Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Poor white folk who, we were told, were rabid racists ... "


This is an outstanding piece of writing. The chapter ‘To Be Whole and Holy’ is not religious, but is a kind of confession of assumed prejudices and then the gradual dissolving of those. The focus of those prejudices was the 'poor white folks', her neighbours in rural Kentucky. The author, Gloria Jean Watkins, published Belonging: A Culture of Place in 1989. She is better known for her maternal grandmother’s name, ‘bell hooks’, with deliberate lower case initials. There is an institute in her name at Berea College, Kentucky -  a place that many posts here seem to gravitate back to.

• Read 'To Be Whole and Holy' - click here


Cutting Culture

Big redwood postcard 640

Local political tensions have been very high for quite some time. Just one of the ingredients, yet an absolutely critical one, has been the handling of two specific Irish language issues - firstly the renaming of a fisheries protection boat, and secondly a residential scheme for children. Both of these decisions were bad ones. The reactions and outcry were both justified and predictable. I have at least two sets of friends whose children have enjoyed the Liofa Bursary residential summer scheme - normal people who work in the creative industries and who enjoy this dimension of their heritage.

The reaction was additionally interesting because, in years gone by, Ulster-Scots funding streams have also been chopped, but these have had no equivalent reaction from the affected community, politicians or the media. Phone-in shows did not inflame the public mood. There were no lengthy 'think pieces' in the newspapers from academics and commentators about how outrageous this was. There was no queue of politicians asking hard questions about what on earth was going on. No high-profile protest campaigns from the arts & heritage sector about lost opportunity. And so there was no community outcry. Hardly anybody knows it even happened. The chopping was quiet and effective.

Ulster-Scots has been used for decades now to provide a 'sop' in umpteen political agreements. During the negotiations which led to the historic 'Good Friday Agreement' of 1998, the Prime Minister's right hand man was said to have laughed out loud at the notion of funding for Ulster-Scots, despite him reportedly having done a university thesis on the subject. Big announcements made, fig leaves handed out, but often minimal actual delivery. Swathes of promised funding ... but which then gets 'delayed', 'reallocated', 'handed back', ‘returned to the centre’, 'not spent'… suffocation caused by skilfully managed ‘process’ … there is much that could be said or disclosed but I had better not go any further.

It is sad that culture in Northern Ireland has been allocated a 'polarity' – Irish for one side, Ulster-Scots for the other side. In reality and practice, culture is not that simple – it ebbs and flows and overlaps in many directions across Northern Ireland. This also creates the impression of a kind of equivalence, whereas is reality there is a vast difference in how each is resourced. In February some stats were announced, which suggest a financial ratio of around 20:1. In terms of infrastructure, they are nowhere near equivalent - it’s like comparing junior league and Champions League.

Some of you will know that I was Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency (June 05 – June 09) and it was far from an easy role. There is lots we didn't manage to achieve. There were legacy issues inherited, and fresh issues which arose, which limited the effectiveness of projects. We did some good stuff. But not enough as could have been done.

In my first meeting in 2005 with the top civil servants of DCAL (the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure as then was) I pointed out to them that, despite being 7 years old, the Agency had still not appointed a Director of Communications, an unthinkable scenario for a public body whose core legislative function is "promotion of greater awareness”. I proposed that the Agency be gradually restructured to become more like the Health Promotion Agency, the only similar body within the public sector at that time. The civil servants did what I came to understand they did regularly - nod and murmur in agreement, take the minutes of the meeting, email them to you for approval - and do nothing. Here we are 12 years on and that post has never been approved, advertised or filled. During my term, which ended in June 2009, one of the other Director-level roles was vacated and, just the same, has never been filled.

For culture to be of present and future benefit to us all, this all needs to be re-thought. It needs to be approached holistically, treated with a common regard and respect – not 'weaponized' as a political football, not cleaved into two (very unequal) pieces and not selectively reported on by the wearying, controversy-seeking, elements of the media.

Chopping down other people’s things is not the same as nurturing your own.

Stop chopping. Plant some trees.

