And it’s home little gal and do-si-do

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 12, 2015

Traditional dancing in Appalachia includes several types: step dancing, set dancing, and couple dancing. Step dance traditions include clogging, buckdancing, flatfooting, and the Charleston. Set dances, involving two or more couples, include four couple squares, big set (ring) dances, reels, country (contra) dances, and play parties. Couple dancing, often referred to as “round dancing,” includes the two-step and waltz.

Square dancing, one of the oldest forms of American folk dancing, evolved from several different Old World group dances, mainly the English country, or contra, dance and the French quadrille.

In the American version of square dancing, four couples form a square and dance to music from an accordion, banjo, fiddle, and guitar.

An old-fashioned Southern “square”, sometimes called “running set”– English musicologist Cecil Sharp coined the term while describing dancing in eastern Kentucky in 1916–, can accomodate as few as four or as many couples as want to crowd in. The formation is really a big circle with any number of couples. (There are, of course, a body of Southern squares that are done in 4-couple sets.) Most commonly, a Southern “running set” type of square dance is structured in two parts: First the major circle and then the minor circle. With all hands joined in one big circle around the hall, one or more introductory big circle figures are danced.

Square dance, Skyline Farms, AL, 1937Square dance, Skyline Farms, AL, 1937. Photo by Ben Shahn.

The big circle then breaks up and each couple joins with an adjacent couple to dance some little circle figures. The movements are not so much geometrical figures but little pantomimes: “Birdie in the cage and three hands around” (a girl steps into the center, the other three circle around her); “Around that couple and take a peek” (the active couple tries to look at each other behind the backs of of the inactives, who try to hinder them); “Chase a rabbit, chase a squirrel, chase a pretty girl around the world” (the man pursues his partner around the other couple); to name just a few.

The little circles can be spaced in a major circle around the hall, as in a Sicilian circle; or they can be scattered all over the dance floor. The couples move on to join a new couple and repeat the little figures; progression may occur several times. To conclude, all rejoin in a large circle and dance a finishing big circle figure. An American addition to square dancing is the caller.

Ladies do and the gents you know,
It’s right by right by wrong you go,
And you can’t go to heaven while you carry on so,
And it’s home little gal and do-si-do,
And it may be the last time, I don’t know,
And oh by gosh and oh by Joe.
—(Ernest Legg, WV)

Ernest Legg’s calls were featured on a number of 78s recorded by the Kessinger Brothers in 1928.

The caller–someone who calls out the dance steps in time to the music–was a completely American invention. At first dancers memorized all the steps for a particular dance, but eventually the dances became so complicated that it was necessary to have someone yell out cues so that dancers didn’t have to remember so many steps. The caller didn’t just call out “do-se-do your partner”; a good caller also came up with colorful sayings or witty lines that he would say in between the cues such as “Don’t be bashful and don’t be afraid. Swing on the corner in a waltz promenade.” A caller might also come up with new dance steps and routines.

Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennesse and Virginia have all seen fit to make the square dance their ‘folk dance’ State Symbol. North Carolinians prefer clog dancing receive that designation, and West Virginians and Kentuckians haven’t included any sort of dance as a state symbol.


sources:  “Pretty Gal!,” Forbes Parkhill, Parkhill, Saturday Evening Post, Aug 02, 1941; Vol. 214, No. 5, p. 18-22
Marguerite Butler Bidstrup, “Kentucky Set Running – 1914 firsthand account,” Square Dance History Project


2 Responses

  • Janet Smart says:

    I remember when I was in school, we had square dancing as part of our gym class. Not all year, but for a certain amount of weeks each year. I bet they don’t do that any more.

  • LaMonte says:

    Gym and square dancing: ditto here. Florida. The 1950s (I’m older than dirt), and, no, no one seems to have “manners classes”, “dance”, or other things that seemed important to pass on to the young.

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The bottle tree

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 11, 2015

Are your premises safe against haints, furies and other such ornery spirits? Have you painted your front door blue? Has the neighborhood seen a sudden upsurge of bottles dangling upside down in the trees?

She knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house — by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.
Livvie, by Eudora Welty

Glass ‘bottle trees’ originated in ninth century Kongo during a period when superstitious Central African people believed that a genii or imp could be captured in a bottle. Legend had it that empty glass bottles placed outside, but near, the home could capture roving (usually evil) spirits at night, and the spirit would be destroyed the next day in the sunshine. One could then cork the bottles and throw them into the river to wash away the evil spirits.

Furthermore, the Kongo tree altar is a tradition of honoring deceased relatives with graveside memorials. The family will surround the grave with plates attached to sticks or trees. The plates are thought to resemble mushrooms, calling on a Kongo pun: matondo/tondo [the Kongo word for mushroom is similar to their word to love].

