need:
A little corn for an ash-cake, a little
Side-meat for your three days’ wilderness ride.
Horses for your women and children,
And one to lead, if you should have that many.
Then go. At once. Do not wait until
You see his great dust rising in the valley.
Then it will be too late.
Go when you hear that he has crossed Will’s Ford.
Others will know and pass the word to you –
A tap on the blinds, a hoot-owl’s cry at dusk.
Do not look back. You can see your roof afire
When you reach high ground. Yet do not look,
Do not turn. Do not look back.
Go further on. Go high. Go deep.

The line of this rail-fence east across the old-fields
Leads to the cane-bottoms. Back of that,
A white-oak tree beside a spring, the one
Chopped with three blazes on the hillward side.
There pick up the trail. I think it was
A buffalo path once or an Indian road.
You follow it three days along the ridge
Until you reach the spruce woods. Then a cliff
Breaks, where the trees are thickest, and you look
Into a cove, and right across, Chilhowee
Is suddenly there, and you are home at last.
Sweet springs of mountain water in that cove
Run always. Deer and wild turkey range.
Your kin, knowing the way, long before you
Will have good fires and kettles on to boil,
Bough-shelters reared and thick beds of balsam.
There in tall timbers you will be as free
As were your fathers once when Tryon raged
In Carolina hunting Regulators.
Or Tarleton rode to hang the old-time Whigs.
Some tell how in that valley young Sam Houston
Lived long ago with his brother, Oo-loo-te-ka,
Reading Homer among the Cherokee;
And others say a Spaniard may have found it
Far from De Soto’s wandering turned aside,
And left his legend on a boulder there.
And some that this was a sacred place to all
Old Indian tribes before the Cherokee
Came to our eastern mountains. Men have found
Images carved in bird-shapes there and faces
Moulded into the great kind look of gods.

These old tales are like prayers. I only know
This is the secret refuge of our race
Told only from a father to his son,
A trust laid on your lips, as though a vow
To generations, past and yet to come.
There, from the bluffs above, you may at last
Look back to all you left, and trace
His dust and flame, and plan your harrying
If you would gnaw his ravaging flank, or smite
Him in his glut among the smouldering ricks.
Or else, forgetting ruin, you may lie
On sweet grass by a mountain stream, to watch
The last wild eagle soar or the last raven
Cherish his brood within their rocky nest,
Or see, when mountain shadows first grow long,
The last enchanted white deer come to drink.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

“The New Jerusalem”

“My husband left me just a week ago today
And he never said a word before he went away”
The Hawk’s Done Gone and Other Stories was the sole compilation of fiction from Mildred Haun (1911-1966), a writer and song-catcher from rural Cocke County, TN, at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains. Haun enrolled at the age of 16 at Vanderbilt University with the notion of studying medicine. She flunked math and science, but her keen talent for writing came under the notice of English professor John Crowe Ransom, leader of the Fugitive Poets and Southern Agrarians.

Upon first inspection it would be easy to sympathetically dismiss Haun’s style as local color. But her writing was far from quaint. She captured the rhythm, the pathos and poetic expression of mountain diction like no other from her region.

“The New Jerusalem” is a story, told from the vantage-point of an elderly “granny-woman,” about Effena Kanipe, a young mountain woman whose husband, a Melungeon, has gone missing:

[Effena] walked along the cow path till she got to the watering place up there. She laid down in the grass, above the place where the water fell off that little rock cliff in the branch. It smelt so good there. She could tell from the way the sky looked around the sun that it wasn’t a-going to rain that night.

She set down. Thought she would watch the few scattering clouds. But the sun hadn’t quite got down behind the hills yet. She could barely see the top of it. She said it looked like the sky was on fire with streaks of red-gold clouds around the sun. The clouds were all moving – like they were trying to get down behind the hills and hide themselves. The sky was full of birds – about as full of birds as a strawberry is full of seeds. They were going somewhere to roost. To some tree on Sals King Mountain. They looked like little specks swirling around in the air. She kept her eyes on the clouds. One of them made a big white dog. He had a basket in his mouth. Then it turned into a cow – a white cow with a calf by the side of her. They were running as fast as a scared deer. Then it turned into a bear running after a man. The man fell down. And broke himself all to pieces.