"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree". – Martin Luther

“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” – Winston Churchill

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The President who ordered West Virginia to be bombed by the US Air Force, September 1921


I am going to have to visit West Virginia. Read more here about The Battle of Blair Mountain, Logan County, 1921. It lasted for 10 days, a million rounds were fired, and in the end President Warren Harding authorised the Air Force to bomb the miners –

"... Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from World War I were dropped in several locations near the towns of Jeffery, Sharples and Blair. At least one did not explode and was recovered by the miners; it was used months later to great effect during treason and murder trials following the battle. On orders from General Billy Mitchell, Army bombers from Maryland were also used for aerial surveillance. One Martin bomber crashed on its return flight, killing the three members of the crew..."

The Library of Congress has a section about this story in their Chronicling America website - click here.

"... The Logan County Sheriff’s Office even hired multiple private airplanes that dropped homemade bombs onto the marching miners. A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from World War I were dropped in several locations. At least one did not explode and was recovered by the miners; it was used months later to great effect during treason and murder trials following the battle ..." - source here

Blaming the old, the poor and the 'poorly educated' - Appalachia as scapegoat

1 2 iAWa7QlhpdGT48p3nnWg


The portrayal of Appalachia as a ‘place apart’ from mainstream America has its uses. Following the election of Donald Trump, Appalachia has been blamed by urban media élites desperately seeking a scapegoat. This new article in by Elizabeth Catte - Liberal shaming of Appalachia: Inside the media elite’s obsession with the “hillbilly problem” - is a tour de force in destroying this new mythology.

Every generation of politicians, writers, analysts, academics and economists believes it has discovered something unique or horrible or paradoxical about Appalachia. And members of each generation of these thinkers is at war with themselves to decide if we’re worthy enough for their solutions to our problems. These solutions, however, never work because they’re almost always premised on the belief that Appalachia is fundamentally different than the rest of the country, not part of it. And so we repeat a frustrating cycle: Our self-appointed social betters interpret our reluctance to embrace their solutions as an act of bad faith and we suffer economically from their withdrawn support.

A similar piece by Jeff Biggers of the Huffington Post can be read here.

In a similar way, the ‘blame game’ on our side of the Atlantic has pinned the ’shame’ of voting for Brexit on the old, the poor and the ‘less educated’. Even before the vote, the left-of-centre Independent was acknowledging this. After the result, analysis confirmed it.

Appalachia has been the American scapegoat for generations. Elizabeth Catte’s writing helps expose the prejudices of the commentariat. Here is another superb example from October 16. which I have posted here before.

“We know Appalachia exists because we need it to define what we are not. It is the “other America” because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives.” - Ronald D Eller, Uneven Ground (2013)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bradley Kincaid - marketing mountain ballads and 'Scotch' identity in Appalachia, 1920s


Some of my Scottish friends do these days take some offence at the term ‘Scotch’, saying for example that it only applies to products that can be bought, like beef, lamb or whisky. Historically though there was never offence intended; the trem ‘Braid Scotch’ was used even within Scotland to refer to the Lowland Scots language. As Robert Burns himself wrote, 'I'll pledge my aith in guid braid Scotch’. Our own James Orr, a contemporary of Burns, used the same term: "To quat braid Scotch, a task that foils their art”.

Therefore it should be no surprise that the term is used historically in Ulster and America. One man whose products sold like hot cakes was the 1920s Kentucky singer William Bradley Kincaid (1895–1989). His father William, a farmer who sang in the local church, swapped a hunting dog for a guitar and so began Bradley’s musical career.

His 1928 booklet My Favourite Mountain Ballads referred to him a number of times as ‘Scotch’, that his great-grandfather had been a ‘full-blooded Scotchman, coming to Virginia from Scotland’. The booklet gave the songs an identity which was more inclusive than solely ’Scotch' – “these mountain ballads are songs that grew out of the life and experiences of hardy Scotch, Irish, German, English and Dutch natives”. It sold over 500,000 copies. A few pics of my edition are below.

Kincaid was educated at Berea College (a place I revisited last year), where a large archive of his papers is kept. He also served in World War One in France. Kincaid himself was offended by the term ‘hillbilly’, saying in a newspaper interview in 1936 that –

‘when I say I was the first to give mountain songs in the public, I don't mean the Hill BIlly sort. These are the creation of the very ignorant class. The songs that I bring to the public are those that were taught me by my mother. I remember her singing them to us as children as long ago as I can remember anything. They have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. They consist of English, Scotch and Irish ballads, brought over from the old countries by our ancestors … the mountain people, although uneducated, have a poetic strain and naturally express themselves in this way. To these I have added some of the old hymns they sing.

