Going Home to Appalachia-Larry Groce/Irene McKinney/Patsy Hatfield Lawson/Pinckney Benedict
PART ONE: Going Home to Appalachia. Steve Curwood talks with Larry Groce, host and artistic director of Mountain Stage. He discusses and plays some music from Appalachia. Also Irene McKinney, West Virginia Poet Laureate and author of the books of poems Vivid Companion and Six O'Clock Mine Report, reads her poem “Visiting my Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia.” The poem is about buying a plot in her family burial ground back home and her mixed desire about “going back and forth to ‘the world’ out there, and here to this one spot on earth I really know.”
PART TWO: Patsy Hatfield Lawson, storyteller from East Tennessee, tells a tale of an Appalachian family that has never traveled, and the dream of her father to take them into the city of Memphis, where her brother is becoming a doctor. Irene McKinney reads her poem “Home,” about the fierce desire to be back home in West Virginia, where you “got your dealers in quilts and your dealers in coal. You got your people trying to work and your people trying to eat.” And Larry Groce talks about and plays some music from the region.
PART THREE: Pinckney Benedict, author of the novel Dogs of God and the collection of stories Wrecking Yard, will read a story he wrote for Living on Earth called Mercy. A West Virginian farm boy falls in love with the miniature horses on the farm next door, but hides his passion from his father who hates all the horses have come to stand for in a changing Appalachia.
Patsy Hatfield Lawson
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to the Living on Earth holiday special. I’m Steve Curwood.
There's an old joke Appalachians like to tell. They say the reason God latches the pearly gates in heaven is to keep those mountain people from sneaking back home. Appalachians are known to have a particularly strong bond with the mountains they've called home for so many generations. Their sense of place, the land they grew up on, has shaped their culture. And they take that with them when they have to move away from home to get an education and find jobs.
So, the poignancy so many of us feel this time of year when we can't be with the people we love, or we miss the way our lives were when we were growing up, is particularly acute for those who identify themselves with a particular place where they can't be. For Appalachians, storytelling and music are a part of the way they hold onto their culture.
[BANJO AND FIDDLE]
Now, Larry Groce is host and artistic director of Mountain Stage, West Virginia Public Radio's two-hour weekly live performance music show distributed by PRI. Larry has lived in West Virginia for over 30 years, coming there from Texas and California and New York. And he's here today to introduce us to some of that music. Hi, Larry.
GROCE: Hey, Steve.
CURWOOD: Good to have you here. And also joining us is Irene McKinney. She’s West Virginia’s Poet Laureate and author of the book of poems, “Vivid Companion” and “Six O' Clock Mine Report.” Irene, it's been said about you that you know the trees, the birds, the manners and the difficult history of Appalachian America, and your poems bear that out. Welcome.
MCKINNEY: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: And also joining us today is Patsy Hatfield Lawson. She grew up in Upper East Tennessee in Hancock County which is home to the Melungeons and Greene-Jones Feud, and learned storytelling by listening to, what, you have 16 aunts and uncles telling tales in the summertime on your front porch. And you now teach psychology. Patsy. It’s great to have you here.
LAWSON: Thank you, great to be joining you.
CURWOOD: And we couldn’t tell stories of Appalachia without having Pinckney Benedict. He grew up on his family’s dairy farm in southern West Virginia. He teaches English at Hollins University in Virginia and is author of the novel “Dogs of God,” and the stories “Wrecking Yard.” Pinckney, welcome.
BENEDICT: Well, thank you very much, I’m glad to be here.
CURWOOD: So, let me see if I have this right. The test of being a true Appalachian is very deep roots, right? So if your family doesn't go back at least five generations in those mountains you're considered an interloper, huh?
BENEDICT: I suppose so, yeah. I mean, I’m a native West Virginian, I was born there, so. But my family doesn’t go back – a lot of families around where I grew up in Greenbrier County are, you know, 1700s, pre-Revolutionary.