The wind fawned her cheeks. She felt happy. She shut her eyes. There was a jay bird over her head fussing about something. A mocking bird was singing too. She didn’t know a mocking bird could sing so sweet. She thought it must be trying to sing her to sleep. She never had heard one of those trying to act so pretty before. She took note of the brown threshes up there in the catawba bush. She reckoned they would take care of her for the night. The waterfall was playing for her. She couldn’t quite make out what it was playing. She tried to sing, "Oh, Sweetheart, I have grown lonely living thus alone,” to its tune. That wasn’t it. She tried another. Then she caught on. It was:

“And oh, what a weeping and wailing
When the lost ones were told of their fate.”

And she commenced humming to the music:

“They cried for the rocks and the mountains
They prayed but their prayers were too late.”

She lay there and counted the stars as they popped into the sky. Counted them till they got too many to count. The night jar flies and the crickets begun to sing. She recollected what Murf had told her. Murf said God made all them pretty things. She never had believed there was a God. But now she was sure there was. She felt Him – she almost seed Him. He was up yander in the sky.

She raised up on her elbow and looked at the water in the branch. The moon made it light as day. She could see the watering hole. The water stood still in it. And there was the moon. She looked up. The moon in the water was exactly like the moon in the sky. She told herself there had to be a God. She thought about the things Murf had said. Murf said she ought to go to the New Jerusalem. She had never prayed. But she said she somehow or nother felt like she had to then. She shut her eyes and said it out loud: “Oh God, you are a good God, and you love Melungeons and widows and orphans as well as anybody else. And God, Murf loved You. He said you did everything right. I’ll be much obliged to you, God, if you’ll send him back to me by – by –“ then she thought – she would have to give God time – “by the time little Murf is born. Amen. And, Lord, I forgot to tell You, I am a-going to the New Jerusalem as soon as little Murf is big enough.” She said she didn’t know whether she ought to be talking to God about little Murf or not. But she reckoned He already knowed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Rarified People

Folk music is not about virtuosity, it is about satisfying a fundamental human requirement. I believe the need for artistic expression is inherent in our species and that, for the vast majority of human beings, it has been stifled by technology, progress, mass society, and the belief that art is for the gifted few.
- Fred McCormick
In 1998 Rounder Records re-issued a pair of classic Library of Congress recordings in one volume entitled, The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Their Friends. The two-disc, 40-track set features field recordings of the Hammonses singing, playing and story-telling. It is possibly the best and most important documentation of a Southern Appalachian culture on the verge of extinction.

What sets the Hammonses apart from other Appalachian story-teller/songsters like, for example, Ray Hicks? The latter is quaint; he renders “jack tales,” delivered in an ancient vernacular. In the former case the songs and stories tell us about the family itself, its survival and intimate connection to the wilderness in which it has sought to live. For the Hammonses, life was the pursuit of freedom, not affluence.

LOC folklorist Alan Jabbour states in The Hammons Family liner notes that there were basically two kinds of settlers who came into the Southern Appalachian frontier in the 18th and 19th centuries: Scot-Irish and German farmers seeking fertile bottom lands for farming, and migratory English – progeny of indentured servants – who chose the slopes and ridges for hunting, logging and living off the land. The Hammonses belonged to the latter group.

As told by their living descendants in 1973 (Burl, Sherman, and Maggie Hammons Parker), there is no family history prior to the late 1700’s, when the “original” Hammonses picked up from Pittsylvania County in the Virginian southern Piedmont and trekked west into Hawkins County in upper East Tennessee. From there the family – clearly in pursuit of better game – pushed through the Cumberland Gap into Whitley County in the southeastern corner of Kentucky. The earliest recollections are stories of the family’s flight from hostile Natives, possibly Cherokees. The early 1800’s were times of severe unrest between the Cherokee and their white neighbors. Rather than fight for ground the Hammonses fled into Wyoming County in what is now West Virginia, then further east to the intersections of Nicholas, Webster and Pocahontas Counties. Their parabolic journey through the South Appalachian wilderness brought them into the West Virginia high country, where they were neighbors of Nancy Hart and her kin.

