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The Toughest of the Tough

budsThere is a story they tell about the people of Western North Carolina.  For a great many years they were considered to be the toughest of the tough, especially those mountaineers living in the vicinity they called Shelton Laurel.  They tell a tale of an old feller going to Asheville for an appendicitis operation.  They put him in the hospital and operated on him.  The following morning the physician went in to see how he was getting along, and instead of finding him in bed, he found him sitting in a chair hovered over a radiator.  The physician said to him, “Ah-ah!  You ought not to be sitting up.  You’ll tear your stitches out.”  And the old feller looked up at the doctor and he said, “What’s the matter, doc?  Ain’t your thread no good.”

I’m A Fiddler Player

fiddleIn the mountains the traditional ballads are dying out, largely through the competition of native ballads and hillbilly songs, though the folk festivals have helped revive them.  Meanwhile, folk music is still as vigorous and flourishing as when Bob Taylor’s fiddle, rifle, ax and Bible were the humble penates of the pioneer’s cabin.  As one North Carolina fiddler and fiddle maker put it years ago, while explaining and demonstrating the different tunings for different pieces:

“I’m a fiddler, you know, not a violinist.  What I play is old-time stuff.  I don’t know a thing about music.  Yes, I made that fiddle.  It’s got my name on it.  It’s not a very good job; it isn’t finished up.  I play quite a number of tunes.  They’re what you call old-fashioned stuff.  You may not know them…Scolding Wife, Sandy River, a piece you may know as Calico, and another called Happy Holler, Cluck Old Hen.  Old time stuff.  Cumberland Gap, Turkey in the Straw, Cripple Creek, Sourwood Mountain.  The selection fits the key.  But there’s not one in one thousand that does it.  They all tune their violins to the regular key.  I don’t know a thing about music.”

Back of Beyond

logAs stories with enough truth in them to make good story material and to incite the imagination to try to improve on actual happenings, yarns and tall tales belong to the borderland between fact and fantasy, shifting now to one side and now to the other.  With myth and folk tale, however, both the story teller and his audience cross over the dividing line into the realm of pure fantasy, where one see only what one wants to see and believes only what one wants to believe; where erroneous perception gives way to artful deception or naïve self deception as common sense and logic abdicate their throne.

The myth making imagination has already been seen at work in the heroic saga and epic of the South, rewriting history according to the ideal of perfection or imperfection.  Similarly the myth of frontier past is strong in the nostalgic legend of the Old South.  The desire to return to a golden age is closely related to the dream of a promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, who magnet first drew the colonists to these shores.

As yarn and tall tale are constantly passing into myth, so is legend.  The difference between legend and myth is the difference between  traditions of characters and events once actual and traditions of things which never were.  But behind legend and shining through it, there is always the light of myth, of which legends are only fragmentary reflections.

The mythical element in legend and folk tale often takes the form of a preternatural and malevolent force in nature, as in the “The Belled Buzzard” with it recurrent omen of disaster.  Corresponding and related to myths of origin are legends of the origins of places and place names (e.g. Bald Mountain), the origins of customs and the origins of songs and sayings.  Thus, “Oh Freedom” and “Swing Low” both originated in the tradition of a Tennessee mother who had been sold from her baby and was about to throw herself and her child over the steep banks of the Cumberland River.  As she stumbled along the road, muttering “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave,” an old woman over hearing her, read her intention and dissuaded her.

Tales of ghosts, witches, and the devil make up a large class of folk tales based on superstitions, in which the story has often outlived the practice or belief.  One of the best Southern folk tales in this class is “The Bell Witch” of Tennessee and North Carolina, a parallel for which is to be found in the story of Old Nance, a poltergeist who bedeviled the Beaver family in the Cumberlands. 

Good Old Mountain Dew

smoky mountainsThis song is native to Western North Carolina.  This song was originally composed by Cascom Lamar Lunsford of Leicester, North Carolina.  It was taken over by the folk singers and spread all over the United States.  About 70 years ago Lunsford had some records made of his song and the song was quite different from what it is now.  Many stanzas have been added and even the tune has been changed a little.

“There’s a big holler tree down the road here from me…

Where ya lay down a dollar or two….
Well you go round the bend and when you come back again..
There’s a jug full o’ good ole mountain dew

“O.. they call it that ole mountain dew….
And them that refuse it are few….
I’ll shut up my mug if you fill up my jug….
With some good ole mountain dew.

