Long Journey Home: An Introduction

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.

This special book-length issue of Southern Exposure is filled with the stories and images of Southerners who live in a variety of Souths. Using blues and jook jive, folk of the Mississippi Delta describe a South quite unlike that which Texas fishermen reveal in their tall tales and jokes. The South of Grand Ole Opry stars Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper is different from that of Lorenzo Piper Davis, talented ballplayer for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Baseball League. The Louisiana Gulf Coast of Cajuns and black French people is another South, as is Carolina’s Low Country. 

All these Souths with their stories, songs, sports, dances, religions, occupations, crafts and foodways reflect generations of diverse experiences and outlooks. Like garden seeds that are planted and culled for their special qualities year after year and then are passed along within a family, the forms of regional folk expression are the findings and keepings which sustain us and tie us to our history and to our sense of home. In spite of the onslaught of bulldozers, the sprawl of cities and the profiteering in everything from soybeans to condominiums, Southern folk traditions persist, offering a measure of distinctiveness and stability. 

In the spring of 1977, Herman Kahn, nuclear gamesman from the Hudson Institute and author of Thinking the Unthinkable, delivered the keynote address for a Southern Growth Policies Board devoted to “The Future of the South’s Economy.’’ Kahn was pleased with what he saw. The unthinkable seemed irrepressible in this South which had built the Land of Oz atop North Carolina’s Beech Mountain, offered a Biblical tourist park in Alabama with a “Walk-On-The-Water Ride,” and boasted of an international city, Atlanta, which flaunts its new creed, “A City Without Limits.” 

His eyes shining like satellites, Kahn prophesied flush times for Dixie. Because of “the character of the people,” the South would soon overtake the North in economic development. Northerners, he suggested, had become unwilling to labor, to take risks, to make sacrifices. They had even begun to question the wisdom of uncontrolled growth and the promise of salvation by technology. As certain of the future as he was unimpressed with the past, Kahn concluded his remarkable speech by looking to the year 2175 and to a world become Atlanta, where, barring bad luck, “mankind should be everywhere rich, everywhere numerous and everywhere in control of the forces of nature.” 

The forces of nature promise no more beautiful retreat than can be found in early May on US Highway 441 as.it runs through the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here are free-flowing streams, swimming holes and backpacking trails. Winding amidst rhododendron and mountain laurel, 441 seems less a new-made road than a passageway to privacy and timelessness. But by August, mankind is everywhere numerous and in control. The highway becomes strangled with traffic, littered with fools and strangers, and moves to the rhythms of a thousand snapshots. 

On the Tennessee side of 441 is Gatlinburg, city of 3,000 residents and 150 motels. Each year, Gatlinburg entertains a goodly number of the 9,000,000 tourists who come to the Smokies. Its streets are filled with hustles: Ripley’s Believe-lt- Or-Not, the Space Needle, Rebel’s Corner, plus Alpine beer halls, ski lodges, cable car lifts, fairylands, gold rushes, cement trout ponds, wax New Testament gardens, mountaineer-burgers and 3-D rainbow panoramas. 

North Carolina offers travelers of 441 the town of Cherokee. Advertising “Unusual Novelties,” Cherokee is the home of caged bears, reservation Indians, bow and arrow sets made in Taiwan, imitation simulated leather saddlebags and lacquered scalawags. Try as it does, however, Cherokee remains Gatlinburg’s poor cousin when it comes to garish fakelore. In the hills beyond, down the highway toward Maggie Valley and Asheville, spill second-home resorts, golf courses and billboard backwash. 

Glittering facades that turn life into a spectator sport, Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Opryland and a hundred such amusements sometimes seem like all that is left of Southern culture. But there are other roads than 441 and other Souths than Hillbilly World. There are even other attitudes about the relationship between past, present and future. 

One night not long after the Southern Economic Conference featured futurologist Kahn, I listened as banjo-playing philosopher Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers talked about growth. 

“Our music developed a step at a time. An early group that I was in — the Hollow Rock String Band — had a fiddler named Alan Jabbour who had learned a lot about tune traditions of North Carolina and Virginia. I learned from him. We never sang a song in that band and for two years I was happy just playing instrumentals. We were thrilled when the people from whom the music had come, master musicians like Henry Reed and Tommy Jarrell, liked what we played. 

“Next, when we formed the Red Clay Ramblers, I was feeling a need to change, to be broader. Certain kinds of sounds appealed to me that were outside the older repertory. As our new band grew, we began to write a few songs and to use more material from the black tradition. Each step meant a tiny move away from an old-timey band that happened to exist in the 1970s instead of the 1930s. 

