14 September 2007
Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day
"We're defined by where we're from, though, I know that much. And having grown up where I did, the land was inescapable. When you walk outside and there's a mountain in front of you, you can't deny its existence and its importance."
- Silas House

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13 September 2007
Appalachian Spotlight: Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie has done so much to help preserve and promote Appalachian culture and narrate our story in the last 60+ years as have many others I could pull from the filing cabinet in my mind. Using traditional mountain and folk music to sing her family's (and her own) songs, Jean has become an outstanding voice of Appalachia in a world so unfamiliar with our plight.

Jean is an artist, an advocate, and a champion of our people.

I'd love to catch her the next time she's in Viper, just to thank her for all her contributions to preserving our culture she has made. The closest I ever got was when she was Grand Marshall of the Black Gold Festival Parade in Hazard a few years back, and I was like a kid in a candy store just to see her pass by.

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Creative Nonfiction: Old John Smith By Kelli Ward-Sturgill
A note before you read: I took a creative writing class last semester, and this happened to be my favorite selection from the whole term. I found out that I like writing my own stories a whole lot better than those about people who don't exist. I hope you enjoy, I wanted to share one of the many memories of my childhood with you guys and gals!.

Old John Smith

I was at a stoplight today and saw a tattered sign on the post. It said Lost Dog - ”Noodles” - $500 Reward, followed with a picture of the most obnoxious looking Pomeranian you have ever seen tugging on one of those rope toys. The rope was thicker than the pup’s head. Some poor soul’s best friend probably got out of an open screen door a few weeks back when it was warm, and it seems they’re determined to pay more for Noodles’ return than they paid for him in the first place. Noodles must be some dog.

I immediately went back to another time, when I was about ten years old. There was an old man who lived up the holler above one of my grown cousins, and this man never left his house. I think every neighborhood had one of these types. You know the kind; eccentric old man whom all the kids make stories about how he killed his wife or locked her in the attic and you swear you saw her once, but chickened out and ran away. This old man was exactly that.

I grew up hearing from my family how he had been some kind of brilliant engineer, and had a breakdown in his fifties and moved from New York City to Harlan County, USA because he saw the documentary about the UMWA strikes and thought this was an isolated enough place to get away from people. At least, that was the story. He left the house only to walk to his mailbox every morning, and he even had made an arrangement with the local Mom & Pop store to bring him groceries every week.

When he came here, he called himself John Smith. Whether that was really the old man’s name or not was still in question. One of the boys in my class said that his father told him Old Man Smith was here because he was running from the mob, and was in Witness Protection. I was ten years old, and to my knowledge the mob was a group of people chasing someone around with pitchforks, axes and torches. But then again, until I reached adulthood, I lived what one would call a sheltered life.

It’s safe to say that in such a tight knit town as mine, stories like these will pop up like wildfires in August. Everybody knows everybody, the gossip grapevine has been securely set in place for generations, and if they don’t know you, they’ll figure some reason out as to why they don’t. Needlessly, these stories put the fear of God into us kids. However, the one thing we children absolutely knew to be true was Old Man Smith’s dog. It was a mutt; had the face of a Beagle, the sable and white body of a Great Dane, and the howl of a Bloodhound. You could see it run around the fenced yard and into the house, and if you got too close, the dog bellowed like you had just escaped from a chain gang. Lucky for me, I never got that close.

Well, one day that dog got gone, and I reckon Old Man Smith was having a fit. That dog must have been the only being Old Man Smith had the most contact with, so it’s reasonable to assume why he was perturbed. He had called somebody up the Creek and had them post lost dog signs all over the place. He had a quarter page ad taken out in the paper offering “a cash reward for the finding of a beloved friend” and gave a description of the dog, but no picture. I believe it was my aunt who worked at the local clinic that said someone came in from the local Humane Society and said he had made a hefty donation for them to help look for it, and the lady even said that he had called in a psychic to help him find the dog.

A week went by, then two, the talk petered out, and then a month and the ad in the paper disappeared. Everyone thought that Old Man Smith had just given up. I hadn’t thought much about the dog, let alone Old Man Smith. I was out playing in my yard one Friday afternoon, Dad was at work and Mom and my little brother was in the house. Lo and behold, Old Man Smith’s dog walked up from over the riverbank and right into my front yard. My family always joked that if there was ever a stray, it would follow me home. Animals have always seemed to be attracted to me, even when I pretend they’re not there. Maybe it was because I was chubby and looked like I knew where food was, I don’t know, but believe me when I say I was a little Dr. Doolittle by the age of ten.

