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

Posted by | 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.


Muralist Lola Poston and the Lincoln Theatre

Posted by | November 12, 2017

Her paintings were shown at the 1939 World’s Fair, and she helped decorate the White House during the Roosevelt Administration. But the artistic highlight of Lola Poston’s painting career was surely the six 15×20 ft. murals she created in 1929 for the auditorium of the newly built Lincoln Theatre, a talking picture palace and vaudeville stage in Marion, VA.

Billed as “the finest playhouse between Roanoke and Knoxville,” the theater opened on July 1 that year playing Close Harmony to a standing room only crowd. Lincoln Theatre served as the flagship of a chain of movie houses throughout SW Virginia. Today it’s one of only three remaining American movie houses built in Mayan Revival style.

painter Lola PostonLincoln Theatre’s interior resembles an ancient temple with exotic representations of mythological gods and creatures painted on the ceilings and walls. Poston’s murals live amidst this décor, housed in pyramid frames. Poston used cotton panels with water-based paints to depict scenes in early American and local history. She was paid $50 for each painting. The murals have been meticulously restored within the last decade; the theatre itself is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark.

Lola Poston was born on November 12, 1896, in a log cabin in the Walker’s Creek section of Smyth County, VA. She was the oldest of the ten children of Charles Marion Poston and Ida Lodema Hammons. Charles Poston was half-Irish and half-Shawnnee, and his wife was full-blooded Shawnee.

At age 5, Lola painted a self-portrait by looking at herself in a mirror. As she grew up, she began selling her paintings on the streets of Marion. Recognizing her extreme talent, Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Lincoln, Sr. sent her to study art in Chicago. She didn’t stay long at the school. Soon she began drawing illustrations for greeting card companies, then worked for a design company in New York City.

She met her first husband, Charles E. Harriman, and World War I broke out during their European honeymoon. They escaped to England and returned to the United States.

Lincoln Theatre mural by Lola PostonShe became something of a bohemian, traveling with Harriman across America in a ‘house car’ designed to be pulled behind an automobile.

After her first marriage came to an end, she married J. Ellis Dickerson, who operated a car dealership and real estate business from their basement. They resided in Grayson County, VA, home of Mount Rogers, the highest peak in the state.

She became friends with nationally renowned writer and part-time local resident Sherwood Anderson. She retired to Florida in her later years and taught arts and crafts, raised Dachshunds, and managed a flower shop.


Marion and Hungry Mother State Park, by Kenneth William Heath, Arcadia Publishing, 2004
Smyth County Revisited, by Kimberly Barr Byrd, Debbie J. Williams, Debra J Williams, Arcadia Publishing, 2007

Lola+Poston Lincoln+Theatre Marion+VA appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


Strap that Alabama fan on my back!

Posted by | November 9, 2017

Future champion college basketball coach Sonny Smith was born November 15, 1936 in Roan Mountain, TN, the son of a mill worker and a cafeteria employee at the local schools. His hometown, he said years later, wasn’t the end of the world—but that you could see it from there. He said there were so many shotgun weddings performed in Roan Mountain that the local church was dubbed “Winchester Cathedral.”

Roan Mountain TN 1940s Smith rose to college basketball prominence by turning around losing programs at East Tennessee State University, Auburn University, and Virginia Commonwealth University during his 22 years of coaching leadership.

Smith spent his first 11 years after graduating from Tennessee’s Milligan College playing semi-pro basketball and coaching in the high school ranks. As a high school coach in Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky, Smith began to make his contacts to move into the collegiate game. The legendary Vic Bubas helped Sonny land his first collegiate assistant coaching job at William & Mary in 1969. He stayed with the Tribe for a year, moved to Pepperdine for another year, and finally in 1971 landed as assistant coach to Virginia Tech’s Don DeVoe.

Smith was DeVoe’s right hand man until 1976, during which time the Hokies never had a losing record. Tech captured the NIT Championship in 1973 and earned a NCAA Tournament berth in 1976.

In 1976 Smith landed his first head coaching job at East Tennessee State, a college in dire need of a winning streak. After a 12-14 record during his inaugural season in 1976-77, Smith guided the program to an 18-9 mark, and the Buccaneers were the Ohio Valley Conference co-champions the next season. Smith won his first of four conference Coach-of-the-Year honors, while establishing himself as an upcoming young coach on the national level.

Sonny Smith is best remembered for his coaching years at Auburn University, where he was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in 1984 and 1989. He was the first coach in Auburn history to have a twenty win season, and the only coach in Auburn history to date to have three consecutive twenty win seasons (’84-’86). In 1985, he coached the Auburn Tigers to their first SEC Tournament Championship in school history.
Basketball coach Sonny Smith
Smith was a tough disciplinarian who coached Charles Barkley, Chuck Person, and Chris Morris into NBA stars in his three decades of coaching. On January 3, 2007, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

A basketball yarn from Sonny Smith: “There was an Kentucky fan, an Alabama fan, and a Tennessee fan that went to Saudi Arabia and got in trouble for gambling. They were arrested and each given 20 lashes as their punishment.

“Each fan was given one wish before his punishment was administered. The Kentucky fan went first. His wish that was a pillow be strapped to his back to soften the blows. After seeing how much pain the Kentucky fan endured even with the pillow, the Alabama fan’s wish was that he have two pillows strapped to his back while he was flogged.

“Finally, it was time for the Tennessee fan’s punishment. Because the person who was administering the blows had heard of the Big Orange, he granted the UT fan two wishes instead of the customary one. So, the Tennessee fan’s first wish was that he be given 200 lashes, rather than just 20.

