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.