Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Guest Blogger Sharyn McCrumb on the Roots of Appalachian Culture

A novel of a historian following the trail of
a young woman who escaped the Shawnee in 1799.
In my post of April 20, Deep Geographic Memory, Bagpipes, and Electronic Music, I mentioned New York Times bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb. It is my pleasure to share with you, courtesy of Sharyn, a piece that she wrote on the topic of how the early American settlers brought with them, as they journeyed west into the Appalachians, music and stories from England, Scotland, and Ireland. That culture, once transplanted, acquired small differences, but it reflected--and still reflects--the "old country", even as the Appalachians reflect the landscape of the hills and valleys that these settlers would've called their original home.

I thank Sharyn for giving me permission to reprint this! Please see her bio at the bottom of this post. You can learn more about her and her work at www.SharynMcCrumb.com and www.facebook.com/SharynMcCrumbAuthor.

Wayfaring Strangers

By Sharyn McCrumb 

from the 2017 Mountains of Music Magazine
for The Crooked Road, Virginia's Musical Heritage Trail

Copyright 2017 Sharyn McCrumb

My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
My home’s across the Blue Ridge Mountains
And I never expect to see you anymore.

They must have felt that way once—more than a century before that song was written—when the settlers rolled down the Great Wagon Road that followed the valleys between the wall of mountains that stretched on forever. When the settlers reached the middle of Virginia—about where Roanoke is today—some of them headed west on the Wilderness Road, ending up on the 18th century frontier, in southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and western North Carolina.

They, or their recent forebears, had already made one perilous journey in a lifetime, across the Atlantic from Scotland or Ireland or England, to settle in the New World, but the eastern seaboard was already getting crowded by the late eighteenth century, mostly full of the people they left Britain to get away from. (Besides: you could see the neighbors.) So they ventured deeper into the mountains, looking for a place that felt like home. They never knew how close they were to being back home; nearly two more centuries would pass before geologists put together the ancient puzzle of earth’s Triassic period to discover that millions of years ago the Appalachians had been part of those same mountains in Britain from which many of the settlers themselves had come.

The new people brought what they could from home—not material things, because the ships were small, so you had to pack light—but they carried with them everything they could fit into their heads, because memories were all they had left of the places they’d come from, and they treasured them. They handed down these memories to their children and grandchildren, which is why in 1914 musicologist Cecil Sharpe found the traditional folksongs he was looking for, not in Britain where they had originated, but in the southern Appalachians, where they were cherished remnants of the past.

Things changed a bit in the new world. If you came over with an unusual name—Rhys (Welsh) or O’Laoghaire (Irish) or McDiarmuid (Scots)—sooner or later some census taker would standardize you to “Reese,” “O’Leary,” and “McDermott.” The songs and stories got naturalized, too. The Wexford Girl became The Knoxville Girl, and Lady Margaret of the Child Ballad was demoted to Little Margaret over here, but the plots of the songs stayed the same, and the tunes were still recognizable. When The Lily of the West was composed, back in Ireland, the “West” was the coast of Ireland: Galway or Connemara. Many years later when people sang the song in America, the “West” they pictured was Kentucky (“When first I came to Louisville, some pleasure there to find…”)

You never know when the family resemblance is going to peek out at you. Years ago, I took a newly-arrived Scottish professor to an Appalachian storytelling festival. The speaker began a tale about an old farmer who was fishing in a mountain stream and caught a big old trout. As the story wound on to the part where the farmer found a gold ring in the belly of the fish, the Scottish professor began to nudge me with his elbow. Finally when the story ended, I asked him what he had wanted so urgently to tell me. “Right,” he said. “About that story the fellow told. First of all, it wasn’t an old farmer; it was St. Mungo of Glasgow; and it wasn’t a mountain stream; it was the Firth of Clyde. And it wasn’t a trout; it was a salmon. – But the rest of the story is correct.”

They brought their fiddle tunes from Scotland, their knowledge of whisky-making from Ireland, and their quilt patterns from a time before history began. (The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.)  But just as English timothy hay became Kentucky bluegrass in the New World, sooner or later almost everything that the settlers brought with them got a North American spin. We were a long way from where we started, but if you look closely, you can see where we hailed from.


Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb, an award-winning Southern writer, is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, including the New York Times best sellers The Ballad of Tom Dooley, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, and The Songcatcher. Ghost Riders won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature from the East Tennessee Historical Society and the national Audie Award for Best Recorded Book..        
       Sharyn McCrumb, named a Virginia Woman of History by the Library of Virginia and a Woman of the Arts by the national Daughters of the American Revolution, was given a merit award for literature by the West Virginia Library Association (2017) and the Mary Hobson Prize for Arts & Letters (2014). Her books have been named New York Times and Los Angeles Times Notable Books, and have been translated into eleven languages.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Quick: Your Life Is In Danger. What Do You Do?

"Your karate sucks, people!" barked our sensei. I looked around. Less than a dozen people in the class, almost all men, everyone wearing a gi, the traditional martial arts uniform. Everyone but me had a black belt in karate. I was a lowly purple belt, a level below brown belt and black belt. If Sensei thought the black belts were performing poorly, where did that leave me, I wondered.

