Monday, February 01, 2021

The Hills And Hollas Of Home- In Honor Of The Late Hazel Dickens-The “Queen” Of The Appalachia Hills And Saturday Night Red Barn Dance

The Hills And Hollas Of Home- In Honor Of The Late Hazel Dickens-The “Queen” Of The Appalachia Hills And Saturday Night Red Barn Dance

By Sam Lowell

This is the fourth and final installment (the first dated January 13, 2018, the second dated January 19, 2018, and the third January 24, 2018) set as an introduction to the history of the American Left History blog. Initially I believed that this would be a several part series and now it looks like with this final section about the massive internal in-fighting and resultant shake-up that brought the original leader of all of these publications down, brought in a new regime with my help and whatever direction the new leadership is heading we are finally done with a task a lot harder than I thought it would be. For a final time as I have been at pains to mention before this task came to me because I am one of the few people, more importantly one of the few writers, who has taken part in almost all of the key junctures in this forty something year history including the latest flare-up which has brought about a new regime, again partially with my help, so I am well-placed to tell the tale.

As part of the “truce” arranged with current site manager Greg Green I will tell the story and will elicit comments from a couple of other Editorial Board members. The first installment dealt with the genesis of this blog with hard copy predecessors going back to the late 1960s when a number of the older writers still standing came on board, many through long friendships with the previous site manager going back to high school days, those including myself. The second dealt with the dog days of the hard copy version of this blog and the greying of its staff. The third dealt with the transfer to the on-line version and some preliminary observations about how the just completed internal struggle came to such a fiery conclusion and explain how I became a member of the opposition. This final section as I said will deal with the food fight of 2017.

All four parts of the now completed project will appear as one unit on February 10th.

In a sense this last section is a bit anti-climactic since I have laid out the history leading up to the split, my part in it, and the result with the removal of the former site manager Alan Jackson in what I have described truly as a purge. (Some “fragile” types on both sides have backed off from that designation saying it is too rough but Allan knows, just as well as I do both of us veterans of many old-time political struggles in radical circles, that he had been purged.) That elevated Greg Green who had originally come over from the American Film Gazette to run the day to day operations to site manager. As part of the post-Allan regime Greg decided that he would create an Editorial Board to oversee everything and back up his decisions. For transparency reasons I should note that I sit on that board. I should also note that although it has only been in existence the past few months that there has been gripping about it being a rubber-stamp, a group of Greg toadies, and other derogatory remarks from young and older writers alike. Greg has also hired a couple of younger writers, really twenty something out of journalism schools and English majors. Brought on Josh Breslin’s former companion, Leslie Dumont, who many years ago worked here as a stringer but getting nowhere with Alan’s regime left and finally wound up with a big by-line at New York Monthly. Brought on my long-time companion Laura Perkins who also worked as a stringer and got nowhere with Alan and left for an academic and high tech career. Still no soap on getting any black writers, or more generically “writers of color.”

Those are the results thus far not without controversy and some hard feelings especially by the older writers who have been stripped of their titles, younger writers too who had worked for titles. Worse and which almost caused another explosion every writer now can be assigned any topic on any subject to as Greg says “broaden their horizons.” But enough of the current doings and back to the spring of 2017 and the genesis of the in-fighting that has brought these changes.

It almost seems like some twisted kiss of fate that Alex James, Zack’s oldest brother (who by the way is about ten years older than Zack showing a good example of the relative sense of “younger” writers Allan was bringing in. Certainly nobody as young as twenty something Kenny Jacobs), an old friend of ours from the old neighborhood, who went on to become a successful lawyer, went on a business trip to San Francisco last spring (2017). While there out of the blue Alex saw an advertisement on the side of a bus for something called The Summer of Love Experience, 1967 at the de Young Museum in famous Golden Gate Park. Sneaking (according to Alex) out one afternoon he saw the exhibition and was positively floored by the experience. See, he, we, under the “guidance” of the late Peter Paul Markin had been in the thick of the “drugs, sex, and rock and roll” mantra which all of that experience went under. When he got back to Boston Alex called or e-mailed everybody he knew from back in the days who was still standing and who had gone out there to see what was happening, to see as Markin had called it “the world turned upside down.” He gathered a number of us, including Zack who had gone to journalism school and was a veteran of various workshop programs, together in order to propose that in honor of our fallen brother Markin each write our “memoirs” of those times with Zack as editor and publisher. Those who agreed included old friend Allan Jackson who had also gone out there with us. The venture was a great success and various portions were posted last summer on the ALH blog as well as in booklet form.     

That seemingly small exercise in 1960s nostalgia apparently snapped something in Allan’s head. I have already mentioned the drift of the blog on the part of the older writers who were allowed by Allan to pick whatever subject they wanted (with the left-overs to the younger writers). Last summer right after the memorial booklet was published and articles posted Allan decided to do a massive blanket coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love by assigning a million topics related to that time. If you couldn’t link the Summer of Love, or the 1960s “hippie” experience, into your article he would red-pencil what you had written. (Allan liked to use a red pencil to “edit” something about his radical red youth he said when asked why he didn’t use the usual blue pencil.) This was no joke on Allan’s part. I was doing a little piece on figure skating after reviewing a Sonja Henny 1930s film. Allan asked me why I didn’t bring up the ice skating rink at Fillmore and Pacific where “hippies” would go to skate during 1967 when we were out there. WTF.