And so, trees and bottles eventually came together.

This practice was taken to Europe and North America by African slaves. Thomas Atwood, in History of the Island of Domi (1791), made particular note of the bottle tree as a protection of the home through an invocation of the dead. Atwood writes of the confidence of the blacks “in the power of the dead, of the sun and the moon—nay, even of sticks, stones and earth from graves hung in bottles in their gardens.”

blue bottle tree, from Alabama, One Big Front PorchWhile Europeans adapted the bottle tree idea into hollow glass spheres known as “witch balls,” the practice of hanging bottles in trees became widespread in the plantation regions of Southern states and from there migrated north and inland into Appalachia.

Traditionally the bottles are placed on the branches of a crepe myrtle tree. The image of the myrtle tree recurs in the Old Testament, aligned with the Hebrews’ escape from slavery, their diaspora and the promise of the redemption of their homeland.

Bottle tree colors can range from blue, to clear, to brown, but cobalt blue are always preferred: in the Hoodoo folk-magic tradition, the elemental blues of water and sky place the bottle tree at a crossroads between heaven and earth, and therefore between the living and the dead. The bottle tree interacts with the unknown powers of both creative and destructive spirits.

The bottles are placed upside down with the neck facing the trunk. Trees need not be thickly populated with bottles. Malevolent spirits, on the prowl during the night, enter the bottles where they become trapped by an ‘encircling charm.’ It is said that when the wind blows past the tree, you can hear the moans of the ensnared spirits whistling on the breeze. Come morning they are burnt up by the rising sun.

Today, the bottle tree has entered the realm of folk art. Companies now market bottle tree armatures meant to serve, once clothed with milk, wine, or milk of magnesia bottles, as colorful garden ornaments. The poor man’s stained glass window, you might say.


Sources: Tradition and Innovation in African-American Yards, by Grey Gundaker, African Arts, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 58-96
Alabama, One Big Front Porch, by Kathryn Tucker Windham, NewSouth Books, 2007

blue+bottle+trees bottle+trees Hoodoo haints appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

16 Responses

  • wendyvee says:

    I stumbled upon your site and wanted to compliment you on some really great material.

    I have seen bottle trees several times in my life but this is the first time that I’ve read an explanation of them :)

  • […] and not some gardener’s cheap idea of decoration.  Bottle trees (in America, at least) are leftover evidence of African tribal beliefs brought by slaves to the New World – although it is also noted that folk traditions from […]

  • Sandy says:

    another reason to pop the cork on another bottle of wine!

  • Someone that lives down the road from me has one of those and thanks to you I now know what it is. I love history and your site is amazing!!

  • felder says:

    sorry, but glass bottles for repelling spirits were not first used by 9th century africans, they were widely used by mediterreanean (north africa) and arabic cultures for over 3000 years – remember aladdin and the genii in the lamp? predates Congo by a couple of millenia… pliease stop pushing this fanciful “slave/voodoo” myth about ancient bottle trees…

  • Stephanie says:

    I don’t think anyone is trying to “push” voodoo or slaves ritual myths , just to shed a little light on how the bottle tree arrived into the US. As humans we are fascinated by our connections to the past and because there isn’t much written material about bottle trees here in the states, only verbal memories and theories, it’s safe to say it’s a form of folk art and folklore. But in the US itself her history is deeply rooted in the south and amongst African Americans in particular. I don’t think you could argue that it was in fact African people who exercised the artistic creation of these sculptures and proudly displayed them around the perimeter of their home. Maybe some did engage in voodoo, just like there are some people who exercise witchcraft today but overall I think it was just a way to decorate with what you had available and also a distant connection that certain people had to their ancestors. Kinda like the feeling that a Christmas tree gives us. Makes us feel sentimental, makes us smile with all of the color and details but not many people can tell you how the Christmas tree came about. All we know is that we just plain like it.

  • bob harris says:

      i dont think slaves or arabs started the bottle tree; why is it people try to inject these groups into everything? Peleg started it after the land was divided.
      Look that up.

  • […] Tabler, in Appalachian History, refers to the Hoodoo folk-magic tradition where the blue bottle tree is preferred. The belief is […]

  • Jeremy says:

    I actually make bottle trees for sale at my local craft market and have always loved the story behind them. I linked your story on my site since I believe it is such a good and well written narrative on their history. Hope you don’t mind! Anyone interested can reach me at

  • malena ray says:

    Have been lookin for this for so long. Something told me too do this at my home. Feelings of unrest and sleepless nights. Missing the love of Mother and Fear of MY Child.My Mother God Rest her soul has been gone for a year I know she is in Heaven still thinking she wants me too protect my family from from harm. Inside and out. thank you. Please send more information on my families history.

