August 4, 2006

Dear Friends:

On July 22, 2006, we drove up to the Carter Family Fold to hear Bill, Mike and Jim play with Joe Newberry. It would have been my father’s 69th Birthday (July 22, 2006). When we passed Pilot Mountain, I realized that this trip was going to be very important. Pilot Mountain is a big old memory, older than language. The kind of memory not stored in the brain, but in the soul.

 We drove up 11-W until we got to 421 and it snaked around in the mountains until we came to another tiny little snaky road (visit The Crooked Road).  Some more snaking around the mountains until we came to signs for the Carter Family Fold. We went right to it, and it looked just like it does in the picture on the Carter Family Website. Last time I was there was more than 20 years ago. (The first time I was ever at the Carter Store, there was no "Fold.")

There were folks already parking along either side of the road. We drove into the fenced in parking lot and parked in a row behind a Dodge Ram truck whose owner was a strong and rugged, muscular looking man with precise gray sideburns. He commented to us that he was glad he knew what we looked like so he would know who to come and get to unblock his truck, when it was time to go. We all smiled and laughed.

 We went to look in the museum, A.P.’s store. There were so many things to look at. We could not spend long enough looking. The Fold was filling up, and we had to get our seats. We moved quickly to the Fold.  I saw some of “The Boys” come out on the stage from the green room, and I could not contain myself. I asked David if he would mind if I went to say hello and let them know we were here, and he said he would save our seats. So I went down to say hello, and Mike saw me and said they had not been sure we would show-up, and he was glad we did, and he pulled me into the green room to say “hello” to everyone.

I said “hello” very enthusiastically and hugged everyone there (Bill, Jim, Joe, Bren).  Thanks to Bren for documenting our presence at the event by photographing us. Then she went to hang with Anne Berry. Anne had the two dogs with her – she and Jim’s dogs. (They are as sweet and adorable as dogs can be.)

 Dale Jett opened the show with his group. They played “Poor Orphan Child” which was first recorded in 1927 in Bristol Tennessee by Ralph Peer. “I hear a low faint voice that said papa and mama dead, and it comes from the poor orphan child that must be clothed and fed…”  This is one of the many songs collected from the mountains by A.P. Carter and performed by he, his wife Sarah, and her cousin (A.P.’s sister in-law) Maybelle.  As an adult having lost both his parents, this song must have a new meaning to Dale, as it does to me.

  Dale and his group finished playing and announced the show. He nodded to the Red Clay Ramblers, Jack, Clay, Bland, Chris, Ed, and Rick..  Dale observed that my father Tommy was not here anymore to play the banjo and that Tommy had meant a lot to him and the others who were present on this night.

 (At this point Dale did not yet know that I was there. I miss Dad too – a genius spirit – my father -- I am grateful now to be able to remember him that way. It is really amazing to think of all the people I know who have passed-on, being in that other - dimension together – Dad, my mother, Albert Einstein, Eric Olson, Gandhi, Janette, Joe, and Sarah Carter, Galileo – all there together with the others at that meeting in the air.)   Fortunately for us all announced Dale, Joe Newberry was doing a fine job filling Tommy’s shoes and making his own contribution to the group. Then Jim, Mike, Bill and Joe came out on stage.

 The Boys opened their set with “Magpie”, which sounded familiar. Turns out that it should well sound familiar since apparently my Mother, Bobbie was involved in collecting this tune with Eric Olson and others, in 1968. “Magpie” was recorded by the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. Jim Watson added this one to the set list.

 Magpie was followed by “Aragon Mill” sung primarily by Jim Watson with the others singing harmony on the chorus.  A murmur passed through the crowd when Jim introduced the song by explaining that Si Kahn wrote it and that it is about what happens to a textile mill town when the mill shuts down. Aragon Mill is a haunting and beautiful song.

 “The Henhouse Blues” followed this song.  Then they did “While the Band is Playing Dixie, I’ll be Humming Home Sweet Home,” a Carter Family song that was recorded by Jim, Mike and my father on Meeting in the Air. It must be a soldier’s lament: “When the band is playing Dixie, I’ll be humming Home Sweet Home; it takes me back to Georgia though I’m far across the foam….”

