Cold Winter Shadow

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 17, 2017

When a cold winter shadow I cast on the ground
And frost from the foothills is creeping all around
I now and then glance down the road towards the town
In a kind of a hope you’ll be coming on down

It must have been November when I left you to the train
I watched your carriage disappear in the lonely western rain
And I wiped the rain from off my face and turned the way I’d come
And drove our old spring wagon thru the hills near Edmonton

Winters here are very long, the roads are thick with snow
A year is gone since first you left, no courage left to go
I know I should leave, but you won’t know where I’ve gone
Be kind of nice to have you here with Christmas coming on

Kentucky folk song, anonymous

appalachian history
appalachian mountain history
appalachian stories
Appalachian Studies

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Hard work, fresh air, and plenty of food

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 16, 2017

Shortly after taking office in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt announced plans for creation of a “conservation army.” FDR at first saw the Civilian Conservation Corps primarily as a forestry organization — fighting fires, planting trees, thinning timber stands, stopping soil erosion and floods — but the field personnel of the State and Federal agencies involved soon realized that CCC labor might also be directed toward the construction of forest improvements–particularly roads, trails, buildings, and recreation sites. The CCC men literally built the foundations on which the national forests now stand.

Camp Ellison D. Smith F-l, located near the Whetstone Road in Oconee County, was the first CCC camp to be located in South Carolina. This and two others soon to follow employed approximately 800 men at their peaks, and remained operational for nearly 10 years.

Oconee State ParkThe men of these camps built Oconee State Park, Long Mountain Fire Tower, and Walhalla Fish Hatchery, and rebuilt Highway 107. There were many other less obvious projects. Millions of trees were planted; girdling to kill undesirable rotten trees was done on thousands of acres; growth plots for long-term forest inventory were established. Erosion control work was done on eroding fields which were on farms purchased by the Forest Service; property boundaries were surveyed, painted, and posted, in addition to wildlife being stocked.

Hard work, fresh air, and plenty of food were considered essential for CCC employees to accomplish one of the goals established by the office of education, “to develop an appreciation of nature and of country life.” And to that third end, here is the 1938 Thanksgiving menu for Camp 1:


Oconee State Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 16, 2004.


related post: “He is now in the C.C. Camp”

CCC Oconee+State+Park Oconee+County+SC appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+culture

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Criminal Syndicalism comes to Harlan, KY

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 15, 2017
In November 1931, as chairman of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, well known author Theodore Dreiser organized a special committee to infiltrate Kentucky’s Harlan coal mines to investigate allegations of crimes and abuses against striking miners. The self-appointed group of left-leaning writers (including Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson) listened to various members of the mining communities—the oppressed—in order to learn about this vivid example of class warfare, and place it in the context of international class struggle.

Though many miners welcomed the Dreiser Committee’s interest in their plight, others in the community perceived the group of writers as Communist intruders. It should be noted that during this period, the Communist-led National Miners Union rivaled the United Mine Workers of America for a dominant union role.

Dreiser’s life was threatened for calling attention to the matter. Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and others on the “Dreiser Committee,” as it was called, were indicted by the Bell County Grand Jury for criminal syndicalism, and a warrant was issued for Dreiser’s arrest.


“It is characteristic of our whole American attitude just now,” said Mr. [Sherwood] Anderson. We are a speakeasy country. Liberal thinking is strictly private almost everywhere. That is what makes me glad for Theodore Dreiser. He and those other people have had the nerve and the manhood to go down there into Kentucky, where there is apparently a reign of terror. They went openly, and only after other men and women had refused to go. Mr. Dreiser wanted to call public attention to what was going on. He wanted truth. And then too, he spoke out loud in a speakeasy country. He said in public what millions of Americans think in private. For that he is accused of criminal syndicalism.”
–NY Times, Dec 7, 1931


Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor of New York at the time, said he would grant Dreiser an open hearing, and John W. Davis agreed to defend the Committee. Due to widespread publicity and public sentiment, however, all formal charges against Dreiser and the Committee were dropped.


