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.


Anonymous said...

keep it coming. takes a while for me to catch onto stuff so that I like it, but am starting to like this stuff.

Chuck said...

I appreciate it. These are the kind of articles I most enjoy writing.