Due 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.
For 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
“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.”
The 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.
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
The signature of plants (the doctrine that the color, shape, name, or other symbolic suggestion of a plant is a “sign” of a charm or cure for which it is effective) is no more strikingly demonstrated than in the field of love charms. One of the most general of signatures is the ten finger plant, a leaf of which, measured by the middle finger of the left hand, rolled up and kept in the pocket, give one control over people. Heart leaves and Sampson snakeroot are chewed to soften hearts. (The latter will also make a person brave, give him the best of a bargain, give him some control of the person in whose presence it is chewed, and prevent snakes from biting him, while boiled into a strong tonic, it will bring back lost manhood.) Devil’s shoestring, chewed and rubbed on the hands, will give a man control over a woman when he shakes hands with her. Vervain (sometimes called herb-of-the-cross because it is said to have grown on Mount Calvary and so has miraculous power), grown around doorsteps, will attract lovers. Shameweed or the sensitive plant will shame a recalcitrant woman; sprinkle the powdered dry root in the woman’s path and she will close up like a sensitive plant; mix it with snail dust and snail water and she will leave like a snail going into its shell.
The principle of similarity and contact also operates in the liberal use of hair, nails, blood, and tracks in love charms. A woman may win a man by laying hands secretly on the back of his head, by giving him whisky in which her fingernail trimmings have been soaked, by putting his tracks under the bed or into an ant bed (to make it hot for him), by sprinkling his coat with alcohol into which has been squeezed juice from a piece of beef worn under her arm for two days. A man may win a woman by putting some of his blood on candy and giving it to her to eat, by putting her tracks in his sock or wearing some of her hair in his shoe, and then burying it under his doorstep, by mixing red onion juice with tracks (previously worn in his shoe) of her foot and his, and wearing the mixture, wrapped in red flannel, in his left breast pocket (in some areas, a wasp nest in the breast pocket will “make the girls fall”).
To bring a man and a woman together put some of the hair of each into a split made with an ax in the fork of a young sapling, and when the wood grows back of the hairs the two will be eternally united. To break up a home, roll the damp tracks of a man and his wife with cat and dog whiskers in a brown paper sack, tie up the sack and let it stand until the earth is dry, then throw it into the fire; or simply put the dog’s hair in the man’s tracks and the cat’s hair in the woman’s. To make running men – to drive a person away or make him crazy – throw his tracks into running water, put his hair in the gill of a fish and return it to the stream, spit in the river if the current is running opposite to the direction in which he lives, or tie one of his socks to a freight train. And by a variety of charms involving a person’s tracks you may make him stagger or paralyze him, make him your or leave.
John Sevier, on the leading spirits in the King’s mountain affairs and commander of the transmontane militia, was a brilliant, daring, dashing character; the idol and leader of bold frontiersman, who nicknamed him “Nollichucky Jack”. The whole of Tennessee then belonged to North Carolina, but the settlers on the Holston were so far removed from the seat of government that, practically, they were without government. Sevier and his friends conceived the idea of organizing a new state, which, being in the nature of a measure for self-protection, was unquestioned west of the mountains as a just and proper proceeding, but by the home government denounced as an insurrection. The new state was named Franklin, in honor of the Philadelphia philosopher and patriot. For four years there was civil contention, which, in one instance, resulted in contact of arms and bloodshed. After this the parent state adopted a radical policy for the restraint of her premature liberty seeking child. “Nollichucky Jack,” the governor of the insurrectionary state, was arrested for “high treason against the state of North Carolina and taken to Morganton for trial.
The prisoner’s chivalric character and gallant military services, on the one hand, and the extraordinary nature of the indictment on the other, gave the trial momentous interest. The village streets were crowded with hold soldiers and settlers from far and near, eager to catch a glimpse of the court. There were others there with different purposes. The chivalry of frontier life and savage warfare, who had fought under him to establish their country’s freedom, and who loved him as a brother, armed to the teeth, had followed the captive across the mountains, determined to “rescue him or leave their bones.” Their plan was to rescue him by stratagem, but if that failed, to fire the town and in the excitement of the conflagration make their escape.
On the day of trial, two of the “Franks,” as they were called, leaving their companions concealed near the town, and hiding reliable side-arms under their hunting shirts, rode up before the courthouse, one of the them on “Governor” Sevier’s fine race mare. He dismounted, and with the rein carelessly thrown over her neck, stood with the manner of an indifferent spectator. The companion, having tied his horse, went into the courtroom. Sevier’s attention, by a slight gesture, was directed to the man outside. During a pause in the trail, the bold “Frank” stepped into the bar, and with decided manner and tone, addressed the judge: “Are you done with that there man?” The scene was so unusual, the manner and tone of the speaker so firm and dramatic, that both officers and audience were thrown into confusion The “Governor” sprang like a fox from his cage, one leap took him to the door, and two more on his racer’s back. The quick clash of hoofs gave notice of his escape. The silence bewildered court was broken by the exclamation of a waggish bystander: “Yes, I’ll be damned if you aren’t done with him!”
Sevier was joined by his neighbors with a wild shout, and they bore him safely to his home. No attempt was made to re-arrest him. The State of Franklin died from various causes and a few year later the new State of Tennessee honored “Nollichucky Jack” with the first governorship, and later, by an election to the United States Senate.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has been a major factor in these mountains for eighty years. It is a federally owned company that was created by a congressional charter in 1933. The TVA provided flood control and electricity to an area that was particularly harshly affected by the Great Depression. The plan was for the TVA to generate regional economic development using federal resources and quickly modernize the area’s economy.
