Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hills And Hollas Of Home- In Honor Of The Late Hazel Dickens

The Hills And Hollas Of Home- In Honor Of The Late Hazel Dickens


The Hills And Hollas Of Home- In Honor Of “Our Lady Of The Mountain” The Late Hazel Dickens

From The Pen Of Josh Breslin

Kenny Jackman, the well-known classic rock and roll and early 1960s folk music minute blogger and website contributor Frank Jackman’s younger brother, had heard the late “First Lady Of The Mountains” Hazel Dickens (d. 2011) for the very first time on her CD album It’s Hard To Tell The Singer From The Song some years back, maybe in 2005. At that time he was in thrall to mountain music after being hit hard by Reese Witherspoon’s role as June Carter in the film Walk The Line (and Kenny maybe a little too had been under the spell of the film The Song Catcher whose soundtrack also had many classic mountain tunes including Iris Dement, the “Arky Angel,” Frank’s Arky Angel anyway performing Pretty Saro , a traditional mountain song probably going back to the old country, the British Isles old country, and Child ballads collected in Cambridge and distilled among the folk who put their own oral tradition take on the material speaking of forlorn love, decked out in poor mountain woman clothing, practical calico brought down at Miller’s General Store and brought to life by primitive seamstress hands, a little ill-fitting, a smudge on her cheek reflecting her dirt-poor work on the played out truck farm keeping the rabbits from devouring the family winter-surviving turnips and eking out whatever nutrient the worked-out land would yield for those who did not move west a couple of generations before when the writing was on the wall for all to see but from their hubris or sloth remained in place and miss the end of Professor Turner’s frontier thesis, sitting on the front porch of a broken down old mountain cabin that had seen better days, the typical dwelling with things scattered all over, old time farm equipment, maybe John Deere when new and prospects seemed reasonable that couple of generations before that they would not have to constantly move west like some forbear parents, but who could tell by the rusted paint peeled off condition, the inevitable 1949 Hudson scavenged for spare parts for the still running 1951 Hudson sitting there looking forlorn like some museum piece dinosaur skeleton gone out of style. A scene replicated all along the ridges of the Appalachian and Ozark ranges).

At that time Kenny got into all things Carter Family, at first June’s mother Maybelle and June’s sisters who constituted the second wave of the Carter Family experience then reaching back to the first Clinch Mountain threesome (her, A.P., his wife sister Ruth) once he heard Maybelle performing Blue-Eyed Boy accompanied by her on the mountain harp (that blue-eyed boy so legend had it was a guy whom had had an affair with Ruth, had been scared off, threatened by the rabid A.P., or had just left like so many others drifting west after the land played out, after the romance had nowhere to go, and so the song sung by all three since as rabid as A.P. was he was no fool when it came to staking his claims to songs that were already in the loose public domain, or just ripped some placid no account melody off and threw a variation of the words on the thing and recorded it for the dough).

So Kenny knew the Carter mountain roots unto the nth generation. A friend, a Vermont mountain boy, a regular Ethan Allan swamp Yankee from out around Marbury a tiny hamlet in the hills and a place where a sizable migration of New Yorkers and Bostonians would wind up when the struggle against the “monster” government in the early got too intense and they retreated, strategically retreated to hear them tell the tale to “work the land,” and worked the land no more successfully than that primitive mountain woman Iris Dement was portraying but stayed anyway, Jeffrey Salem, a transfer from Norwich College, who had been a classmate of his at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst back in the early 1970s, and a man whose knowledge of mountain music was sincere and deep although in school that knowledge had gone over Kenny’s head anytime Jeffrey mentioned it had “hipped” him to Hazel during his frenzy. He remembered the name if not the work she had done to keep the vanishing mountain traditions alive, keep them alive on the female side almost single-handedly as Norman Blake would do on the male side. Kenny had picked up the CD second-hand in a Harvard Square record shop, really outside of Harvard Square heading toward Central Square on Massachusetts Avenue, one of the few places around before the advent of where one could get an off the mainstream, second-hand recording of anything folk or its derivatives. The shop, really Sandy’s located in case you forgot between Harvard and Central Squares, a folk institution around that town where until recently Sandy had been holding forth since the early 1960s folk minute when everybody was desperately looking for roots music and that was the place to look first. Hazel’s You’ll Get No More Of Me, A Few Old Memories and the classic Hills of Home from that CD had knocked him out.

