Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
“Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Cola”, Grandmaw Ev hollered as she saw our truck pull into her driveway.
All of us kids hollered back, “Pepsi Cola!"
I remember we used to go visit Grandmaw Ev quite often when I was a kid. Her real name was Eva Lena, but everyone called her “Ev”. She was really my great-grandmother, but since her daughter (my grandmaw) died when I was really little, Grandmaw Ev became my only Grandmother on that side of my family. I remember her as being really loud. Grandmaw Ev only had one volume to her voice, gentle talk or whispering were not in her repertoire. It didn’t matter if she saw you in a crowd of a hundred people, she’d holler out at you at the top of her lungs and come and discuss some recent event that she just had to tell you about. People said that’s where we Burns kids got our big mouths, that when we got to going, we were almost as loud as Grandmaw Ev! In retrospect, I don’t reckon we were any more or any less loud than any other passel of kids, unless you count the fact that most times, people heard us coming long before that saw us.
I suspect that’s how Grandmaw Ev knew we were coming, she heard us coming up the ridge long before we wound our way around the mountain road to her house. She always made sure she had pop to give us, and she was a Pepsi drinker. I remember how she used to look at the bottles of Pepsi Cola and say, “I have sugar so bad the doctor won’t let me drink real Pepsi anymore, that’s why I have diet.” Even at my young age, I found this funny since Grandmaw Ev would say this while drinking a Diet Pepsi and eating a big piece of chocolate pie.
My Dad lived with Grandmaw Ev and Granddad Opie up until he was 10 years old. That’s when Granddad Opie died from an accident while working on the State Road Commission. So my Dad had a special place in Grandmaw Ev’s heart, and since I was his child, I reckon I got some special attention from her as well.
I remember one Christmas, it was right after my Grandmaw Henry died (Grandmaw Henry was Grandmaw Ev’s daughter), we went to visit Grandmaw Ev. I can still remember as plain as day us pulling up in that old truck and seeing Grandmaw Ev standing there in an old cotton dress with her hands on her hips and hollering, “Well, if it ain’t the Burns family. Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Cola?” It was never, “Hello” or “How do you do?” it was Grandmaw Ev’s way to just cut right to the meat of the matter with “Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Cola?”
I recall as we got out of the truck bed (yes, even in the wintertime, we traveled in the truck bed) she gave all of us kids a hug and a kiss, and told us to go on into the kitchen and get us something to eat. I suspect Grandmaw Ev knew we were coming for a visit, but I don’t know that for sure. In any case, she had her kitchen table plumb full of cakes and cookies and pies, and bottles upon bottles of Diet Pepsi and Pepsi Cola. After talking outside for a few minutes with my Granddad, my Dad and my Mom, Grandmaw Ev came into the kitchen and she had tears in her eyes. All of us kids looked at her, kind of puzzled-like and wondering what was the matter, but she reassured us by saying it was just because she was so happy to see us all. I reckon it was probably more like she really missed her daughter Bunny, as this would have been the first Christmas since she had passed away.
Winter in Germany Valley
All of us kids were really laying our ears back eating all of those cakes and pies and cookies that Grandmaw Ev had made, and we had all had at least two big bottles of Pepsi by then, when Grandmaw asked us all to come into the living room. We did, of course, and I remember Grandmaw Ev grabbed me up and carried me in since I was the youngest. In the living room, around her little cedar Christmas tree with the handmade ornaments, she had a gift for each of us. Well, we thought we had all died and went to heaven, because even though Grandmaw Ev was so nice to us, she had never gotten us anything for Christmas before this. I now know she probably didn’t get gifts for her grandchildren because there were simply so many of them and you couldn’t very well get one something and not all of the others.
Grandmaw Ev went to the presents and picked them up one by one and handed them out to each of us kids, telling us to wait until everyone had their present before opening them. Soon, all of the presents were handed out and she gave us the go-ahead to tear into them, and soon our vision was obscured by a massive cloud of floating paper and ribbons.
To our surprise, in each of the packages was a little bag of loose candy. Various flavors of hardtack, peanut brittle, circus peanuts, little caramels with cream in the middle, filled candies and the like filled each bag. Even I understood what this meant, this wasn’t meant to be just a bag of candy, it was Grandmaw Ev’s way of reminding us that my Grandmaw Henry was still with us. You see, every year for as long as any of us could remember, Grandmaw Henry would go down to Rig, West Virginia, at Dick Riggleman’s store and she would buy all different types of loose Christmas candies to give to the kids as a gift. That wasn’t part of her gift, that was her whole gift, and everyone loved it. And this year, even thought it was our first Christmas since Grandmaw Henry had passed away, Grandmaw Ev’s thoughtfulness reminded us that Grandmaw Henry would never truly be gone from us as long as we remembered her. Looking back, that little sack of candy may have been the best Christmas gift that I ever received, and to think of it still reminds me of the kindness and love that Grandmaw Ev had for all of us kids.
Christmas Day at the Burns household.
So this Christmas, I wish you and yours the very best of the best, and I hope you will take a few moments to ponder on the past and count your blessings. I, for one, will be remembering Grandmaw Henry, Grandmaw Ev and all of those who have passed on since them, and when the family is gathered together on Christmas Day, I just may rekindle more memories by shouting, “Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Cola”?
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
From start to finish, this CD held my attention and I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for what would next transpire. I wanted to coin this CD as "raw perfection", but there is nothing raw about it. It is simply perfection. The recording quality is excellent, Granny Sue's voice is excellent, and this is obviously a masterful collection of stories and ballads as told by the master.
