THREE NIGHTS ON THE BLUE RIDGE
by Mary Murphy
First published in English Dance & Song Vol.55 No. 4 Winter 1993
Ask any ‘country’ person in the Southern United States where and when to see the most spectacular autumn colours and first, they will take you out to their front yard to show you the sourwood and black gum trees their great grandfather planted near the old home place when he settled his family in the Tennessee valley, then they will tell you to go over to North Carolina, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in mid-October if you really want to see a sight to behold.
This is as true today as it was in the fall of 1964 when Barry and I struck out from Nashville, Tennessee heading northeast to Knoxville, Johnson city, Tennessee, Banner Elk and Boone, North Carolina and on to Independence, Virginia. We were on a journey to the mountains to visit folks Barry had met soon after arriving in America in 1963. When, crazed by the sound of the five-string banjo and the Appalachian dulcimer, he had left Eltham, S.E. to hear the ‘real’ thing.
With luck we would find people at home, not too busy to play a tune or two for us and with early frosts permitting, witness a ‘sight to behold’ during our travels. By the time we reached Sevierville we were well into hilly country and at Banner Elk the roads were narrowing, winding snakelike along the ridge tops. Shadowed bluffs of the mountains rose hard against our left, while mist-shrouded valleys opened to the sky on our right. We wound down into the valley searching the dirt roads for Edd Presnell, dulcimer maker, a legend in the mountains and now, in England. He lived in a ‘Holler’ somewhere between Banner Elk and Valle Crucis.
At every cabin where we stopped to ask the way barefoot children scurried to hide behind sheds, trees or their mother’s skirts as she, with a wariness and a weariness, pointed down the track in answer to our queries and viewed us with courteous suspicion. Few strangers dare venture down mountain roads unless their wheelbases fit the washboarded, pot holed surfaces, (custom-shaped by countless wagons and timber tugs), and unless they have a damn good reason for being there in the first place. Our reasons were sound but our wheels did not fit and so we bumped and we grounded until we finally reached the clearing at the end of a long, lonesome track. There was no one at home.
Distances can be deceptive in the states, with what appears to be a five-hour drive more likely to be eight. We arrived late in Boone at sundown, Deep Gap after dark and down Wildcat Road (with our fingers crossed and a prayer for the oil pan), well past suppertime.
Willard and Ora Watson were at home with their children, his Aunt, her sister, her sister’s husband, their children and numerous grandchildren, all of whom were standing out on the porch to see who had pulled into the yard. A matching pair of raw-boned hounds stood guard at the bottom of the wooden steps, their fangs visible in the light from the house.
By the way, if you ever go to North Carolina to visit with old-timey musicians or see the spectacular colours in the fall, a good habit to cultivate is one in which you leave plenty of time for friendly ‘howdies’ and conversation before you state your business. This time, ‘howdies’ over, the business was to make as much music as possible in the time and space (in the front room) available. But, before Willard would strike a lick on Barry’s banjo he turned to me and said, “So, yer his’n fee-ance are ye? Tell me, are ye funny?”
The wood fire crackled, sending a flash of yellow light across the green, linoleum floor. The hounds, asleep either side of the door lifted their broad heads and focused deep, dark eyes upon me. Considering my situation as the only outsider in the room, not to mention a deathly silence from the entire Watson clan, assembled to hear my reply – a lot was at stake here. I took a deep breath, looked him straight in the eye, (where an unexpected twinkle gave me courage) and said, “Well, Willard, I know I’m funny looking, will that do?” He clapped me on the shoulder, reached for Barry’s five string banjo and announced, “She’ll do!” The door was opened and the dogs went out. The women crowded into the kitchen to gossip and to watch Ora make up and bake a pan of buttermilk biscuits and fry a batch of sausage patties. The men sat in the front room keeping time to ‘Ramblin’ Hobo’ and ‘Cousin Sally Brown’ with heavy boots while barefoot children danced before them. Soon, everyone was dancing or playing, or both, and devouring sausage and biscuits.
By ten o’clock the children and grandchildren had left and we were all in our beds – Willard and Ora upstairs above the rising warmth from the front room and we, in a deep, goose feather bed just off the kitchen where the constant sound of running water, piped down from a mountainside spring, sang into the sink. Down the drain, under the house, it happily bubbled toward a quick running stream across the road.
Morning was announced by several roosters, strutting and parading their finery before the hens. Younger roosters, their adolescent voices yet to break, croaked in broken tones, their necks stretched as far as possible, their eyes on the hens’ responses to their songs. In the kitchen, Ora was already busy at the stove frying slabs of home-cured ham and sausage meat. Nearby, a pale blue bowl of fresh laid eggs sat in a shaft of pink sunlight, their large yolks visible through translucent shells. On the table a cluster of colourful jars: wild strawberry and blackberry jam, plum jelly, honeys from wild bee trees cast rainbows onto a white cloth. Cooling in the spring-fed sink was a pail of frothy milk, still warm from the cow and a dish of fresh-churned butter.