  • Bill says:

    I was interested in what the bottles in trees were suppose to mean/represent now I have an explanation. I just think they are cool regardless of their origin. My wife an I are going to start one in our outdoor area here in Missouri, I’m sure it will fit right in here.

  • […] Louisianian, practice of making bottle trees, another product of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bottle tree captures evil spirits in the upside-down-hanging bottles, keeping living inhabitants safe. […]

  • […] are relics of our African ancestors. Remember the opening scenes of the Ray Charles biopic, where a bottle tree sways in the winds of his childhood home, again a cultural connection to the Bakongo people. The […]

  • […] real story of bottle trees can be traced from the American South to Africa.  A blog post from Appalachian History gives the […]

  • betty says:

    Love this story.

  • April Mullins Mela says:

    As an Anthropologist I concur with Felder’s information. One thousand and One nights,,,, it had North African as well as Ottoman roots.

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Summer mountain meadows are full of toys

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 10, 2015

Mountain woods and meadows are full of toys for any child with eyes to see. Skipping stones across a creek or running alongside a fence, stick in hand, clacking the fenceposts—these pastimes are available any time of year.

But the summer meadow has always held special treasures. Two of the best just happen to grow cheek by jowl: the clover, endless provider of necklaces white or red, and the English Plantain.

Before the advent of the manicured lawn, in which the plantain is an unwanted guest, mountaineers viewed this marvelous plant through very different eyes.

English Plantain“Plantain is a vulnerary (a wound plant), and in everyday use it is excellent for relief of stings and bruises, and an alleviant for nettle stings,” says Bill Church in Medicinal Plants, Trees, & Shrubs of Appalachia – A Field Guide. “Traditionally, leaf tea used for coughs, diarrhea, dysentery, and blood urine. Leaves applied to blisters, sores, ulcers, swelling; also used for earaches and eye ailments; thought to reduce heat and pain of inflammation.”

In addition to its medicinal uses, English plantain (also known as buckhorn plantain) helped keep backwoods aviary inhabitants chirping; the seeds are often eaten by songbirds.

This common European perennial has been naturalized worldwide; Native Americans from Massachusetts first noticed it seemed to spring up wherever the Europeans settled in the New World, and the nickname “white man’s foot’ or “Englishman’s foot” has stuck ever since.

But back to plants kids can make toys from. The plantain’s botanical name is ‘plantago lanceolata,’ and that ‘lance’ part has a special attraction for mountain boys at play, who prefer to call it the ‘shooter plant.’

If you’re going to fire one of these little devils at your buddies, you’ve got to select carefully. Look for a seed head that has NOT blossomed yet! It should be tightly formed and look like a bullet (photo #1).

If the seed head is long and rangy, it just will not pop off the stem when you go to shoot it (photo #2). Select a stem long enough that you can break it into two halves about 8-9 inches apiece (photo #3).

Fold the stem piece without the seed head in half, and thread the other piece through it (photo #4). As you can see, it reminds one a bit of the bow & arrow, and that’s exactly the way to shoot the seed head off. You have to squeeze the folded piece together tight enough so that the seedhead doesn’t simply pull through it.

This is one of those childhood arts, like whistling with two fingers under your tongue, or riding a bike, that you simply have to learn by trial & error. No amount of written instruction, diagrams, or photos can ever replace that.

sources: Medicinal Plants, Trees, & Shrubs of Appalachia – A Field Guide, by Bill Church,, 2006


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Juliette Low establishes First Girl Scout camp

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 9, 2015

Camp Juliette Low, in Chattooga County GA, today is a private, non-profit summer camp for girls ages 7 to 17. Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, was instrumental in getting this camp underway; in fact it’s the only camp she personally helped establish.

Low brought girl scouting to her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, with a troop of just eighteen girls. She envisioned, however, that Girl Scouting would eventually be “for all the girls of America.” And indeed, more than fifty million women and girls have belonged to the organization since its founding on March 12, 1912.

As the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low correctly intuited what activities girls would enjoy. She envisioned an organization that would combine play, work, and healthy values to shape girls into active, modern women. The group participated in outdoor activities, camping, and sports, attracting girls and women with leadership qualities.

Camp Juliette Gordon LowGypsy Troop at Camp Juliette Gordon Low attend campfire, 1927.

In 1921 John and Will Ledbetter, representing the Cloudland Park Corporation, developers of the mountain resort known as Cloudland, gave a ten-acre tract of land to the Cherokee Council of Boy Scouts at Cloudland for camp purposes, at the same time donating nearby land for what became Camp Juliette Low.