The depth of this recording is outstanding. The gentle, soothing voice of Granny Sue immediately transported me across time and space to my granddad's house, when storytelling of this caliber was commonplace. Sadly, many of the old-timey storytellers of my youth are gone, and with them many of the stories they kept alive with each retelling. I am grateful to have found a recording that captures that mountain excellence that I had long thought was lost.
From the opening story of "Wizard Clipp" to a soulful acapella version of the Appalachian power ballad, "Pretty Polly", Granny Sue keeps listeners spellbound. As she works through "The Holly River Ghost" and on into "Sidna Davis", you become one with the stories and, I assure you, you will be hanging on every word. This wonderful CD closes with a version of "The Greenbrier Ghost", perhaps the most famous of all West Virginia ghost stories, that will draw you in so completely that you will begin to believe that Zona Shue is the girl next door.
The Appalachian Storytelling on this CD is second to none, the traditional mountain ballads are sublime. One can clearly tell after listening to this offering that Granny Sue has spent countless hours honing her craft and forging into existence a powerful recording which captures the true essence of Appalachia. I cannot say enough nice things about this masterpiece.
At the very reasonable price of $14.95 (shipping included), I urge everyone to take advantage of this exquisite work of art.
I highly recommend it to the readers of this blog, it is quite simply Appalachian Storytelling at its best.
Visit Granny Sue's Storytelling Store for ordering information, you'll be glad you did.
Friday, November 20, 2009
We inevitably work our way over to the far corner of the farm, where the crows alight in the tree's and notify all creatures great and small of our presence there. We don't mind, we like the crows and watch their antics with awe. The far corner of the farm is the most inaccessible part of the property, and it is here that unwary passersby report strange happenings. People witness everything from Ol' Fon, the goat man, to catching a fleeting glimpse of a mountain lion. Dad and I usually see sign of the big, lumbering bear which makes its home in this part of the farm.
To get to the far corner of the farm, we walk through the enormous open fields, long ago cleared of rocks. These rocks were hand-picked by countless hands. Gigantic piles of rocks can be found at regular intervals throughout the fields. We remember our great-grandfathers, Fon Lawrence and Alfred Kile, who worked this land. We know that their hands toiled this farm into prosperity. It is good to remember.
In between the fields there is a low place, an almost holler that hasn't quite made it there. In this sheltered spot, an apple orchard was planted generations ago. Here, the fierce mountain winds don't reach, and it is noticably warmer than on the hilltops on each side of the almost holler. The apple orchard still produces though it has been years since it has been tended to, only now the deer and other wildlife enjoy the harvest. We still find a few late season heritage apples still clinging to the tree, which we pick and eat. The apple have a wonderful flavor and we comment how these apple taste so much better than those old hybrid things that we are forced to purchase in the grocery store these days. We recall some of the old ways and try to remember more.
Further up on the mountain, in the highest meadows, just below the jutting out of the North Mountain rocks, there is a little glen too far above the frost line to produce agriculturally but still fertile. It is here that the tree's grow to enormous heights, and it gives the impression that you are walking through forests of yesteryear, before they were logged off to fill the coffers of some far-off corporation. Probably only the inaccessibility of these forest giants saved them from the axe. They are quite a sight to see, some of these behemoths would take 7 or 8 men, linking hands with arms outstretched, to reach around them. Dad and I talk about what a terrific crash this forest giant must have made when it fell to the ground. We wonder if it was old age or a great storm that brought down this King from his forest crown. It must have been huge, because the tree's around it still haven't managed to reach the size of other tree's nearby, undoubtedly their growth was suppressed by the massive crown of the giant. We try to remember when all of the forest in these hills rivaled these remnants of history.
Finally, as we start to walk off the mountain, we see this lone tree stump in a grown over meadow. Apparently cut down a few years back, this hollow stump is now the home of a tree gnome. What? You don't believe in tree gnomes? haven't you heard, the hills of my home are magical! All we have to do is remember.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
And wears out its welcome all too soon.
Something magical begins to take place
That rekindles memories across time and across space.
There's nothing like it so far as I know,
That wondrous sight of the very first snow!
Special thanks to Cousin Heather for sharing these photo's with us.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
The Burns kids usually won for our costumes, primarily because Mom would help us make them. She told us we won because we had homemade costumes. I'm sure this was just her way of re-assuring us that our costumes were as good as everyone else's, who usually had store-bought costumes. Mom would let us decide what we wanted to dress up as for Halloween, and then she'd give us idea's on how to make that costume the best it could be.
I especially remember one year, I was probably in 2nd grade, and I couldn't make up my mind what to be for Halloween. I wanted to go scary, but the year before I was a vampire, and I didn't want to repeat that one two years in a row (although I made a fairly decent vampire).
Me as a vampire, a few year after this story took place.
My aunts told me to dress up like some movie star, primarily because they were all in love with Don Johnson and whatever the flavor of the month happened to be at that time. My Uncle Tom wanted me to be a motorcycle driver, because he was going through that phase and for some reason constantly watched "Any Which Way You Can" on our old disc player. Everyone I asked for help with coming up with an idea seemed to give me idea's that I just didn't care for.