CURWOOD: Now, the music of the mountains, I first heard this – now, from out east, as some folks would say, and African American, grew up in Boston and New Hampshire. And I had a banjo as a kid growing up and sang a lot of folk music, and that was really the first place that I understood anything about Appalachia. I used to love this song – which to me was the sound of Appalachia – and I’m going to sing you a line and then you tell me how close to the real thing it is. It goes something like this:
[CURWOOD SINGING AND PLAYING BANJO]
“Wake up, wake up, darling Corey,
CURWOOD: That’s what I knew of the place and the amazingly infectious banjo rhythms. Which as an African American kind of struck me as something real important because I’m told that the banjo was invented by African American slaves. But the only place I ever heard the music coming up was from folks in Appalachia. Larry?
GROCE: Well, yeah, that’s an old, old song, and it’s done many, many different ways, from way back, I guess, in the early 1700s, or maybe back across the ocean before that “Darlin’ Cora.” And the Appalachian music, I guess what most people think of it, has northern European or Celtic kind of roots because of the people that came from the Protestant part of Ireland into the Virginias and the Carolinas way back in the 1700s. And then it, like everything else, it evolved in the different places that it went, various songs had different lives and changed.
And the banjo was introduced later. Fiddle was always there, and maybe the guitar, but the banjo and other instruments that we now associate with bluegrass or old time music, mandolin and the banjo, came later. And the banjo came in the middle of the 1800s, or even after the Civil War, when the African heritage and the European heritage came together. And then it became an important part of the music after that.
CURWOOD: And with all those instruments there are the vocals and it seems to me that sometimes the lyrics are about going home, or not being able to go home.
PAISLEY SINGING: In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky (applause)
CURWOOD: Okay, Larry Groce, this song is called “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Tell me about the song, please.
GROCE: It’s a wonderful song, and it’s a contemporary song, but I think it’s very much in the Appalachian tradition of music. It’s written by Daryl Scott, whose people go back to the hills of Kentucky, the Appalachian part of eastern Kentucky. And it was sung there by a West Virginian who’s become quite a very famous country music singer and crossed over into pop a little bit, his name is Brad Paisley. And it just tells story of somebody who grew up on the farm, but tobacco wasn’t selling, and so they knew what they had to do. So they went to Harlan to work in the mines and they were told when they left, “You’ll never leave Harlan alive”. And they didn’t.
[MUSIC: You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive]
PAISLEY SINGING: But the times they got hard
Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning,
And the sun comes up about ten in the morning,
CURWOOD: Thanks Larry for bringing us that performance by Brad Paisley.
Now, Irene McKinney, you’ve written about death. In particular, you have a poem about going home to be buried. But before you read it, tell me about your family homestead, where you’re talking to us from now. In a sense you’ve never really left home, is that right?
MCKINNEY: Yeah, I did. I spent about 20 years elsewhere. But somewhere far back in my back brain I always had the idea of home, and that, probably, I needed to go back there. At first I told myself that I would build this house here as a retreat and come here and write on a summer, temporary basis. But I found that after I came back that time kept stretching out, and this became more and more my permanent place.
CURWOOD: Okay, so, Irene, could you read this poem for us now?
MCKINNEY: Okay. This is from the book “Six O’Clock Mine Report,” and it’s about the fact that my father was a trustee of the local country church. And when I was living in Salt Lake City, he wrote me a letter and said, “You know, I think this would be a good time for you to buy your gravesite, the prices are good, $35.”
MCKINNEY: At the time I wasn’t that interested in owning this piece of real estate, but I decided to go ahead and do it. And, actually, I was still married, so I bought two plots.
CURWOOD: Uh-huh. So, is the other one on the block now?
MCKINNEY: Yeah. (LAUGHS) Or, I speak about what I’m going to do with it in this poem. This is called “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia.”