All of this came to a head when young Alden Riley, a new hire for the film department to help Sandy Salmon out with the increased load of films that were projected by Greg on the site. He was “assigned” by Allan, over Sandy’s head, to do a review on a bio/pic about Janis Joplin, a key musical figure in the heady days of the Monterey Pops Festival. Reason? After Sandy had done a review of D. A Pennebaker’s documentary about the first Monterey Festival he mentioned Ms. Joplin’s name and Alan said he did not know who she was. Allan heard about that blunder and ordered the assignment as “punishment’ is what he told Si Lannon, another of our old friends. Things only got worse from there as Allan double-downed on the Summer of Love connection for each article.

I am not quite sure who called the first meeting of essentially the whole rank of younger writers (average age somebody figured out about forty-five years old) to see what they would do about Allan’s manic behavior and their dubious assignments which to a man they could give f - -k about to quote Zack. Maybe it was Zack since he Lance Lawrence and Bradley Fox were the three ringleaders of the uprising who in water cooler legend were dubbed the “Young Turks.” They decided to go to Allan and put their cards on the table. He rebuffed them out of hand. That is when I came in, came to one of their meetings being invited by Alden, to see if I could reason with Allan. I proposed to Allan that we get Greg Green from American Film Gazette to come in to do the day to day operations leaving Allan time to write some stuff on his own or think about future assignments. He bought my argument once I explained that we might lose the whole cohort if things didn’t change. They didn’t as Allan pressed Greg to hand out these never-ending freaking 1960s world assignments.

To make a long story short the “Young Turks” (and me) had another meeting, an ultimatum meeting with me as the emissary to Allan again. The proposal of the group was either Allan “retire” or they collectively would quit. The decision to be determined by a majority vote-for or against. For some reason even I don’t understand to this day Allan agreed. You know the rest including my “traitorous” vote with the “Young Turks.” My decisive vote since we won by one vote. What you may not know is that while the split was almost directly along generational lines there were several abstentions among the older writers from the tallies. Any one of them casting a vote for Allan would have shifted the totals the other way and I would have been the one “purged” and working in Kansas someplace. So some of the older guys had also doubts about the wisdom of going back to the past. Now that you have the whole story this episode should be at rest. (With the exception of any articles still in the pipeline before the truce with Greg was negotiated.)          


Kenny Jackman heard the late 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 2005, when 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. At that time he got into all things Carter Family unto the nth generation. A friend, a Vermont mountain boy, hipped him to Hazel during his frenzy and he picked up the CD second-hand in Harvard Square. (Really at Sandy’s located between Harvard and Central Squares, a folk institution around town where until recently Sandy had held 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 knocked him out. The latter, moreover, 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 that 1970 time? Let me go back and tell that 1970 story.

Kenny Jackman like many of his generation of ’68 was feeling foot loose and fancy free, especially after he had been mercifully declared 4-F by his friendly neighbors at the local draft board in old hometown North Adamsville (declared 4-F in those high draft days because he had a seriously abnormal foot problem which precluded walking very far, a skill that the army likes its soldiers to be able to do). So Kenny, every now and again, took to the hitchhike road, not like his mad man friend Peter Paul Markin with some heavy message purpose a la Jack Kerouac and his beat brothers (and a few sisters) but just to see the country while he, and it, were still in one piece no pun intended Kenny told me since the country was in about fifteen pieces then).

On one of these trips he found himself stranded just outside Norfolk, Virginia at a road-side campsite. 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. When he entered the mid-afternoon half-empty diner he sat down at one of the single stool counter seats that always accompany the 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. 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). 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 and had drawn a bead on him as he entered the place, 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 Kenny Jackson and hoped things would work out okay.

What Kenny dreaded that day was that he was afraid to confront his past. 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 North Adamsville. And 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. 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 longish hair and a wisp of a beard), 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.

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” that Stu provided and which he failed to mention should be sipped, sipped sparingly. 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 he had heard in the folk clubs in Harvard Square when he used to hang out there in the early 1960s. 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. Yes, Kenny Jackson, Yankee, city boy, corner boy-bred was “home,” hillbilly home. So Kenny did really hear Hazel Dickens for first time in 1970, see.

[As for Fiona Fay she stayed on the road with Kenny until they headed toward the Midwest where she veered off home to Valparaiso in Indiana, her hometown as Kenny headed west to California, to Big Sur and a different mountain ethos. They were supposed to meet out there a couple of months later after she finished up some family business. They never did, a not unusual occurrence of the time when people met and faded along the way, but Kenny thought about her and that wind-swept mountain dance night for a long time after that.]    

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