When the annual Halloween Party was growing close (only a week away), there had been some commotion at school. My Aunt Aim had gotten into a fight with another girl and Mom and my granddad had to go into school to meet with the principal about it. Well, we Burns' have always been clannish and when one of us were in trouble, all of us were in trouble. When the time of the appointment came around, and we knew Mom and my Granddad were at the principal's office, all of us kids just walked out of class and right into the school office where the secretary was located. We were all going to attest that the fight was not my Aunt Aim's fault. Of course, all of our teachers were right behind us. Me, always being the mouthy one, and because I was the pet pig, said to my teacher when she kept telling me to return to my classroom or face the consequences, "Why don't you go somewhere where somebody wants to see you." Well that just threw the fat in the fire. That teacher started yelling at me, but my Aunt Tam quickly came to my rescue. She told my teacher, "He ain't a damn dog and you aint gonna talk to him like one." Well that just further infuriated the teacher, to the point where she was so mad that she was shaking. The school secretary knew us and how we were really good kids at heart, and knew that we were all there simply to take up for our Aunt Aim, told the teacher, "Why don't you go on back to your classroom and I'll have the principal take care of this." Well that got the teachers off our backs, and the secretary told us to have a seat until the meeting was over. Well, we didn't wait, we all barged into the meeting in the principals office and all started telling how that other girl was always picking on my Aunt Aim and how the other girl threw the first punch, and it wasn't my Aunt Aim's fault that she had "cleaned up on the girl who's mouth overloaded her ass". (Those were my Aunt Tam's exact words...we found out long before that you couldn't get in trouble for cussing in the principals office). Well, Aunt Aim was exonerated but the rest of us got sent home for the day so the teachers could cool off a bit, which was fine with us because we had all planned on returning home with Mom and my granddad anyway. What we didn't figure on though was the teachers that we had ticked off were also the costume judges at the Halloween Party!
Me, my brother and Dad, about the time this story took place. As you can see by our dirty shirts, "We played hard."
But it wasn't long before one of us did think of this, and we all figured we wouldn't win anything at the Party. Especially considering word got around that the teachers had made their brags that none of us would win anything at the Halloween Party. When we went home and told everyone, we were all in a huff. Then, my granddad struck on a great idea. Mind you he wasn't much of a provider, but he did know how to get things accomplished when times called for it. He came up with a plan to scare them into letting us win. His plan involved scaring, but not necessarily threatening, the principal who lived just down the mountain from us. The principal loved to ride his horses out on the road every evening around 6 O'clock, and we all knew that. Furthermore, my granddad remembered how the principal's horses were scared of his loud truck (it really was a rattletrap), so much so, that the principal had asked my Granddad a few weeks before if he would turn off the motor of his truck when he passed them along the road, so that the horses wouldn't get so frightened by the truck. But, now that all of us kids were facing some culpability for our wayward actions, all bets were off. That evening around 6 O'clock, my granddad took a drive down the road, and sure enough, there was the principal riding along on his ol' skittish mare. Seizing the opportunity, my granddad raced alongside of him, revved the engine of the old truck and that mare took off like a bullet. Granddad said she took to bucking and kicking and that the principal eventually ended up laying in the side ditch. Granddad stopped and helped him up, and said to the principal, "It'd be a real shame if my kids and grandkids don't get a fair shake at that Halloween Party next week." The principal agreed that it would be, but nothing else was said between them.
As the party neared, I had fianlly decided on a french clown costume, Mom sewed me up one out of spare cloth, and she came to school and painted my face before the judging. Oh, but the teachers gave us all some drop-dead, dirty looks, but it was obvious to everyone with a set of eyes that the Burns kids really did have the best costumes of anyone there. We overheard the teachers (judges) talking amongst themselves and several of them were still not going to allow us to win anything over what we had done the week prior to the party. Then the principal walked over to the judges, and whispered something to them. My teacher got so mad that she stormed off and refused to take part in the judging, but when the winners were announced, every last one of us Burns kids won some sort of prize!
As I recall, the prize for winning was a goodie bag and bragging rights. We all looked like cats who swallowed the proverbial canary when we lined up for photographs. Soon after being announced winners, Mom said it'd probably be best if we all "got out of Dodge" so we loaded up into the back of granddad's old pickup truck and made our way back up the mountain. I can still remember my granddad saying to me as we walked by the group of judges as we were leaving, "I reckon we showed them, didn't we Hackey?"
Whew! It's no wonder I was meaner than a striped-eyed snake!
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
I have been to the Eighth Circle of Hell and have returned to tell the tale. Just as Dante’s “Inferno” detailed the conscious fraud and treachery in the Eighth Circle of Hell, those same vices could be used to describe the Eighth Circle of Hell that I visited this past weekend. In case any of you are wondering, the Eighth Circle of Hell is not a place of mythology; rather, it is located just outside of the modern-day community of Sarah Ann, West Virginia.
Photo by Denny Tyler.
As my wife and I were driving down Route 44 through Logan County on our way to Iaeger in McDowell County, I witnessed poverty like I had never before seen. Everywhere there were remnants of a once thriving economy that had long since vanished. Crumbing homes with broken windows, horrible roads crisscrossed by abandoned rail lines, and countless boarded up stores and businesses. I couldn’t help but notice the irony. Around every bend in the road there was another coal facility, just bulging with the wealth of the mountains. How could this be? How could there be so much obvious wealth in one place with so very little of that wealth benefitting the very location from which it was being exploited? Then, I looked up on the ridgelines and mountaintops that surrounded the roadway, and I saw the problem…mountaintop removal.