“Maybe because I was married and felt secure and dead
and bought this double plot on the hillside with a view
I plan now to use both plots, luxuriantly spreading out
finally, my burial has nothing to do with marriage, this lying
for who I’ll be then, as real as anything undergone, going back
on earth I really know. Once I came in fast and low
the trees I’ve felt with my hands, the neighbors’ houses
it was like my children going on with their plans and griefs
to reach down and pat it, while letting it know
Everything this isn’t, this unknown buried in the known.
CURWOOD: I’m wondering if the rest of you here in our storytelling gathering, if you have memories of family burial grounds? Pinckney?
BENEDICT: Not people. I mean, there used to be what you did with dead animals on the farm, with the dead cattle and stuff, was put them down in a sink hole. Where I grew up there’s a lot of sink holes, and so the farm has a lot of these big kind of funnel-shaped holes in it. I can remember that. I mean, you talk about a sort of quiet awareness of mortality. When you’re a little kid, that kind of thing, you go out there and you could see generations upon generations and every age. I mean, little bitty bones that were calves, and great big bones that were, you know, 2,000-pound bulls, and everything in between. You know, and all grown up with vines and trees growing up and bones in the trees where the trees had grown up under them and carried the bones up, you know. So not a human graveyard, but boy I remember the pit.
CURWOOD: In our place in New Hampshire, my mother bought this – actually, after my father died, some 50 odd years ago – but she marched his ashes right out there into the front yard and planted them there and said, “That’s where Dad is.” And we got the reminder every time we were mowing. If anyone’s looking for Dad, that’s where he was.
BENEDICT: It’s good to know. I mean, that’s an important thing, where Dad is.
BENEDICT: That’s a big thing in my life and in my fiction, you know, where’s Dad?
CURWOOD: Keep listening to Living on Earth and our holiday storytelling special, here on PRI.
CURWOOD: It’s the Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. I’m here with Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage, Irene McKinney, West Virginia Poet Laureate, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, storyteller from Tennessee, and writer Pickney Benedict.
This time of year here at Living on Earth we take a break from the news and tell stories. And this year we’re sharing tales about wanting to be back home in Appalachia. Now Patsy, you’re going to tell us a story about your family and growing up in a culture that, well, didn't really approve of ever leaving home. And, of course, that’s our theme – getting back home for the holidays.
LAWSON: Yes, the story I’m going to do is called “Trip to Memphis.”
“I grew up in Hancock County in upper East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. My parents were tobacco-chewing farmers with eighth grade educations. They nurtured me in all the Appalachian traditions. I learned how to cook, can vegetables, quilt, fence, bale hay, hoe corn and tobacco, churn butter, milk cows, and how to kill hogs and chickens for food.
We were very sheltered by the mountains. My uncle said we were so far back in the mountains that we had to go toward town to hunt. The people I grew up with believed, like their ancestors before them, that everyone was powerless over most of life’s situations and that the godly way of living was to do the best you can to handle what you have, where you are. They didn’t travel very much. They feared getting out into a dangerous world they knew little about. They were afraid of strangers, and all lifestyles other than their own. Maybe this fear was a product of their isolation, or their Scotch-Irish heritage, or a residue from East Tennessee’s experience of the Civil War, or perhaps it was their religion
I grew up as an only child with three brothers. Mama had my brothers in three years time and then I guess she figured out what was causing it. I was born when my brothers were in high school; Daddy was 50 and Mama was 40. Some people said I was a menopausal baby, but I don’t think so. I just think she forgot how babies got here, and it was too late when she remembered and I was on the way. These brothers were always in the background of my life serving as role models and setting new challenges for me. Besides my parents, these brothers were the most important people in my life. Because of them I would eventually leave my secure mountains and venture out into a larger world.
By the time I was twelve my Daddy was suffering from Angina Pectoris. He’d smoked and chewed tobacco all of his life and when this behavior combined with his Type A personality, it took its toll on his health. I lived daily with his arm and chest pain that he treated temporarily by dissolving nitroglycerin tablets under his tongue.