The dog walked right up and sat beside me. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. I resolved right then and there I was going into the house to get him a can of Vienna sausages and a bowl of water. My mother asked me what I was doing rummaging in the cabinets, and when I told her there was a dog outside and it was hungry, she naturally threw the “You’ve brought another stray home?!?” fit she had always thrown. Convinced that the dog was going to bite me and give me rabies or some incurable disease, she went outside with me.
(Not that it would have helped matters if the dog had been rabid, but you know how mothers are).

The first thing she proclaimed when we were outside was “You’ve found Old Man Smith’s dog!” I hadn’t even thought about whose dog it was, it just looked hungry to me. But naturally, a ten year old child and the prospect of a monetary reward seem to be great bedfellows. The dog chomped on the sausages as Mom went in the house to get a leash. When my Dad came home early, he naturally threw the “You’ve brought another damn stray to this house?!?” fit he had always thrown, and then after a second or two it had dawned on him that I had found Old Man Smith’s dog too.

You would have thought that we had won the lottery in that house. My dad worked eleven hour days six days a week at the sawmill, but we never had much money to play around with. The paychecks always went straight into bills and groceries. Dad dug through an old stack of newspapers and found one that had Old Man Smith’s ad in it. He called the number and told Old Man Smith that he believed his daughter had found his dog.

My Dad agreed to bring the dog back to Old Man Smith after we ate dinner and he took a shower. However, somewhere between bites of thirty nine cent chicken noodles from Save a Lot and dreams of a new bicycle, Old Man Smith wanted Dad to bring me with him. After Dad hung up the phone it was like I had been handed a death sentence. Actually having to go up and meet Old Man Smith wasn’t exactly in the itinerary I had fashioned for myself. I was terrified of that man, and good reason too, after all, people with pitchforks, axes, and torches had chased him into the armpit of the Appalachians that was Harlan County.

I begged and pleaded with my Dad to let me stay home, but his reply was “You found the dog; you’re taking it back to him.” After my dad showered, we loaded up the dog into the old Blue Chevy Blazer with rust holes in the floor that Dad used as a work vehicle and headed up the Creek to Old Man Smith’s. I had a knot in my stomach the size of Texas as we went into four wheel drive and climbed that steep hill.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Old Man Smith was actually sitting on his porch. In the sunlight. We got out of the Blazer and Dad got the dog out on the leash and walked up to the gate. Old Man Smith got up from the porch and let us in the yard. He had wiry hair that looked like cotton batting, and it looked like the wind had blown it every which way, floating on the wind like a broken spider’s web. He looked at the dog and said “Hello old Boy.” My dad then proceeded to introduce ourselves and made small talk with the old man about how the dog came into our possession and a little joking about the miniature Dr. Doolittle standing beside him while I stood there still as a stone. Looking back, I would have made a lovely lawn ornament.

Old Man Smith had on a pair of pajamas with wide blue stripes and black house loafers. In his shirt pocket was an eyeglass case from which he pulled an old pair of horn rimmed glasses. He smiled at us, put on a pair of glasses and pulled a picture from his pocket. I noticed his hands were shaking. He looked from the picture to the dog and back again. He walked around the dog, looking at each side, checking its ears and teeth, uttering the occasional “Hmmm,” if he found something interesting. The dog acted like it knew Old Man Smith; it was as friendly as a dog could be. It felt like ten years standing there as none of us uttered a sound, as the dog licked the man’s hand.

Old Man Smith looked over to me and gently said in that Yankee accent that terrified me because of its unfamiliarity, “Well m’dear, it looks like you have found someone’s friend, but not mine. They look nearly alike, but their spots are different, see?” My heart fell. There goes the bike, I thought, but nobody knew how I felt, because I was still as wide eyed as I was when I first walked through that gate. Then he continued, “However, my dog, Boy has been gone for over a month and I fear him to be dead. I think someone upstairs sent this one to you so you would bring him to me. He looks awful lonely and he does look a lot like my dog. I would be very willing to take him off your hands and give you a little something for your trouble.”

He reached into his front pocket once more and pulled out an old, well handled business size envelope. It was stuffed with money to the point that the flap would not close. On second glance, it wasn’t just filled with dollar bills, it was filled with twenties. I had never seen that much money in one place in my entire life, it had to be twice what my Dad made in a week. If my eyes had been wide before, they only bulged more.