“After a while I began to think that if you hadn’t seen the steps we took, you wouldn’t know we were an old-time band. But I was overreacting. We are part of a regional tradition because we worked like hell to assimilate it. We have tried to latch on to the most robust, good-humored, healthiest part of the musical, lyrical heritage we’ve had. However, you can’t make a whole music just by hanging on to the past. You have to add something new.” 

To become a fine contemporary musician, Tommy Thompson began as an apprentice to tradition. In no rush to the future, he acquired his skills steadily and patiently. Not content merely to preserve old forms, he and the Red Clay Ramblers sought black and white sources, accepted new instruments and new rhythms and began to shape a music which would satisfy a present need. “Sooner or later,” Tommy says, “we’ll probably do a song that won’t sound right unless it has a drum or an electric guitar in it.” 


Key to the Highway 

Amidst all the growth and rumors of growth which the twentieth century South has experienced, in spite of the balloons of rhetoric launched by New South boosters from Henry Grady to Herman Kahn, folk expressions have provided a touchstone with reality. The music of the blues arose with the oppression of the Jim Crow era. Blues realism, its anguish as well as its outrageous humor, said more about the Southern condition in the first third of this century than any number of nostalgic novels which lamented the passing of the Old South’s darkey days. During the same years, white folksong in the Upland and Piedmont South reported, among other things, the tenor of mine disasters and gun thugs, the poverty and hopelessness on the farm and in the factory. Nancy Dixon sang: 


Every evening when I get home 

It’s a big pot of peas and an old jaw bone. 

Hard times in this old mill 

It’s hard times in here. 


Blind Alfred Reed sang, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” To this scene, William Faulkner and Richard Wright were yet to come. Nor has such folk outrage disappeared. 

One giant step down US Highway 72 from “The Space Capital of the Universe,” as Huntsville, Alabama, calls itself, is tiny Mooresville — the first town incorporated in the state. For the past 90 years, this old plantation community in the rich soil of the Tennessee Valley has been the home of Frank Pickett, whose parents worked the nearby fields as slaves. More precious than moonrocks is the Pickett legacy of nineteenth century camp meeting spirituals which he still renders with great range and power. 


I’m living down here, Lord 

Living on borrowed land. 

Yes, I’m living down here on borrowed land. 

I’m rooted and I’m grounded, Lord 

I’m wrapped and tied. 

Going to wait on the rising sun. 


I visited Frank Pickett one day during the Christmas holidays in 1975, and he sat and sang for hours while I recorded him. Then he talked of his being hired years ago by the Tennessee Valley Authority to “sing and keep lively time” for its laborers. He had sung blues. He had also sung worksongs to pace the flying axes of crews of men as they chopped trees in teams. After he got religion, however, he quit singing these “reels” and began to sing only spirituals. 

On a late-July night in 1976, after Frank Pickett and his young cousins had sung for the audience at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in Washington, I walked with him up Capitol Hill. He insisted on walking; it was his regular form of exercise. Frank was dressed in his everyday outfit: yellow tennis shoes, khaki pants which (thanks to the red suspenders) almost swallowed his small body, a white cotton long-sleeved shirt buttoned high on his neck and heavy eyeglasses with lenses as thick as the bottoms of beer bottles. He set a fast pace. Ahead, the Capitol dome loomed larger, brightly spotlighted, white, golden and spectacular against the nighttime blue sky. 

Inside the Capitol, Frank closely inspected the displays of governmental curios, the rows of marble men who circled the rotunda, the armed guards in their uniforms and the richly ornamented and bejeweled case which held the Magna Charta, on loan for the Bicentennial. Then, standing in the center of this cathedral to the American Empire and looking upward into the skylight, up hundreds of feet toward the mural which depicts the ascension of George Washington, and which he could no more see than he could see his feet when he looked toward them, Frank Pickett laughed and said, “It’s a hypocrite’s heaven.” 


The Bozart Blues 

Recently, in an article about Arkansas, the major Southern correspondent for The New York Times wrote, “A state that once regarded a corn-shuck doll as a work of art now has a number of serious painters and artistic craftsmen.” Only a few weeks earlier, another Times writer had proclaimed. “Dixie is still no cultural oasis, but as they say in Southern art circles these days, some flowers are beginning to bloom in the desert.” 