When I can get the time to spare I go back in the Cumberland mountains and dig up more old songs. Since I have taen up this research I have become interested in all American folksongs … it makes me wrathy to see some entertainers fitting the songs of bums into the music of dear old mountain songs. For example they stole one of our melodies ‘Down In The Valley’ for ‘Birmingham Jail’

The same article reinforced the classic narratives:

“Bradley Kincaid’s ancestors were among the early settlers of Kentucky who were too proud and independent to endure the domination of wealthy planters and moved back into the Cumberland mountains to get away from them. They saved their independence but lost their contact with the rest of the world".

Other articles would say things like “the songs were born and originated around the hearth stones of the poor though proud early settlers who braved their way and settled in the Kentucky mountains". Kincaid would regularly talk about his Scottish ancestry during his shows, joking that he was “Scotch, but was born in this country to save travelling costs”. 

So even the mountain balladeer himself sought to attach some social status to his work, compared to ‘hill billy’ songs. He was a smart, educated man. Radio was taking off, as was the recording of music and therefore the need to market it to customers. Overall, the terminologies and careful definitions bear the self-conscious hallmark of the marketing-aware. He knew his ‘product’, and who he was selling it to, and used terminology to appeal to them. The nostalgia, the pastoral scenes, the hints of faith, all hearkened back to a remembered or maybe imagined past.

BUT - it is too easy to be cynical from our modern-day standpoint. Perhaps what he and his marketing people were saying was in fact true.

The music is good, his voice more polished than others from that early era of recorded music. His guitar playing is simple and steady, and some recordings have crisp mandolin accompaniment, such as on The Miner’s Song, Who knows what collected treasures are within the various Kincaid archives? It seems like only the tip of the iceberg were ever published in books or recordings.

• there’s an analysis of the story and image making of Bradley Kincaid in this book by Erich Nunn. He has an interesting paper available online entitled ‘American Balladry and the Anxiety of Ancestry’. It covers some influential work by William Goodell Frost, a one-time Principal of Berea College. You can see in this 1899 paper ‘Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains' where the ‘branding’ of Appalachia in Frost’s thinking could well have influenced the likes of Bradley Kincaid.

SAM 0507

SAM 0511

SAM 0512

SAM 0513

SAM 0515

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Scotch-Irish tradition, Baptist hymns and old Appalachian songs" - Frank Hutchison (1897–1945), the first white man to record the blues

Logan County, West Virginia. It was a place where white Scotch-Irish and black African-Americans mixed and worked together. The music blended, and one of those to popularise the fusion of styles, which came to be known as ‘country blues’, was Frank Hutchison. He picked up some tunes from black men like Henry Vaughan and Bill Hunt – “a repertoire of 19th century traditional tunes that blacks and whites had shared before the blues became fashionable”. In later years Hank Williams and Bill Monroe had similar formative influences from black musicians.

Hutchison was born in Beckley, Raleigh County, West Virginia (right in that region of mountains and valleys where West Virginia meets with Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina) on 20 March 1897. From school reports of the county in 1875 it seems to have been a pretty dysfunctional place (source here).

• Family Background
Frank’s ancestry is murky. His mother was 16 year old Louvina Hutchison and his father 18 year old Frank Mankin. There’s no evidence of a shotgun wedding. About 18 months later in some crazy debauch on 10 November 1899, Frank Mankin and Wood Hutchison died of poisoning while drinking 'cinnamon drops’ (probably mixed with home-brew alcohol) and two others who were with them – Jerry McGrady and E. L. Smith – were left in a critical condition ‘and will probably die’. Mankin’s death certificate gave his marital status as ‘unknown’. (There had been a similar incident at Mattoon, Illinois on 22 December 1896 when a group of young men died from drinking a cocktail of cinnamon drops and an industrial ‘wood alcohol’ which they had stolen from the local gas works).

