Letting the mountain people tell their own stories

Posted by | January 20, 2011

Please welcome guest writer Arthur McDade. McDade recently retired from Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a park ranger. He is the author of ‘Old Smoky Mountain Days’ and ‘The Natural Arches of the Big South Fork,’ and a contributor to ‘The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.’ He’s also written many magazine articles about the cultural and natural history of the southern Appalachian Mountains. He lives in Sevierville, TN not far from the Smokies where he is an avid hiker and backpacker.


In June 1937 a fresh-faced doctoral student from Columbia University named Joseph Sargent Hall arrived in the sleepy East Tennessee town of Gatlinburg and checked in as a seasonal folklorist at the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

He came to the new park to make money to continue his studies, and the temporary folklorist position offered an opportunity to put his academic interests in linguistics and folklore into a field environment. He fully expected that this temporary job would be just that: a summer position to tide him over until the next academic period and his studies in other areas.

Joseph Sargent Hall

He never expected that that first summer experience in the Smokies would lead to a lifelong personal journey into the culture and essence of the people of the Great Smoky Mountains, or that he would belatedly be called the “pioneer” in the study of the language and culture of those folk.

Joseph S. Hall was an unlikely candidate to become the leader in the documentation of the language and culture of the Smoky Mountain people. He was born in Montana on August 22, 1906, a long way from the mountains and “hollers” of the Smokies. His father, a medical doctor, moved the family to southern California when Joe was young, and that’s where he matured.

Young Joe was a bright student, and his intellectual interests led him to the discipline of English, with a specialty in linguistics. Hall ultimately entered Columbia University, and even studied in Europe. By one account, his academic intention had been to study linguistics in Oklahoma—but that was prior to his coming to the Smokies. After his first season in the Smokies in 1937, Hall’s plans were forever changed.

During Hall’s 1937 season, he lodged at Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps where he slept, took his meals and got information about “good talkers” in the area. He rode out into the field in the mornings with CCC corpsmen, contacted people at their farms and homes during the day, and then was picked up by the corpsmen on their return to camp.

In his first season, he filled 4 notebooks on unique words, pronunciations, expressions, and phrases that he heard from his contacts. He did not make any audiotape recordings in his first season. The results of Hall’s first season led him to change his doctoral interests, and he also arranged a return season in the Smokies in a  “Collaborator” position with the National Park Service (NPS) and Columbia University.

In 1939 Hall returned to the Smokies for nine months with a new research model. His new approach involved the use of audiotape recorders. Hall had come to the conclusion that merely writing down the phonetics of the words and phrases he heard was not enough; he wanted the actual voices of the people he interviewed to be preserved.

So in his new season and thereafter, he used several types of audio recorders that ran off vehicle batteries or power packs. Field recordings became the major development in Hall’s methodology, and his recordings formed a lasting resource for future researchers, along with his field notes.

Hall published an article in October 1939 on his early research in the Smokies in The Regional Review, a National Park Service publication. This article was entitled “Recording Speech in the Great Smokies,” later re-published as “Mountain Speech in the Great Smokies” in the NPS’s “Popular Study Series” booklets. He went on in 1942 to publish his doctoral dissertation based on his Smokies research, entitling it “The Phonetics of Great Smoky Mountain Speech.”

After Hall’s early years in the Smokies, he returned to California as an English professor at a community college. He returned to the Smokies area for many decades thereafter during the summer months, continuing his personal work in documenting the language of the people he met there. He never published any professional papers after his doctoral dissertation, but did write and publish three general interest books based upon his work (Sayings from Old Smoky; Smoky Mountain Folk and Their Lore; and Yarns and Tales from the Great Smokies).

Joseph Hall’s interviews and recordings made over the decades remained relatively unknown to the public until Dr. Michael Montgomery of the University of South Carolina struck up an acquaintance with Hall and continued a correspondence into the 1990s. Hall wanted his life’s work to be housed in an appropriate archive and be available to scholars such as Dr. Montgomery.

After Hall died on February 14, 1992, Montgomery completed Hall’s request by arranging for East Tennessee State University to be the repository of the Joseph Sargent Hall collection. And Dr. Montgomery bestowed the ultimate honor to his late acquaintance by adding Hall as a posthumous co-author on the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English published in 2004.

Part of Hall’s work is also now available to the general public in the form of a  CD of musical recordings Hall made in the field. This CD (entitled “Old Time Music of the Smokies,” with notes by Dr. Montgomery and Dr. Ted Olson of ETSU) joins the dictionary as a publicly available monument to the pioneering work of Joseph Sargent Hall.

Joe Hall once wrote that his goal all along had been “to let the mountain people tell their own stories.” With his work now housed in a professional archive at East Tennessee State University and available to scholars, the stories–and the voices–of the people of the Smoky Mountains will ring on.

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