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Whipping does not always conquer a child’s spirit, but I never have known a dash of ice water on his spine to fail

Posted by | July 8, 2014

The habits of these folk, as I remember them when I was a child, were generous and hospitable. There was much rivalry between women in household matters. Certain recipes in pastry and pickles and medicine were handed down in families from generation to generation. There were few formal dinners, but cover for the accidental guest was always laid on the supper table.

Everyday life then was merry and cordial, but it needed a wedding or a death to bring out the deeper current of friendly, tender feeling in these people. Death was then really an agreeable incident to look forward to, when one was sure to be lauded and mourned with such fervent zeal.

The belief in education as the chief good was as fervent and purblind as now. Every county had its small sectarian college: the boy, if he were poor, worked or taught in summer to push his way through.

But while the ordinary life of these people was thus wholesome and kindly, their religion, oddly enough, was a very different matter. The father of that day believed that his first duty toward his child was to save him from hell. The baby, no matter how sweet or fair, was held to be a vessel of wrath and a servant of the devil, unless he could be rescued.

To effect this rescue the father and mother prayed and labored unceasingly. The hill of Zion, up which they led the boy, was no path of roses. Above was an angry God; below was hell. They taught him to be honest, to be chaste and truthful in word and act, under penalty of the rod.

The rawhide hung over the fireplace ready for instant use in most respectable families. The father who spared it on his son felt that he was giving him over to damnation. Often the blows cut into his own heart deeper than into the child’s back, but he gave them with fiercer energy, believing that it was Satan who moved him to compassion.

As most pleasant things in life were then supposed to be temptations of the devil, they were forbidden to the young aspirant to Heaven. The theatre and the ballroom were denounced; cards, pretty dresses, and, in some sects, music and art, were purveyors of souls for the devil. To become a Christian meant to give up forever these carnal things.

Parents who were not members of any church also taught their children self-denial. Did a boy cut his finger, the first howl was silenced with: “Not a word! Close your mouth tight! A man never cries!” The same adjurations were given when the whip was being applied to his back.

A high-tempered child was held by many intelligent parents to be possessed with a kind of demon, which required strong measures for its expulsion.

“You must break his spirit and then he will obey you,” was the universal rule. In my childhood I once heard a bishop, who I am sure was a kindly, godly man, say: -
“Whipping does not always conquer a child’s spirit, but I never have known a dash of ice water on his spine to fail.”

It was believed that, once conquered, the child would yield implicit obedience to his parents and in that unreasoning, unquestioning obedience lay his one chance of safety. Had not God appointed them his guardians during the years when his brain and soul were immature?

Then there came to parents successive pauses of doubt, of inquiry. There were heard at first timorous suggestions of “moral suasion.” Was the soul really reached by a rawhide on the back? Why not appeal to the higher nature of the child? Why not give up thrashing and lure him to virtue by his reason? The child who was old enough to sin was old enough to be redeemed. Why not then bring about the awful change of soul called conversion, in infancy?

This theory, urged in practice by pious, zealous people, caused, half a century ago, a sudden outbreak of infant piety. I do not speak irreverently. There is nothing on earth so near akin to God as one of his little ones. Our Lord, when he would set before his apostles an example for their lives, placed a child, pure, humble, and innocent, in their midst. But he did not send that child out to preach the Gospel.

excerpt from Bits of Gossip, 1904 autobiography of Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), author & journalist raised in Wheeling, WV


Director Joanne Fish discusses new film ‘Mr. Handy’s Blues: A Musical Documentary’

Posted by | July 7, 2014

Joanne headshotPlease welcome guest author Joanne Fish. Miss Fish is an Emmy winning television producer/writer/director with more than 20 years of experience. She also directs independent documentaries about pioneering figures in American Music. Her 2007 documentary “The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice” is about the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. The film won several awards at film festivals and airs on the Smithsonian Channel. Joanne is currently in production with “Mr. Handy’s Blues: A Musical Documentary”, which chronicles the life of The Father of the Blues.


I was attending a film festival in Florence, AL in February of 2007 when I first met W.C. Handy. He was born there in 1873 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I consider myself a student of roots music, so The Handy Home and Museum in Florence was of great interest to me. I was very moved by his story during my first visit and returned to the museum several times. By the end of the week I decided that Handy should be my next project. I was very surprised to discover that there was not already a film about The Father of the Blues, and seven years later I still feel very privileged to be heading up this production. It’s a labor of love, and so far it’s been a wonderful experience learning about him, and his amazing contributions to American culture.