While the mines that pervade the area are producing as much coal as ever, these mines no longer require manpower to extract the coal. Though the current stock prices of coal companies indicate that the industry is booming (despite what we hear on the news), it is in fact, a jobless coal boom. Only the coal companies are making any money off of the coal these days, and the people of the coalfields are once again left out in the cold. The people of the southern coalfields are not the types to just sit around and wait for a hand-out, and on our trip you could tell that the people we encountered were hardworking people who have simply fell on hard times. But with only ONE option for employment, where do these people go when that option is no longer available?
The “lucky” few who do manage to find a job on these large equipment intensive mine sites are still faced with the no-win situation of destroying their communities in order to work there. Just as was the case 100 years ago, when the UMW was trying to organize coalfield workers, coal was not then, nor is it now, a friend to southern WV! Whenever I see a bumper sticker that reads, “Friends of Coal,” I want to ask the person driving the vehicle, “Do you by any chance remember Cabin Creek? Paint Creek? Matewan? Blair Mountain?” Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to reserve my friendship for people who deserve it, and I typically don’t befriend inanimate minerals. I can’t help but wonder if the whole Friends of Coal campaign is merely a means of mass communication among the ignorant? Obviously the people who carry this message are ignorant of their history, their heritage and their future!
However, like many who are opposed to MTR, I am not diametrically opposed to coal mining. In fact, I realize that it is a fact of life in the monoeconomies of the central Appalachian coalfields and that, in fact, it would be immoral to stop all coal mining in central Appalachia. Still, I will say it just makes good sense to obtain the coal from underground and not by mountaintop removal methods. There is a readily available workforce just waiting to again be employed by the coal industry. If Coal really is good for West Virginia, as the industry and the bought-politicans readily tout, then the mining of coal should be conducted in such a way as to maximize the employment of West Virginians. Only in this manner will coal revenue truly increase the tax base and improve the standard of living for the average West Virginian.
You might ask, “But what can be done?” “Is it fair to judge the situation at face value?” Is it fair to say, “If you don’t like it, then leave” as so many coal industry advocates spout? I ask you this, why should someone have to leave their ancestral home simply so that someone else can draw a paycheck from its destruction? Only in central Appalachia can the victim be made out to be the villain! Why should corporate interests be given superiority over the value of human life and individual property rights? I recently heard someone say, “We don’t live where you mine coal, you mine coal where we live. We were here first.” That statement is so very true. A real mountaineer will recognize the problem and fight to make it better instead of cutting and running, like the perpetrators of MTR do.
The majority of problems currently associated with mountaintop removal are clearly human rights issues, as it is chock full of violations on that front. So why do so many see mountaintop removal only as an environmental problem? Is it because it is hard to paint human rights violations when they primarily involve poor, white families, or is it simply because it is easier to villainize “environmental extremists”? If it is the former, that white people are not poor, or cannot be discriminated against, then I invite you to visit the southern West Virginia communities that I visited this weekend. You see, the social justice issues in the coalfields are not racially motivated, but rather, they are based on simple economics. We’re poor, so we don’t matter. Yes, class warfare is alive and well in the central Appalachian coalfields.
But all is not hopeless, I did see a few glimmers of hope on my trip through the coalfields. For example, in Gilbert, West Virginia, I saw a few brave citizens trying their best to break the stranglehold of the monoeconomy perpetrated by the coal industry by taking up the banner of tourism. These people were trying their best to cater to the influx of visitors to the Hatfield/McCoy Trail. In spite of all the efforts there, I see one big catch-22, a community cannot have a tourism industry when mountaintop removal is destroying the very thing these people are coming to visit…the mountains. Now I know the claims, that the Hatfield/McCoy trail is partially built on old strip mines and without the coal industry leaving this abandoned mine land to the state, the trail system would not be possible. That is a faulty argument and is the equivalent of saying that Coca-Cola wouldn’t exist without obese people to drink it! There is already more than enough abandoned strip mines in southern West Virginia to have 100 Hatfield/McCoy trails.
After my visit to the coalfields, the bottom line of the matter is the residents of these communities desperately need roads, and they need them yesterday. I know we’ve all heard the line from, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” where George Clooney comments that the little town he was in was a geographical oddity because it was 2 weeks from anywhere. Well, many of these little communities share that geographical oddity because they are 2 hours from anywhere. A successful community has a solid infrastructure. Good roads are the cornerstone of this infrastructure. For businesses to excel, there must be a good tranpsortation system. While these tourism entrepreneurs in Gilbert are laying the foundations and hedging their bets that a new day is dawning in the coalfields, it is up to the rest of us to demand that funds be allocated to advancing the economic conditions of the coalfields. Without good roads and the economic diversification that comes with them, these citizens of the southern West Virginia coalfields will remain virtual slaves and a captive workforce for the coal industry that continues to use fewer and fewer workers.
But don’t be mistaken. These are not a broken people, and to realize this one but has to look into the eyes of the children. For too long, these areas have remained forgotten and the people written off as lost causes. The children tell a different story. These kids truly are the hope of the future, but they must be encouraged when they are young. The inquisitiveness and intelligence of these children rival any in the nation, but without nurturing these hopes will die. There is a stark difference between the hopes and dreams of children in the coalfields and the twenty-somethings that remain in this area. I have seen this firsthand, and it made me wonder what went on in that space of time to completely eradicate that optimism? Could it be the 130+ years of oppression wrought by the coal industry? Continually being told (and shown) that you and your land are good for nothing except coal mining, and then being told that you need to keep your mouth shut if your opinions differ from those of the coal industry, has to take its toll on any human psyche. For far too long, the people of the central Appalachian coalfields have been America’s forgotten people. It is shameful that the very people who have sacrificed the most (and continue to sacrifice) for the prosperity of the United States, have received so very little.