By staying on the ridges, the Hammonses were little affected by outside culture for generations. As a consequence, singing and story-telling were staples of their day-to-day life. As John Blacking noted, “In primitive societies, everybody sings. In agrarian societies, most people sing. In modern societies, hardly anybody sings.”

There is a very clear “West Virginia” idiom at work in the Hammons’ music. Burl’s fiddle tune “Greasy Coat” accentuates the drawn-out, dissonant chord for dramatic effect. On the banjo number “Muddy Roads,” Sherman brandishes the distinctive “back kick” of the West Virginia clawhammer style, found nowhere else in the region.

British musicologist Fred McCormick studied the Hammons’ music and came to some tantalizingly Faulknerian conclusions. Refuting the “antiquarian” emphasis of British folklorist and Appalachian musicologist Cecil Sharpe, McCormick writes:

What is at issue…is not where the stuff came from [e.g., Britain, Ireland?], but how the songs and melodies and repertoires and performance styles were shaped and moulded by the frugality of life on the American frontier and by its harshness and uncertainties. Examination of Appalachian song bears this out… You won’t find many sweet maids in the month of May, but you’ll find a lot jealousy and shame and a lot of “false true lovers.” If the harshness of life is mirrored in the texts it is also mirrored in the melodies which supported them, and in the harsh way in which Southern mountaineers frequently sang. Like the slaves of plantation America, the settlers of the Appalachian mountains took pre-existing cultural forms and changed and moulded them to suit new conditions. Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians are not English or British, or even American. They are Southern Appalachian (emphasis added - ed.).
The story-telling tracks are a treasure of Southern Appalachian manners of speech. There is the characteristic habit of finishing one another’s sentences, and the lyrical question and answer. In the comical story “Parson’s Rock,” about a family that literally lived under a mountainside outcropping of rock,

Maggie: Well, what did they eat?
Burl: Well, you know’d they eat something…
Maggie: But you know they eat something.

The story is important because it reveals the magnanimous character of their beloved Uncle Pete, who, upon finding the elder Parsons “bad sick,” honored his request to kill him an owl.

Maggie (speaking as Pete): ‘By God, I can kill ye an owl if that’s all that ails ye’ [laughter]. And they were thick. So, by George, he killed him one… ‘Here’s ye the owl, Mr. Parsons…they might be enough for ye a couple of bites, hit can’t be much [more laughter]. ‘I’ll be up, Peter, intull, hit’ll cyour me,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back,’ said Pete, ‘I’ll be back to see how you and the owl’s a-gettin’ along’ [belly laughter]. So Pete went on back and he told ‘em. Why, they never hear’d o’ that, of a man a-eatin’ an owl and hit a-cyourin' him…

Commenting further on the story-telling, McCormick writes,

The stories…present neither a continuous record, or a coherent one. However, to look for continuity or coherency is to miss the point… history is not just about the objective chronicling of verifiable fact. It is, or ought to be, also about chronicling impressions; about the way people felt and about the lives they led and about how the forces of history shaped and moulded the world around them. Finally, one of the functions of history is to invest its inheritors with a sense of unity and a common identity. That need is prevalent in all societies, whether literate or pre-literate, and it is a need which the Hammons family history achieves.
The Hammons’ story reveals more. Here is the record of a family that lived life fully, loved well, and remained as pure in their existence as a cold mountain stream. These were not the sort who invest in futures or invent cruise missiles and atomic bombs. Like the Cherokees before them, these were the principal people of the Southern highlands.

And they are becoming as rare as the panther.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Ballad of Bill Birchfield

Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

- The Odyssey, Book 11
My great-great-grandfather William M. Birchfield departed this life 100 years ago today.

He was born in Carter County, Tennessee in November of 1840, a fourth-generation descendant of Welsh immigrant Samuel Burtchfield (b. 1660). His family moved into Cade’s Cove, Blount County, where Bill grew up learning the art of whiskey-making.

