The convenient and pithy term for the mountain people of Kentucky, “our contemporary ancestors,” does not indicate the origin of the customs, beliefs, and peculiarities which persist among them. For they too had ancestors. These were, for the most part, British, and of the soil. Just as today many a mountaineer has never been ten miles from his birthplace, so also his forebears remained at home.
They were sturdy men and women, steeped in traditional ways, independent and as little humble as possible. The mountaineer is that way too. He cares neither for ease nor for soft living. He is hospitable. “Welcome, stranger, light and hitch,” is the salutation, and the stranger is bidden to take “damn near all” of whatever the table offers.
A hunter by race, he is first of all a poacher, in arms against such as would deny him the right to take game where he may find it, a trait dating back to the time of Robin Hood in England. His speech is reminiscent of this older land and people. Labeled as “a survival,” the mountaineer in reality is on the defensive, protecting himself against later comers and strange ideas. “I wouldn’t choose to crave this newfangled teachin’ and preachin’,” he says. “All I ask is to be let alone. I was doin’ middlin’ well. The hull kit and bilin’ can go to the devil.”
Mountain dialect reflects the Anglo-Saxon origin of the mountain people; obsolete forms found in Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible are in common use. “Clumb,” “writ,” and “et” for climbed, wrote and ate are common enough if you go back a few centuries. “Buss” for kiss, “pack” for carry, and “poke” for pocketbag and the like are pure Elizabethan.
Shakespeare said “a-feared,” as does the mountaineer today, and “beholden” is common to both. “His schoolin’ holp him mighty,” says the proud mountain father; King Richard of England said, “Let him thank me that holp send him thither.” “Hit’s right pied,” shouts the mountain boy when the snake he has stoned puffs up and mottles. But he probably never read of “meadows trim with daisies pied,” or heard of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. When he sings, the mountaineer “rolls a song,” and his expression, “he looks like the hind wheels of bad luck,” is so expressive that only the carping student would seek to trace its heritage.
Folklore is found not only among the mountaineers but in every county in the State, in town and in city. In the mountains, however, because of close-knit family and community ties, it is part of everyday life. Songs and sayings are more than quaint and queer; they have living reality.
The WPA Guide to Kentucky, Compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Kentucky, F. Kevin Simon, Editor,Univ. of KY 1939, publ. Harcourt Brace & Co.