Pushing the mountains
Confronted by a claustrophobic newcomer who wanted to “reach out and push back the mountains” in Appalachia, poet Byron Herbert Reece observed: “It depends upon whether you feel you are shut in or the world shut out.”
Most of us who grew up in the Southern Highlands can see both sides from our vertiginous vantage-point: Hermits by default, we have been hemmed in—miserably, at times—but also sheltered and safeguarded by a rugged landscape and a clannish culture. This isolation has yielded some distinct, if not gloriously peculiar, folkways celebrated, once again, in Singin’, Praisin’, and Raisin’: The Foxfire 45th Anniversary Book, an expansive oral history collected by high-school students in the Foxfire program, based in Mountain City, Georgia, and edited by Joyce Green and Casi Best.
Published in August by Anchor Books, it features the usual entertaining cast of moonshiners, conjure-wimmin, and “boogers and haints”—all of them flinty, hard-working types—with a special emphasis on music. For the first time in the series, this edition offers a companion compact disc of twangy pickers from its “Echoes” chapter, including mainstays like The Primitive Quartet, as well as others such as LV and Mary Mathis, a seasoned, husband-and-wife duet never recorded until now. (The initials stand for “Lyin’ Varmint,” Mary jokes.)
The sepia-toned nostalgia of Foxfire deepens in its valediction with Singin’, Praisin’, and Raisin’, which is stuffed with wistful reflections on the program itself from some of its first researchers, who, in middle age, still marvel at their role in this ongoing, idealistic, intergenerational phenomenon. Foxfire, named for the eerie, bioluminescent fungi found on rotting logs, began in 1966 as a writing project at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, where Eliot Wigginton, a Cornell-educated teacher determined to fire up his classroom, charged his students with interviewing and recording their backwoods elders to produce a quarterly magazine. In 1972, faced with a growing demand for back issues, the budding folklorists published an anthology of their writings, a curious hodgepodge of “olden days” storytelling and how-to advice on hog-butchering and the like. Pickled and preserved with corn likker and salt of the earth, The Foxfire Book quickly became a national bestseller, appealing to back-to-the-land hippies as well as antiquarians. A dozen more books, including this recent installment, followed.
For homefolks, Foxfire has served as benediction—and ammo. Note the timing and setting. In 1972, a movie that was filmed in the same county stigmatized the entire region with its enduring stereotypes of inbred, toothless, predatory hillbillies. However, the homespun anthropology of Foxfire offered a note-for-note, “Dueling Banjos”-style counterpoint to “Deliverance” by honoring the ingenuity, resilience, and, above all, the unassailable dignity of Appalachian people. Throughout the rambling anecdotes of “Aunt Arie” the widder-woman, Lawton Brooks in his overalls, and other high-lonesome, no-bull voices, their devotion to family and intimate understanding of nature, their sustaining faith, their mulish work ethic, and their native wit shine through like mica in a creekbed. In effect, they announce to nervous outlanders: Not only are you safe on our rivers, but you also will find sincere nourishment for your mind and spirit—along with biscuits made from the freshest lard—around these parts.
Even so, the Foxfire series affectionately serves up enough grotesquery for fans of Southern Gothicka.
My redheaded grandmother, who wielded a hoe with a vengeance, prized her collection of the books, and while she encouraged me and my cousins to study the properties of yellow-root tea and planting by the signs, she also was leery of our grubby, destructive fingers. So we would read the tales of “boogers and haints” by flashlight at night, growing increasingly spooked and primed to scream. I remember feeling especially terrified by the “hoop snake,” which reputedly takes its tail into its mouth and rolls like a bicycle tire after its prey. My grandfather claimed to have been pursued by one, but he probably was messing with me. Of course, there also were the elaborate engineering plans for whiskey ’stills, presumably run by Baptists since almost everyone claimed that affiliation (a contradiction that continues to bedevil me).
In Singin’, Praisin’, and Raisin’, I again find myself drawn to the juicy bits, starting with the true-crime stories in a section called “Knoxville Girl,” after the old-timey murder ballad, with chapter headings such as “Hell-Bent and Whiskey Bound: A Scaly Mountain Murder” and “Yeah, that stuff’s a-growin’ wild up there,” about bush-hogging the first marijuana seized in Georgia. The legends, Old World and otherworldly, under the heading of “Barbara Allen”—the “little people,” “the deer and the witch,” and one man’s “true encounter” with the devil—probably were exchanged by ancient Celts around a peat-bog campfire.
I had wrongly assumed that the “Raisin’” part of the book was about child-rearing and would involve some controversial one-upmanship about the “strops” and “hickory switches” used in corporal punishment (a favorite dinner-table topic in my youth), but instead it chronicles the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School Farm Family Program, which provided a top-drawer academic education for its tenant families along with its boarding students, with all of them getting their hands dirty with pullets, udders, and cane syrup mills.
My grandmother would have enjoyed reading, and listening, to the “Echoes” component of the book, with its themes of music as salvation, ministry, and respite from back-straining labor. To her, a banjo was, to use an arty phrase she would have sniffed at, a vehicle for transcendence, not the ominous cue for trouble around the bend, as portrayed in “Deliverance.”
The how-to guides that wrap up this edition cover “Tying a True Lover’s Knot”; “Chair Bottoming with Poplar Bark”; and “Braiding a Leather Bullwhip,” among other tasks, which prompted some unwanted, melancholy thoughts: Will anyone bother to follow these instructions? Moreover, now that most of us no longer plow with a mule, will the Foxfire field soon go fallow?
I hope not. The project initially homed in on the arcana of a few hollers in Rabun County, but it has evolved into an educational methodology, known as the Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning, applicable anywhere, from a Muslim community in Detroit to the Navajo Reservation—wherever a dialogue between the young and the old can flower.
Co-editor Casi Best offers these reassuring words: “I am a mere nineteen years old. If you mention iPods, Wi-Fi, netbooks, text messaging, iTunes, or anything of today’s modern technological world, I’ll know exactly what you’re talking about…however, mention a water dipper, a mess of greasy white half runners, a sling blade … and I’m lost.”
So she began seeking out those faces cross-hatched with age and experience, asking questions, and “simply falling in love” with her Appalachian heritage. These mountains may close in around us, but they also offer a panoramic view if we scale their heights.
“If you remember anything from this book,” Best writes, “I hope it is this: Every person has a story, and they’re simply waiting for someone to say ‘hello.’”
Candice Dyer writes regularly for Atlanta magazine, and her work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Garden & Gun, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, and Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.