By 1860 Bill was living near Fort Montgomery (now Robbinsville) in the extreme northeastern section of Cherokee County (now Graham County), North Carolina. He had a sweetheart, Cinthy Linn, a part-Cherokee girl from nearby Monroe County, Tennessee. Unlike Bill, Cinthy was literate and taught school near Fort Montgomery. They planned to marry.

In the summer of 1861 their plans changed. North Carolina seceded from the Union, and on the first of July, Bill enlisted in Company D, 25th North Carolina Infantry at Valleytown, NC. His enlistment card read, Occupation: Farmer, whiskey maker. Height: 5’, 7.” His company was transported to Camp Patton in Asheville, where they were outfitted in gray NC Depot sack coats and kepi’s, then sent by rail to Camp Davis at the opposite end of the state, near Wilmington.

He was 440 miles away from Cinthy, in the heat and humidity of the Carolina coast.

At Camp Davis the boys were issued .58 caliber Enfield rifles – a far cry from the shotguns they had hunted game with in the mountains. The Yankees were threatening amphibious assaults along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, so the 25th was sent to Grahamville, SC. They spent a boring winter drilling, marching, and playing cards. The attack never came.

In the spring of 1862 the 25th was placed under Major General Robert Ransom’s brigade and sent to the Tidewater of Virginia. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had launched its “Peninsula Campaign,” and Ransom’s formed part of the defenses up the James River near Williamsburg. In July, Bill was admitted to the Episcopal Church Hospital in Williamsburg, suffering from diarrhea. He returned to his company just in time to play a small part in history.

In September, Ransom’s brigade was attached to James Longstreet’s Corps of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, as it pushed into Hagerstown, Maryland. The intent was to put pressure on Washington, DC, and draw Federal forces out of Virginia. The plan worked, and on September 17th the Union and Confederate forces clashed at Sharpsburg. The 25th lost only 15 men that day, but Bill looked on in horror as his regiment marched south along the Hagerstown Road, stepping over the bodies of scores of dead Southerners along a fence. A total of 3,654 men were killed in an afternoon – the deadliest single day in American history up to that time.

In December the Southern army retired below the Rappahannock, on the bluffs overlooking the town of Fredericksburg, VA. Burnside’s Union army, which outnumbered the Confederates 2 to 1, had ransacked the town and looted it. In the thick fog on December 13, six Union divisions crossed the river and marched to their suicides up the slope along Marye’s Heights. They were devoured by relentless artillery and musket fire. Crouching behind the stone wall on the heights, Bill was among the men muzzle-loading, cocking, passing, and firing rifles in rapid succession. The thick smoke of 19th century warfare, mingled with fog, created an envelope of terror. Only the standards could be spotted, intermittently, poking through the marshmallow clouds sticking to the muddy earth.

That night Bill lay on his tarred ground cloth, covering his ears as writhing, wounded Union soldiers, lying just beyond the stone wall, screamed for mothers and wives and sweethearts…

After these horrors, in the spring of 1863, Longstreet’s Corps was sent into eastern North Carolina, fighting defensive battles at New Bern and “Little Washington,” and then on to the area of Virginia near Suffolk. The record does not describe what he did, but at some point during Longstreet’s Tidewater campaign Bill Birchfield distinguished himself in battle, and was nominated for the Roll of Honor.

He never received the citation.

In July 1863 the word spread like wildfire through the beleaguered camps: Lee had invaded a foreign country (Pennsylvania) and been defeated. He lost 4,700 men the South could ill-afford to expend – most of them Tar Heel boys. Swatting mosquitoes and fighting disease in the Dismal Swamp, Bill and some others devised a plan. They took their Enfield’s, filled their tarred pouches with parched corn, and deserted the camp.