Daddy was a mover and a shaker. He always had things to do and places to go. Mama was a stay putter. She hated travel and she did not like to be far away from home. The thought of going places brought out the worst of her anxieties.
During this 12th year another big thing happened in my life. The brother next to me decided to end his career as a pharmacist and go back to medical school to become a doctor. My daddy was so-o-o proud of this decision and told everybody he saw. He’d say, ‘Did I tell you my boy’s going to be a doctor?’ And the answer was always, ‘Yes, Mr. Hatfield, you did.’
About a year after my brother went to medical school, Daddy started a fantasy. He started to talk about this trip that we were going to take one day to Memphis to see my brother. He said we’d get up early one morning and get in the freight truck – that was the only vehicle we had – drive to Knoxville, and purchase three train tickets to Memphis. He said we’d ride that train all night long and when morning came we’d be there. We’d never been on a train. Didn’t know anything about traveling by trains, buses, planes – all we knew was driving.
Daddy said the first thing he wanted to see was the medical school where his boy went to school. He said he wanted to see next that mighty Mississippi River and drive across it. Then he said we would go to this hotel where they had these ducks that lived inside it. And these ducks rode the elevator every day and they swam in the fountain. I thought that was something!
We stopped talking about the fantasy around Mama because we could see how uncomfortable it made her. We never took this trip. We never got to the point of setting a date or a time. When I was 16 and my brother was in his last year of medical school, Daddy died of a massive heart attack.
Looking back now at this fantasy trip, I know that I was being prepared to face a larger world. Daddy was teaching me to confront my fears of leaving home by creating a picture of conquering my fears. By using my imagination to picture the things I feared or that were new, I could overcome them, and I could imagine solutions to them before the fears had to be encountered.
Fears are important. They can either serve as a protector for us, or they can be so strong that they inhibit action, as they did for my Mama. Fears are a primary emotion, meaning that they are very powerful, right up there with happiness, and anger and sadness. Probably the most important thing about fears is that they’re learned. We’re not born with our fears. We learn them from the teachings of others. Mama, Daddy, and all my Appalachian ancestors had learned many fears about the world and the safety of staying put, but somewhere along the line Daddy seemed to know that we never grow beyond our fears without facing them and imagining our way beyond them.
CURWOOD: Patsy Hatfield Lawson, that’s an amazing story. And I’m sorry you didn’t get to the ducks in the Peabody Hotel.
LAWSON: I did later.
CURWOOD: Oh, you did later. Pickney Benedict, do you know families like this one?
BENEDICT: Well, I mean, when I was growing up I thought we were way out of town, you know, living on a dairy farm. Because it was a big deal when folks would go in. We’d kind of plan for a couple days ahead of time and, you know, my mother would make lists about what everybody was going to get and that kind of thing. And I remember going to the movies was such a big deal for us. My dad would say, “Oh, well, there’s something he wants to see at the Lewis Theater”. He’d say that in the morning. It was so exciting, I can remember it just became a ritual in my family that I’d get so excited as a little kid I would throw up because we were going into town that night. (LAUGHTER). And this is to go into the town of Louisburg – I mean, it’s 3,000 people, 3,500 people.
MCKINNEY: You know, there was one thing I was thinking listening to Patsy talk about that split and that conflict with the parents. It reminded me a lot of another traditional culture. Richard Rodgiquez, in his memoir about how much his parents wanted him to succeed and speak a different language and be in an outside world. And yet at the same time they were very upset when he came back home and they saw the changes – what we would call “getting above your raising.”
LAWSON: Oh, yes.
MCKINNEY: Those traditional cultures share that.
CURWOOD: Irene McKinney, getting above the what?
MCKINNEY: Getting above your raising.
CURWOOD: Getting’ above your raisin’.
MCKINNEY: Yes, that means that you’ve stepped out of the pattern and you no longer belong in it, and people feel that you’re alien.