I looked down at the envelope, then to the smiling, kind face of the old man I had been so afraid of my entire life and realized that he was just a lonely old man who seemed to be just as scared of the world as I was of him, and he was willing to give me what looked like every penny he had in return for bringing him the next best thing to his closest companion. I looked up to my Dad with a face that said “I’m sorry,” and he looked at me with a face that I took to mean “Do the right thing”. I looked at the envelope once again and releasing the breath I had been holding, I handed the parcel back to the man and said “Mr. Smith, I can’t take your money. Just promise that you’ll take good care of him. He likes Viennies.”

He tried to hand the envelope back to me, but I wouldn’t take it. It just didn’t feel right. After refusing a few more times Old Man Smith gave in and said “You’re a good, kind girl. I’ll treat him like a king.” He and my Dad talked for a little while longer while I sat and pet the dog. On the way home, my Dad said he was proud of me, one of the few times I’ve ever heard him say it. As I came back to the present when the light turned green, I thought about just how far someone would go for the return of a beloved friend.

I really hope Noodles finds his way home.

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Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day (& Homer Hickam's Upcoming Book)
It is better to confess ignorance than provide it.
-Homer Hickam, The Coalwood Way

Homer has a new book due out in February 2008 titled Red Helmet, it's about a New York woman who falls in love with a West Virginia coal miner, and between troubles at home and tragedy striking, she must go underground and work the mines herself, donning the red helmet that is the mark of a novice coal miner. I can't wait for it. Check it out.

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12 September 2007
Rediscovering Robert Penn Warren
Years ago, I read Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce by Robert Penn Warren. While looking for today's Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day, I came across the following excerpt from this work. Though the story is completely unrelated, deep down I feel it can apply to the Appalachia we live in today:

My father held my hand, and he died.
Dying, said: ‘Think always of your country.
Your father has never sold your country.

Has never touched white-man money that they
Should say they have bought the land you now stand on.
You must never sell the bones of your fathers-
For selling that, you sell your Heart-Being".

I can't say if it was because I was fairly young and self-absorbed when I read the poem, or that now that I'm older I can be a little more introspective, but those two stanzas stuck a deep chord within me.

Why it rings more true to the way I see my Appalachia now versus the Appalachia I was literally clawing my way out of when I was seventeen can only be ascribed to the responsibility I feel for preserving the legacy of my Appalachian heritage today. I am guilty of being ashamed of my roots for a period in my younger life. I can't take that back, but I can learn from it.

I think as we mature we begin to see the merits of our culture and upbringing, and the value of sharing it with the next generation. Traditions fade with time, simply because they go dormant, unused, unmarried with the cultural chattels passed down to the successive generation.

Each era possesses less and less to identify with it's foundations, and instead of embracing the old ways and redefining them into a new identity, they're rejected and shunned. In order to attain the "modern" ideals of the non-rural lifestyle for the sake of progress, we are "selling the bones of our fathers", and losing our unique identity as Appalachians.

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11 September 2007
Photographer's Spotlight - Benita Keller (and Why Her ''Trailer & Trash'' Series Rocks My Socks)
Benita Keller, a West Virginia native and excellent photographer and photojournalist, caught my eye a while back when I was scrolling through a list of photographers and decided to do a little more digging.

I came across her "Trailer & Trash: OR Looking Through Rose Colored Glasses" series, a selection of portraits staged in front of an all-pink set that takes flea market front yard kitsch to a whole new level. Kitsch and myself have been having a love affair for 26 years and counting. I fell in love immediately.

I'm a firm believer that one of the greatest statements you can make is to create a real life stereotypical caricature so extreme that it makes the audience stop and ask themselves exactly why they believe the stereotype is true. The characters in each setting of this series seem to take the trailer trash stereotype to ridiculously epic proportions, but what you end up with is a living pictorial commentary on poverty, prejudice, and sexist ideals.

Benita Keller, you rock my socks. Rock on.

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Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day
No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.
- Booker T. Washington

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Where were you?
I woke up and threw on a black tee and a pair of gray capris; balled my hair up in a messy bun and started the coffee pot. My husband (who was still my fiancee at the time) and I watched the morning news before he left for work. After he left, I muted the television during the Early show on CBS, lit a cigarette, turned on the stereo, and started my housecleaning routine.