On August 4, 1863 a Roll of Honor card was filled out for Pvt. William M. Birchfield, Co. D, 25th North Carolina State Troops. At the bottom of the card was written, “Deserted.” Had Bill stayed on, he would have been in “The Crater” at Petersburg, where several of his former comrades were killed…

Bill married Cinthy in 1864. They went on to have eight children, my great-grandfather being the fifth. From there the story is no longer documented in the state archives; it is the stuff of legend. The family moved across the line into Blount County, TN in the late 1880’s, to a remote area beyond the “Parson’s Toll Gate,” on what is now US Highway 129 (for motorcycle enthusiasts, the “tail of the dragon”). When my great-grandfather was around 10 years old (1890), he was present with his father and two older brothers as they minded a still. They were surprised by armed revenue agents. The agents tied up Bill and the two older boys, and one of agents pistol-whipped the 10 year old. Bill said, “If I wasn’t tied up you wouldn’t be a-doin’ that. Let him alone, he ain’t but a boy.” As the agents were leading the Birchfields down a steep trail, the oldest son Sam broke free, took the gun of the man who had hit his younger brother, and shot him dead. Sam was dragged to Kingston, TN, where he was scheduled to be hanged. A broken broom handle was passed to him through the bars of the prison; he escaped by digging his way through the dirt floor of his cell, then swam across the Clinch River with his boots tied around his neck. He disappeared into the mountains and was never brought to justice.

When Bill died in 1908, Cinthy moved back to North Carolina, to the little community of Proctor, where she could collect a pension for Confederate widows.

Bill is buried in the Calderwood Cemetery, by a long-abandoned Methodist church, beside the Little Tennessee River, just below the massive, horseshoe-shaped Calderwood Dam, off US 129 in Blount County – near the place where, in his youth, he learned to farm, shoot and make whiskey.

As the motorcyclists and Miata drivers wind their way through the endless curves on the “tail of the dragon,” they have no idea how many lifetimes lay beneath the sod in that plot at the edge of a quiet little graveyard.

Friday, January 11, 2008

“u ne la nv i u we tsi i ga gu yv he i”

The Son of God / He paid for us

In 1817, Reverend Humphrey Posey, a Baptist, began preaching to the Cherokees of North Carolina… By 1833, there were 250 or more Cherokee Baptists in western North Carolina… When the War for Southern Independence came, the Indians of North Carolina were organized by William [Holland] Thomas and Major George Washing Morgan, who was part Cherokee. Of these troops, many of them Christians, it was said “that they were…the best behaved soldiers raised in the mountain districts” (Finger 85). When the Cherokee detachment arrived in Knoxville, TN, they were the main attraction in the city. “The highlight of their stay occurred when they conducted Christian services in their own language at the First Presbyterian Church. Goggle-eyed whites filled every available pew, eager to witness the strange spectacle. The Indians had their Cherokee hymnals, and Unaguskie, their chaplain, led the service. A local editor described him as ‘tall, slender, graceful, and eloquent, though having little of the mannerisms of the modern pulpit. His sermon seemed to be persuasive rather than denunciatory, advisory, and parental rather than condemnatory and authoritative.’ The music struck the reporter as ‘less artistic’ than in a white service. The whites sat through the entire proceedings, enrapt but not understanding a word that was said” (Finger 85-86).

- from an article by Dr. Cecil A. Fayard in Confederate Veteran (Nov/Dec 2007)

“e lo ni gv ni li s qua di ga lu tsu ha i yu”
All the world will end / When He returns

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Enemies, Neighbors and Compatriots: Multiculturalism in the Mountains

The Indians are as much entitled to their rights as I am to mine.
- William Holland Thomas

The British were unable to check the flow of white settlers into the Cherokee backcountry. The Wataugan settlements, in what is now upper East Tennessee, spelled a degree of doom for the Cherokee nation. Not only did these white “Overmountain Men” turn the tide of the American Revolution with their crushing defeat of Loyalists at Kings Mountain, they turned their wrath on the British-allied towns of the Cherokees. By the end of the war the once-mighty Cherokee nation lay in ruin.

But a strange symbiosis evolved during those years of hostility. By several accounts the Cherokees were apt to take captives as either slaves or adopted members of the clan. Many white women preferred the company of the red men and women; from them, Cherokees learned the art of spinning fabric and raising livestock. In their imminent defeat they were learning techniques that would sustain the survival of a remnant.

The Anglo-Celtic settlers were learning, too. From the Cherokees they discovered the medicinal properties of numerous wild herbs, especially the coveted ginseng. They acquired better skills for tracking and hunting game. They learned to clothe themselves against the bitter mountain winters in buckskin and bear fur.