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The Santa Train pulls into town

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 14, 2017

In Appalachia Santa Claus comes the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Since 1943, the Santa Special, more commonly known as the Santa Train, has traveled 110 miles through the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and northeastern Tennessee to distribute loads of candy, toys and other goodies to eager bystanders, most of whom have made it a family tradition. The train typically passes through more than 30 towns delivering Christmas cheer.

"The Santa Train"---Commemorating the 50th Santa Train Special. Print sponsored by the Kingsport Chamber and CSX Transportation, available for purchase at

“The Santa Train”—print commemorating the 50th Santa Train Special. Sponsored by the Kingsport Chamber and CSX Transportation; available for purchase at


This year 14-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs is joining CSX as the special guest on the 2017 Santa Train. Celebrities who have ridden the train include Amy Grant, Thompson Square, Alison Krauss, Wynonna & Naomi Judd, Patty Loveless, Travis Tritt, Kree Harrison, and Kathy Mattea.

The 75th annual Santa Train will make 14 stops on November 18. Ricky Skaggs, Santa Claus and volunteers will deliver 15 tons of toys to thousands of Appalachian residents who live along the route. Train staffers throw candy, crackers, popcorn, bubble gum, cookies, stuffed animals, electronic games, hats, handmade gloves, mittens, toboggans, T-shirts, wrapping paper and other treats from the train’s caboose.

The Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce awards a Santa Train Scholarship each year to a graduating senior who attends a high school along the 110-mile Santa Train route between Kingsport, TN and Pikeville, KY. The recipient is chosen based on grade point average, extracurricular activities, financial need, work records and an advisor’s recommendation.

This year’s 2017 recipient is Hope Phillips from Union High School in Big Stone Gap, VA. The four-year scholarship is worth $5,000—$625 per semester. To date, the Kingsport Chamber has given 34 scholarships since the first scholarship was awarded in 1989, totaling $170,000.

The Santa Special was the brainchild of Kingsport, TN businessmen who wanted to show their appreciation to the people of the coalfields for their patronage throughout the year.

Santa Train Route
Santa Special officials have said that the first Santa Train pulled just one car and a meager load of gifts. It reached towns and cities that at the time had no other means of transportation. Some believe the train provided many children the only toys they received during World War II.

Joe Higgins played the role of Santa Claus in 1943-44 — the run’s first two years.


6 Responses

  • Marc Bentley says:

    Holy smokes! I remember going to this as a child; we lived near the Shelbiana train depot; we’d drive down and wait with everyone. Fun times, fun times….

  • Vickie Wenter says:

    I sure would love to participate as a volunteer on the santa train. I remember going on the one out of Richmond Va as a child.

  • Judy Norrby says:

    A number of years ago National Public Radio broadcast the story of the Appalachian Train. The narrator did such a splendid job I wonder if this is available to purchase.

  • Joshua Salmans says:

    One of the adventures that I believe I’ve missed out on is riding a train. I never have: what better train could you ask for than the Santa Train!

  • Jerry L. Van Hoose says:

    During my 20 yr. career as an engineer/engineer instructor for C&O, Chessie, and eventually CSX, I felt honored to have been chosen as engineer on the “Santa Special” on more than one occasion. Those were truly among some of my most memorable railroad experiences prior to retirement.

  • jane cook says:

    YOU are doing a wonderful thing. I remember as a child my grandmother talked about the Santa Train. She was a child benefited from the train. My grandmother was a child among 12 raised her mother and coal miner father, Her only Christmas was by way of the train. She often talked about Santa coming to town and nice people on the train.

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This strange music of the dulcimore appeals to the heart of the Mountaineer

Posted by Dave Tabler | November 13, 2017

According to Dr. H. G. Shearin, Professor of Anglo Saxon and of English Philology in Transylvania University, Kentucky is the most fertile State in the Union for folklore.