Continuing in the theme of  home, they played Bill Hicks’ song “Hobo’s Last Letter” in which a wayward traveler is reminded that we only have so much time on this earth to spend with our loved ones. "Hobo’s Last Letter" was followed by “Rockingham Cindy,” which I know well as a Tommy Jarrell tune. Incidentally, my extended family of musicians cared enough about Tommy Jarrell to emulate his playing style. The message was powerful: Tommy Jarrell is important. A child may not understand why, but she understands what the adults care about.

 The next number was Bill’s performance of “When Bacon Was Scarce/ Rye Straw.” Introducing “When Bacon Was Scarce,” Bill explained that he learned this song from Maggie Hammons, and that it once had many verses, but Maggie’s memory had condensed the song down to the best three.   (The song tells the story of hunting and killing a wild hog. As I listened to this ballad, I thought of a book entitled The Columbian Exchange by Alfred W. Crosby Jr.  This is a book that mentions the role that herds of swine that played in the conquest of the New World. Crosby points out that pigs as a species were a very successful transplant to the New World. )

 Next, Joe Newberry performed his new song, collaboration between himself and Rudyard Kipling. “Mother o' Mine” was read as a poem at Sara Carter’s funeral. Now thanks to Joe it is a song: “Mother – my first companion”. They concluded the set with Bill’s song, “Uncle Charlie’s Revenge” (recorded by Bill and Libby on their CD “South of Nowhere”) in which it seems Uncle Charlie gets revenge upon the narrator’s grandfather’s fiddle--it is a song Bill based on a story Tommy Jarrell told on his uncle Charlie Jarrell.

 During the set break, I went down to the stage and talked to Dale Jett, Janette’s son. At first, he did not know who I was, but I told him I was Tommy Thompson’s daughter, and then he recognized me. That recognition opened the door.  Memories of my father suddenly started pouring out.  Dale, reminding me of famous mountain storyteller Ray Hicks, told me about Dad’s visit to the Fold in 1996 or 1997. Dad sat up on the stage and, looking out upon the audience, remarked, “I remember this…”

Later after going to Hiltons that time, and getting to sit on the stage when Johnny Cash was there, Dad said of Dale Jett: “He is a good guy -- those are good people" and whenever we would talk about the Carter Family, Dad would get a sweetness about him that was like that he had for his father. He loved Dale.

 Dale told me that once he and Dad were somewhere together (might have been the Carter Family Fold) and Dale offered Dad a drink. All he had to drink from was a teacup, so Dale offered to get him a glass. Dad declined the glass, but offered the teacup.  So Dale poured him a drink, and they sat and talked for a while. Dad had some more whiskey and they continued to converse. After a while more, the bottle was less than ½ way full, and it was time for Dad to go. Dad thanked Dale, handed him the teacup, and walked away just as steady as ever.

 Dale and his cousin Daryl Jayne told me that they had just been teen-agers when the Red Clay Ramblers started performing at the Carter Family Store, and later the Fold. Dad was a significant influence on them both, letting them know that their heritage was important. They told me that they both loved my father like a brother, and that he had helped to build the awareness in these younger Carter Family descendants of their significance, and helped to lead them to dedicate much of their lives and energy to keeping the family music tradition going. Dale tried to put into words what the song "Twisted Laurel" (see lyrics below)  means to him. I am afraid that in my excitement, I did not grasp the full import of what he was saying, but it has been a source of deep reflection since then.

 Seeing how this younger generation was carrying on the Carter Family Tradition and hearing that my father had contributed to the mosaic of their motivation brought my father back to life. I though of how Dale brought Janette to Dad’s funeral, and mentioned this to Dale. Dale told me that Janette had insisted on going. It is only just occurring to me now that Dad may have done a service to the Carter Family by encouraging Dale and Daryl and others like them. As dad said, “It passes on…” I ask Daryl about Dave Morris. Dave Morris of the Morris Brothers (see our Ivydale page) could really break your heart singing “Shiloh Hill” as Dale now does on his new CD.