This ballad was sung throughout the mountain towns and it was composed and set to tune by a Preston of the Big Sandy country. Mountain singers were apt in substituting the names of their own vicinity for those of the villages and creeks and coves of their home.
The T.V.A. Song
“My name is William Edwards
I live down Cove Creek way.
I’m working on the project
They call the T.V.A.
“The Government begun it
When I was but a child;
But now they are in earnest
and Tennessee’s gone wild.
“Just see them boys a-comin’
Their tool kits on their arm;
They come from Clinch and Holston
And many a valley farm.
“Oh, see them boys a-comin,
Their Government they trust;
Just hear their hammers ringing
They’ll build that dam or bust.
“I meant to marry Sally
But work I could not find;
The T.V.A. was started
And surely eased my mind.
“I’m writing her a letter,
These words I’ll surely say;
“The Government has surely saved us
Just name our wedding day.”
“We’ll build a little cabin
On Cove Creek near her home;
We’ll settle down forever
And never care to roam.
“Oh things looked blue and lonely
Until this come along;
Now hear the crew a-singin’
And listen to their song.
“The Government employs us,
Short hours and certain pay;
Oh things are up and comin’,
God bless the T.V.A.”
The rattle of musketry is heard in front. Skirmishers must have made contact with enemy pickets. All are alert. A signal gun is fired and the artillery joins in with accumulating fury. At last the command – “Forward!” – and an overpowering urge to make contact with the enemy. Soon lines of blue are discernible Comrades begin to fall in increasing numbers. Now the shout, lost perhaps in the din of battle – “Charge!” – accompanied by a forward wave of an officer’s saber and the line leaps forward with the famous “Rebel yell.”
This yell itself is an interesting thing. It was heard at First Manassas and repeated in hundreds of charges throughout the Civil War It came to be as much a part of a Rebel’s fighting equipment as his musket. Once, indeed, more so. Toward the end of an engagement near Richmond in May, 1864, General Early rode up to a group of soldiers and said, “Well, men, we must charge them once more and then we’ll be through.” The response came back, “General, we are all out of ammunition.” Early’s ready retort was “Damn it, holler them across.” And, according to the narrator, the order was literally executed.
The Confederate yell is hard to describe. Attempts to reproduce it at Civil War re-enactments. By the very nature of things, is an inadequate representation. The voices are not battle weary, and half starved. As it flourished on the field of combat, the Rebel yell was an unpremeditated, unrestrained and utterly informal “hollering”. It had in it a mixture of fright, pent-up nervousness, exultation, hatred and a pine of pure deviltry. Yelling in attack was not peculiar to Confederates, for the Yankees went at Rebels more than once with a furious shouts on their lips. But the battle cry of Southerners was admittedly different. General “Jube” Early, who well understood the spirit of his soldiers, made a comparison of Federal and Confederate shouting as a sort of aside to his official report of the battle of Fredericksburg. “Lawton’s Brigade, without hesitating, at once dashed upon the enemy,” he said, “with the cheering peculiar to the Confederate soldier, and which is never mistaken for the studied hurrahs of the Yankees, and drove the column opposed to it down the hill.” Though obviously invidious, the general’s observation is not wholly inaccurate.
The primary function of the rousing yell was the relief of the shouter. As one Reb observed after a fight in 1864, “I always said if I ever went into a charge, I wouldn’t holler! But the very first time I fired off my gun I hollered as loud as I could, and I hollered every breath till we stopped.” At first there was no intention of inspiring terror in the enemy, but the practice soon attained such a reputation as a demoralizing agent that men were encouraged by their officers to shout as they assaulted Yankee positions.
The popular beliefs about mountain people contain many misconceptions. According to fiction, the Hillman is a seven foot combination of malnutrition and bad breeding, asleep on his front porch with the dogs. His great bare feet, dangling off the porch, flap from time to time when flies get too pesky, but nothing awakens him except a hound’s salute to a stranger. Then he shoots up his astounding neck to its full length, ogles the visitor, and on his hunting horn blows a series of long and short blasts that means, “Hide yore still and oil yore guns; they air a stranger h’yar.” This feat of mountain mores is all the more remarkable because he can neither read nor write and indeed, cannot count well enough to enumerate his hogs, but must identify them by name. Should one be missing for a day or two, he musters all his kin down to second cousins and step-uncles and goes across the “mounting” for a feud. While the men folk shoot out one another’s eyeballs at artillery distances, the “chillern” go down in the valley and throw rocks, it being considered unmanly to kill women and children except in a fit of anger.
At the height of the fighting, the hog in question reels in, red of eye, and the feudists deduce that he was not killed at all, but merely knocked over somebody’s barrel of mash and subsequently went off down the valley hunting wolves. The patriarchs and their relatives regretfully suspend the fighting and repair to a clan stronghold for a square dance. Between sets they hold spitting contests in the moonlight or mournfully intone Elizabethan ballads in purest Shakespearean idiom. When every keg of white lightning has been emptied, each man gathers up a rifle that saw service earlier and followed by his twelve year old bride carrying a tub of clothes and two buckets of water walk nine miles up the holler to his cabin.
Downing such an exaggeration is not even necessary. In these hills, there really is rugged, homespun quality about these mountain folk. They appreciate a good pocketknife, a true rifle, and a cold-nosed hound. They look upon exceptional skill with an ax or a gun as an art. They take for granted an ability to “read sign” along creek banks, or to find a mule that has strayed in the woods.