All of this mountain dew business you understand came out of left field for Kenny since he was if anything more of a man of the rock and roll era than Frank who at least had been bitten by that early 1960s folk minute that Kenny was too young for, and which he had winced at every time Frank put on some obscure folk song by guys like Buell Kazee and Hobart Smith on the record player in their shared bedroom (these guys would become living gods when hip urban New Yorkers and dour Boston puritans, kin of Francis Child in their academic appreciation of the ballads headed south, or sent emissaries like the ghosts of the Lomaxes, father and son, to mine the lore and regaled to all things mountain for a minute in that folk minute but for our purposes Kenny would grind his teeth). Later where older brothers Lawrence and Phillip in their turns moved out of the family house and Frank moved up the food chain Kenny as the youngest boy had no one below him in the food chain and in solitude would finally not have to hear the stuff and considered himself lucky, foolish him.)   


One of the latter mentioned songs on the CD, Hills Of Home, after repeated playing, seemed kind of familiar and later, a couple of months later, he finally figured out why. He had really first heard Hazel back in 1970 when he was down in the those very hills and hollows that are a constant theme in her work, and that of the mountain mist winds music coming down the crevices. What was going on though? Was it 2005 when he first heard Hazel or back in that 1970 time? Let me go back and tell that 1970 story and you can figure it out for yourselves:

Kenny Jackman like many of his generation who were just brushed by the counter-cultural events of the 1960s like older brother Frank had been just brushed by the “beat” uprising of the late 1950s, was feeling foot loose and fancy free, especially after he had been mercifully declared unlike brother Frank, 4-F, medically unfit for military duty a classification lots of  draft age youth in the holy hell high wire days of the inferno Vietnam War would go to the gates of hell for once the news started seeping back from the mounting body-bag count or from guys who made it back to the “real” world and called the thing by its right name, a horror, by his friendly neighbors at the local draft board in old hometown Carver (declared 4-F in those high draft days because he had a seriously abnormal foot problem which precluded walking very far, a few hundred yards at a time without some aid. Walking a skill, just ask Frank, that the army likes its soldiers to be able to do. This classification system had been the one in place before the lottery, and the last recruitment system in place before the draft was ended, which would presumably have still placed him outside the clutches of the military, unlike Frank’s fate, Frank who had serious problems adjusting to the “real” world before he got sober, and that of Frank’s friend, the late Benjamin Smith who laid down his head in Vietnam for no got purpose no good Benny purpose, except as an added name down on that mirror glass black granite down in D.C.).

So Kenny, every now and again, took to the hitchhike road, not like his mad man brother Frank would do a little later with some heavy message purpose a la Jack Kerouac and his “beat” brothers (and a few sisters) after a reading of On The Road whacked everybody who read the damn thing, including me, with the “get away from home and the nine to five routine bug but just to see the country while he, and it, were still in one piece no pun intended but that Kenny soberly told me since the country was in about fifteen pieces then.

On one of these trips he found himself stranded just outside Norfolk, Virginia hard by the Chesapeake Bay, the place where the U.S. Navy has a big installation and they built big ass war ships although those facts are not part of the story but just to give you a sense of what was what then, at a road-side campsite just outside of town. (Like a lot of military towns, with constant transfers in and out, and migrant labor at harvest farm towns such places are common enough to replace the vagrant real housing which is over-crowded or non-existent.) Feeling kind of hungry one afternoon, and tired, tired unto death of camp-side gruel and stews he stopped at a diner, Billy Bob McGee’s, an old-time truck stop diner a few hundred yards up the road from his camp for some real food, maybe meatloaf or some pot roast like grandma used to make or that was how it was advertised on the makeshift blackboard menu written in chalk on the wall as he entered the place. When Kenny entered the mid-afternoon half-empty diner he sat down at one of the single stool counter seats, usually red-topped, that always accompany the red vinyl-covered side booths in such places. But all of this was so much descriptive noise that could describe a million, maybe more, such eateries. You know the chalkboard menu listing the daily specials, which turned out to be the same as the items listed on the plastic embossed menu in front of each paper placemat complete with napkin-folded silverware, coffee cup at the ready to answer the inevitable “coffee” call from the professional waitress behind the counter whose seniority gave her that spot which as any professional waitress will tell you is the goldmine in the diner business since those counter stools are usually the preserve of single truckers, or single guys, who for a kind smile or at least no surliness will leave a larger tip than any hard-pressed father with wife and four kids in one of the booths will leave despite a much larger bill. You know too the menu contained “breakfast all day” in honor of the eighteen hours a day on the road truckers who frequent such places (don’t tell the ICC, about the eighteen hours, or the menu for that matter, please), the meatloaf dinner, the turkey dinner, the grandmother-like pot roast diner, and of course no self-respecting diner worthy of the name would leave you without bread pudding, and that settling the nerves second cup of coffee.      