This would explain Frank Hutchison using his mother’s surname. Frank and his teenage mother decided to make a new start and moved to Logan County where she married Robert Lee Deskins, with whom she would have 10 children. Frank grew up and like so many men in that region he took a job in the coal mines. He also became a celebrated local musician and developed a slide guitar style, with the guitar across his lap and a pocket knife for a slide. 

• Recording Career
He recorded 32 songs for Okeh Records in the 1920s, becoming the first white guitarist to record the blues - a year earlier than Jimmie Rodgers. Hutchison was marketed as ‘The Pride of West Virginia’. One of his contemporaries, Ernest Stoneman, described him as ”a big red-headed Irishman” (source here).

However, in 1969 the Register and Post Herald from Beckley published a long genealogy of the Hutchisons of Raleigh County - saying they were probably English or Scottish. The first to settle in the county was Charles Hutchison (1795–1867) who arrived in 1829, and was a clerk in Coal Marsh Baptist Church, the first church in the county. His son A.J. was a Confederate soldier and a song leader at revival campaigns in the area.

In a later interview with Hutchison’s one-time fiancée, Jennie Wilson, she was asked “Was Frank very much interested in the old ballads, the English and Scottish songs?”, to which she replied “That was a strong interest that he had. Everybody around loved those songs like ‘Barbary Allen’ and he could really play them. He sang those songs as well as the ones he wrote”.

When he married Minnie Garrett in 1917, Frank gave his grandparents' names on the wedding certificate rather than his own biological parents. He and Minnie had two daughters, Louise and Kathleen. Frank Hutchison died in 1945 of liver cancer, his two daughters passed away in 2001 and 2006 respectively.

(NB the description in the post title comes from this book)

Clipping 9694195


Tumblr mkll77ZzT31s0ln4po1 500NewImage

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Stanley Brothers covering Horatius Bonar - "A Few More Years Shall Roll"

At first it might seem an unlikely combination, rural Virginia bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers' recording of a hymn written in 1843 by the prolific Edinburgh-based Free Church minister Horatius Bonar whose own denomination wouldn't sing his compositions as they were a Psalms-only church. This was one of his first pieces, written while a 34 year old Sunday School teacher. Go to 6:57 –

A few more years shall roll, A few more seasons come, And we shall be with those that rest Asleep within the tomb; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that great day.

Refrain O wash me in Thy precious blood, And take my sins away.

A few more suns shall set O’er these dark hills of time, And we shall be where suns are not A far serener clime: Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that blest day.


A few more storms shall beat On this wild rocky shore, And we shall be where tempests cease, And surges swell no more; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that calm day.


A few more struggles here, A few more partings o’er, A few more toils, a few more tears, And we shall weep no more: Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that bright day.


A few more Sabbaths here Shall cheer us on our way, And we shall reach the endless rest, Th’eternal Sabbath day; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that sweet day.


’Tis but a little while, And He shall come again Who died that we might live, who lives That we with Him may reign; Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that glad day.


Emo Phllips on Protestant denominational heresy

What make this funny is how tragically true it is.

Willie Nelson - Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain / Just As I Am Without One Plea

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Original Muckraker? - Samuel Sidney McClure of Drumnaglea and New York (1857–1949)


Samuel Sidney McClure was born at Drumnaglea near Rasharkin. Generations of the family had lived there at the same farmstead. His father, Thomas McClure, took a job in the shipyards of Belfast and later Glasgow, where he tragically fell through an open trap door and later died in hospital.

Samuel was just nine, and he emigrated to the USA wih his mother and his three younger brothers. They went to Indiana, where two aunts and two uncles had already settled. They took a train from Glarryford to Londonderry where they caught the Mongolia, a ship sailing from Glasgow to Quebec.

His Autobiography, ghost written by Willa Cather, was originally published in 1914. It has some classic narrative material in it, told with the dramatic flair of a storyteller –

“… I WAS born in Ireland, fifty-six years ago. Antrim, the northeast county of the Province of Ulster, was my native county. My mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Gaston. Her people were descended from a French Huguenot family that came to Ireland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and they still bore their French surname. My father's people, the McClures, were from Galloway, Scotland. The family had come across the North Channel about two hundred years ago and settled in Ulster.