Still, the seeds of oppression have sprouted into the flower of discontent, and the southern West Virginia coalfields now finds itself at a crossroads. No longer will it depend on a one resource economy. No longer will it rely on corporate politicians. No longer will its citizens sit idly by and watch their heritage be destroyed for the benefit of some faraway place. No longer will we accept being second-class citizens. Standing with us at this crossroads are the spirits of mountaineers long since passed; from Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone; to Michael Stoner and Mitchell Clay; from Devil Anse and Smilin’ Sid Hatfield; to Mother Jones and Governor William C. Marland. Their presence strengthens and unites us, and they root us in the knowledge that we are as much a part of this rugged land as the coal that is being ripped from the mountaintops.
Photo by Denny Tyler
Let’s stand together on this issue of economic diversification in the coalfields and demand better of our elected officials. No matter where you are from, contact your elected officials by email or letter, better yet call them and tell them your mind! If they continue to refuse to address this grave injustice, then I ask you to join me in actively campaigning against them (regardless of political party) in the next election. The coalfields are at a critical point in its history, and a changing of the guard may be just what is needed to save the coalfields from the coal industry.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
"October" by West Virginia poet, Grace Yoke White, from her 1953 book "Unhoarded Gold".
What does it matter if my house is not swept,
Or my beds placed to air in a hygenic way?
For in through my window a birdcall crept,
And a red-throated songster hopped near to say:
"Come, share the joy of the fine autumn weather;
The goldenrod gleams near bypaths and roadways;
While tall, flaming asters, like purple heather,
Keep time as they nod at the birds through the day."
Come stand 'neath the trees, let the leaves drift around you--
The red and the brown, the crimson and gold;
Come, roam out of doors, in the sun and the dew;
Come, forget that time passes, that days will grow cold.
Come out in the sun and the soft autumn moon;
Let's enjoy the bright days and nights as they pass;
Come, gather the beauties that fade all too soon;
Come out in the open while the season lasts.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Granddaddy said there was always laughter and some running jokes going on in the timber camps. He told that one of the best tricks some of the older wood hicks would pull on the new boys just coming into the camps was to pull the humongous gray lice out of their beards and hold them between their fingers and talk to the lice like they were a favorite dog. They'd pet the louse, and talk to the louse, and then reach it out to the "green" boy like they expected him to pet and talk to the louse too! When inevitably the newcomers would shy away from the huge louse, the old wood hick would stick it back in his beards and tell the louse to "not pay any mind to people who didn't know any better." Granddaddy said they pulled that trick every year and it never did get old!
Speaking of the big gray body lice that were common in the timber camps, Granddaddy told of how some of the men would put a big louse under the glass face of their pocket watch just for the novelty of it, and they would keep the louse that like for months. It was a thing of pride to have the biggest louse!
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
As is the case with many Appalachian Mountain Ballads, "Poor Ellen Smith" is based on real events. In this case, the locale was Mount Airy, North Carolina. In 1894, a town drunk and ne'er-do-well named Peter DeGraff had an ill-fated love affair with Ellen Smith, who reportedly may have been mentally challenged. After a few months of the affair, Ellen Smith became pregnant by DeGraff, who then wanted nothing to do with her. It was said that Ellen could not understand his rejection of her. Their baby died at birth, and Ellen soon after took to following DeGraff around town.
After a few months of this, DeGraff sent Ellen Smith a letter that asked her to meet him in a secluded area where they could talk. The letter was worded in such a way that Smith reportedly believed that DeGraff wanted to reconcile with her, and she was elated at the prospect. However, when Ellen arrived at the designated location, DeGraff pulled out a gun, shot her through the chest and left her alone where she bled to death.
It was later reported that Degraff confessed to the crime while awaiting the gallows shortly before he was hanged for the murder of Ellen Smith. During the confession, when asked if Ellen Smith had any reaction to being shot, Degraff said that she looked stunned and that she looked at him and said, "Lord have mercy on me" and then fell to the ground where she later died.
As with most Appalachian folk ballads, there is more than one version of the song. I'll include the words to two different versions of the story.
Here are the lyrics to the first version.
Poor Ellen Smith
Poor Ellen Smith how she was found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground
Her clothes were all scattered and thrown on the ground
And blood marks the spot where poor Ellen was found
They picked up their rifles and hunted me down
And found me a-loafin' in Mount Airy town
They picked up the body and carried it away
And now she is sleeping in some lonesome old grave
I got a letter yesterday and I read it today
The flowers on her grave have all faded away
Some day I'll go home and say when I go
On poor Ellen's grave pretty flowers I'll sow
I've been in this prison for twenty long years
Each night I see Ellen through my bitter tears
The warden just told me that soon I'll be free
To go to her grave near that old willow tree
My days in this prison are ending at last
I'll never be free from the sins of my past
Poor Ellen Smith how she was found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground
And here is the second version of the ballad. As you will see, this version is more sympathetic to Degraff than the first version.
Poor Ellen Smith
Come all kind people, my story to hear,
What happen'd to me in June of last year.
It's of poor Ellen Smith and how she was found,
A ball in her heart, lyin' cold on the ground.
It's true I'm in jail, a prisoner now,
But God is here with me and hears every vow.
Before Him I promise the truth to relate
And tell all I know of poor Ellen's sad fate.