  At that, it was time to go back to our seats for the second set. Dale opened the set by announcing that this date would have been my father’s 69th birthday, and in his honor, he would play “Twisted Laurel.” Sung and played by Dale, “Twisted Laurel” comes into full flower.

Just across the blue ridge, where the high meadows lay
And the galax spreads through the new mown hay,
There’s a rusty iron bridge, cross a shady ravine
Where the hard road ends and turns to clay.
With a suitcase in his hand there the lonesome boy stands,
Gazing at the river sliding by beneath his feet,
But the dark water springs from the black rocks and flows
Out of sight where the twisted laurel grows.
Past the coal-tipple towns in the cold December rain,
Into Charleston runs the New River train.
Where the hillsides are brown, and the broad valley’s stained
By a hundred thousand lives of work and pain.
In a tar-paper shack out of town across the track,
Stands an old used-up man trying to call something back,
But his old memories fade like the city in the haze
And his days have flowed together like the rain.
And the dark water springs from the black rocks and flows
Out of sight where the twisted laurel grows.   –Tommy Thompson, 1976

Dad’s early childhood was spent in St. Albans, W. Va. It seems to me from what I know of it, that Dad’s village on Jefferson Avenue was almost a company town for Union Carbide. Not the kind of company town run by textile mills or coal companies in the early twentieth century, but a more modern version, fueled by the country’s growing need for chemicals.  There was a group of friends on Dad’s street; families who had fun together in good times, and helped each other through difficulties.

 As Dad grew up, he came to understand that the extraction of coal (that surely helped make Union Carbide become the employer that it was) was destroying the waters and the land of West Virginia. As I think of the “dark water,” I think, not just of the mystery of the water that emerges from the black rocks (coal), but of the coal detritus and chemical runoff that has stained the broad valley.  Still, this is not all there is in that song. There are other spirits, great big spirits much bigger than words, in the song. I will try not to kill them with language.

 Well, then “the Boys”, that is Bill, Mike Jim, and Joe came back and started the second set with “Beale Street Blues.” An adapted version of this song played a role in “A Tune for Tommy.” (Thanks to Orla Swift of “the Raleigh News and Observer” for asking me the question that led to this piece on A Tune for Tommy)

 “Telephone Girl” was next. It is an interesting song which relates, in a harmonically beautiful way, the development of communication technology and relations between the sexes in the marketplace. After that, they played "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "Stolen Love," and "Rabbit in the Pea Patch." For info on all of these songs, I refer you to the liner notes of Stolen Love, Merchant’s Lunch, and Twisted Laurel. Next was "Unclouded Day," a Carter Family standard. Then came “Daniel Prayed,” a shape note hymn that they performed in four parts. This is one of their long-term numbers, and it tells the story of how God saved Daniel from the lions. I used to sing this song with Dad in the nursing home. The harmony is like heaven itself, and the words are pretty good, too…”He cared not for the King's decree but trusted God who set him free …”

 One time Dad performed this one at Macalester College when I was a student there. He introduced the song by talking about how the editors of the Bible had selected the Daniel story as one for inclusion in their up-coming publication. I used to think this way of introducing the song was funny and irreverent, but in my older age I understand that it is funny, irreverent, and true, if a simplified explanation of what happened.  My father was, after all, a Philosophy Instructor before he became a full time Red Clay Rambler.  "Sugar Hill" was next on the set list, another traditional fiddle tune.

 Dad and Mike’s song “The Ace” was next, and by this time I had broken down and was not able to restrain myself from singing along, my apologies to those who were sitting near me. The thing was, though, that I was there when Dad and Mike started working on that song. I listened to them working on it in the “Beefalo.” I heard them search for just the right words and phrases. I was there when they laughed because they found the words.  For days afterward, I witnessed as Dad and Mike talked, sang, refining and polishing their work.  I experienced the joy and laughter in that creation, and I related the song to what I knew of my father and mother’s courtship in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Then “The Boys” performed "Paddy Drink Some Cider," another standard. This was followed by “Merchants Lunch,” another of the Craver/Thompson collaborations. I was around during the gestation of that one too – as a young teenager (about 30 years ago), I remember when we discovered the Merchants Lunch. It was then a late night joint where we could eat after an RCR show in Nashville. It was on that trip, I recall, the bar almost empty at the end of the show, that Dad let me sing, “Sittin’ at Home” (by the Poplin Family) onstage. There were only a few people left in the audience that night, and I guess Dad figured I could not do too much harm. But I digress…back to the Carter Family Fold in 2006. “The Boys” closed the show with their rendition of "Sally Ann."