As a special instance he cites the mountains of Kentucky. It is a notable fact that when Professor Child’s great work on British folk-songs was given to the world (1898), the Harvard professor was leaving untouched not only scores of traditional ballads down in the Kentucky mountains, but hundreds. He thus blazed a trail in the world of balladry from which subsequent balladists have been slow to depart; because it became customary to look to Professor Child as the only authority on folk songs.

James Francis Child, from frontispiece of ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’

James Francis Child, from frontispiece of ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’.

For this reason the great mass of traditional British ballads in America, as well as those indigenous to American soil, have been somewhat belated in coming into their own. From the prevalence of these traditional ballads in the mountains, also the hundreds that have sprung up in that section, and are still being composed, it is evident proof that ballad composition is not a lost art, as some balladists contend.

Why does the art still persist in the Kentucky mountains? For the same reason that it did in England and Scotland in the rural and mountainous districts of those countries three or four centuries ago. For instance, some unusual incident takes place, such as murder, public execution or tragic love affair. Now, in a rural or isolated district, such an incident creates a strong impression because the busy existence of the outside world is not there. Soon there is not lacking some improvisatrice, as it, were, to tell the story in ballad form.

For the women often compose the ballads, and most often sing them. One “mountain Sappho,” who lives in Letcher County, composed a lengthy ballad on young Floyd Frazier, who was executed in 1909, for the murder of a woman in 1907. She is perfectly frank and easy about the matter, and informs us:

This song came to me
By day and by night,
Therefore it is right to sing it
In this vain world of delight.

A study of ballads indigenous to Eastern Kentucky throws much light upon the mooted question of ballad origin and authorship. The method of composition in the Kentucky mountains is always individual or private ownership, or authorship — “personal property” — as opposed to the theory of communal or folk composition.

It is strange that no songs appear which bear the distinctive stamp of the clan instinct. Dr. Shearin accounts for this when he says that the Mountaineer is strangely silent on these matters, and that they are to be thought of, but not written down in verse. However, many ballads recount the story of the death of clansmen. There are songs that tell the story of the death of clansmen of the McCoy-Hatfield Feud, the Rowan County War, the Howard-Baker and the French-Eversole Feuds, and the Hargis troubles.

The “jigs” or improvisations are very numerous, and may be arranged, according to Dr. Shearin, into two classes: Those sung to pass off the time, and those of a philosophic nature.

Many of them are similar in structure to the locutions heard on the modern vaudeville stage. For instance, without a thought as to the logical connection between fishing and courting, a sturdy young Mountaineer will sit whittling on a dry-goods box in some country store, or with a banjo across his knee, and suddenly break forth:

Gi’ me the hook and gi’ me the line,
Gi’ me the gal ye call Car’ line.

Or, he sometimes philosophizes, and settles the eternal question of the ages — the summum bonum — by couching it in this wise:

Beefsteak when I’m hungry,
Corn liker when I’m dry —
Pretty little girl when I’m lonesome,
Sweet heaven when I die —
Sweet heaven when I die.

A study of these ballads and jigs is incomplete without mention of the musical instruments used to accompany them. The banjo is the popular instrument for rendering the jigs; however, the violin is used also.

The “dulcimore” (dulcimer) is the traditional piece that drones, in a sad strain, the nasal music of the ballad. To a certain extent all three of these instruments are used for both ballads and jigs.

“Fraley Plywood [Dulcimer], Eastern Kentucky,” Appalachian Dulcimer Archive, accessed November 24, 2014,

“Fraley Plywood [Dulcimer], Eastern Kentucky,” Appalachian Dulcimer Archive, accessed November 24, 2014,

The dulcimore is a unique survival of antique musical instruments, and needs explanation. It is oblong, about thirty-four inches in length, with a width at its greatest of about six inches, becoming smaller at each end. Three strings reach from tip to tip, the first and second ones tuned to the same pitch, and the third one forms the bass string. Two octaves and a quarter are marked out upon the three-quarters of an inch piece of wood that supports, and is just under the strings on the top of the instrument.