The world of my story's no longer a part,
But knows I was Ellen's own lovin' sweetheart.
They knew my intention to make her my wife,
I loved her too dearly to take her sweet life.
I saw her on Monday, before that sad day
They found her poor body and took her away;
That she had been killed never entered my mind
Till a ball through her heart they happened to find.
Oh who was so cruel, so heartless, so base
As to murder poor Ellen in such a lonesome place?
I saw her that morning so still and so cold
And heerd the wild stories the witnesses told.
I choked back my tears, for the people all said
That Peter Degraph had shot Ellen Smith dead!
My love is in her grave with her hand on her breast
The bloodhound and sheriff won't give me no rest.
They got their Winchesters and hunted me down,
But I was away in ole Mount Airy town.
I stayed off a year and I prayed all the time
That the man might be found whut committed the crime.
So I could come back in my character save
Ere the flowers had faded on poor Ellen's grave.
So I come back to Winston my trial for to stand
To live or to die as the law might command.
Ellen sleeps calm in the lonely church yard
While I look trough the bars --- God knows it is hard!
I know they will hang me --- at least, if they can,
But I know I will die as an innocent man.
My soul will be free when I stand at the bar
Where God tries his cross, then, there, like a star,
That shines in the night, will an innocent shine
Oh, I do appeal to the Justice of Time!
So which version do you like best? Do you have another version that you like better?
Here is a Youtube video of "Poor Ellen Smith" being performed by a distant cousin of mine, Wilma Lee Cooper, star of the Grand Ole Opry.
Monday, August 17, 2009
I thought I'd share a little bit from the book "Our Roots Are In The Mountains" by a distant cousin of mine, Jocie (Thompson) Armentrout. The book details the local heritage and early customs of Pendleton & Randolph Counties in West Virginia. This little book has so much information in it, you won't be sorry if you can find a copy of it.
This was the case in my family as well, only it was long after the Civil War period. My grandfather, Richard Henry Burns, was one of these babies who wasn't given a name until he was the age of 5. My granddad just went by "Baby" Burns, or sometimes "B. Burns" on records of the time. His parents were waiting until he grew into a name, and since they lived way up on the mountain, there really wasn't any pressing need to name him. When my granddad was five years old, the county forced my great-grandparents to name their son, but only because my great-grandmaw was pregnant again and they could only have one unnamed child at a time. So, they studied on it, and named my granddad Richard (nobody knew where the name came from) and they gave him the middle name "Henry" after his great-uncle Henry J. "Uncle Sonny" Burns. I got my middle name from my granddad, so by diffusion I got my middle name from Uncle Sonny as well. I often wonder though if anyone ever called Uncle Sonny "Sun Burns"?
Also, why did my great-grandparents, after having 5 years to come up with a name, hang the name Richard on my granddad? With the last name of Burns, you have to be careful what name you give a child (we all know Dick is short for Richard). But it didn't stop there, oh no, my Dad was also named Richard (Richard Junior Burns) but he goes by Jake! Then, my mom and dad named my brother Richard Jason who goes by Jason. So none of the three generation of Richard Burns' were ever known as Dick Burns though; they went by Rich, Jake and Jason, respectively. I suppose I am fortunate to have been the 2nd born and got the middle name of of my grandfather rather than his first name. To think, all of these names are simply the result of the county forcing my great-grandparents to name their 5 year old son!
Again, I can relate this to my family. Family stories maintain that my great-great-great granddaddy George Burns was land rich but money poor and would "sell" land for whatever he needed or wanted. Land was seen as an inexhaustible resource. It is told that you could stand up on top of North Mountain and as far as you could see down in the valley was the land belonging to George Burns. Stories tell how he sold the back side of North Mountain (about 500 acres) for a horse and buggy, and how he traded the North Mountain flats, known as Buffalo Bottom (about 200 acres), for a bottle of whiskey! All of this land now sells for at least $1,000 acre, and a great deal of it is now part of the Monongahela National Forest.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Cows on the farm.
Nobody ever knew where Jack and Jenny came from, they were on the farm when we moved there several years before. Mom and Dad asked the man who owned the farm about to how old Jack and Jenny were, and he said he didn’t know. He said he was 45 years old and from the time he was a kid, he always remembered Jack and Jenny being there. I also remember in the building out from the house, near where we had a doghouse for our Saint Bernard named Tuffy, there was hanging on the wall two old leather harnesses. The leather was cracked and the metal tarnished but I recall that someone, probably my granddad, decided to oil up the leather and clean up the tarnished metal so we could use the harnesses on Jack and Jenny. Well, when they were cleaned up, the metal turned out to be brass and boy did those harnesses ever shine. Even I realized just how pretty Jack and Jenny were in those harnesses, to me they seemed to step a little higher and seem a bit more regal whenever they wore them.
The building where the harnesses were found was near here.
But like I said, Jack and Jenny led a pretty good life on the farm, but Lord could they ever get on your nerves with the incessant nuzzling of each other. It was day in and day out, every time you'd see them, they’d just be standing around nuzzling each other. I remember complaining about them to my Granddad, and he would just tell me, “They’re old. It’s hard to tell how long they’ve been here. Just let 'em be.” They weren’t any fun to aggravate anyway so aside from the occasional thrown rock, I typically ignored them. That is until the one day when we found Jenny laying dead in the road. Jack was standing beside of her and was nuzzling her.
