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2.12.2008

Hillbilly Roots

today's UPI Column #95 of 100


So There I was...

In the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, pastor of a small country church that came complete with a bluegrass band. And this city-bred, rock and roll generation woman felt completely at home.

You see I have hillbilly roots, and I am telling you, that is a thing that Miss Clairol cannot touch! What strikes me as unlikely is the way that they managed to keep it from me for all those years.

Tyre and Kezia Crawley lived in the hills of Northern Kentucky. Kezia was Tyre’s fourth wife. Life in those hills was hard on the women. But a man needed a wife and Kezia needed a home. Tyre was in his late sixties when he took Kezia to wife. She bore him four children, the last when he was well into his eighties. That child had white haired half-siblings before he was born. She sang him to sleep with tunes carried by her people from the hills of Scotland, the echo of pipes in her lilting voice. Tyre was a preacher and a farmer and consequently a very poor man. His most dear possession was a fiddle. He preached a fiery Gospel, but played a heavenly tune. My grandmother Irene was his next to last child, born before the turn of the 20th century. She knew the feel of hard work, and the sound of all day singings, and the consequences of sin. Shoes, machines and electricity were largely unknown until she herself was nearly a woman.

The Hell-fire preaching prepared her well her for the terror of the day her mother died. The kerosene lantern exploded just after dark, burning her mother beyond healing or prayer. The nine-year-old girl took her little brother out under the grape arbor and hid. The last song she heard her mother sing was a God-begging scream as the women coated her with hopeless ointments. The screams stopped just before daybreak. As the sun rose the girl swore she would get off that mountain somehow, to a place where a woman could live. Then the girl carried the toddler back into the house and started her new life, cooking and cleaning for her aged father, who was finally beyond the ability to get a new wife. When he died three years later, Irene was sent across the river to relations up in Illinois. Stiff new shoes carried her to school and away from the hills. She sang in church, but stately hymns, not the hillbilly songs and calls of her mother’s kin. She held off marriage until she found a promising young man, home from France who took her into a fine Methodist parsonage. Her dresses and hats were simple and Christian, but she held herself with a certain kind of Sunday perfection every day of the week. Hardly anyone noticed that when they preached about the fires of Hell, her lips clenched and her eyes grew dark. She raised four children to be fine, educated, citizens of the town; three of the four, college-bound. All of them saved, none headed towards fire. She kept them away from the hills and hillbillies. She pointed their eyes north. She lived a good life, but she died of breast cancer because somebody told her that the only cure involved burning.

My mother was Irene’s third child, Bernice. A gifted musician, trained from infancy to be the wife of a minister. Piano lessons and womanly skills. She knew her father’s family, and some of her mother’s siblings, but they never talked about the old folks, or the hills. One of her uncles had an old fiddle, but her mother didn’t like to hear it played, and shushed the hill stories he delighted in feeding the little ones.

Bernice was sent to the Bible College up in Chicago, to pick out an educated preacher for a husband. But one summer the school sent her on a mission trip to a foreign land called Appalachia. My mother was shocked by her own mother’s opposition to the trip. Irene would have rather had her daughter cross the seas to China than to head into those hills. But my mother went in and up and came out again, appalled by the poverty and ignorance that she saw. Broken hearted at the sight of shoeless children and toothless women. Disturbed by the strange music that haunted her dreams.

Mother couldn’t find a preacher to suit her, and wouldn’t come home from the city. She worked, and lived independently. Eventually she gave her heart to a city man, a man who had spent more hours dancing at the roller rink than in a church. She tamed him, of course, and played the organ at the church while he led the singing - three hymns and a ‘special song’. She gave him three children and they educated us better than either of their parents had known. She made sure that her only daughter had piano lessons, and learned Beethoven and Bach, how to dress and how to cook, and how to run the women’s missionary society. She prayed for grandchildren raised in an even better parsonage than the one that had cradled her.

I was too rebellious to be sent to the Christian school in Indiana, and ran off and married a young man just out of the Navy. My mother did not approve, but forgave me when I went back to church and gave her grandbabies. But my house lacked music, and my dreams had songs I couldn’t sing. A woodworking friend offered to build me a dream, and I asked for a hammered dulcimer, and then I borrowed an Autoharp, and I hung out with fiddle players, and mandolin players. And I called my mom and said I had discovered Blue Grass. I asked for her old hymnals. She was mystified. I couldn’t stop - it fed something old in me, and I wrote to my mother’s eldest sister, the one who lived on the farm, the one who hadn’t gone to college. I asked for the oldest stories, and she told me about Kezia. I was the one who told my mother.


She died a few years back, from the cancer; she took her chemo, but turned down the radiation. About that time, my elder brother, the professor of computer sciences, walked into a shape note ‘sing’. “All day singing, supper on the grounds.” Now he and his wife will drive across four states to sing the tunes carried by the highlanders to different hills.

You see, we have hillbilly roots.

And Miss Clairol cannot touch them.
Comments:
#95 of 100

Ok, so you have made up your mind.
Well, you are a singer in prose and I doubt that you can help yourself, so I guess i'll have to see where it leads you after UPI. Your people live. Reminds me of stories of my great, great grandpa Jackson and his daughter "Idy." "Salty" ones both, from the area where West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio come together if I got my geography right.

Nate
 
PS. Do you know the movie "Songcatcher?"
 
O Peggy... darn. Made me cry. This is one of the best. They're my people too, back just a little. Even if they weren't, even if I didn't know any more about them than what you just told me.
DL
 
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