What really caught his attention though was a waitress serving them “off the arm” that he knew immediately he had to “hit on” (although that is not the word used in those days but “hit on” conveys what he was up to in the universal boy meets girl world attractions). As it turned out she, sweetly named Fiona Fay, and, well let’s just call her fetching, Kenny weary-eyed fetching, was young, footloose and fancy free herself, had decided like half of those under about thirty to spent her summer break travelling east from her hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana since she had never seen the ocean, had drawn a bead on him as he entered the place. Had drawn that bead knowing with some kind of female knowing that he was not a family man and definitely not a trucker and dressed in his semi-hippie garb (emulating older brother Frank as to dress, flannel shirt despite the horrible humidity saved only by the well-soaked tee-shirt underneath which never got dry down south but always had a slightly musky smell, and damp to the touch, blue jeans not bell-bottomed though, sturdy work boots though clunky lasted longest on those hard asphalt and concrete highways where half the time was spent walking between rides to keep moving, and to keep any nosy coppers from “vagging” you, although with no long hair done up in a ponytail for hitch hike road purposes and no long biblical prophet beard, no way) struck her fancy since he had never talked to a hippie guy before. (Jesus, in 1970, was she kidding.) And as they eyed each other and Fiona came over to his stool disregarding her other family customers in the booths and the evil eye of that inevitable professional waitress with her pencil in her hair, her too tight steam stained uniform who was about to approach Kenny’s spot she asked “coffee.” And, …well this story is about Hazel, so let us just leave it as one thing led to another and let it go at that.

Well, not quite let’s let it go at that because when Kenny left Norfolk a few days later one ex-waitress Fiona Fay was standing by his side on the road south. And the road south was leading nowhere, nowhere at all except to Podunk, really Prestonsburg, Kentucky, and really, really a dink town named Pottsville, just down the road from big town Prestonsburg, down in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, wind-swept green, green, mountain mist, time forgotten. And the reason two footloose and fancy free young people were heading to Podunk is that a close cousin of Fiona’s lived there with her husband and child and wanted Fiona to come visit (visit “for a spell” is how she put it but I will spare the reader the localisms). So they were on that hell-bend road but Kenny, Kenny was dreading this trip and only doing it because, well because Fiona was the kind of young woman, footloose and fancy free or not, that you followed, at least you followed if you were eye-weary Kenny Jackson and hoped things would work out okay.

What Kenny dreaded that day was that he was afraid to confront his past, his no hard luck past but his past in any case. And that past just then entailed having to go to his father’s home territory just up the road in Hazard. See Kenny saw himself as strictly a Yankee, a hard “we fought to free the slaves and incidentally save the union” Yankee for one and all to see back in old Carver, a pose that he had learned from Frank who was about fifty times more political than him, lived for it after “Nam” or rather after he settled down and adjusted to the “real” world enough to want to change the thing instead of grouse about it when he was using sweet sister morphine to face that  world (the older brothers and indeed their father never got beyond calling those “stinking” blacks they worked with “n-----s”). And Kenny denied, denied to the high heavens, that he had any connection with the south, especially the hillbilly south that everybody was making a fuse about trying to bring into the 20th century around that time what with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. (Frank had had it worse since during his high school time Michael Harrington’s The Other America came out, a  shocking expose of Appalachian poverty, including mention of his father’s birthplace had everybody trying to help out with various book, clothes, and food drives right in Carver High School announced each day for a while over the loud speaker by Mister Thomas, the principal.) And here he was with a father with Hazard, Kentucky, the poorest of the poor hillbillies, right on his birth certificate although Kenny had never been there before. Yeah, Fiona had better be worth it.

Kenny had to admit, as they picked up one lonely truck driver ride after another (it did not hurt in those days to have a comely lass standing on the road with you in the back road South, or anywhere else, especially if you had what was short hair in the north but longish hair down there and a wisp of a beard from not shaving for few days), that the country was beautiful. As they entered coal country though and the shacks got crummier and crummier he got caught up in that 1960s Michael Harrington Other America no running water, outhouse, open door, one window and a million kids and dogs running around half-naked, the kids that is, vision. But they got to Pottsville okay and Fiona’s cousin and husband (Laura and Stu) turned out to be good hosts. So good that they made sure that Kenny and Fiona stayed in town long enough to attend the weekly dance at the old town barn (red of course, run down and in need of paint to keep red of course) that had seen such dances going back to the 1920s when the Carter Family had actually come through Pottsville on their way back to Clinch Mountain from visiting legendary yodeler Jimmy Rodger down in Texas some place. (The first Carter Family combination and Jimmy had been “discovered” at the same Bristol, Tennessee 1920s record sessions by an RCA agent who had conducted these demonstration to expand the audience for records and radios.)  