Dorris Hough, who headed of the Southern Regional Headquarters for Girl Scouting, was the first camp director.

A few shacks were built by the boys in 1921, and in 1922 others were added. The girls had an assembly hall 40×72 ft. A portion of the adjacent Little River was dammed to create a swimming area for campers. Camp stay was two weeks, and the camp stayed open for 8 weeks in the summer, taking on about 100 girls per season.

The county surrounding the camp is named for the Chattooga River, which flows through the area and is the smaller of two Georgia rivers bearing that name. (The larger Chattooga River forms part of the state’s northeast border between Georgia and South Carolina.) The county may be best known as the longtime home of folk artist and country philosopher Howard Finster and as the place where Sequoyah developed a written alphabet for the Cherokee language.

Camp Juliette Low dissolved its affiliation with the Girl Scouts in 1937, when it incorporated as a non-profit camp.


A history of Rome and Floyd County, State of Georgia, United States of America, by George Magruder Battey

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The Coon Creek Girls play the White House

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 8, 2015

On the evening of June 8,1939 limousines began to deliver the cream of Washington D.C. society to the East Room of the White House. President and First Lady, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England and had arranged a command performance in their honor.

The Coon Creek Girls

Music for the evening was provided by the finest representatives of American culture, including opera tenor Lawrence Tibbett, classical musician Marion Anderson, pop diva Kate Smith, and Alan Lomax singing Western songs. The evening also featured four energetic young women called the Coon Creek Girls, who would play traditional stringband music and accompany Bascom Lunsford’s square dance group from North Carolina.

“Coon Creek Girls was a very happy time. As far as I know, we were the first all-girl string band,” recalled band leader Lily May Ledford at Berea College during a 1980 solo performance there. “We startled the audience by being all girls — our sound was drowned out by the uproar of applause and yelling.”

Ledford has been widely recognized in Kentucky and throughout the nation by scholars, musicians, and listeners who have unanimously credited her with bringing the musical culture of eastern Kentucky to the world. She was an inspiration to generations of younger musicians, including Pete Seeger.

Ledford learned to play on an old discarded fiddle formerly belonging to “Gran’pappy Tackett,” who was a famous old-time fiddler of the Kentucky mountains, as was her father, White Ledford. She told the story of how she made her first fiddle bow from a willow switch and a generous portion of the tail of “Ole Maudie,” “Gran’pappy’s” white mare.

In 1936, at the age of nineteen, Lily May left Pinch-em-Tight Hollow, KY to begin her public music career in Chicago, where she joined the National Barn Dance. A year later she ventured on to Cincinnati, where she became a regular on musical promoter John Lair’s newly formed Renfro Valley Barn Dance.

It was here that Lair, an early promoter of women entertainers, encouraged Lily May along with her sister Rosie, Violet Koehler, and Daisy Lange to form the Coon Creek Girls. It was called that “so that people will know at once what kind of music they’re going to hear,” Lair said. The group made its broadcast debut on October 9, 1937.

Both photos: Berea College Archives/Southern Appalachian Archives/John Lair papers

Both photos: Berea College Archives/Southern Appalachian Archives/John Lair papers


How Many Biscuits Can You Eat? was their first number at the White House soiree, featuring Lily May’s outstanding five-string banjo, Rosie on guitar, Violet on mandolin, and Daisy on bass, with all four sharing the comical verses. They knew this piece was a favorite of Mr. Roosevelt and had performed it countless times back home in Kentucky and Ohio. Another FDR favorite, Get Along Miss Cindy was planned as well as an English ballad, The Soldier and the Lady, in honor of the royal couple.

Meantime John Lair, in order to get in to see the performance, had to pose as the the bass fiddle carrier for the group. Lily May said they laughed in the back of the limo as Lair lugged the big bass along, “Law, how times has changed, back home he’s king, and we’re the subjects you know, up here we’re riding in the limo, and he’s trailing along totin’ the bass fiddle—that done us good!”

In 1939, after Koehler and Lange left the band, the Ledfords were joined by their other sister Susie. The high mountain harmonies of the group proved to be an exciting contrast to the sentimental home-and-mother styles of the period. The trio, singing and playing with the true family mountain sound, served as a musical standard for the old-time genre for years to come.

At a time when traditional music was being brushed aside by many in favor of bluegrass, swing, and smooth country crooning, the Coon Creek Girls stepped up to the mike with a fresh, energetic approach to tunes, songs, and instrumental styles that were as old as the hills.


Listen here to Coon Creek Girls play ‘Flowers in the Wildwood’ —>


“Lily May Ledford: A Legend in Our Time,” by Kennty C. Hull, undated booklet, collection of Western Kentucky University


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