W.C. Handy (1873-1958).  Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

W.C. Handy (1873-1958) Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

I spent the first year researching and looking for experts on Handy’s life and his music. It was very difficult to find anything written about him outside of his own wonderful autobiography “Father of the Blues”, but I found a fellow in New York who had written a PhD thesis on Handy’s music publishing company. Elliott Hurwitt has been my close advisor ever since, opening doors to other scholars who have specialized in Handy’s work over several decades.

Handy was born into the post Civil War South, eight years after Lee’s surrender, where tent shows and traveling minstrel troupes provided the only form of popular entertainment. His life ended at the beginning of the Space Age, with Handy performing at the inauguration of President Eisenhower and being honored at a concert in Carnegie Hall. His story is full of colorful characters, racial tension, family drama, and a whole lot of courageous decisions.

To date I’ve interviewed Taj Mahal for the film, as well as several experts, scholars and musicologists. Vince Giordano, the bandleader and Music Director for “Boardwalk Empire” also sat down to talk about his respect and admiration for Handy’s compositions, arrangements and self-determination. Blues legend Bobby Rush summed it up: “If it wasn’t for people like Handy, I wouldn’t have a direction. I would have nothing to measure up to. Because my whole life has been ‘I want to be like Handy’.”

Young blues and jazz musicians today are reminded of where their favorite music comes from when they hear his early blues songs. George Gershwin inscribed the score to “Rhapsody in Blue” to Handy, thanking him for his early ‘blue songs’. (Handy was an honorary pallbearer at Gershwin’s funeral.)

'Rhapsody in Blue' inscription from George Gershwin to W.C. Handy. Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

‘Rhapsody in Blue’ inscription from George Gershwin to W.C. Handy: “Mr. Handy, Whose early ‘blue’ songs are the forefathers of this work. With admiration and best wishes, George Gershwin Aug. 30, 1926″ Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

W.C. Handy’s influence is felt but not necessarily recognized in all of our modern forms of music. I want to make that connection and preserve his legacy for generations to come.

I’ve spent countless days and nights going through Handy’s personal scrapbooks, and other treasures at the Handy Home and Museum, and interviewing the people in Florence, AL who keep the flame burning brightly for their native son. I’ve scanned hundreds of pictures and documents from their collections which have never been published. These provide some fantastic visuals and help to flesh out Handy’s harrowing story. I’m also capturing new performances of his classic songs.

Born during the Reconstruction era, William Christopher Handy grew up listening to his father and grandfather (a former slave) preach in the African Methodist Episcopal church they established. His love for music was evident from an early age. Handy writes about the countryside where he grew up, and the sounds that caught his ear and his imagination. He could hear music and rhythms in nature and recognized a French horn in the breast of a blue jay.

He learned from the mournful obbligato of crickets, and the hooves of horses beating in syncopation. When traveling musicians came through town, Handy did whatever he could to familiarize himself with their instruments. But in the strict Handy household, only spirituals and hymns were sung, and the organ was the only acceptable instrument. His entrepreneurial spirit also took hold at that time.

Handy with band in undated photo. Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

Handy with band in undated photo. Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

According to Sandra Ford, director of the Handy Home and Museum in Florence, AL, at the age of 10 Handy started making lye soap and selling it to save enough money for a guitar. When he earned enough, he proudly brought his treasure home to show his parents. His father, Charles Handy, called it the devil’s instrument and made his son exchange it for a dictionary.

After he finished school, Handy worked first as a teacher, and then in the Bessemer, AL Pipeworks. He formed the Lauzetta Quartet, an a cappella group, and they decided to go to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, IL. Upon arrival they were told that the Fair had been postponed because of the “Panic of ’93″ (one of the worst economic crises to hit the U.S., considered second only to the Great Depression).

The group broke up, and Handy traveled alone looking for work. He ended up in St. Louis, on the levees of the Mississippi River, with no money and no prospects. He remembered his father’s stern warning, “Music will bring you to the gutter”, and realized that was exactly where he stood. This is the turning point in Handy’s career. He could have gone home, taken a respectable job and given up music. But he decided then and there that he would fight it out and pursue his calling. Twenty years later he wrote “St. Louis Blues”, the song inspired by those dark days on the cobblestones under the Eads Bridge.

Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

Another transformative moment came in a train station, circa 1903. By this time Handy (age 30) had become a well-known band leader. One night while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, MS he heard a strange sound. It was, in his words, “the humble moans of a creaky guitar”. The fellow beside him was using a knife to slide up and down the strings, and singing “Goin’ where the Southern Cross the Dog”.

Handy said, “Life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start”. It was the beginning of Handy’s journey to the blues.

Handy’s contributions to American music are vast. He wrote one of the first blues songs, “Memphis Blues”.

He recalled elements of the folk tunes he heard in the Delta, and used them as the foundation of a new musical form. He transformed these components through his compositions. In 1913, with his business partner Harry Pace, Handy opened the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis, TN. This was born out of necessity when Handy’s publishers cheated him out of his royalties for “Memphis Blues”.  Handy wrote: “I saw the song that I had sold for $50 become a tremendous hit and a gold mine for the new owner. That started the ball rolling.” With sales from sheet music and royalties from recordings (including Handy’s own first records in 1917), Pace & Handy prospered. The pair moved to New York City a few years later and established the first African American entertainment business on Broadway.

Through their publishing business the music was distributed to a mainstream audience. The company was instrumental in popularizing this once regional, and purely oral, tradition, giving it structure and context.

Joanne Fish interviews blues legend Taj Mahal about W.C. Handy. Courtesy the author.

Joanne Fish interviews blues legend Taj Mahal about W.C. Handy. Courtesy the author.

W.C. Handy’s songs have a timeless quality and have been interpreted in myriad ways over the past 100 years. “Memphis Blues” inspired Vernon and Irene Castle to create the Fox Trot. And it was recruited as the Ethiopian fight song in that nation’s battle against Italy. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about “Beale Street Blues” in “The Great Gatsby”. “St. Louis Blues” was the most recorded song of the first half of the 20th Century. Both “St. Louis Blues” and “Yellow Dog Blues”, the song that pays homage to Handy’s first encounter with the blues in Tutwiler, MS celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2014.

Before he passed away W.C. Handy wrote: “If my serenade of song and story should serve as a pillow for some composer’s head, as yet perhaps unborn, to dream and build on our folk melodies in his tomorrow, I have not labored in vain”.

I love this quote and I want to make sure that he did not labor in vain. He was the poet of the blues, in so many ways, and honoring his work is what Mr. Handy’s Blues is about.

W.C. Handy was a major force in the development of the blues and early jazz. He was a gifted man who had challenges throughout his life, but he handled himself with class and dignity. He was an American Original, a pioneer, charting unknown territory, and in the end a teacher. I believe his story will be inspirational on many levels.

We hope to complete the film by the end of 2014 to coincide with the centennial celebrations for “St. Louis Blues”. I have to admit part of me doesn’t want this journey to end.


The film is sponsored by Cinema South, a non-profit organization based in Nashville, TN. Much of the footage can be re-purposed for use in schools and museum exhibits. For more information, or to make a tax deductible donation, please visit the Cinema South site.


Happy Independence Day!

Posted by | July 4, 2014



B’ar in the Syrup Bar’l

Posted by | July 3, 2014

Back in the days when this was new ground you had to cotch a b’ar ef you wanted to keep warm.

Yessuh, my pappy knew this country when she was somep’n. He come over the mountains from South Ca’liny with his pappy, my gran’pappy, and gran’maw, when he was jus’ a boy. When they decided to ‘light here a spell, this wasn’t overrun with folks like now when you can’t go two whoops and a holler without runnin’ into a cabin.

Man in a wagon pulled by oxen in Fort Payne, AL, circa 1880-1889.

Man in a wagon pulled by oxen in Fort Payne, AL, circa 1880-1889.

Back in them days it was a good ten-mile to the nearest folks, lessen you count Injuns, which pappy said nobody did back then, ‘cept when they got to drinkin’.

Pappy says times like that was when dead Injuns was surely the only good Injuns. But gran’pappy didn’t wait for ‘em to git good. He used to take gran’maw and pappy and the other kids down to a cave a short piece from here and hide out till them Injuns sobered up. Other times, pappy says they didn’t have to trouble with the Injuns. They didn’t get no help from ‘em neither, and that was a time when gran’pappy sure needed help.