Kenny buckled at the thought, the mere thought, of going to some Podunk Saturday night “hoe-down” and tried to convince Fiona that they should leave before Saturday. Fiona would have none of it and so Kenny was stuck. Actually the dance started out pretty well, helped tremendously by some local “white lightning” illegal corn liquor that Stu provided and which he failed to mention should be sipped, sipped sparingly by guys who were not practically breast-fed on the stuff. Not only that but the several fiddles, mandolins, guitars, washboards and whatnot made pretty good music. Music like Anchored in Love and Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies, stuff that Frank had heard in the folk clubs in Harvard Square when he used to hang out there in the early 1960s and which had driven Kenny up the wall before liberation day when Philip had moved out. And music that even Kenny, old two left-feet, one way out of whack, draft-free out of whack, Kenny, could dance to with Fiona.

So Kenny was sipping, well more than sipping, and dancing and all until maybe about midnight when this woman, this local woman came out of nowhere and began to sing, sing like some quick, rushing wind sound coming down from the hills and hollas (hollows for Yankees, okay, please). Kenny began to toss and turn a little, not from the liquor but from some strange feeling, some strange womb-like feeling that this woman’s voice was a call from up on top of these deep green hills, now mist-filled awaiting day. And then she started into a long, mournful version of Hills of Home, and he sensed, sensed strongly if not anything he could articulate that he was home.

A twangy plainsong plain folk voice brushed by the mountain streams, grabbing that mist between gasps of her breath that spoke of leaving the old country, mostly the British Isles, mostly from the countryside when the fens were hedged in, the common land got sold for grazing, and men, if they were men drifted toward the cities, “drifted” the operative word, just keep moving, keep one jump ahead of whoever was following, leaving  a bunch of generations before, maybe just before the law was ready to set the gallows high, set the noose upon some forbear’s neck for stealing Mister’s pigs, Sir somebody’s wood, the Duke’s deer, poachers all and no respecters of property, maybe a highwayman or con man but in need of quick exit of the clamp would come down and so, desperate, the desperate are always the fodder for leaving when the old home chances ran out of luck headed to the indentured ships, the transport vessels and headed to the new land, the, what did Fitzgerald call it, yeah, the fresh green breast of the new world, where it seemed nobody lived and so the possibilities were endless. But see in that voice there was also this knowledge, not spoken, how could it be too many generations had passed but maybe it was embedded in the DNA by now, that some men, some folk were meant to move, to rumble, tumble, grab this, grab that and then move on, move in that fresh green breast land westward since the harsh seas lay eastward and that noose still held its charms. And so they moved, moved out of East Coast cities (or were forced out, maybe by the same king’s writ that scattered them in the old country) and into the wilderness like some ancient adventurers, some kept pushing west, became rolling stones and some stayed put, some had lost the energy to move west and so stayed put, stayed in ramshackle cabins and shacks letting the farm equipment rust, scavenging for the refuse, stripping the slender leavings, and waited for better times, waited and waited and watched any progeny with any energy head out of the hills to find their own new world, guys like Kenny and Frank’s father who could not get out fast enough whatever sorrows were ahead, and there were sorrows.             

Yes, Kenny Jackson, Yankee, city boy, corner boy-bred was “home,” hillbilly home. So see Kenny really did hear Hazel Dickens for first time in 1970.

[As for Fiona Fay she stayed on the road with Kenny until they headed toward the Midwest where she veered off to head home to Valparaiso in Indiana, her hometown, back to the local business school she was attending and had taken time off from to “find herself” just as Kenny and ten million other generational wanderers were trying like hell to do. Kenny headed west via Denver and the Utahs to California, to Big Sur and a different mountain ethos, splashed by the sea, splashed by the Japan seas, splashed by everything that in his everlasting life needed to be washed clean. They were supposed to meet out there a few months later after she finished up the semester and attended to some family business. They never did, a not so unusual occurrence of the time when people met and faded along the way, but Kenny thought about her, about that red barn dance night, about that lady of the mountains and that wind-swept mountain coming down the hollows night for a long time after that.]    


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