Well as you might imagine, moving a dead donkey is a chore. Whenever a large animal would die on the farm, we’d get the tractor and using a chain, we’d drag the carcass back into the woods to an out of the way location where the foxes and possums and buzzards would clean it up. We never buried the large animals, probably because have you ever tried to bury a cow or a donkey? But it just so happened that the part of the road that Jenny died in was in part of the road that we couldn’t get around with the tractor. And to get to the place back in the woods where we dragged the dead carcasses to, we had to go down this road. But it was blocked. The road was narrow there, and one side dropped into the holler and the other side was a steep hillside so there was no way to get around it. My granddad thought he could drive the tractor over Jenny but us kids wouldn’t hear of that, so he had to drive the tractor all the way to the other end of the farm, then down the main road to the gate at the end of the farm road that led up into our farm…and back to the spot the road where Jenny lay dead. It was about a 4 mile trip to go around the farm just to return back to nearly the exact same spot that you had just left.
The old farm road.
But that done, a chain was quickly hooked to Jenny’s carcass and it was dragged back into the far corner of the farm woods. Jack closely followed along behind, head hanging low the whole time. Of course, we felt sorry for the old feller, but to us kids, this was prime entertainment so we followed along behind Jack and the tractor and thus became a makeshift funeral procession for a dead donkey.
After reaching a secluded spot back in the wood to leave the carcass, it was quickly unchained and left there. A few of the kids jumped on the tractor for the return trip, and the rest of us walked back. But everyone noticed that Jack was not accompanying us back home, he just remained there beside of Jenny’s carcass, nuzzling her.
The far corner of the farm woods.
The next morning, Jack didn’t show up for his morning bucket of oats, so we all figured he was still back in the woods with Jenny’s carcass. Mom told us to take the bucket of oats back to him and let him eat, and she told us to get a halter and lead him up to the pond for a drink of water. She reminded us to be gentle with Jack because as she put it "ol’ Jack is probably going to worry hisself to death." Well, us kids took off up through the meadow by the house, which was a shortcut to the far corner of the farm woods, and we made our way back to the spot where we figured Jack would be. Sure enough, we found him standing there beside of Jenny’s now bloating carcass, still nuzzling her to get up. We hollered for Jack to come and eat, and we waved the bucket of oats in the air for him to see. Jack turned to look at us, and even took a couple of steps toward us, but then he turned back to Jenny’s carcass, nuzzled her, and then just collapsed. We then took off running to him, hollering like a pack of banshee’s, but as we found out when we reached him, Jack was dead.
The old farmhouse.
We ran home and told Mom what had happened, and she didn’t really believe us, I reckon she figured that Jack probably just fell over from exhaustion or something. But she and Granddad got in the truck and drove back to the far corner of the farm woods, where she discovered that Jack was indeed dead, and he had fell right beside of Jenny. Mom was quick to point out to everyone how Jack and Jenny’s muzzles were touching. Mom stated matter-of-factly that Jack had grieved himself to death, and she commented that old people are like that too. She told us that when an old man or an old woman dies after they have been married for a long time, the other one would soon follow them to the grave. She continued with how it just seemed like old people can’t get along without each other, and that they seem to lose their will to live. Then she looked back at Jack and Jenny and sadly said, “Jack just didn't want to live without Jenny. Well anyway, they are better off now.”
Monday, August 10, 2009
I was awakened by thunder in the Eleventh hour.
I opened my eyes to a wondrous new world.
The air was crisp, and a bird was singing
A song I had never before heard.
The scent of Calla Lilies permeated my bedchamber
Carried by a gentle breeze through my open window.
The eiderdown pillow beneath my head
Was fluffed to perfection and beckoned me to rest.
Though the taste of regret lingered upon my tongue,
It was overshadowed by the perfection of the moment.
The sweet solitude of calm and relaxation
Came upon me and granted a long-sought gift.
Had it not been for the thunder of the Eleventh hour,
I would have been asleep when the lightning struck.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Many locations throughout West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio bear his name, but I wonder how many remember the man?
Legend has it that Logan was a friend to the white settlers, he gave them food and shelter when they needed it, and even went out of his way to maintain peace among the tribes and the white settlements. It was only when a party of white men led by Daniel Greathouse brutally murdered Logan's brother, wife, daughter and other kin did Logan seek vengeance. It is recorded that Logan's daughter was pregnant at the time, and her baby was cut out of her and beat against some nearby rocks, and the men proceeded to torture her to death. They say when Logan found the bodies of his fallen kinsman, he fell to the ground in a dead faint.
Logan proved to be as capable in war as he was a bulwark for peace, and his actions are believed to have been one of the leading causes of Dunmore's War.
However, Logan erroneously thought that Michael Cresap was the man responsible for murdering his family, but it was later discovered that the brutal act was the handiwork of the Daniel Greathouse party.
When the white settlements, seeking protection and revenge against Logan and all the tribes in the region, sought military protection, Logan once again tried to maintain peace. He seemed to be trying to make everyone understand that his actions were his alone and not the concerted efforts of neighboring tribes. I don't know about you but I can hear the pain in Logan's words in this letter directed at Michael Cresap:
"To Captain Cressap - What did you kill my people on Yellow Creek for? The white People killed my kin at Conestoga a great while ago, & I thought nothing of that. But you killed my kin again on Yellow Creek, and took my cousin prisoner. Then I thought I must kill too; and I have been three times to war since but the Indians is not Angry, only myself."
To me, it takes a decent man to stand up in such tumultuous times and claim responsibility for his actions. Especially considering the great hurt and injustice that had been visited upon Logan.