The Mountaineer “follers pickin’ ” it by means of a quill, with which he strikes the three strings at the same time with his right hand, over the gap at the larger end, at the same time using in his left hand a small reed with which he produces the air, or his “single string variations.” The music of the dulcimore resembles that of the Scottish bagpipe, in that it is weird and strange. Under its spell one finds himself mysteriously holding communion with the gossamer-like manes of the long-departed souls of the palace of Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine.

The dulcimore is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, because the Mountaineers are becoming ashamed of the musical instrument that stands, with many other things, on the dividing line between two civilizations. Only a few of them are extant. Within a few more years and this strange old relic of by-gone days will pass, to keep company with

The harp that once thro Tara’s Halls
The soul of music shed,
Hangs now as mute on Tara’s Walls,
As if that soul were fled.

Virgil Alfrey. Vintage Fiddlers Oral History Project, Special Collections and Archives, Morehead State University, Morehead, KY.

Virgil Alfrey. Vintage Fiddlers Oral History Project, Special Collections and Archives, Morehead State University, Morehead, KY.

This strange music of the dulcimore appeals to the heart of the Mountaineer, as does the music of the “Sourwood Mountain” fiddler. It is foreign to our introspective age. Like the blind old minstrel of ‘Scio’s rocky isle,’ the troubadour, the minnesinger, and the scop, the “Sourwood Mountain” fiddler takes pride in saying

“I’ll tune up my fiddle, I’ll rosin my bow, I’ll make myself welcome wherever I go.”

But his prerogative is shifting. Just as there is a vast gap between the poetry of art and the poetry of the folk, so is there a vast difference between the music of the Sourwood Mountain fiddler and the music of art.

This antique musician knows little about Wagner and the musical drama and the Italian melodists, and cares less. His music causes a feeling of ennui to steal over one, but he is giving his hearers something they can understand. His strains are the outbursts from the depths of a being that is sincere, and he fiddles and sings because he feels.

In the words of Svenstrupp, the great Danish authority on folksongs, the words of these canticles of love and woe “talk like a mother crooning to her babe, and have scarcely a kenning.” It is related that when the maidservant used to sing “Barbara Allen’s Cruelty” to little Oliver Goldsmith, he would shed tears; that the recital of “Chevy Chace” moved Sir Philip Sidney as nothing else could move him.

But the transition to a new and enlightened age is inevitable. The “damsel with the dulcimer,” after a few more years, will cease to look up at

Ballads pasted on the wall
Of Chevy Chace and English Moll.


Source: Combs, Josiah Henry. “Folk Ballads.” The Kentucky Highlanders from a Native Mountaineer’s Viewpoint. Lexington, KY: J.L. Richardson, 1913. 31-36. Print.


Special thanks to Paul Mays, Heidrick, KY, who shared this volume from his library of Kentucky history.

2 Responses

  • Dr. Bill Mann says:

    Pseudo-intellectual tripe. Flowery language sounds smart, but masks a serious lack of understanding. Even a little research would have shown that more people are playing the dulcimer today than ever before. Jean Ritchie brought the instrument out of the Appalachians and into mainstream folk music in the 1940s, and the folk music revival of the 50s and 60s widely popularized it. The dulcimer was a mainstay of west coast hippie folk music in the 60s and 70s, and it was featured on Joni Mitchell’s landmark album Blue (VH1’s #14 greatest pop/rock album of all time!). Today, hundreds of performers, bands, clubs, and classes are active throughout the US and around the world.

  • Dr. Bill Mann says:

    Re: my previous comment–I did not realize that most of the second half of this article was an extended quote from 1913. My apologies. Even then, though, the dulcimer was not in as much danger of dying out as Josiah Combs claimed.

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