This was my first class in Okinawan kobudo, the use of weapons as part of the Okinawan martial arts. Weapons kata are built on top of karate techniques, so if your karate "sucks", your kobudo is going to suck too.

I don't know how or why Sensei allowed me to participate in her training, but I was grateful. My karate rank was far above beginner but still far below expert. In the tradition of karate I was trained in, washin-ryu, learning weapons was almost exclusively for brown belts and black belts. The one exception I remember was kumite (fighting) katas using a tanbo (like a short stick). While my greatest interest had always been in sword katas, I felt privileged, and humbled, to take part in Sensei's kobudo classes.

Weapons in kobudo

Kobudo includes techniques involving the bo (staff), sai (a three-pronged truncheon), nunchaku, and tekko, among others. The kata I learned were focused primarily on the bo and sai. In my first class, I had no weapons and had to go through moves using "air weapons" (like playing "air guitar"). For my next class I used a wooden curtain rod that served me until I could purchase a "real" bo. Cheap chrome-plated sais were replaced by hand-forged sais from Okinawa, as soon as I could get my hands on them. Nunchakus were easy enough to obtain, but tekko had to be ordered from someone "who knew someone" who custom-made these, and I was warned that they could be considered illegal because of their resemblance to brass knuckles. (That was fine. It's not like I intended to keep them in the glove compartment of my car.)

When a small group of colleagues from work got together at lunchtime at the work gym to practice, we brought in rubber practice sais for fear that company security personnel might be nervous about us having "weapons" on company premises. It certainly felt silly to wave around rubber sais that flopped right and left and were always crooked.

A proportionate response to a threat

When I was a teenager, I picked up on what sounded like important martial arts advice. In a confrontation with someone, it is better to avoid rather than check, to check rather than hurt, to hurt rather than maim, and to maim rather than kill. Years later I googled where this advice came from. I was chagrined to learn it came from the TV show Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. Nevertheless, this advice made sense to me. A proportionate response was the objective.

So I was shocked when, in one of my weapons classes, Sensei told us if we were in a fight where an opponent had a weapon of any kind, our objective should be to kill.


Her rationale? Your life is in danger. If you don't subdue your opponent in the most decisive, conclusive way, you may die. I was hesitant to accept this philosophy, but who was I to question it? 

Training sadly comes to an end

I enjoyed the kobudo kata. They were long and intricate with precise choreography. And, I got a taste for sword katas when I attended a seminar in iaido, "the art of drawing the sword." I had no iaito (basically a blunt-edge katana) to use, so I used a wooden practice sword known as a bokken. In contrast to lengthy katas using the bo or sais, an iaido form is very short. But there is a high degree of ritual attached to it, from beginning to end, from the time one kneels and bows to the scabbarded sword as it lies crosswise on the floor in front of you, showing respect for it, to the time the sword is drawn, used to strike an imagined opponent, cleaned of the imagined blood, and returned to the scabbard. 

Though I was strongly interested in learning kobudo, in time the classes moved to a location so distant it was no longer practical for me to attend. I hated to give up training, but I had learned great respect for some of the simplest weapons. I still have my bo and my sais. I could no more part with these weapons than I could part with my karate belts, even if I don't engage in martial arts anymore. They are symbols whose meaning I find difficult to explain.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

When Hymns Come In Handy

Me, age 3 1/2, leading music in my Sunday School class.
Note that no one is paying attention to me.
In January 2015 I was looking out over the ocean, thinking (and praying) about my father's decline in health, his admission to a nursing home, getting him and my mother on the right Medicare supplemental insurance, getting their finances in order, and working with an attorney's office on setting up the right legal paperwork so I could help meet their needs in the coming years. I was plagued by anxiety and confusion and fear that things would not work out right. Through a whipping rain (but behind the shield of a pair of sliding glass doors), I watched waves fighting each other and pounding the beach. I was reminded of the hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul":

    When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
    When sorrows like sea billows roll;
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
    It is well, it is well with my soul.

I did not feel like all was well with my soul. And peace did not "attendeth my way." Far from it. Instead, I felt buffeted by relentless forces standing in the way of caring for my parents. But in those times of distress, I prayed for peace, and wisdom to make the right choices as I upheld the Fifth Commandment.

Growing up with hymns

In my formative years I was -- thanks to my parents and several Baptist churches -- introduced to a great deal of church hymns. In Sunday School we learned the old standards, "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children." (See Matt. 19:13-15). As a three-year old I stood on a little chair in my Sunday School class to lead the music for us. (See photo above.) And whenever I see a sycamore tree I'm reminded of another song we learned as children in Sunday School (see Luke 19:1-10):

    Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he!
    He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see ...

One of my earliest memories is of my mother doing a solo at church of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." She sang in the church choir. My father could have been part of the choir. He had a good voice, but we could never get him to join. Perhaps he was too self-conscious.

There was only one hymn I was told my father didn't like: "The Old Rugged Cross," because he considered it idolatrous. Philosophers refer to this as confusing the map [the representation] with the territory [what is being represented]. The lyrics of this hymn don't say we should worship the cross. The cross, as it says in the first verse, is "the emblem of suffering and shame." It is a representation of Christ's death and what it means to Christians.