CURWOOD: Ah. Larry Groce, what do you think about this story and this part of the culture?
GROCE: Well, it all rings true. I didn’t grow up out in the country like these folks did, but I lived out in the country for many years when I came to West Virginia. And I’ve been all over this state and met many, many people who – especially the older people – who did not travel until much later in their lives. And I understand what Irene’s talking about, too, because there’s always a mixed feeling when someone goes away.
Wright Morris in his book “God’s Country and My People” talks about it, too. A guy goes away to ag school, comes back to work the farm, and he does a lot better. But the old man still is suspicious of what he’s learned, even though it obviously yields more. And that’s the way it is everywhere, I suppose in every culture – that you want it to be better, but on the other hand, you don’t want things to change. And it’s reflected in just about all parts of the culture.
CURWOOD: Larry, can you tell us about the song “Mole in the Ground?” And play a bit for us?
GROCE: Well, this is another song that’s heard a lot of different ways, and it’s called a lot of different things – “Baby, Where You Been So Long?” I’m not whether it started off as a ballad or if it started off as a dance tune. The version I have here is by two West Virginia traditional musicians, Dwight Diller and John Morris, who did this on Mountain Stage just recently. And Dwight tends to do things a little slow. It might have been a faster song at one time, or it might have been a ballad that they put instruments with. In the very oldest Appalachian music you had the dance music and then you had the ballads, which often were a cappella and mostly sung by women. So, anyway, this is just a real typical kind of old time Appalachian tune.
[MUSIC: “MOLE IN THE GROUND”]
SINGING: Well, I wished I was a mole in the ground
And, sweetie, where you been so long?
[MUSIC FADES UNDER]
CURWOOD: Now, Irene McKinney, you have another wonderful poem for us, and the poem is called “Home.” Can we hear that now please?
MCKINNEY: Yes, “Home.”
“This old land pit, green hole,
The green pit spreads
The land is dead on its feet
green funnel though which
When I came here first,
it flourished. Now home,
its tassels dusting me
you must have something
The question here is not asked,
me to become it. I am not becoming
soaks into all my days of working
digging to clear the fencerows.
nor in its leaping summer.
its catbrier, sharp claws
a luggage stuffed with notes,
the world was combing its hair,
This is not the mountain mother,
and they stand still: The Cheat,
we can talk. We make a roughened
the layers of trilobites.
globing from the fiddle,
foliage of burning sweetness.
The Shelvin Rock. And in the cities
The Tourist Board slings out
Home; – finally, home.
and mangles the cat. You Left Me
from the dark at the edge
The raccoon climbs the ash
To all of them, this house
On the other side of Laurel Mountain
Dark As a Dungeon, Damp as the Dew.
and a plane passes over.
unchanged since the land’s upheaval
The roads are looping and winding
You Got Your Dead Skunk in the Middle
and your foxes and bears, and they don’t care.
You got your dealers in quilts
and your people trying to eat,
CURWOOD: Irene McKinney, how did you come to write this poem?
MCKINNEY: I wanted to finally sit down and pull together about four or five different directions that I’d been thinking about the theme of exile and return, about how passionate both ends of that scale are and remain to this very day.
CURWOOD: This poem has all of this musical rhythm to it.
MCKINNEY: Yeah, I wanted that too, I wanted that feel of how the music comes up out of the ground and out of the surrounding.
CURWOOD: Can you talk more about that?
MCKINNEY: It just seems to me that poetry and music come together real closely lots and lots of times in Appalachian culture.
[MUSIC: “Mole in the Ground”]
SINGING: Well, I wished I was a lizard in the spring
And, baby, where you’ve been so long,
[MUSIC FADE OUT]
CURWOOD: Stick around for more poems, music and stories. You’re listening to our holiday storytelling special from Appalachia. This is Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation and the Trinity University Press, publishers of “Wisdom for a Livable Planet” by Karl McDaneil, a collection of environmental visionaries. For more information go to www.trinity.edu/tupress. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
CURWOOD: It’s the Living on Earth holiday storytelling special, I’m Steve Curwood. I’m here with Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage, Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s Poet Laureate, Patsy Hatfield Lawson, a storyteller from Tennessee, and writer Pinckney Benedict. We’re swapping stories and songs about the hunger so many of us feel to be back home this time of year. And my guests are taking us home to Appalachia.
