Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

Miss McLeod, meet Uncle Joe

Jack missed his Wednesday deadline again – –

We have a pretty disparate group of friends that have many different interests, some of which I share. One of these, of course, is music. Every now and again some of us find some overlapping time when we can get together and can do some picking and singing.

Today was one of these days, and it was glorious!

For a couple of hours all the cares of the world disappeared and three of us threw everything else aside, forgot our cares and lost ourselves in bringing together our very different music to a common ground.

Tony had just heard that his brother had suffered a heart attack (but was recovering), while Leroy is still dealing with the death of his beloved Jenny and Tyler is trying to balance the life of a professional musician with balancing his budget. Me? I’m just juggling all the logistics of buying a new house and moving there while keeping my marriage on an even keel!

Tony is our guitar playing Presbyterian Pastor buddy who is seriously into ‘middle-of-the-road’ anything goes kind of music. Tyler is our local deep down traditional and very well informed banjo playing expert on the local music. I sing Scottish songs and ballads and play a pretty odd guitar style.

But the dark horse in all this is Leroy.

He’s very capable at playing everything from Simon and Garfunkel to James Taylor and everything in between – and he does it very well. He talks about things like diminished minor 7ths and such like.

So, for two hours we shared songs and did our best to follow each other as we sang, and every so often really got it together. We chatted about our musical preferences and veered off into lots of other things. We laughed and got more serious sometimes. And we got some renewed energy for life’s challenges.

I have to admit that I wondered if getting together at eleven on a weekday morning in the bookstore with a group of folk I’d never played music all together with before was such a great idea. But in the end it was just what we each and all needed.

One of the customers that came into the bookstore as we were getting started spent a long time “browsing” and finally said he expected to pay extra for the excellent entertainment.

Nah—we got more out of it than we put in, and that’s worth everything. Take a look here.

 

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The Monday Book: Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Jack’s doing the Monday book – so, of course it’s on Tuesday – –

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them; Nancy Marie Brown

Wendy brought me this book back from one of the bookstores she’s been visiting, promoting her book Fall or Fly. She was correct that it would interest me. It actually has little to do with the chessmen per se, but I don’t mind!

vikings

Brown uses the famous Lewis Chessmen as the mechanism for what is really a geopolitical and historical examination of the Nordic countries in medieval times. I already had some knowledge of the Viking connection to Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, and I even knew that the French Normans were originally Norse men.

But this book was a real eye-opener and introduced me to a world that was much more connected than I had thought. I obviously knew about the Vikings sailing around the north Atlantic but not just how much or how far. I knew nothing about their land journeys including taking part in crusades and hob-knobbing with English nobles!

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

Margret the Adroit of Iceland turns out to be Brown’s favored candidate as maker of the chessmen. She was a carver of walrus and other materials and was famous for her craft in her time. One of the kings regularly sent gifts made by Margret to other rulers, one of the reasons the chessmen may be attributable to her. But I think my favorite of all the memorable characters in this book is perhaps Earl Erling Skew-neck who got his name after being whacked in the neck by an adversary in battle and carried his head at an angle ever after!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Norse history and their connections to other northern European countries – particularly Scotland and Ireland.

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Why do we do it?!

Jack’s on time again – Musht be shome mishtake – – –

Ah! – the aftermath of our annual Celtic festival! The post-mortems and memories; what went right and what went wrong.

Actually not much went wrong, but I’m always a nervous wreck in the run-up thinking what might. This year our hard working chairperson Darinda moved home out of the area so the rest of us had to regroup and strategize. We had already had to accept that we couldn’t avoid a calendar clash with another big, but non Celtic, music festival just a couple of hours away. The weather forecast began to look more and more ominous right up to the night before.

In the end the forecast of all day thunderstorms didn’t materialize, the bike race was well supported, the parade wasn’t rained on, the vendors were happy, the sheepdogs starred, the music venues worked well and everyone had the opportunity to sample haggis, Cornish pasties, cock-a-leekie soup and apple crumble.

We probably did lose some attendance to the other festival, but not as much as I feared. We probably also lost folk due to the terrible weather forecast. But we still provided custom to the local B&B and the local hotels from folks who came from a distance and that’s partly what it’s all about.

Another perennial worry is whether we’d raise enough financial support to run the festival to our projected budget. Some regular supporting businesses and organizations had to cut back a bit this time but we got there in the end.

For me, the icing on the cake are the late night sessions back in the bookstore on Friday and Saturday. This year they were exceptional, in no small part because our good friends Tim and Eileen were over from North Carolina. Friday night saw great instrumental music while on Saturday I was transported back to the wonderful experience of being in the company of exceptional singers and harmonizers that I remember from years gone by.