He brang a load of truck in the kivvered wagon they rode from South Ca’liny here and he had young steers on the front end fitten to work when piled high with a plow, and hoes and axes and such like tools, along with cotton and corn and wheat seed. What little room was left, pappy said they shoved in some household things, but not much. Pappy said he was real sorry that they hadn’t put in more kivvers until the time come when they cotched the b’ar.

Leastways they didn’t have no trouble finding logs to build ‘em a cabin. Pappy says the trees was so thick you had to squeeze between ‘em, and they just took their pick of big fine logs to cut and peel and notch to build the cabin. Whilst it was building they slept in the kivvered wagon and tried to get the Injuns to help out. A few friendly ones would work now and then, but they warn’t worth a lick, pappy says. He claims he and gran’pappy did most of the the building and scratching up a little patch of dirt to get some seeds in.

Grinding cane and making syrup in DeKalb County, circa 1880-1889.

Grinding cane and making syrup in DeKalb County, circa 1880-1889.

They come along here in the Winter time and pappy says the frosties in them days was like a light snow it lay so thick on the trees and rocks. Took two or three hours atter good sunup to melt it off, so he says you just naturally humped yourself a-working to keep from freezing to death. They got a good patch cleared up by the time frost broke and got in planting of all them seeds they brang and some millet seed the Injuns give ‘em.

They made fine crops and things rocked along thataway for two year and pappy says they fin’lly got along to building another room to the cabin. About that time some neighbors moved in, not more’n five mile away, and he says gran’pappy was afeared for a while things would get crowded. But they help the neighbors r’ar ‘em up a cabin and got to visiting around frequent, much as oncet a month or so.

The second Summer gran’pappy laid out to make him some sorghum cane and got in a right good crop. That there sorghum just about saved ‘em from freezing to death pappy say, ‘cause even with some blankets gran’pappy had traded offen the Injuns and gran’mammy biled in lye for going on a week, it was pretty cold that second winter.

We knowed there was b’ars up in the hills. They come down in the corn, but gran’pappy didn’t mess around with ‘em none. He was right handy with his rifle but he didn’t put faith in it against b’ars. Anyhow, this Summer he really turns out some fine sorghum cane and when the steers git through grinding he had a sight of syrup.

Pappy says the kids had all the long sweetening they could hold and gran’mammy filled up all the big gourds, what she had done scraped and washed during the Summer, to lay by a store for the winter. Even then there was plenty left over, so gran’pappy traded off with the Injuns for a keg that they’d had whiskey in on one of their big drunks. Gran’mammy talked with him a long time about the evils of drink and putting sweetening innocent chillun would eat into a barrel where rum had been, but gran’pappy convinced her that sorghum was strong enough to lick any rum. So they filled up the bar’l and set it out in the store shed where they was hams and bacon and the chickens roosted when it was cold.

One night atter ‘simmon time and when the wild turkeys was a calling down in the holler, they all come wide awake, pappy says, with the biggest racket out in the store shed anybody ever heard.

Gran’mammy yelled ‘Injuns!’ and started packing up to get down to the cave, but gran’pappy said ‘Twarn’t Injuns ‘cause nobody yelled. So he gits his rifle, pappy gits the axe and afterwards, ‘cause they didn’t notice then, they found out gran’mammy come traipsing atter ‘em with her sedge broom. She made that broom herself, too; cut a straight hickory sapling, scythed her down some ripe sedge and tied it on with cotton thread she spun herself.

Anyways the three of ‘em git on out to the store shed where the chickens is a squawking and there’s a beating and a thumping and a sorta groaning going somep’n awful. The door burst open and out come a big black thing with somep’n on its head. Gran’pappy fired and missed.

’Hit’s a b’ar,’ he yelled, and pappy says he went in a-swinging with his axe.

‘Don’t you tech that b’ar,’ gran’mammy yelled at him. ‘We needs that hide.’ With that she just naturally laid into that b’ar with her broom, pappy hopping round trying to git in a lick with his axe without cutting the hide, and gran’pappy hopping fust on one foot and then t’other, to keep his toes from freezing in the deep frost, while he tried to load his gun.

What with gran’mammy a whooping him with that broom, pappy a-yelling and gran’pappy cussing a streak every time he hopped, that b’ar was just plumb skeered to death, I reckon. Anyhow, pappy says he r’ared up on his hind legs and started slapping at that bar’l trying to git it offen his head. By and by he slaps feeble-like and in about three-four minutes he just rolled over on his side, dead. That long sweetening had just choked him to death.