“Now my uncle Nort, he’s sawed off and short…
He measures about four foot two…
But he thinks he’s a giant when you give him a pint…
Of that good ole mountain dew

“Well my ole aunt Jill bought some brand new perfume…
It had such a sweet smellin’ pew
But to her surprise when she had it analyzed…
It was nothin but good ole mountain dew.

“Well the preacher rolled by with his head heisted high…
Said his wife had been down with the flu….
And he thought that I ought just uh sell him a quart…
Of that good ole mountain dew.

“Well my brother Bill’s got a still on the hill…
Where he runs off a gallon or two.
Now the buzzards in the sky get so drunk they can’t fly…
From smellin’ that good ole mountain dew.”

Check out this performance of Grandpa Jones performing this classic http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjyzHcWVqs0

A Spitting World

porchThe men chewed, the finicky and toothless slicing the quid from the plug with a pocket knife – no male was complete without his knife – the rest biting or gnawing it off with such teeth as they had.  Of the biters there were two kinds: the clean, whose teeth went through the plug with the click of a precision instrument and left a pattern of perfect occlusion, and the ragged, whose eroded plugs were stringly evidence of missing teeth.  While the chewer was talking, his quid, now a spongy and swollen wad, rested between upper jaw and cheek, making a bulge like a small boy’s aching tooth and slightly impeding speech.  Some smoked pipes, they shredded the tobacco from the plugs with their knives, for prepared pipe tobacco was unknown.  Cigars were smoked mostly for convenience, when spitting must be restrained.

The woman dipped.  Snuff box and dipping stick were that day’s equivalent of a cigarette case and lighter.  The snuff stick was a peeled twig, preferably from the sweet gum tree, shredded at one end to make a brush the method of use was to wet the stick with spit, dip it into the box, and rub well the gums.  One good dip made the dipper’s spit reddish brown for hours afterwards.

Boys learned to chew at an early age, but long before chewing time they began to collect tobacco tags, tokens of plain or colored tin stuck on the plugs.  While in other parts of this country boys of the same age were learning geography through collecting postage stamps, local boys were learning and debating the virtues of the various brands of chewing tobacco.  Every boy knew which one he would someday chew, his choice being determined, as was fitting, largely by tradition.  Favorite brands includes names like “Brown Mule,” “Jay Bird,” or “Snaps.”  Meanwhile the boys practiced spitting, sometimes chewing coffee grounds in the cause of realism.

This was a spitting world.  Everybody, except ladies and aspirants to that title, spat.  No public place was without its receptable.  In hotels and local trains there sat the tall and shining brass spittoons.  Most homes had them also – “bring Paw his spittoon” was a familiar command – and in any case it was a wise precaution to have one handy, for the use of a spitting guest.  Out of doors there was greater freedom for the sport and it was here that spitters like to prove themselves expert in placing shots, and the traditional target was knothole in a fence.  To recall the distance and accuracy of the skill of legendary heroes would put a strain upon credulity.

To the clean spitter there was more to spitting than getting rid of spittle; he pressed two fingers at right angles to his lips and ejected an amber pellet of the size and force of a twenty-two, and left no trace on beard or chin.  But the sloven was more common, with wedges of deep brown at the corners of the mouth that looked, on the very old, like permanent scars, or with flares thinning to a lighter brown in white beards.  Spitting was no indication of social status; only the elegance with which it was done marked the man, who wiped his mouth with a handkerchief instead of the back of his hand.

Taboos In Appalachia

MDue to the passive and conservative role of women, luck signs, omens and taboos were her special prerogative, especially the “dassents,” which suggest the utility of superstition for social control, as in the discipline of children, etiquette and industry.
Taboos surrounded virtually every daily activity of the household – sleeping, rising, wearing of stockings and garments, care of the hair and nails, signs at sunrise or before breakfast, eating, drinking; treatment of beds, chairs, tables, sinks, stoves, fires, lamps, clocks, mirrors; baking, washing, sewing, carpentry; carrying edged tools, water ashes into, through out of the house; turning back, walking backwards, clasping the hands behind, planting of trees, killing of animals, etc.  And equally numerous and familiar are the omens in things dropped, spilled, or found, sneezing, itching, twitching, burning sensations, features, furniture, apparel, birds, animals, the moon and the elements.