I’ve helped organize many festivals and folksong clubs over the years and there’s always a constant tension between the satisfaction and pleasure when things work out and the worry that things will fall apart.

This time it mostly worked –

pipes

bikes

caber

sheepdogsigean

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

“It was Twenty Years ago Today”

Jack’s post is a day early for once – –

Twenty years ago today Wendy and I tied the knot. We had known each other just two years and when I asked ‘the question’ I immediately said “take time to think about it’! After all, I was foreign and older and she wasn’t as impulsive as me. Actually that’s not true – time has proved that she’s the impulsive one and I’m much more resistant to change.

But when we were introduced by our mutual friends, Wayne and Jean Bean, in Greeneville Tennessee I was the impulsive one for once.

wedding

We were married in the beautiful old stone house of Aileen Carr in Auchtermuchty in Fife. August 14th 1998 was a Friday (you can check) and was the day before the annual traditional music festival. That was an incentive for our storytelling and singing friends to come from ‘a’ the airts’ and come they did. Some of them have passed on now, but most are still around and in particular – Aileen Carr who provided the house, George Haig who was best man, Donna-Marie Emert who was best maid and Linda Bandelier who officiated as well as Jean Lockhart who laid on the wonderful food.

invite

I marvel at the last twenty years, starting with Wendy’s ‘run of the arrow’ as an American interloper into the Scottish storytelling scene and then our move to Lancashire in England where we were both a bit out of place, then Florida where we were VERY out of place and finally here to Big Stone Gap where we’ve made our home for twelve years, running Tales of the Lonesome Pine bookstore and becoming part of a real community.

It’s sometimes been difficult and there have been times when she has had to ‘explain things to me properly’, but that’s probably true of every meaningful relationship. We’ve been lucky and fortunate to have each other and to have so many good friends to help us along the way.

biltmore

She watches after me and makes sure I’m OK in every way – –

I loved her the first minute I saw her and still do!

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: THE SOUND OF HOLDING YOUR BREATH by Natalie Sypolt

breathThis book is out from West Virginia Press and I received a review copy for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. (I’m their book editor.) If anyone would like to review it for the Journal, please drop me an email or PM.

The short stories in Sypolt’s fiction debut are engrossing character studies. Most have wonderful characters who drive the plots around them. Siblings who see through each other’s deepest weaknesses. Young people who find reasons to stay or go. Nasty and nice Christians. In many ways, it’s like Sypolt took a classic Appalachian problem and wrote a “what if” story about it: what if you were gay and couldn’t tell your parents, but your elder sister knew because you fancied her husband? What if you were young enough to leave home and old enough to know you’d take your upbringing with you wherever you went?

Although you might be able to read the slim volume in a couple of hours, I recommend savoring. The prose is well-crafted, the words backlit with mountain sunsets. If it sounds like these are bib overall hayseed stories, think again. Stereotypes exist to be played with not to make the stories go. For instance, in one story of summer lake holidays, a boy aware of his beloved elder brother’s proclivities to violence suddenly finds himself seduced by the girl he thinks is pure. These are not easy straw characters. A preacher’s daughter finds nothing redeeming in her dad, but the way the story goes down gets complicated. Nobody gets off easy in a Sypolt short story.

If you are interested in Appalachian politics, culture, and families, you will find much to chew on here. If you like short stories that are well-written and character driven, you’ll love Sypolt’s debut. And remember, order it from your favorite local bookstore, not Amazon.

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Takuwe, Wounded Knee, Little Bighorn

Early in the trip, we went to Takuwe (translates as “why”) which is a temporary art and narrative exhibit in South Dakota dedicated to helping people understand what happened at Wounded Knee (the first time mostly, although the second is mentioned). Then we went to the actual site. This is an intense thing, because the exhibit is beautiful and full of recordings and written words from survivors and eyewitnesses. The site itself has only what the indigenous people put up because the US government keeps reneging on a promise to build a national monument and park there. Graffiti told white people to stay out of the cemetery until promises about the land were kept, and sage had been burned and left in a bundle at the entrance.

At Little Bighorn (aka Greasy Grass, aka Custer’s Last Stand) an actual battle took place in which a WHOLE lot of white people died, whereas Wounded Knee was a full-on massacre with soldiers shooting into a ravine full of unarmed women and kids.

Both started with the the kids, though, because when Custer was sent to round up the Indians who had decided to not move to a reservation, he was expecting about 500 people; he didn’t realize the riverbank camp held more than 7,000, many of them Cheyenne Warriors because they and the Sioux were camped together as allies.