“The Saudi was perplexed. He couldn’t figure out why someone who wish to endure such pain. He then asked,

“‘What’s your second wish?’ To which the Tennessee fan replied, ‘Strap that Alabama fan on my back!'”



They pulled the candy and laughed and frolicked

Posted by | November 8, 2017

You kin talk about y’r op’ras, y’r germans an’ all sich
Y’r afternoon r’ceptions an’ them pleasures o’ the rich
You kin feast upon y’r choc’lates an’ y’r creams an’ ices full
But none of ‘em is ekal to a good old candy pull.

For ther’ isn’t any perfume like the ‘lasses on the fire
A bubblin’ an’ a dancin’, as it keeps a risin’ higher
While the spoon goes stirrin’, stirrin’, till the kittle’s even full
No, I reely think ther’s nothin like a good old candy pull.

Then the exercise o’ pullin’, how it sets the cheeks aglow
While the tongue makes merry music as the hands move to and fro,
An’ with scarcely hidden laughter, the eyes are brimmin’ full
For the happiness is honest at a good old candy pull.

It’s true we miss the music an’ the ballroom’s crush an’ heat,
But ther’ isn’t any bitter that stays behind the sweet,
An’ I think the world’d be better, an’ its cup o’ joy more full
If we only had more pleasures like the good old candy pull.

The Candy Pull
By A. R. Luse

The sugar was boiling in the kettles, and while it boiled the boys and girls played “snap,” and “eleven hand,” and “thimble,” and “blindfold,” and another old play which some of our older people will remember:

“Oh! Sister Phœbe, how merry were we,
When we sat under the juniper tree—
The juniper tree-I-O.”

And when the sugar had boiled down into candy they emptied it into greased saucers, or as the mountain folks called them, “greased sassers,” and set it out to cool; and when it had cooled each boy and girl took a saucer; and they pulled the taffy out and patted it and rolled it till it hung well together; and then they pulled it out a foot long; they pulled it out a yard long; and they doubled it back, and pulled it out; and when it began to look like gold the sweethearts paired off and consolidated their taffy and pulled against each other.

mountain candy pullingThey pulled it out and doubled it back, and looped it over, and pulled it out; and sometimes a peachblow cheek touched a bronzed one; and sometimes a sweet little voice spluttered out; “you Jack;” and there was a suspicious smack like a cow pulling her foot out of stiff mud.

They pulled the candy and laughed and frolicked; the girls got taffy on their hair—the boys got taffy on their chins; the girls got taffy on their waists—the boys got taffy on their coat sleeves. They pulled it till it was as bright as a moonbeam, and then they platted it and coiled it into fantastic shapes and set it out in the crisp air to cool.

Then the courting in earnest began. They did not court then as the young folks court now. The young man led his sweetheart back into a dark corner and sat down by her, and held her hand for an hour, and never said a word. But it resulted next year in more cabins on the hillsides and in the hollows; and in the years that followed the cabins were full of candy-haired children who grew up into a race of the best, the bravest, and the noblest people the sun in heaven ever shone upon.

In the bright, bright hereafter, when all the joys of all the ages are gathered up and condensed into globules of transcendent ecstacy, I doubt whether there will be anything half so sweet as were the candy-smeared, ruby lips of the country maidens to the jeans-jacketed swains who tasted them at the candy-pulling in the happy long ago.

sources: Gov. Bob Taylor’s Tales, by Bob Taylor, DeLong & Rice, Nashville, 1896 online at

The Candy Pull, by A.B. Luse, Werner’s Readings and Recitations, No. 38, edited by Edgar S. Werner, Edgar S. Werner & Co, NY, 1907


The year with two Thanksgivings

Posted by | November 6, 2017

“I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Thursday, the twenty-third of November 1939, as a day of general thanksgiving.” How appropriate that Roosevelt’s proclamation was issued on Halloween, the day for tricks or treats. The average citizen was irritated and confused; big business was delighted. In the end, Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different dates that year.
FDR signs a bill
At the beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. However, Thanksgiving was always the last Thursday in November because that was the day President Abraham Lincoln observed the holiday when he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

FDR’s break with tradition was prompted by requests from the National Retail Dry Goods Association to extend the Christmas shopping season by one week. Roosevelt had rejected the association’s similar request in 1933 on the grounds that such change might cause confusion. The 1939 proclamation proved him more right than he probably would have liked. Football coaches scrambled to reschedule games set for November 30th, families didn’t know when to have their holiday meals, and people weren’t sure when to start their Christmas shopping.

Some folks found mirth in the situation. “Mr. President: I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to Nov. 23, of which I heartily approve. Thanks,” wrote one Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston WV, whose letter has been saved by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. “Now there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval:
1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday.
2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas.
3. Have it strictly against the will of God to work on Tuesday.”

Thousands more letters, most not so lighthearted, poured into the White House. Smaller businesses complained they would lose business to larger stores. Other companies that depended on Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November lost money; calendar makers were the worst hit because they printed calendars years in advance and FDR made their calendars out of date for the next two years.

Schools were also disrupted by Roosevelt’s decision; most schools had already scheduled vacations and annual Thanksgiving Day football games by the time they learned of Thanksgiving’s new date and had to decide whether or not to reschedule everything. Moreover, many Americans were angry that Roosevelt tried to alter such a long-standing tradition and American values just to help businesses make more money.

Opposition grew. While governors usually followed the president’s lead with state proclamations for the same day, in 1939 some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation. Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because many families did not have the same day off as family members in other states and were therefore unable to celebrate the holiday together.

Twenty-three states observed Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd, twenty-three states celebrated on November 30th, and Texas and Colorado declared both Thursdays to be holidays.


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