Weather Lore

hepaticasFor the farmer weather overshadows world history and makes local history, as it makes crops, conversation and mythology.  A drought is a menace, especially to the farmer; to a crop delayed by drought, as always in the mountains, the first killing frost is another hazard, and, in general, wet springs are a boon to the boll weevil and wet falls the bane of the crop buyers.  In so far as he watches his smoking tobacco for dampness and observes the sweating of pumps and water pipes, the falling of smoke and soot, heavy dews and a gray sky at sunset, the farmer detects rain scientifically.  When he bathes a cat in sulphur water, burns driftwood along the creeks or builds a fire in a stump on a cloud day, hangs a snake on a fence or a bush “belly side up,” sweeps down the cobwebs in the house, sprinkles sale on two crossed matches, or is led by the minister in prayer, he is “making” rain.  And when he looks for snake tracks leading to higher ground, chickens oiling their feathers, or ants and dogs banking up earth about the entrance to their hills, counts the stars within the circle around the moon to tell the number of days before the storm, measures the severity of the coming winter by the thickness of corn shucks, a hog’s milt, or a goose’s breastbone, and an extra heavy layer of fat, fur, or feathers in animals and birds or taking warning of cold weather from a hog with a stick in its mouth, he is only guessing

One Way Passage

moonshine_stillA revenue officer called at a mountain cabin and found no one there but a boy.  The following conversation ensued:

“Where’s your father?”

“Pappy’s at the still.”

“Where’s your mother?”

“Maw’s at the still.”

“Where’s your brothers and sisters?”

“They’re at the still.”

“I’ll give you a dollar to take me to the still.”

“Gimme the dollar.”

“I’ll give it to you when I get back.”

“Mister, you ain’t coming back.”

Loyalties Southern Style

Smoky MountainsThe notion of the South as a “family affair” is the key to Southern loyalties.  Both the Southernism and the Southerness of the South reflect the “clan-virtues” (and their defects) of the old frontier and rural folkways – folkways that were first of all American and then Southern.  But in so far as these folkways have had a longer and stronger hold on them, Southerners are prone to look upon themselves as Southerners and then as citizens of the United States, this is most definitely the case in Western North Carolina.

“You can get a Southerner out of the South, but you can’t get the South out of a Southerner”- Old Saying

In a society which measured wealth in terms of land, primary emphasis was placed on personal qualities and personal relationships.  These together with family connections, continue to dominate Southern business and politics.  Hence, too, personal religion and the ethical code of honor.

Of all personal ties family ties are the strongest.  The Southerner looking back on his childhood sees it as all “entangles with the past,” with the loves, the loyalties, the heartaches and the simple good time of a big family.  As the children of the Old South scattered over the region, the home place and home folks still served as a symbol if not a bond of unity.  Someone is always keeping the home place, someone is always there, and no matter how seldom or unexpectedly we may come in, we know someone will rise to give our welcome.  This feeling of homewardness and at-home-ness gives a comforting sense of security and stability in time as well as place, a living sense of the long continuity of human life, an awareness of the past as living in the present and almost as real as the present.  And the identification of the individual with a long line of kinfolks and their achievements gives a sense of personal participation in the history and tradition.

Along with the satisfaction of personal participation goes the responsibility of noblesse oblige, the obligation of carrying on a tradition of techniques and attitudes handed down from the fathers to the sons.

On Top Of Old Smoky

This is the classic, quintessential song about Appalachia and it bears all of the stylistic hallmarks of the Scotch-Irish people who settled in the area.  Clingman’s Dome could be the source of the subject matter since it was also known as “Smoky Dome” but the exact location of the mountain may be lost to antiquity.  Do you remember all the lyrics, if not, here we go…

“On top of Old Smokey,
All covered with snow,
I lost my true lover,
For courting too slow.

“On top of old smoky

I went there to weep

And a false-hearted lover,
Is worse than a thief.

“A thief will just rob you,
And take what you have,
But a false-hearted lover,
Will lead you to your grave.

“The grave will decay you,
And turn you to dust,
Not one boy in a hundred
A poor girl can trust.

“They’ll hug you and kiss you,
And tell you more lies,
Than crossties on a railroad,
Or stars in the sky.

“So come ye young maidens,
And listen to me,
Never place your affection
In a green willow tree.

“For the leaves they will wither,
The roots they will die,
And you’ll be forsaken,
And never know why.”

There is a wonderful version of Hank Williams performing this classic – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCW7qXyPAjo