After the battle of the Boyne, as for hundreds of years before, it was a common thing for the Protestant kings of England to make large grants of Irish land to Protestant colonists from England and Scotland. Ulster, lying across a narrow strip of water from the Scottish coast, was given over to colonists from the Lowlands until half her population was foreign. The injustice of this system of colonization, together with the fierce retaliation of the Irish, brought about the long list of reciprocal atrocities which are at the root of the Irish question to-day.

WITH such a dark historical background, the religious feeling on both sides was intense. There had been very few instances of intermarriage between the Scotch Protestant colonists and the Irish Catholics who were the original inhabitants of the Province of Ulster. Among both Protestants and Catholics the feeling against intermarriage was so strong that, when such a marriage occurred, even in my time, it was considered a terrible misfortune as well as a disgrace. This state of feeling had kept both races pure and unmodified, though they mingled together in the most friendly fashion in all the ordinary occupations of life. In Antrim the Scotch colonists had retained much of their Lowland speech. The dialect of Mr. Barrie's stories was familiar to my ears as a child …"

(Presumably he is referring here to the language and vocabulary used in the likes of Sentimental Tommy by JM Barrie, who is best known as the author of Peter Pan).

McClure's career was pretty impressive - from a childhood of poverty he set up the first newspaper syndicate which licensed novels to be serialised in newspapers. He then set up his own McClure’s Magazine in 1893. McClure made a return visit to Ulster, some photographs of him at the old homestead feature in his autobiography. 

In later life he became obsessed with politics and democracy, publishing a number of books on the subject such as Obstacles to Peace (1917), The Achievements of Liberty (1935), and What Freedom Means to Man (1938). He died in relative obscurity in New York in 1949 and was buried at Knox County, Illinois (grave details here).

His grandson wrote a biography in the 1970s which said that "McClure’s was “the most exciting, the liveliest, the best illustrated, the most handsomely dressed, the most interesting, and the most profitable” magazine of its day”. It has been described as "the premier muckraking magazine of its day”, exposing abuses of power in government, tackling the billionaire John D Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company, and the scandal of urban slums in America. One of his young staff members said he was “an uncivilized, immoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.”

It is probably unfair to use the term ‘muckraker’ in the modern sense, McClure’s seems to be effective investigative journalism, with Ida Tarbell’s work on the Rockefeller story recently described as a ‘journalistic masterpiece’.

McClure said this of his Antrim upbringing:

"... We were poor, but we were of the well-to-do poor. We were always properly dressed on Sundays. We always had hats and shoes and stockings and warm clothes in winter. We had plenty of fuel, too ... Our food, like that of our neighbors, was extremely simple. Potatoes were the staple, with a sparing use of bacon and plenty of butter-milk. We did not use bread, but oat-cakes, made of oatmeal and baked on a griddle. These were very crisp and tasty when they were well made. My mother occasionally varied them with fadge, a dough made of wheat flour with an infusion of potatoes and baked like pan-cakes. Fresh meat we seldom had, but we sometimes ate dried or fresh herrings, broiling them on the tongs over the peat fire. I can remember when the use of white bread and tea began to be general among the people, and I recall hearing the old people deplore the change in food and its effect upon the teeth of the people, which at once deteriorated ..."

440px McCluresCoverJan1901

Friday, March 17, 2017

St Patrick's Day, New York, 1766 - A toast to the Sons of Liberty and William of Orange

128478 004 A07CC4C0

A friend sent me a link today to a long Facebook article about the origins of St Patricks Day. Some I was already familiar with, but this extract was interesting:

"In 1766 the New York Gazette reported on a notable March 17th celebration at the house of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Bardin. Among the toasts raised on the evening were; "the prosperity of Ireland", "Success to the Sons Of Liberty in America" and "The glorious memory of King William of Orange”."

The same extract is referred to in numerous other sources, like this one from 1902 which lists 20 resolutions, so it appears credible enough. I briefly blogged about the Sons of Liberty last year (post here), a pre-Revolution movement seemingly masterminded by a Thomas Young whose parents were from Donegal and who had arrived in America in 1718. It shouldn't be a surprise that families who had endured and survived the Siege of Derry, and later emigrated, brought their stories and memories with them. It is entirely credible that they would have commemorated William of Orange, although I would suggest for different reasons than we might assume today. There are numerous references during the 1700s and 1800s to the melody Boyne Water being played at St Patrick's Day events. 

6 17