Please welcome guest author Michael Abraham, whose “Harmonic Highways; Motorcycling Virginia’s Crooked Road” released last month. Abraham was born and educated in Southwest Virginia and is an inveterate wanderer of the Appalachian Mountains. He has a degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech.
His first book, “The Spine of the Virginias,” is a non-fiction look at the history, people, and culture of the border region Virginia and West Virginia. His second book, “Union, WV,” is a novel of loss, healing, and redemption in contemporary Appalachia. “Harmonic Highways,” his third book, is an exploration of the music and culture of Southwest Virginia.
Abraham lives with his wife, three dogs, and four motorcycles in Blacksburg, VA.
From “Harmonic Highways”:
Jim Scott Mullins
I met a man named Jim Scott Mullins, who came from a long line of local musicians. Scott told me, “My father was a coal miner but was also a tremendously influential musician. He passed away about 10 years ago. There are many people with the surname Mullins around here. My daddy used to say that you could overturn every second or third rock in Dickenson County and find a Mullins underneath it.”
Scott is a young man, about to turn 40 years old. He works in maintenance for the county at the courthouse. He is the only one of four brothers who has never done work in the coal mines.
He continued, “My family has been singing since my great-grandfather’s time. My primary work is on vocals. Our music has always revolved around our church work. I am a Free Will Baptist. The roots of our church lie with the German Baptists, or the Church of the Brethren. I’ve been told that my great-grandfather, D. P. ‘Doc’ Mullins, had stacks of old songbooks. From them, he taught virtually everyone in the family how to sing. There is a type of singing called shape-note singing. We were taught the notes within an octave: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, and how to harmonize. I have never read music. Everything is by ear. It is an organic thing, and it has always been part of who I am.
“My father and grandfather were two of the four members of the Mullins Family Quartet, which also included my grandfather, Hie A. Mullins, my grandmother, Frances Mullins, and my mother, Myrtle Mullins. They sang on the radio. They sang at churches. They sang at pie suppers and at countless funerals. They did three- and four-part harmony a cappella singing. The songs I grew up hearing were sung in a kind of soulful “drone” that was mostly derived from the old-world style of Scots-Irish singing. You can still hear the echoes of that old traditional sound in the old country churches.
“This is the type of music that has become the sound of Ralph Stanley. There can be many notes sang even within a single word.”
I said, “It seems to me that what has made Dr. Ralph Stanley such a legend is that every pain that he, his brother, his family, or his community has endured comes through to the audience in the tones of his voice. His enduring presence is like a metaphor for the mountains. His voice has a haunting quality that evokes emotion in the listener.”
Scott said, “That is evident. When you hear his voice you hear a voice of the ages. You hear the voices of the Scots-Irish immigrants coming to this area over a century ago. You hear the cries of the Civil War soldiers in battle. You hear the pain of coal miners. These voices have shaped the way the people of the coal fields are today. We are shaped by hardship, tragedy and struggle. But we have always had the tenacity to survive and to keep going. It is through the mercy of the Lord and the hard work of our ancestors that we are in a position to keep going today.
“My daddy was a minister and a songwriter in addition to being a coal miner. He wrote some of his best songs while he was at work in the mine. He said that sometimes the miners would sing as they were being transferred in the man-trip or when they were taking a shower after their shift. Whenever they could, they would do what they could to shake off the blues of being in such a place. It is amazing to me even to this day that daddy could scratch out such brilliant songs on little pieces of paper. We have saved these scraps of paper and they are still smudged with his fingerprints of coal dust. These songs were inspired by the good Lord above.
“The songs and the testimony that my dad left behind have left an indelible impression on this community. We sang at more church services than I can count and at hundreds of funerals.
“I live in the type of community that I think most people in America don’t understand. We depend on one another and we try to lift up one another in any way that we can. I have encountered people in the stores or on the street who will say to me, ‘Scott, when I pass, I want you to sing at my funeral.’ I remember lots of times when daddy would give up things that he wanted to do around the house on his days off but instead he would go to sing at funerals. It is a heady responsibility but we embrace it. As Christian believers, we feel that it is our responsibility to do the work that God has commissioned us to do.
“We have sung in churches representing many denominations. We will sing just about anywhere we are welcomed.
“The music differs here in that it is born of greater anguish. There are several coal camps in Dickenson County that today are ghost towns. Two of them are Clinchco and Trammel. There are many abandoned homes and businesses. Many good people still live there, but these areas are washed in poverty and sorrow.
“We have weathered the storms and the hardships. Many people around here are willing to do just about anything to provide for their families. Those of us who are here today consider this a great place to live. People here are connected to the land. There is an incredible sense of place here.
“The landscape here humbles a man. I have lived here all my life and every morning it humbles me. I like material things as much as the next guy. But these are not the things that drive our lives. We are driven by our sense of place, our sense of community, and our heritage. These are the things we value.
“Anybody can find the negative stuff here. But we also have strength of family, generations of hard-working people, and pride in jobs well done. We have poets. We have musicians. We have artists. We have ministers. We have deep-rooted beliefs about right and wrong. We don’t need material things to have rich, successful lives. All the toys in the world or all the trappings of our modern society do not build happiness or satisfaction. What keeps people content is their link to the culture.
“Sometimes when I am on stage, it’s a blessing to see the songs I sing bring a tear to a person’s eye. It will strike a chord or stir an emotion. I believe that the Lord speaks to his people through the moving of a good spiritual song. The songs give us great hope of a brighter day ahead. I always want the Lord to use me as his instrument and give Him glory for it all.
“Honestly, if I couldn’t sing I guess I would die. The music makes me who I am, and I thank God for that.”