Appalachian Music Fellowship 13

Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship
Day 13, June 17, 2009

The Song Catcher Competition

My colleague in the Special Collections & Archives, Penny Messinger, suggested “The Song Catcher Competition” phrase to describe the ballad-collecting craze that went on in the mountains (particularly in Kentucky) during the early decades of the 20th century. Yesterday’s post indicated some of the writers’ prejudices and all the hardships they were willing to “endure” in order to get an authentic ballad from a mountain singer. (Last weekend I heard a mountain-born actor/singer refer to these kinds of preservationists as “culture vultures.”)

Well, here’s a few more examples of how these collectors contributed to the long-term stereotypes of Appalachians; and then, I promise, I’m off this kick and onto something new tomorrow.

From a 1917 edition of New Jersey Education, Mellenger E. Henry writes:
“It should be kept in mind that these mountaineers of the South have not learned their songs from books, for often they cannot read nor write; nor have they books from which they might be learned. . . . They are naturally diffident and at first, sometimes suspicious. One must live with them, talk with them of their life, become a part of their family interest, and tactfully suggest, by the recitation of some tale or story, their own folk-songs. Once interested in romance and started in their songs of oral transmission, they are like to pour forth a well of literature unguessed of from people so simple.”

From a 1915 article in Harper’s Monthly called “Song-Ballets and Devils Ditties,” William Aspenwall Bradley writes:
“With such ignorance of what lies beyond the limits of their own little world, it is indeed remarkable that these simple-minded mountain folk should retain in their balladry the memory of so much that has long since passed out of their practical knowledge and experience.
In a primitive country, where pioneer conditions, indefinitely prolonged, have produced a well-nigh perfect democracy, they still sing of kings and queens, lords and ladies. Poverty is general there, yet they dream of wealth which they reckon in silver shillings and golden guineas. Cheap cotton prints have begun to take the place of good homespun linsey-woolsey, but such changes of fashion do not affect the secular tastes and habits of the damsel who still ‘dresses herself in silk so fine’ when she fares forth to seek her lover. The largest towns are scarcely more than villages, but the mind continues to dwell with complacency upon the glory of courts and cities. And where nothing less potent than sound ‘corn licker’ ever passes the lips of man, woman, or child who requires a stimulant, the wine-cup still, as of yore, goes round the festal board.”

Finally, this from a 1917 article in Current Opinion which details the toils of collectors
Loraine Wyman and Howard Brockway, who hunted for “the Lonesome Tune in the Wilds of Kentucky”:
“Mr. Brockway, together with Miss Loraine Wyman, both well-known figures in the musical life of New York, . . . tramped some 300 miles through the Kentucky wilds, ‘climbing mountains, fording streams, enduring superlative discomforts and . . . rebuffs from the suspicious inhabitants, but emerging at the end with something like eighty entrancing melodic specimens in their note-books, representing both the lonesome tunes and fast music, as they are called.’”

A photograph of Wyman and Brockway singing to an outdoor audience accompanies this article. The caption reads: “Loraine Wyman and Howard Brockway invaded the mountainous regions of Kentucky, and entered the most isolated regions, in order to obtain strange folksongs for the delectation of more sophisticated audiences.”

You know how when you are working on some project and everything you read or hear seems to have something to do with your work (or you tell yourself it does, anyway)? This evening I sat down with my copy of Appalachian Heritage. The current issue is dedicated to the work of Jim Wayne Miller, one of our best and fiercest bashers of mountain stereotypes. In this issue, Mary Ellen Miller tells of her husband’s fascination with ballads. When he learned that his wife’s family had a connection to “The Ballad of Lottie Yates,” (the murder of Mrs. Miller’s great aunt), “Jim went to the Carter County [Ky.] Courthouse and came back with documents we never knew existed. One of those was the marriage license of Carlotta Yates and the man who murdered her, her husband, Oscar Porter. Dad [Mrs. Miller’s father] held the document copy in his hand, wordless for a while. Then, ‘My father was 16 at the time. He told me she cried out, ‘He’s killed me, Daddy.’”

Here is Jim Wayne Miller’s poem “Harvest.” This poem is from The Mountains Have Come Closer (which should be in your library, dear reader) and from which I quoted part of Miller’s “Brier Sermon” on Day 11. “Harvest” is both protest and homage, pastiche and invention. It’s about a near perfect poem:


Now his whole life seemed weathered and old-fashioned.
When others spoke, their words made pictures
with gleaming surfaces and metal trim.
He spoke drafty pole barns and garden plots.
His customs had a mustiness, a smokehouse mold
about them; his shriveled wisdom hung like peppers
and shuckybeans from a cabin rafter.
Beliefs leaned back like doors with broken hinges,
stood sunken like a rotten springhouse roof.

Still, he thought of songs landlocked two hundred
years, living in coves and hollers, far from
home, by creeks and waterfalls, and springdrain
trickles,—songs that still remembered the salt salt sea
and held all past time green in the month of May
and made all love and death and sorrow sweet.

So he wasn’t sad to see his life gathered
up in books, kept on a shelf like dry seeds
in an envelope, or carried far off
like Spanish needles in a fox’s fur.
His people brought the salt sea in their songs;
now they moved mountains to the cities
and made all love and death and sorrow sweet there.

Heaviness was always left behind
to perish, to topple like a stone chimney.

But what was lightest lasted, lived in song.

–Jim Wayne Miller, The Mountains Have Come Closer
(“Harvest is also featured in the current issue of Appalachian Heritage.)

–from the Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Hutchins Library

Published by Marianne Worthington

Marianne Worthington is a poet, editor, and co-founder of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to the Appalachian region since 2009. She received the Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award for her poetry chapbook, Larger Bodies Than Mine. She was awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship at Berea College. She co-edited, with Silas House, Piano in a Sycamore: Writing Lessons from the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, a writing craft anthology from teachers at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop from the last 40 years. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oxford American, CALYX, Grist, Shenandoah, The Louisville Review, Appalachian Review, Cheap Pop, and Chapter 16, among other places. She lives in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and teaches communication studies, media writing, and journalism at University of the Cumberlands. Her poetry collection, The Girl Singer, is available from University Press of Kentucky, 2021.

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