 After the show, I met some people from Appalshop, the Folk Arts mega center in Kentucky. I met some folks from Appalshop in the audience sitting near us. I believe the first Appalshop people I met were Steve Brooks and Maxine Kenny. I am not sure, so forgive me if I am mistaken. Then I also met Tony Slone and Angelyn DeBord from Appalshop. Tony is a videographer who made the film “Sunny Side of Life," a documentary of the creation of the Carter Family Fold. I told Angie who I was and wondered if I knew her from the RCR trips to this area in the 1970’s. Angie possesses a power like that of Glenda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz. She said there was someone there that night who I should meet. It was his 69th birthday too. He would understand the environment, the place, and the circumstances of my father’s life. He is a very well known writer, and I should meet him. She might as well have given me a pair of ruby slippers and told me to click them together three times while saying, “There’s no place like home…”

 Gurney Norman was at the Fold that night, and it was his birthday. I met Gurney Norman. Angie introduced me to him and told me he was a writer and a professor at KYU.

  He was tall with wispy white hair, wise and thoughtful in his manner. I told him I had heard it was his birthday, and I wondered if he had some insight into my father’s life, living in those same years. I commented that he was not a baby boomer. This was apparently the right thing to say. “No, I am not,” he affirmed. In fact, he said he was eight or nine years old before the war ended, and he remarked that that would have been my father’s experience too. He ventured a guess about on of my father’s influences, “Burl Ives?” he asked.

 “Yes, indeed! Yes! Dad loved Burl Ives,” and had shared that love with me when I was a child – we sang those songs together – “Froggie Went A’ Courtin’” jumps to mind.

 I am envisioning Burl Ives with his beard and wearing sandals. I’m thinking of how my father loved Burl Ives … looking at Gurney Norman’s shoulder bag, looking at Gurney Norman’s face … he looks to me like a picture of Robert Penn Warren … he looks like my late Humanities professor from Macalester, Roger Blakely … I ask him what I should call him, “Professor Norman? Mr. Norman? Gurney?” He wants people to call him Gurney.

 I ask him where he is from and he says “Grundy, Virginia.”  Oh my God, Oh my God … that is where Lee Smith is from!  I tell Gurney he reminds me of Robert Penn Warren, and Gurney says something like “A sort of cousin of mine.”

 We talk a little about the kids (like Dave Morris) who went to the Vietnam War, and children who grow up in mountain culture, go to college, and never come back. It used to be, when I would listen to Hazel Dickens sing “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” I would think of my grandfather’s generation. Now I hear Gurney explaining to me that it is my story too, not precisely in every detail, but in the general pattern. In fact, as a child I knew I was going to go “north” when I grew up.

 I wrack my brains trying to think of the term Fugitive Movement but all I can think of is agrarians, so I say “Agrarians!” !” I am looking for a spark, and I imagine that I see, not a spark, but the light from some smoldering coals way back behind Gurney’s eyes. Then another thing occurs to me, Dad told me to read an agrarian writer. I had forgotten his name, a poet and a farmer from Kentucky. In this context I cannot pull up the name so I ask Gurney for his email address. I will email the name to him…Gurney doesn’t gush like I do, but I hope I caught his attention…he says “we’ll correspond.”  I write Gurney’s email address in the margin of my spring 2006 Appalachian Voices and make a mental note to transfer that to my address book as soon as we get back to the hotel, no matter how tired I am. I introduce Gurney to David, and then I blurt out to both of them, “I have found home. I know who I am now!”  Then there is a lot said betwixt us about “googling” Gurney Norman as soon as I get back to Durham.