More importantly, the Natives and Anglo-Celts found a certain degree of cultural resonance in one another. The Cherokees recognized in the Scots-Irishmen – more so than in their old English allies – an irrepressible yearning for freedom and independence, a certain “wildness,” and a visceral connection to the land. In fact, the Southern Appalachian high ridges and deep valleys would do more to draw these two cultures together than warfare or even trade.

Some of the Cherokees living in north Georgia and north Alabama emulated the practice of chattel slavery. As they moved to the Oklahoma territory after the Treaty of New Echota (1836), slaveholding Cherokees took their black servants with them. But in the rugged mountains of southwestern North Carolina the terrain was too steep to support slave agriculture. The white subsistence farmers settled into a hunting-and-gardening lifestyle far removed from the big plantations of the Tidewater and Lower South. And their closest neighbors were the Cherokees.

Over 2,000 Cherokees remained in North Carolina after 1836, in close proximity to their ancient lands thanks to the efforts of a white trader and attorney, William Holland Thomas. Growing up a racial minority on a hardscrabble farm adjacent Quallatown in northern Jackson County, Thomas won the affection of Yonaguska, a Cherokee headman, and was adopted into the tribe as Wil us di (“Little Will”). Both in Raleigh and in Washington, DC, the adult Thomas served as agent for the Cherokees, arguing that they, having never been present at nor signatories to the Treaty of New Echota, were de facto citizens of North Carolina and thus entitled to remain in their communities at Quallatown and Buffalo Town. The process was long and arduous, but the Cherokees came to realize something their white neighbors already knew – that the distant federal government was an efficient source of trouble rather than assistance.

When the nationalist-mercantilist War Against Secession (1861-65) broke out, there was little question which side the North Carolina Cherokees would take. Like tens of thousands of uplanders, the Cherokees were now part of the “plain folk,” or yeoman class – that mysterious 75% non-slaveholding segment of Southerners who fought for principles broader than the alleged planter hegemony. At stake were local self-government, the unmolested backcountry way of life, and, for the Cherokees, a chance at payback to a treaty-breaking U.S. government. Thomas mustered a fully-integrated company of troops at Quallatown on April 9, 1862. This writer’s great-great-great uncle Thomas W. Ward joined ranks that day beside men with names like Cahtoquaskee, Chu wha loo keh, Oosowih, and Tala gi skih. One of the officers in that company was 2nd Lt. Astoogatogeh, later killed in a skirmish at Baptist Gap near the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

The “Thomas Legion” would swell to two battalions with 18 companies and over 1,500 troops. It was unconventional in every aspect. Colonel William Holland Thomas, keenly aware of mountain culture, liberally allowed his men to take “French leave” to look after affairs at home – much to the chagrin of higher-level commanders. Names appeared, disappeared, then reappeared on muster rolls. Thomas wanted to keep his soldiers as close to the Smoky Mountains as practicable and demurred when one of his companies, “Conley’s Sharpshooters,” was detached to Jubal Early's Shenandoah Valley offensive. Like most Southerners, Thomas and his men believed in a strictly defensive war, protecting loved ones and property as opposed to the grand strategic schemes of the West Point-trained Confederate generals. The Thomas Legion had the makings of a true guerrilla force that could have ambushed and killed as many Unionists passing through the foggy mountain gaps as the District of Columbia was willing to waste.

In the end, however, events in northern Virginia, the Mississippi Valley and north Georgia involving much larger masses of men rendered the Thomas Legion’s efforts useless. The Legion fired the last shots in the eastern theater of the war, surrounding a company of Federals at Waynesville, NC on May 9, 1865 – a full month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. In a bizarre twist of history, the Legion captured the town only to lay down its arms in recognition that the war was over.

When Thomas approached the Federal officers for terms, he came with his Cherokee cohorts stripped to the waist and wearing red war paint. Wil us di embodied the relationship forged between the Cherokee and their white highlander neighbors – a connection that would last until new waves of invaders came in the mid-to-late 20th century.