Tired and unimaginative scraps from the half-century-old butcher block of American Mercury editor H.L. Mencken, these Times pronouncements reflect longstanding stereotypes. Accepting the prejudices of urban taste-makers in the North and East, Mencken sampled the South and spat it out. With a number of devastating essays about the “Sahara of the Bozart” (as he called the South), Mencken helped to terrorize several generations of Southern writers, intellectuals and historians. 

Without the antagonism of a Mencken, there were other reasons why literate, ambitious and restless young Southerners abandoned their traditional cultures and adopted the standards of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, even Baltimore. Some of these reasons seem natural enough — such as the urge of any generation to break free from the dogmas and rigidity of its forebears. And there was much that was worthy of emulation in Yankeeland — its writers and poets, its theatres, museums and universities, its American philosophers and its connections with the cosmopolitan heritage of Europe. 

There were, however, other motivations, forces which made for feelings of inferiority. These forces were related to the South’s peculiar relationship to the nation. From at least the time of Reconstruction until well into the twentieth century, the South served as a raw materials and resource colony of the North. In several longstanding instances (such as the coal fields of Appalachia or the steel mills of Birmingham), this relationship continues today. Peas in a pod, economic and cultural colonialism have their legacies. The trains which hauled the iron and timber from the South brought Northern manufactured products, styles of fashion, books and periodicals, and shapers of genteel opinion. 

Whatever the combination of reasons, Southerners have often been ashamed of their distinctive accents and molasses speech, embarrassed by the high nasal sound of mountain music or by the bawdiness of the blues. We have often been blind to the beauty of the folk potter’s or the chairmaker’s crafts and to the vision of the quiltmaker’s art. Never mind the emergence and genuine achievements of “hillbilly” bands; if Northern cities had symphony orchestras then, by God, Southern cities would have second-rate ones. 

For many years, only a handful of researchers and fieldworkers tried to piece together the biographies and document the accomplishments of countless musicians, craftspeople, storytellers, preachers, singers, healers, dancers and cooks. Fately, as the number of these cultural detectives has increased, the patterns of folk history have begun to appear with the intensity and variety of a crazy-quilt. There is much here to admire. Southern folk creations have made extraordinary contributions to the arts of America. In the hands of someone like Pearl Bowling of the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, even the cornshuck doll deserves another look. 


And Home 

As new-made roads have broken down the isolation of folk communities in the Appalachians, Ozarks, Piney Woods and Sea Islands, the ferry, the mountain lane and swamp canal have given way. People of many regions and countries have traveled these roads discovering each other, comparing ways of life, lingering to trade recipes and remedies. Millions of migrants, hoping to escape the castes of race and class, have journeyed to far away cities or have traveled hard in search of richer farmlands. Other Southerners have been ordered half-around the world to fight a series of wars; those who came back saw the South through different eyes. 

For many Southerners, the acceptance of a regional identity has been a long journey home. It has often meant a reconciliation to community, to family, to personality. Homecoming has meant an affirmation of some traditions and a rejection of others. With a Southern horizon filled with the ominous shapes of urban high-rises, nuclear reactors and strip mine shovels, homecoming may already be too late. 

For a number of Southerners, those who have never seen beyond the boundaries of their bitterness or the limits of their sentimentality, home ground is an unyielding turf. Not only the crippled demagogues with their frantic flying of rebel flags, but also the misty-eyed painters with their bygones and sleeping dogs linger as reminders of strange fruit from the Southern past. Isolation and nostalgia, however, neither build community nor keep the bulldozer out of the living room. 

That a regional culture needs an international dimension will seem unlikely only to those who have heard no grandmother say, “Sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.” Just returned from a trip abroad, the Red Clay Ramblers’ Tommy Thompson suggests the value, not only of musical exchange, but of all folklife when it embraces a larger world. 

“During the summer of 1977,” explains Tommy, “we made our first concert tour of Europe and the British Isles. We got great audience response everywhere we went. People really loved what we were doing. Sure, we heard an awful lot of American pop stuff of the AM radio variety on European jukeboxes and a lot of Muzak, but we felt a very distinct movement toward home music. 

“Of course in Britain there’s a musical scene — stimulated by the Irish movement — which runs from old-timers in pubs to the fairly conservative Boys of the Lough to more innovative groups like Steeleye Span. 

“In France, the same kind of musical revival is getting started, maybe several years behind the British Isles. There are even a few folk bands beginning to make a living from their music. And the French are always very excited when Louisiana Cajun performers, like the Balfa Brothers, come to visit. 

“No matter where they live, folks have to do with music what they should do with the past in general. They must recognize that change is inevitable, but they must also search for and build upon the best of their traditions.”