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

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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 ..."

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Friday, March 17, 2017

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

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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. 

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Masonic Theatre, Louisville, Kentucky - the 3rd Scotch-Irish Congress, May 1891

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One of the first things to do when planning an event is to make sure nothing clashes with it. This is where the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA went badly wrong for their third Congress. They chose Louisville, Kentucky (declining offers from San Francisco, Charlotte in North Carolina, and Atlanta) but seemingly might not have checked the city’s calendar.

In terms of population size, it was within the 20 biggest cities in the USA, with around 200,000 residents. That very same mid-May weekend there were, the Society later said, ‘several other public gatherings, whose dates had not been decided when ours was fixed’ - but one of these was the annual Kentucky Derby horse racing festival, a world-famous event which had happened for the past 16 consecutive years. The May Musical Festival was also on at the same time, as was the Democratic State Convention, and the annual reunion of the Elks fraternal society. The city had hosted World Fairs for the previous five consecutive years; Oscar Wilde had lectured there, its first skyscraper had just been built. It was a happening place.

Louisville was jam-packed with people, and the Society had difficulty in getting a suitable venue. In the end they used two - the Masonic Temple Theatre in the morning, and the Polytechnic Hall for the evenings. Both were plush venues, centrally located, and despite the shortage of hotel accommodation for visitors, all went pretty well.

Pre-event publicity invited the general public to attend - ‘the local population, without regard to race, will be cordially welcomed’. The Society had managed to secure 100 private rooms for its most important guests, but with just two weeks to go the Louisville newspapers printed ‘A Call For Hospitality’ on behalf of the Society, seeking AirBNB-style accommodation for visitors in spare rooms of private homes. In the published retrospective  Proceedings the Society thanked the citizens of Louisville for their assistance.

A swish reception was held at Galt House Hotel on the riverfront. There is a hotel there today of the same name, but it is a completely new building dating from 1972. Official headquarters was the Louisville Hotel. As had been the case at Pittsburgh, the Sunday evening event was a vast religious service, with Psalms sung and a sermon delivered, with ‘assembled thousands’ - also described as ‘an immense throng’ - present.

One of those present was Captain J.W. Crawford, a man recently honoured through an Ulster History Circle blue plaque.

What is apparent when you read the reports is that there was a more pronounced sense of ‘Ulsterness’ year-on-year, a specificity that was not so clear-cut in 1889. The organisation was now headed by Ulster-born men like Robert Bonner and Rev John Hall. The now-famous Society logo seems to have made its début in Louisville. A newspaper report said:

...The coat of arms of the society is the red hand of Ulster upon a shield of the Stars and Stripes of the United States. Most of the members have their coat of arms made into a gold badge, which they proudly wear on the lapel of their vests. There is an interesting legend attached to the emblem, which most of the Scotch-Irishmen tell without the least provocation… - The Courier-Journal, Louisville, 13 May 1891

Aaron Baxter, the Glasgow-born mayor of Londonderry had hoped to attend but was unable. Francis Ward of Belfast Chamber of Commerce had planned to be there but fell ill in New York and didn’t make it. Wallace Bruce, who had delivered a poem at Columbia two years before, was now US Consul in Edinburgh and sent his good wishes by telegram.

Inside just two years the Society now had eight State-level chapters. The growth was impressive, building a network of well-connected businessmen and civic leaders in common ancestral cause.

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