At 9:15 am on the morning of September 11th, 2001 I was sweeping my kitchen when my father called and said that planes were crashing into buildings in New York and planes were being hijacked all over the eastern United States, and the twin towers were the first hit.

I ran to the muted television in the living room, and my heart dropped. So did the phone. Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" was playing on the radio, and all I could think about was hell had broken loose, and all those stories I had heard in church as a child were coming true. Hell had come to America. Fire and smoke and papers and falling bodies of people who didn't want to burn to death. Help those souls, it was like Armageddon...and I was alone. I sat 6 inches from the television paralyzed in fear, flipping from channel to channel to hear more news, and then...

The Pentagon was hit, more planes were supposedly in the air, and now it was considered an assault on the government, and all I could think about was my partner working in a Federal building in the biggest city in the state, and I had no idea where to call him. Small beans hitting Kentucky, I know, but at that moment I had absolutely no idea how far this was going to go...and we had Fort Knox a short distance away. I mean, if they hit the PENTAGON, the hub and heart of the US Military right under their noses, they could hit anywhere. I was twenty one, alone, in my first apartment, hours away from my family, in a town where I knew literally no one. And then the buildings came down. In an hour, my world was turned upside down, and the America I had grown up in, and learned to love, died with those pillars of fire and smoke. I was no longer safe. Nothing would ever again be the same.

I cried for those poor people. I cried for their children. I cried for my nation. I cried until I couldn't, and I sat on my couch like a zombied widow at a funeral.

I didn't know what to do, but I did the one thing I could: I called my family and told them I loved them. I'm sure many of you did the same. I barely slept for months.

It is in times of crisis that Americans once again remember what it is to live up to the title. We bonded together, and reunified as a nation, once again. And we carried on. We always carry on. We are the United States of America.

Don't forget the victims. 2996 families were forever altered, and every Average Joe and Jane citizen in this nation mourned and continues to mourn with them.

Don't forget that surge of pride you felt afterwards, that you were so fortunate to live in a free society that so many generations had fought and died to preserve.

Don't forget that day, and how we all showed compassion and love for our fellow neighbors, because that is more of an example of America's strength than any show of military force could ever produce.

I haven't forgotten a single detail of the day my world changed. I am quite sure that many of you haven't. Where were you on September 11th, 2001?

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10 September 2007
Musician's Spotlight: Rising Appalachia
I happened upon an excellent band on Myspace called Rising Appalachia. After hearing the song "Scale Down" from the album of the same title autoplay on their music list, I have to admit, I was absolutely hooked. After some further research and sampling, Scale Down has now become one of my personal must have albums of the year. Rarely do I get an inkling of a band that has the potential to get BIG, and this band has high potential to blow it up and become a household name, especially with the surge of traditionally influenced sounds popping up on the radio.

Rising Appalachia is driven by sisters Leah and Chloe with Forrest Kelly joining as percussionist, and they have done a magnificent job of melding the old with the new. Unusual Rootsy instrument combinations meld like hot lead while driving melodies pull you into the sound. Pinning down their influences, however, is an entirely different story, and that is one of the reasons I really dig their sound. Their vocal range is wide, versatile and unique, and their ability to experiment and evolve is certainly an indicator of great things to come.

In one track, "Whiskey Blues", a Juke Joint swagger evolves and marries with the rustic harmonies of traditional Mountain Sirens. The very sexy "That Old-Fashioned Morphine" takes you on a jazz implosion with a sultry grit like Ella Fitzgerald's.

My pick of the litter is "The Blackest Crow", a traditional Appalachian breaking heart song (or as I grew up, calling it a Pining Song), returns with the drone of a fiddle underneath the sister harmonies that is reminiscent of the old Post Civil War era Mountain Music, and brings to mind the lonesome wails of folk traditionalists Jean Ritchie and Ginny Hawker. This is by far the truest and best rendition of the song I have ever heard (and believe me, I have heard many). If you are easily moved by music, you will be reaching for the Kleenex with this song.

The spoken word poetry found in "Scale Down" is driven by an urban beatbox backing, and the words have the power to motivate even the laziest environmental politico into action. In my head, I kept wondering how awesome the result would be if Rising Appalachia ever paired (or trio'd, rather) up with Ani Difranco for a collaboration.

Of any music you hear this year, Rising Appalachia is certain to be the most original. Check this band out, they're a great example of the renaissance happening in today's Appalachia.

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Famous Appalachian Quote of the Day:
"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."
- Jesse Stuart

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