10–SETTING FOLK MUSIC BACK TWENTY YEARS

I couldn’t believe they really said ‘hit’ for ‘it’ or any of the other things Al Capp had them say in Li’l Abner.’ Since Al Capp knew so little about Joan Baez (caricaturing her as shuffling sandal-footed under a cloud of flies and playing twang on a one-string guitar, when as it turned out she was a fabulously-dressed fashion icon, at least off stage), I figured he’d be wrong about Appalachia, too.

But damn, you drive up to a house to ask directions, and there’s five old men sitting on the porch on their rockers (or off them) and they all have one-piece, one-strap overalls and no teeth, they’re all spitting ‘baccy juice at their hounds, which are mangy, and these old women—either very fat or very thin—are staring from the torn screen door like you’re from France or Mars, and you ask where’s a place to camp and they’ll direct you to some vine-overgrown place by a swamp with a handy river nearby for throwing dead girls in when they’ve been strangled, and one of them will giggle and say, “Look out a snake don’t bite yer toe!”

However, this was Kentucky, land of my dreams, birthplace of really great ballads about stranglings and snakebites. I felt no disrespect. Just amazement. There’s probably an inverse ratio between teeth and intelligence. Anyhow, they knew where the turn-off to Hazard was, which was more than I knew. Hit woren’t afar off; hit wore jist a bit yonder past thet rock longside them three ’ol dead pines. We found it easily after that.

I’d like to see Hazard again, to re-remember. The Hazard of my befogging was narrow and set close along its main street. There was a grayish tinge to everything, like you see in mining towns everywhere. Coal-blackened men walked home with a lunch pail and a head lamp. There was a small central square, I’m sure, and a brick building where official stuff happened. Looking up Hazard today on Google, I get this: ‘Hazard’s property crime levels tend to be much higher than Kentucky’s average level. The same data shows violent crime levels in Hazard tend to be much higher than Kentucky’s average level.’

The IGA was real close—and JOHN COHEN had advised me, “Bring a couple bags of groceries if you go visit Rossie. (He was still ‘Roscoe,’ to me.) So we shopped. Let’s see, now: a pound of butter—some half and half—a package of Swiss cheese—how ’bout bacon?—a box of spaghetti—

Wrong. Roscoe’s family didn’t eat like that, nor did they want to. We should have bought a bag of flour and a forty-eight-carton flat of saltines.

Roscoe didn’t live in Hazard but in Daisy, a tiny community a few miles away. The road wound through deep woods in different, speckled shades of green, mostly dark. In the pickup bed ahead of us, several overalled passengers enjoyed the evening air. All of them were smoking, including a boy of about eight who stared at our bus (dark blue with a white roof) between drags as if it were a circus wagon.

The house was built on a stilty foundation against a steep hillside. The porch looked out onto another steep hillside across the holler. We all sat on the row of straight-back chairs and threaded green beans onto string with big needles, since that was what was going on. When the  bean strings got full, they were hung to dry; the beans would be eaten in the winter. This work was done mostly in silence, with a little desultory conversation about who we were and why we were in their house. At one point one of the girls asked if we’d like something to drink. We were incredibly grateful; it was hot, we were tired travelers. Pretty soon she appeared with a tray of glasses and a pitcher of water. But what, we were expecting juleps? Slowly I began to get the picture.

There’s the kind of poor where you’re a rambling folksinger who’s not about to play the games society has suggested for you; then there’s the kind where you and every member of your family work as hard as you possibly can and are therefore able to buy a little margarine, lard, white flour and salt, some pop to keep you going. And yes, this was the kind of poverty that poured itself into and out of the music. Once ‘Rossie’ got out his banjo and played ‘Across the Rocky Mountain,’ I was sure of it. No number of degrees in ethnomusicology could teach you to sing like that.

And what did I play, when they asked me with polite interest? Well. At least I had the sense not to do one of Roscoe’s songs, or any of his neighbors’ songs. I’d have been ashamed. That’s where my sense ended though. I chose a Greek song; that would be a safe bet. And maybe it might even—waaa-ha-ha-ha—widen their musical base. “What’s hit mean?” the wife and daughters wanted to know. “It means, you take a handful of rice, and some lemon, and an egg……and then you do something with them, but I don’t know what because I only know the one verse.” “Oh. Wal, hit’s a real purty tune, anyways.”

The daughters, in their teens, were extremely interested in our presence. Their mom was more than interested, she was hungry. We were the world out thar. We wore boys’ corduroy pants, sand-colored, and we wore ’em tight. We were free to get in a car and go if we wanted—anywhere! We had no menfolk a-bossin’ us. And we had gallons of wine.

It was wonderful for me, too; it was family life, a home. The hot water got fetched with a ladle from the water-jacket on the wood stove, dishes got renched and the floor got breshed, and I knew how to do these things along with the girls. At night we’d sit up late, and Mrs. Holcomb (I don’t think that was her name) sat up with us. We talked and talked about all kinds of things, and her eyes were on fire. She drank wine and said her doctor had told her she should be drinking ‘pork’ wine to get her strength up but this wine we had would probably do as good. Eventually Roscoe would come out of the bedroom, glaring behind his glasses, and tell her it was time to get in bed, there was work to do.

He wasn’t working, though. The miners were all on strike. A wicked strike, if you asked him; how were people supposed to earn their food? But if you crossed the picket line, you’d probably get shot. He thought it was all stirred up by folks from up north who weren’t aware of the immediate needs of the miners, like food.

One afternoon, I asked the oldest daughter where was a good place to shave one’s legs. “I usually jist go up the crick a ways,” she shrugged. But I didn’t want a snake to bite my toe, so I sat on the back step with a basin of water. In the middle of my shaving, around the back of the house came Roscoe. Right away, watching sidelong, he started in again about the dangers of this picket line: Anyone who wanted to be anywhere else had best go right now, before they blew the road up, because once that road blew up, there wasn’t going to be anyone going in or out, and the people who were in might get shot. There was going to be a lot of shootin’. Even at that, it took me amazingly long to figure out that we were expected to move on—preferably about four days ago.

This story repeated itself when we went to the next folksinger’s house, and the next. Clint Howard sat across the room on a couch with his arm tightly around his wife and said, “Well, Ah shore don’t remember ye, Ah shore don’t.” But, but, I wanted to cry, don’t you remember all those good times sitting around spitting and you told me ‘Y’all come?’ Oh God, it’s tough to be an insensitive person.

Sleeping outdoors was still the best, though, never mind that we had chigger bites all around our sock and belt lines. And I could still practice that frustrating guitar tune. Then one day we were sirened by a local sheriff, who told us that they’d been chasing us down through three jurisdictions to say that Sally’s father had died and she was wanted at home.

After that, it was just me and Christopher, camping and cooking and not visiting any more folksingers because not only was I not collecting any folk songs but I had a glimmer of personal wrongdoing. When we headed north (toward Vermont) I took a turn too fast and rolled the bus, bashed up the whole side of it pretty good. We were both okay, but it began to look as if the best thing to do to avoid further ‘bad luck’ would be to head back to Santa Barbara. Here a drastic bunch of changes awaited, including THE SCRAGG FAMILY.

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Published by

KAJSA OHMAN

Traveling musician

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