We moved the pail aside and dashed our faces. The smell of lye soap reminded me of my childhood when the big iron pot was turned up in the back yard, set over the fire, filled with water drawn from the well, stirred with lye soap and brought to a boil on washday Mondays.
‘Made that there lye soap myself,” Ora told us. “It’ll clean up near ‘bout anything you want.” She offered her prized, lye soap recipe. “First, you save up all your wood ash, then you kill your pig and render the fat down real clear.”
Ora’s buttermilk biscuits came hot from the oven, double-yolked eggs slipped onto our plates, sunny sides up, and a couple of hens tiptoed in to peck about our feet as we bowed our heads for the blessing of ‘This food to the nourishment of our bodies. Amen.’
Tales of travelling and of hunting vied with the food for our attention. Our mouths full, we listened as Willard told us tales of the Montana forests where he was once chased by bears and tales of being chased by women at country dances, so far away he would drive all day to ‘git thar’, dance all night and drive back to the lumber camp in time for a bear-steak breakfast before felling trees. Unable to keep from amazing us, he poured Barry a glass full of his finest elderberry wine and dared him to find a better taste this side of Heaven; took down his long-barrelled muzzle loader from above the mantel, slung his powder horn over his shoulder and stepped out onto the front porch. He loaded his rifle with powder, dropped in the shot, packed the wadding and took aim at a row of old tin cans set up on fence posts across the road. Chickens scattered and the hounds looked disappointed that it was only target practice. Ora turned to me as she mounted the stairs. “Come away from all that there foolishness. I’ll show you my quilts.”
Upstairs, we unfolded and I admired a dozen patchwork quilts: Log Cabin, Bear Tracks, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Drunkards Path, all bound for New York City to be sold in a ‘fancy store’ for, “Nigh on two hundred dollars apiece!” she told me, proudly. She would get twenty dollars a piece.
Across the road every tin can gone, Willard was showing Barry his workshop, a lean-to shed that supported the remains of an old log barn. The cow peered out from the open door. In the workshop the men discussed the finer properties of spring steel, from wrecked cars, as a source for handmade carving tools. On the window shelf a variety of automated toys, animals and farmers, were ready to be painted. A fat farmer kicked a lean pig at the turn of a handle or switched a walking mule as he sauntered along behind, going nowhere on a double crank.
It was time to be on our way. We backed out of the yard. The hounds did not stir. Willard was whittling and whistling in his workshop. As we passed the corner of the house Ora stepped out into the road, her faded calico apron full of apples. One by one she handed them to us through the open car window and waved us out of sight.
A few miles away, ‘Doc’ and Rosa Lee Watson, only having returned from California the day before, where they had performed to packed audiences of young, appreciative, college students at Berkeley, were busy with chores. We found them in the kitchen, Rosa Lee making Apple Butter and Doc at the table, his neighbour’s old, wooden-works clock spread out in an orderly semi-circle before him.
“You don’t need eyes to fix a clock,” he explained. “Just ears to hear it tick and a really pretty chime on the hour. Now, don’t those apples smell good?” With a delicate touch he felt the open face of his wristwatch and told us the time.
Outside, a heaving truck lumbered into the yard. Rosa Lee’s father, Gaither Carlton, her step-mother and her sister had come to fetch us. They were moving house and needed our help. “We all like our old house better than this new one,” said Rosa Lee’s sister, “But, we gotta move ‘cause that old roof leaked so bad we all woke up buried alive under two foot of snow last Christmas.”
We followed the truck out of Deep Gap and up into the rugged mountains on narrow, twisting roads built on stony outcroppings which, still in shadow, were covered in hoarfrost from last night’s dip in the temperature. Around a sharp bend the two-story cabin came into view. In front of it a shallow, stone-bottomed creek ran down to a little clearing, surrounded by a split rail fence. In the middle of the clearing was a roofless, log barn, one wall leaning downhill. “I sure to like your new home, Daddy,” Rosa Lee teased, pointing to the barn.
Out back, behind the cabin, was a large spring overflowing into the gravely ditch it had worn on its way to meet the creek. It was overgrown and littered with rusted tin cans and bottomless saucepans. Barry and I ‘set to’ clearing it out while the others began unloading the truck. Doc did most of the carrying. Having been ‘shown ‘round’ the place on Rosa Lee’s arm before we unloaded he sailed up the steps and into the house without a stumble while the rest of us teetered beneath boxes and bags which obscured our view of stairs and doorways and we bumped into everything and each other. Before we left we all had a good look at the roof. It was as sound as a dollar. However, the back door was jammed shut.
Doc, Rosa Lee, Barry and I headed back to Deep Gap, slipping down the narrow inclines a lot faster than we had slipped up them. At the junction with the hard road a handwritten sign brought us to a halt. APPLES FOR SALE $1.00 A BUSHEL.