Also, the cavalry troop sent around to the South was probably drunk, because the commander (Marcus Reno) pretty much started the whole thing by ordering his men to form a skirmish line and rush the South end of the camp mowing down little kids and elders. Which went really badly for the soldiers because it set the torch paper to the dry wood of fury among the people who already felt crowded out and endangered. You hit someone else’s kid, you get what you deserve, and several of Reno’s men died badly.

It’s a site you should visit in person or online, because the whole story is too hard to tell, but there were two very poignant things to me. One is that the government eventually put up tombstones of red granite for natives and white marble for incomers  wherever they found bodies. Many of the white tombstones only say “a soldier of the seventh cavalry fell here.” And they start in a clump in fortifications on top of hills or behind valleys, and they end in pairs, backing up the hill. Which means that the guys killed their horses and used them as barricades in a circle, then when they ran out of ammo, they paired off and stood back to back fighting with their hands.

Custer went into the battle not thinking it would be a fight; he would round up the Indians who had refused to go to the reservations, and the Black Hills they had been promised, which held gold, would be sold by the elders to the US Government and opened for settlement. How far into the battle was he before he realized several mistakes meant he’d killed not only himself but  more than 250 men? Most of these were immigrants, about 40% Irish, a handful of Poles and others alongside. They’d come to the West to get rich. But the Indians had always been in the West, and the killing of the seventh cavalry became a symbol as well as an actual victory.

Those tombstones in pairs on the hills made me swallow hard.

After the battle Sitting Bull took everyone who wanted to go North into Canada. They lasted five years before harsh winters forced their surrender-versus-starvation to the US government.

In the battlefield museum was a picture of a Lakota woman taken in 1880, four years after Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass and ten years before Wounded Knee. She’s kneeling, holding a baby at the entrance to a teepee, the baby looking out with happiness and excitement at something unseen in the distance. The woman is looking at the baby, and in her face is captured every mother’s wish for her child: to grow up safe and happy, to have a sweet life doing things with their dad and grandparents; to become someone who does good while walking softly through the world. And underneath it, fear: what was her child’s life going to be now?

That was when I started crying.

You can see much better pictures online than these. I was in the moment and didn’t take many or very good ones. The guy in the bright shirt is Leland, our battle site guide.

 

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Day Seven: Buff Steals the Show

Still at Sylvan Lake, soaking in water and woods by day, and cocktails by night. Because the wifi is hard to get, I’m putting all the photos and video at the bottom in a string again.

When you’ve seen a six-foot male buffalo kick up his heels in a dirt bath, you know the definition of “party animal.” These massive creatures turn into eight-hundred-pound puppies, legs waving in all directions as they wriggle on their backs like worms. It’s like watching the Pope go swimming: one minute plodding along all dignity and grace ignoring the tourists with cameras, the next doing a high dive yelling “Bonsai!”

Thoughtfully, the buffalo had aligned himself about twenty feet beyond a sign describing the American bison, so the braver tourists dashed three feet from their cars to take a picture of Buff the Bather gamboling about like a prairie dog, just beyond the interpretive plaque depicting him as the symbol of Prairie Dignity.

In the car, Oliver, Barbara, Jack and I agreed: Buff had drawn the afternoon shift. While all the others were hiding out from the heat at the local watering hole, buying each other rounds, he had the high-traffic entertainment shift. Hence his need for a party piece, the ol’ hof-waving, back-wriggling, kick-’em-up high routine. Packs the house every time.

About an hour later, leaving the Wildlife Loop Trail, we passed the Custer State Park office. Barbara indicated it with a nod of her head. “That’s where they collect their weekly wages. Buff is the highest-paid, because of his dirt dance routine, but he’s training twin calves to take over next year so he can retire.”

It is a sign of how far we have traveled together that the rest of us nodded agreement, Jack adding, “Took him two years to work his way up from night shifts.”

None of the crew are as interested in the antics of the prairie dogs, though, and I have had to resort to trickery to get my daily fix. While Oliver very much enjoys the charm of the wildlife and the beauty of the Black Hills, he tailgates the person ahead until they pull over, then races on. Even a rare sighting of an antelope failed to stop his drive to, well, drive. So the next time I saw a particularly cute prairie dog village, I shouted, “Look there!” Oliver practically put us into a ditch, swerving to the side. I snapped the dogs, and since we now had to let all the people we’d passed pass us, Oliver scanned the horizon for what I’d been pointing at. Turned out to be a dying Black Hills Spruce. (The beetles are doing for them, 95,000 acres damaged). Oh dear, so silly of me to mistake that reddish tree for a buffalo/coyote/antelope/mountain goat. Well, let’s press on, shall we?

Tomorrow, I drive….

 

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