As I sang in church, growing up, I realized I had a knack for picking up harmony while the congregation sang hymns. But it was not until I joined our church's youth choir that my harmonizing found the structure it needed as I started learning to read music and sing tenor alongside my choir friend Bob DuBois.

Nowadays, hymns are something I seldom hear, but they remain in my heart. They frequently come in handy, as when I contemplate a never-ending list of chores and responsibilities and hear in my mind the refrain of the hymn, "We'll Work Till Jesus Comes":

    We'll work till Jesus comes,
    We'll work till Jesus comes!
    We'll work till Jesus comes
    And we'll be gathered home.

I just hope He comes soon so I can get some rest!

What hymns and contemporary Christian music mean for me today

In the past fifty years Christian music has changed radically. In many churches where hymns are still sung, hymnals are a thing of the past. The lyrics are projected on a screen for all to see, but for those of us who read notes while singing harmony, we have no notes to guide us. I have to fall back on improvising, and not singing too loud in case I pick a discordant note by accident.

Twenty-five years ago my wife and I joined a church that had a "blended" traditional/contemporary service. We felt like we were getting the best of both worlds. (I made the "mistake" of singing tenor where the choir director could hear me, and soon I was drafted!) But blended services are increasingly difficult to find in our part of Ohio. And "praise bands" leading music in contemporary non-denominational churches, at least in our region, stick strictly to a repertoire of contemporary Christian music (CCM). This may be an important part of attracting younger families. Older church members are dying out, and that may also contribute to the shift from hymns to CCM.

I like and I appreciate CCM. I enjoy the "rock" feel to it. I've even attempted solos of a couple of pieces of CCM in church, with backing tracks, and I've enjoyed playing guitar and bass in a few praise bands. But CCM does not easily lend itself to congregational singing. There is a much greater variety to draw on, compared to the old hymns, but unless you listen to CCM on the radio/Spotify, you probably won't know how to sing the melody, let alone some kind of harmony.

A related problem, in my mind, is this. Too often, it feels like the praise band leading CCM is putting on a performance instead of gathering voices from all over the church in praise to God. Darkened auditoriums with spots on the praise band only bolster that impression. Congregational singing consequently falls by the wayside. Without a strong participation by the congregation, the church misses out on "the fellowship of kindred minds" who together proclaim the glory of God in song.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Ensuring the Survival of Life's Details

Second Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy,
Eighth Tennessee Cavalry (CSA), 1862

My family is fortunate and privileged to have a massive amount of photographs, correspondence, and recordings that detail the history of our family, going back to before the Civil War. This information includes:
  • deeds from the 1850s to the early 1900s
  • dozens of letters written during the Civil War (see my book, Battlefront and Homefront: The Lacy Family's Civil War Documents)
  • over 800 letters written since 1879 (though in recent times the family basically quit writing letters because of email)
  • over 1000 photographs (and color slides) from 1862 to the advent of digital photography
  • extracts of my father's diaries from 1969 to 1981
  • all the articles and newspaper columns my father wrote
  • over 200 cassette recordings ("letters") between my family and my grandparents from 1972 to 1988
  • cassette recordings of interviews of family members (including both toddlers and elders)
  • informal memoirs by several family members
  • VHS tapes of special occasions
The problem is preserving this information. Documents can burn. Photographs fade. Tape recordings deteriorate. Entropy is the enemy.

Digitizing and sharing

I have digitized (scanned, ripped) and/or transcribed all of this information. In some cases I've had to physically disassemble photo albums and scrapbooks in order to scan the material. In the case of color slides and recordings on tape, the original media has been thrown away because it was deteriorating, and it becomes more difficult with each passing year to find equipment that the original media will play on. 

This information has been preserved, but the main task now is to remove duplicates and curate all that information (label it, date it, arrange it chronologically). Even though my parents always admonished us to label photos with dates and names of who was in the photos, well-annotated photos over the broad timescale we're talking about are the exception rather than the rule. In many cases the only way to determine chronology is to study the details (like a baby's outfit), tap the details in our family tree (like when a couple got married, or when a person died), or cross-reference a photo using information from a letter.

A concurrent challenge is that of finding the best way to share all this information. Most online systems I've found don't meet my criteria for ease of use, free or low cost, broad applicability, or facilitating the kind of annotation that is needed. Anyone I share this information with probably can open an Excel spreadsheet, a Word document, a JPG image file, or an audio file. I set up a method for labeling each file and listing those files, with dates or approximate dates, peoples' names, and other information, in an Excel workbook. All the files are organized in folders arranged by information type (letters, photos, other documents).

What good is it?

Yes, I'm crazy to take all this on, but I can't bear the thought of this information being lost, unavailable to future generations. There is enough material at-hand that a family historian could piece together a very detailed chronicle of the lives of my family's members from the time the family settled in the Upper Cumberland region of Middle Tennessee around 1850 to today.

Posterity is the word. Immortality is a pipe-dream, but no one will every have this information if it's not conserved.

For further reading