In a moment, we’ll hear from Pinckney Benedict, telling his story “Mercy,” but first, Larry, we’ve just heard Irene’s poem “Home” and I wonder if you could talk a little about the relationship between Appalachian music and poetry?
GROCE: Well, I certainly agree with what Irene says, that it’s rhythm that a lot of this stuff is about. The song you heard before played by Dwight Diller and John Morris; Dwight is a big believer, and when he teaches Appalachian music, the heart and soul of it is rhythm. You have to have the rhythm inside of you before the notes mean anything. It’s your own rhythm and, of course, that reflects the rhythm of the people that you’re around the country that you’re in.
CURWOOD: Yeah, talk about rhythm, I remember a couple of years ago I went up into the hills outside Chattanooga to hear an entire evening of foot-stopping and picking and plucking, as well as close harmony of the voices bouncing off each other. And one of the performers was Jamie Dailey, who’s now with the bluegrass band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Larry, you got some of that music?
GROCE: Yeah, Doyle was a guest on Mountain Stage about a year ago, and I think Jamie was singing the lead on a tune that I recorded here. It’s called “Julianne.” I think it’s a contemporary bluegrass song…
SINGING: Julianne, what are you doing
Will you be here in the morning
Dress yourself in silk and satin,
Go and have your night of dancing
CURWOOD: I think if you could sit still listening to that music you gotta be paralyzed.
GROCE: Yeah, it’s great fun. It’s great music. And you can tell like in that song right there the whole idea of “come on home.” That occurs so much in the tunes of bluegrass songs and old time songs and country songs.
CURWOOD: Now, Pinckney Benedict, I want to ask you to tell us the story that you call “Mercy.”
BENEDICT: Sure. This is an excerpt of a new story, and it’s told in the voice of a ten-year-old boy. And his old man is a beef farmer. And it’s kind of ringing bells all over the place as we talk about this ‘cause it’s all around their farm, they used to be surrounded by folks who did similar sorts of work, but those folks have been forced to sell out over the last few years. So, this boy and his father no longer know their neighbors, and they’re not longer beef farmers around them. There’s a swine farm to the east now, there’s sheep farms, there’s a great big house that somebody’s built on what used to be an old charolais farm.
And the unbearable, or at least unbearable to the dad, has happened: the farm to their south, which used to be a beef farm, is now a farm where there are miniature horses. And the old man just, he can’t stand it, because the horses, he says, you know, he can’t imagine what their use is. You can’t ride ‘em, you can’t work ‘em and you can’t eat ‘em, he says. The son really has kind of fallen in love with the horses. He watches them play and he feeds them. And he’s picked out one favorite horse, which is – they’re mostly pintos, but he’s picked out one little sorrel that he likes a lot. And he’s called that one Cinnamon. And so the story picks up and it’s called “Mercy.”
“He surprised me watching the horses. I was in my usual place on the fence and he must have caught sight of me as he was setting out hay for the angus. I had brought treats with me and was engrossed, and I didn’t hear the rumble of his tractor – that’s his old man’s tractor – as it came over the hill. When he shut down the engine, I knew I was caught.
‘What are you doing?’ he called. The angus that were following the tractor and the hay ranged themselves behind him. I kicked at Cinnamon to get her away from me, struggled to get the cubes of sugar into my pocket. Crystals clung to my fingers. He strode to me, and I swung my legs back over to our side of the fence and hopped down. It was a cold day and his breath rolled white from his mouth.
‘You’ve got plenty of leisure,’ he said. His gaze