On the way home from the Fold, we stop in Snowville, Virginia, to find the tombstone of an ancestor on my father’s side of the family. One Chester Bullard by name. He was a Doctor and a preacher of (what is now known as) the “Restoration Movement.” He built a big house in Snowville and called it Humility.  He traveled all over the Virginia back-country, preaching and baptizing sinners in rivers and streams. He had a congregation that would meet on one side of the New River, and he would preach to them from a stone formation in the cliff on the other side. He was known for his booming voice, and his talent at exhortation. He did not believe in under-ground burial, so he had any deceased family members entombed in a cave. I heard there are four wives in there, and another story is that he had daughters entombed there. Hmm … this sounds like Henry IIX. (I have the diary of one of his wives, a great-great grandmother of mine. She kept this diary for the first year of her marriage. My step mother Cece gave me the diary.)

  David and I asked at a Virginia Visitors Center to find the town of Snowville. It was near the Claytor Lake Dam. At Claytor Lake we stopped at a Sporting Goods Store and asked about Chester Bullard. It turned out that the store manager knew of him. “He was quite a notorious figure around here.” She said. She called her husband on the phone, and he helped us to find my great-great grandfather's grave, up on a hill. The cave where he entombed his wives and children was just below where we were, but we couldn’t get to it that day. We were not properly dressed. Our “guide” told us that there are still metal bars on that cave.

 Now I can honestly claim I belong to the mountains. That will be my excuse when I go back there to live, whenever it will be.

 On the way home I remembered the name of the agrarian from Kentucky I was trying to tell Gurney Norman about. When we arrived back home I emailed Gurney that Dad had advised me to read Wendell Berry. Gurney Norman then wrote me that Wendell Berry is one of his best friends!!!!  And, he reminded me to google himself--Gurney Norman. I did, and damn if he didn't write Divine Right's Trip! If you don’t know it, it’s about a young man traveling across the country in a VW Microbus in about 1970. He is traveling with his girlfriend and dropping acid along the way. Eventually he finds himself at his family home in Kentucky. It has been severely damaged by the strip mining of coal. There the young man, David, discovers the joy of home economics (involving rabbits and soil). Cece has been trying to get me to re-read this book for years. She gave me the book two Christmases in a row.  (Richard King got me interested in reading that book out of the Whole Earth Catalog when I was a teenager. That was an important book to me then, but it is so much more now. I re-read the whole book from cover to cover the next day.) Gurney Norman is a professor at the University of Kentucky, in charge of the Creative Writing program. He is a friend of Lee Smith, and he too hails from Grundy, Virginia. In addition, he is on the Appalshop board and does a lot of writing with them.

 The event of meeting Gurney Norman at the Fold on Saturday and it was HIS 69th birthday on THAT Day too,  That event right there, all blocked out in time like that, was like some kind of a Key-Stone in some great big process of which I am a part.

 God! I met Gurney Norman at the Fold!!! Thanks to Tony and Angie of Appalshop. Gurney Norman wrote Divine Right's Trip. Now I know there is a God, and God is working it all out.

  Another thing I did soon after we arrived home, was watch Appalshop's “Sunny Side of Life,” about the rebirth of the Carter Family Music Tradition through Janette’s efforts. I watched a young Janette tell how she had started thinking about opening a little music place in her father's old store … just to keep the traditions alive ... and make a little money to live on.  Then I saw a much younger Dale say that at first he and his dad Joe didn’t believe her, but she was determined. Then I saw Janette encourage a young Dale as he learned to play the guitar and carry on the tradition. Now Dale and his sister Rita are in charge, doing the same thing their parents did … I was profoundly moved.

 This whole experience has changed my life. I do not know how yet, but I do not need to know. What I am sure of now is who I am, and what I love most in the world. That is a great place to start. Thank you, and Amen!

The Red Clay Ramblers 1972-1981 Home | Carter Family Connections

back to the top
Besides Tommy's section of the site, the following pages are also related to Jesse and Tommy:
Blurred Time "The Sleeper": the aftermath of Jesse and Bobbie's car accident
Mike Craver's "Visiting Tommy"
Roots of the Red Clay Ramblers:
Fuzzy Mountain String Band: Jesse's mom, Bobbie, recorded with Rambler Bill Hicks and others
Hollow Rock String Band: Tommy and Bobbie Thompson named this band for their community

Site maintained by
August 26, 2006