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Thursday, May 5, 2011


spring lizard creek

For several days my mind has been dwelling on my love for the South. It's hard to define the South in an all-inclusive way, because cultures in the South vary as much as accents. Same language, same bigger culture, but subtle differences from one section of a state to another. Subtle differences, but differences the older people who knew the various accents, where they came from, named where the speaker was from. Now, however, accents in the South are homogenizing with the rest of the country through television and radio, pop music. It's the nature of the change we're going through together as a nation. Southern accents are not nearly as unique as they used to be. A man I know from over around Ararat, Virginia, across the state line from Mount Airy, my age, and he still has a strong accent from that region of Virginia. It's a beautiful accent, like the accent around Lynchburg. Hoose for house.

In my early years in the mountains I listened to the old people talk and it was music. It's still music in my ears, but the people with the old accents are all gone. The older people now have less of an accent. I arrived here in 1976, my neighbor, Tom Pruitt was 72, born 1904. Electricity came through here in the mid 40s, so that put him over 40 when he started using electricity. Knowing Tom, it was for no more than a few lightbulbs, if any. He built bathroom on the side of the house and 16 years later connected it to water. He never put up a shower curtain. Kept a mop outside the shower stall, and when he finished a shower, he mopped the floor. He never once drove a tractor. He was afraid of them, knew of too many men killed by them. Tom paid attention. When every year somebody you know gets killed on a tractor, it tells you something if you pay attention.

Tom's accent was thick. From the first time I talked with him, I understood him clearly. It may have been that I was so enchanted by talking with a Blue Ridge Mountain hillbilly, the real deal, hillbilly itself. I couldn't get enough of listening to him. He had opinions that were a bit antique. Like, "Why do they want to put a bomb on the moon? Th'aint nothin up there. The Bible says the moon is just a light. You can't drop a bomb on a light." I sometimes regret that I never wrote down the things Tom said, his stories he told me over 14 years. It didn't feel right at the time. Our conversation was man to man, what he said was meant for me. I thought about recording him talk many times, but it would make it artificial. It's like an observer changes outcomes. I felt like the spirit of our conversation would be less authentic recorded. I felt like making notes toward telling his story would be using him to my own gain, which I have always been unable to do.

It was the same with his brother, Millard, the Regular Baptist preacher. His language so beautiful to my ears. Hearing him preach in the old-time mountain way in-the-spirit was as good as music. He was a good singer too. He had the kind of singing voice that if he hadn't been called to preach, he'd have been a fiddler, banjo picker and guitar picker who sang the old songs beautifully. Since he was called to preach, he sang the old hymns beautifully. He kept the fiddle, banjo and guitar at home. They had no place in the church house. He played the fiddle for me a few times and it was the old-old-time sawing, 2 strings at a time, the particular squawk that is the sound of these mountains, like the steel guitar is the sound of country music. It's a sound that is precious to the mountain ear, and totally inaccessible to an outsider. Unless it's an outsider like me who wanted to learn the mountain culture, at least well enough to get around in it. I don't dare ask for more than that. That's plenty. Mountain culture is something nobody from outside can entirely get. You have to be born here to understand it, then it's nothing to understand, because it's just life. As in the Tao, the only way to know it is not to know it.

The singing in Elder Millard Pruitt's church was to my ear what heaven must be. With high ceilings, lamps that hung down by chains from the ceiling, the acoustics in the place were perfect for singing. The sound in the place could not have been better. Millard leading the singing and Eura Lee Phipps repeating every phrase in her high hillbilly voice could bring me to tears just hearing it. At Tom's funeral, Harold Church, Tom's cousin and the undertaker, picked all the good old-time singers as they came in and put them in 3 rows in front of where I was sitting. Tom wanted 3 songs sung at his funeral, and when it came that time, the people in those rows stood and sang the songs, Eura Lee repeating the phrases. I'd bawled my eyes out for a half hour the day before, and went to the funeral assuming I'd got all that done. When those people started singing, I was so overwhelmed, it started all over again. I leaned forward and let the tears fall to the floor between my feet. Didn't think to bring a rag. The tears made a puddle.

It's the most beautiful church music I've heard. No instruments, no bang-bang piano chords, but slow, meditative singing, slow enough to pay attention to the words and think about their meaning. It's a cultural tendency for us to look at another time and think them backward because they might believe the earth is flat, that nobody ever went to the moon, that a man is the king of his castle, that old early American stuff, individualism that we think of as obsolete and over, like the Constitution after the Bush administration. Among the older people I knew who spent the first half of their lives in the old way, not one of them was ignorant in any way. I found them to be among the most intelligent people I've known, which includes several college grads and some with advanced degrees. When it comes to intelligence, some of the farmers had it in abundance. Still do. They may not know much about American poetry or Southern literature, but they can interpret the Bible in ways that you shudder from the crystal clarity of it, one can put up a wire fence without a bit of slack in the wires, which is no easy accomplishment, something you have to learn. They learned it when they were children. They know human character and behavior impressively well. I saw immediately there is no fooling any of these people in any way. I never set out to, and it's a good thing, because I'd have only failed.

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