By the time gran’mammy got through scraping and curing his hide they sure slept warm that winter, and all his sinews made good strings for fixing up the plow drags for the steers next Summer, so gran’pappy was able to git in a fine crop. So did the neighbors, and there was cornshucking frolics all that Fall. Everybody went in together and after the corn was shucked, there was eating as was eating!”

Written by Margaret Fowler in 1937 for WPA Alabama Writers’ Project, “Folklore of DeKalb County”


When the war ended, all the coal mine whistles blowed

Posted by | July 2, 2014

My father was a coal miner back in the…well, he went into the coal mine when he was 12 years old, and he came out when he was 47. And he worked through the First World War, well he worked, that’s all he ever done, ’till he came to the farm. But he worked through the First World War, but he was down here in the other one.

Everything was rationed back there, just like in the Second World War. You had to take sugar, you had to take cornmeal, and a whole bunch of stuff to get other things, you know. And tea and coffee and all that was rationed. But my dad went in when he was 12 years old. ‘Cause it was a big family of them and he had to work.

Well, bread was ten cents a loaf. And when you could get a dollar—you couldn’t get a dollar hardly ever—but if you got a dollar you could buy something with it. And you can’t now but whenever you made a dollar, and you’d save to get groceries, well, then you could get stuff; but we baked our bread and churned our own butter and had our own eggs and all of that.

We grew gardens and fields, you know, with corn and stuff like that, but I’ve lived with my parents and all my life, and I’ll be 91 in March, and never forget your mother son—that’s right I don’t care—well, your dad too if he’s some people’s man. I feel sorry for the people who do get them and don’t want them and I don’t believe in that.

The teachers were strict when I was in school. If you whispered or turned in your seat a little bit, I don’t know. I can remember once, I whispered, and I remember that teacher ‘till this day. She bent my thumb back like this and whipped me here with a ruler. And you wouldn’t do that now nowadays in school, y’know.

And I was 10 years old when the First World War stopped. And we had to gather, I don’t know what this is ever for, but they had a nail cagier, they used to have nail cagier back then, and we had to save all the nutshells like hickory nuts, walnuts, or anything, but what they ever done with them, I don’t know.

Frontispiece from 'The Story of the Great War,' by Francis Joseph Reynolds et al., 1916.

Frontispiece from ‘The Story of the Great War,’ by Francis Joseph Reynolds et al., 1916.

But when the war ended, all the coal mine whistles blowed, the school bells rung, and the peoples’ wonderin’, well they hadn’t heard yet that the Armistice was signed. They was wonderin’ …and then they all celebrated. But I was ten years old when that ended.

I had an uncle over there in the war. It was rough, they was in those trenches y’know, and things. My mother made taffy and sent it to her brother for Christmas, and he got it, he said and then he sent me a piece to read in church and I knew two verses. “In Flanders field the poppies rose,” and something about crosses rose on rose, but I remember that.

When we was havin’ church I always went to church, and he sent me a doll baby from over there, but he never got back. And I had a cousin over there. They never knew what became of him.

The coal mines had to put out coal and that made the production but my dad was a coal miner and he went from loading coal cut more. And that’s what he did. When he was in the coal mine, mother would put a fire in for the winter so you could have something to bake bread with.

We always had a cow and when my dad was in the coal mines he had ten acres that he would farm. And we always had a cow and chickens and had hogs. That helped with the butchering and things and Mom always kept a garden and we used to churn butter and sell it to people and back then you’d skim the cream off the milk and save it to make butter.

People’d come and buy it for the skimmed milk, you know, and they say it’s better than the stuff you get now. Well there’d be little bits of cream floating in it. Things ain’t like they used to be. Food’s not like it used to be. Sugar, and they got so much dope in the stuff you don’t know what you’re eatin’ and what you are.

Well, my sister was older than me and she was boss, but I didn’t really get in trouble but for Halloween—we’d throw corn and we had a thing with a wooden spool and you’d wrap a string around it and I think you used rosin on it like on violins; and you’d set that on someone’s window and that would make the darndest noise.

And I’ve never trick-or-treated, and you weren’t allowed to be on the streets all hours of the night, and my parents were strict. They knew where their parents were and their parents knew where they were. Wasn’t like some of the families are today.


Emma Barnhill
Guysville, OH
b. 1908
interviewed 1998 by Jesse Brown, Countdown to Millennium Oral History Project, a cooperative effort between Ohio University and Rural Action

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