None of us has ever forgotten the taste of those cold, crisp and sweet mountain apples that day – apples ripened by frost and the reflections of trees turned gold, orange, purple, crimson, yellow, scarlet, pink, pearl and pale, pale green.
We found the house full of people when we got back. They had come over to see Doc and Rosa Lee and to ask them about California and to find out if they had seen any movie stars. Merle and Nancy were there and soon the banjos, fiddles, guitars and Mr. Benfield’s autoharp kept the women tapping in the kitchen as they prepared lunch for everybody present, plus three more seen coming toward the house!
In the mountains no one asks you if you want to stay for lunch. If you are in their home at lunch time, supper time or breakfast (by chance or design), a place is set for you and you sit down, bow your head and ‘Thank the good Lord for his many blessings. Amen.”
Before sunset, Merle took us on a long walk through the woods, his rifle at the ready should we see danger or a free meal. He wanted to share with us his favourite spot, his lookout from a high, rocky bluff that towered over a long, deep valley. We watched the sun dip below the far mountain, its rays just catching the tops of trees nearer our view, their colours a cascade of jewels, poured out at our feet.
We had dallied too long and the night was upon us. But, the full moon rose in a starlit sky and we hurried along, more to keep warm than from fright. We neared the house, the lights were on – the moon, behind it, revealed Doc up on the roof, installing an aerial for his new radio! Barry, upset at seeing him up there called out without thinking. “Doc! You shouldn’t be doing that in the dark!” The joke was on Barry. Everyone thought this the funniest thing they had heard all year and the story was repeated to anyone who hadn’t yet heard it.
Mountain folk love a good joke and will spend hours telling them again and again – the best ones told only by the ‘best’ teller of jokes. They will also go to great lengths to arrange one if it strikes their fancy and many a person has found themselves keeping company with strange objects in their beds – their screeches setting off hoots of laughter from all around the house.
By dawn frost had carpeted the yard and iced our car. A deep mist rested in the valley. Above it, the sun swept sweet accents of light over the treetops. The yellow ones seemed to glow from within. The smell of wood smoke and bacon lured us back inside, rubbing our hands. With the taste of red-eye gravy on our tongues, the sound of mountain music in our ears and the sight of Doc at the kitchen table repairing yet another clock, we waved our farewells and took the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Independence, Virginia.
With time to spare, we found ‘Uncle’ Wade Ward and Granny Porter sitting, rocking in the sun on their front porch. It took very little coaxing, once we had stated our ‘business’, to get Uncle Wade to play for us his famous ‘Fox Chase’, ‘Old Joe Clark, ‘Sally Anne’, ‘Half Shaved’…the tunes fairly tumbled out. Granny rocked and jigged her high top boots beneath her long black skirt. At the end of one familiar tune she smiled a broad, toothless smile from beneath her blue and white print poke bonnet and said, “Yessir, Wade can sure ‘nuff take the rag oft bush. He can sure do that!” She lapped her knee and Uncle Wade struck up another ‘rag stealin’ tune before I could ask her exactly what she meant.
Such a statement on the quality of banjo playing may be lost in the mists of time and lonesome valleys. I can only hazard a guess that Uncle Wade’s tunes were so lively that even the washing, draped over bushes in the sun to dry, would leap off and dance around the yard.
Indoors at sundown, the music continued with Granny beside the woodstove, Barry and I seated on the patchwork covered bed and Uncle Wade in the only other chair. In the kitchen, Granny’s youngest, a woman in her thirties, prepared supper.
Once more the table was laid with a feast of home grown fare of wild fruit and home-cured meats. Afterwards, dishes done, the oil lamp lit, we were shown the washbasin, the gourd dipper, the water bucket (a sliver of ice already evident on its surface), and the path to the privy.
Granny’s youngest plumped up our bed, which was in the kitchen near the stove and still warm from the day’s cooking. Beneath the stove a pair of blue tick hounds lay sleeping. “I ‘spect them hounds’ll be in bed with ya’ll before daybreak.” Laughing to herself she took the lamp away.
The sound of sausage sizzling in the pan woke us and we dressed beneath the covers while our breakfast cooked nearby. A quick trip to the privy, our backsides on icy, wooden boards, our hands and faces lathered in an icy basin, we were ready for anything – especially after milk gravy poured over hot pepper sausage, sweet potato fritters, biscuits, eggs and huckleberry jelly.
Uncle Wade was playing a few more tunes as we left his house. Granny Porter was slicing apple circles into her lap and stringing them up above the stove to dry while her daughter begged us to take her back to Nashville where she hoped to find work. “I’m a good cook,” she said. There was no disputing that. Only, we knew she would be lost in a city, knew she would miss the quiet, peaceful valleys, the wild mountains, the good people. We hope we were right to tell her that we were headed north and that we would write her if ever anything turned up in Nashville that we thought might suit her.
Now, if you ask us where and when the autumn colours are at their most spectacular, we will get out our maps of North Carolina and then we will show you our 35-mm transparencies taken in mid-October of 1964.