After the blood lust was wiped from Logan and when he believed the deaths of his kin had been properly avenged, Logan once again became a peaceful man and worked diligently to achieve peace in the Ohio Valley. Logan's desire for peace in the Ohio Valley was not achieved in his lifetime, or even within the generation that followed him. Logan was found murdered in his cabin in 1780. He was believed to have been murdered by a Native American who thought him to be too friendly with the white settlers.
Perhaps Logan is best remembered for the following speech, which he gave after avenging the deaths of his kinfolk.
"I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan's cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not? During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, 'Logan is the friend of the white men.' I had even thought to have lived with you but for the injuries of one man. Colonel Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood and unprovoked; murdered all the relations of Logan, not even sparing my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it; I have killed many; I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one."
I don't know about you, but I still mourn for Logan. I pray that he found peace.
For more information on the events of the times in which Logan lived, along with specific information on Logan himself, I highly recommend the book, "That Dark & Bloody River" by Allan Eckert.
Monday, August 3, 2009
I have previously posted similar folklore items and the readers of this blog seem to enjoy them, so I thought I'd give it another try.
Here's the list. Do you know of any other folk beliefs pertaining to gardening?
Eat sugar before planting fruit trees to make the fruit sweeter.
Apples with red spots inside means that the tree's root grew into the body of a murdered person.
Drive a rusty nail on the north side of the tree for better yields.
The number of seeds in an apple will be your lucky number.
Whip a poor yielding tree and it will bear better the next year.
Plowing on Good Friday will cause the ground to bleed.
Seeds planted on St. Patrick's Day grow better.
Gardens do better if seeds are planted on even-numbered days of the month.
Don't thank a person who gives you seeds or roots, or the plants will never grow.
Plant potatoes at night so the eyes don't see light.
If you laugh while planting corn, the kernels will have big gaps in them.
Planting peppers when you are mad makes the peppers grow hotter.
If a red-headed person plants peppers, they will be hotter than normal.
For a good crop of watermelons, crawl to the patch backwards on the first day of May.
Put a four-leaf clover in your shoe and make a wish. When you lose the clover, your wish will come true.
A five-leaf clover brings bad luck.
Grass won't grow where human blood has been spilled.
Catch a thistle seed, then blow it into the air. If it doesn't hit the ground before it gets out of sight, your wish will come true, but only if you don't tell anyone the wish.
Crushing rosemary into a glass of wine will boost mental powers.
Make a wish on a load of hay, but don't look until the load is out of sight, and the wish will come true.
Flowers which bloom out of season are evil.
Dreaming of thorns is bad luck.
Bury a hickory stick in a moist place, and it will turn to stone in seven years.
Weeping willows will bring the planter bad luck.
Conduct most of your garden chores during the waxing of the moon. Light nights make light crops: never plant when the moon is full.
All above-ground crops should be planted with the new moon.
Root crops should be planted during the last two days of a full moon.
If you burn potato peelings, your crop won't grow the next year.
Root crops should be planted under the sign of Taurus for quicker growth.
Seeds planted under Virgo will result in many leaves but not much fruit.
Sweet potatoes dug on a dark night will be sweeter and keep better.
It's bad luck to burn wood from a tree struck by lightning.
Planting on Friday is bad luck, unless the zodiac sign is right.
Tomatoes should be planted on Memorial Day.
Friday is a good day to plant crops which dangle from branches because Friday is hangman's day.
Don't plant seeds until after the apple trees bloom.
It's good luck to steal herbs.
Tobacco grows well if planted under the sign of Cancer.
Never plant under a north wind. Trees blossoming twice in a year brings bad luck.
When cutting wood, spit in your palms for good luck.
A snowy winter portends a good year for crops.
A saying for planting tobacco: "Some for you, some for I, some for the devil, some for the fly."
Hang a horseshoe in a fruit tree for a heavy crop.
After planting a hill of beans, press the soil with your foot for better luck.
If you point your finger at a cucumber bloom, the bloom will fall off.
Beans planted on dark nights will grow the best crops.
Plant beans early in the morning if you want to have the crop come in earlier in the season.
For a better cabbage crop, sew the seeds in your bedclothes on March 17th.
Corn should be planted under the new moon so that most of the growing will be done at the tip.
Wood cut on light nights will burn hotter.
Grass seed won't freeze if planted when the moon points down.
Corn planted under the waning moon grows slower but produces larger ears.
If onion bulbs are planted upside down, they will come out in China.
To keep away crows, kill one and hang it from a garden pole.
Onions should be planted in the old of the moon.
Trees are best trimmed in the full moon of February or November.
Peas should be planted as near to twelve noon as possible.
Tie a piece of white string across the garden to keep birds away.
Cut briars and weeds when the moon is waning to kill them.
Plant flowers under Virgo for the best blooms.
Corn should be planted when the dogwoods are in bloom and the poplar leaves
are as big as squirrel ears.
Wheat always ripens in the light of the moon, not the dark.
To make hydrangeas blue, put rusty nails at the roots. Plant watermelons before breakfast for best results.
Cobs from seed corn should be placed in running water and not burned.
If two people's hoes hit together, they will work in the same field next year.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
“Fetch me that least skillet,” Granny said. Nothing made me happier than when Granny made biscuits. I watched with wonderment as Granny expertly worked the dough and placed the cut out biscuits into the little skillet. “You learn by watching,” Granny stated. “Think maybe you can make these next time?”
Monday, July 20, 2009
Though I kept you, and you me,