Sunday, February 11, 2007

Joseph Earl Dabney: Moonshine Spirits

". . . Aye Goddd, drinking Cokee Coley
and smoking cigarettes are going
to be the ruination of this country.
Now this corn cob pipe and a morning
swig of corn whiskey - they are
absolute needcessities. . . . "
- Old time Appalachian mountaineer Gid Moon
of Greenville, South Carolina
(as quoted in More Mountain Spirits, 77)

Before I begin, I just want to say, neither I nor anyone here at HS is advocating any illegal act, including the production, transportation, or consumption of untaxed liquor. Seriously.

We've all done it - read a book, heard an album, seen a show or a movie, tried out a new restaurant, and annoyed our friends for ages over it. With books this habit is probably at its worst - the annoyer constantly contradicts him or herself, insisting the annoyee (so not a word) both read the work and wait until the annoyer has completed the work, "you know, so I can tell you it really was good."

I know about this phenomenon largely because, sigh, I am just this kind of annoyer.

My most recent instance of engaging in this phenomenon, at least in the literary world, lies in the work of Joseph Earl Dabney's two book Mountain Spirits series (more specifically, volume one is entitled Mountain Spirits: A Chronicle of Corn Whiskey from King James' Ulster Plantation to America's Appalachians and the Moonshine Life and volume two is entitled More Mountain Spirits: The Continuing Chronicle of Moonshine Life and Corn Whiskey, Wines, Ciders & Beers in America's Appalachians). I found these books, first published in 1974 and 1980 respectively, in a discount bookstore here in Knoxville, in the local history and culture section, and nearly passed them up - moonshine is interesting, of course, but did I want to read a two volume socio-historical diatribe on the subject? Ultimately, the discount price grabbed me and I bought both books (on two separate days, however) - my only response is "thank goodness."

I don't know how to best describe the books beyond summarizing and quoting some key sections - they cover virtually every imagine subject related to alcohol production, marketing, interdiction and consumption in Appalachia (and those regions throughout the Union which consume Appalachian alcohol) across a vast swath of history - before, in fact, liquor of any kind was being manufactured in the territory that would become the United States (possible exceptions - if Spanish settlers produced rum or other liquors in their colonies in Florida, the Southwest, or Puerto Rico). My documentation, by the way, will be as such:

MS = Mountain Spirits
MMS = More Mountain Spirits

(Section, Chapter: Page)

Thus, let me tease you:

MS (II, 3: 31-41) This is one of the definitive sections of the series - it reviews the amalgamation of Scottish and Irish techniques of distilling and distributing their liquors through first the colonization of North Ireland (and the Appalachians) by Scots seeking religious and economic freedom. Now, this section interested me because of my interest in two key points - first, to what degree did Ulstermen connect religious freedom to economic freedom (ahh, Weber), and second, should NASCAR fans actually be tracing the origins of their sport to the British and Irish coves, carts, and boats which liquor salesmen would use to smuggle their very special water.

MS (II, 4: 42-57) Another fascinating section, this chapter, among a great other topics discusses the role whiskey-making Ulstermen played in accelerating the rate of European colonization of the American "west" - including the Midwest, Appalachia, and the width and breadth of the Louisiana Purchase, an interesting subject to me given my interest in both development and the parallels between the expansion of the American Union and the Roman Republic (and later Empire). Another key subject in this chapter is that it explains clearly and elegantly why Appalachian farmers, both Scotch-Irish and their neighbors who adopted this part of the Scotch-Irish tradition, often turned to moonshine. Ultimately, moonshining in the Appalachians (at least from the colonization period up through the tide or Prohibition) was a product of three converging structural elements: (1) inadequately developed transportation infrastructure, (2) the high resale value of processed corn (as liquor) versus unprocessed corn, and (3) the predominance of small, yeoman farmers (as in New England) rather than large-scale plantation-style agriculture (like that which dominated the rest of the South) thereby redoubling the relative costs of trying to rely on unprocessed goods for their monetary incomes. In other words, to paraphrase one of my favorite Scotsman (fellow by the name of Adam Smith), the moonshiners rationally interpreted their relative economic advantages and disadvantages and acted accordingly. (also see MS III, 9: 117- 130)

MS (II, 5: 58-73) Wow wow wow. The best discussion of the causes and history of the Whiskey Rebellion (where Washington, prodded on by Hamilton, crushed a frontier rebellion that, like the American Revolution, was in large part a product of taxation of a beverage) I've ever digested, not to mention the most interesting portrayal of Jefferson as sharing the interests of Appalachians in particular and independent farmers in general I've ever heard of. Fascinating to the umpteenth degree, it demonstrates the messiness that actually accompanied the rise of the Union, rather than the clean and crisp interpretation we're normally sold in our textbooks.

MS (II, 8: 104) Just a simple quote here, to give you a sense of the scale of the once tremendous national market for small-batch distilleries prior to national Prohibition.
By the time the United States entered World War I, there were twenty-six dry states. At least they prohibited the saloon and retail liquor traffic. They did not, however, prohibit the manufacturing of liquor. After all, whiskey-making was a major industry, particularly in the South. North Carolina, for instance, had 733 licensed grain distilleries in 1895 and more than 1,300 legal fruit distilleries, turning out over a million gallons of whiskey and brandy a year. The illicit industry was even bigger (much bigger!) - a situation that held true throughout most of the Appalachian Southeast.

MS (III, 11: 148- 165) A masterful, well-written essay on "tripping" - the process of moving illegal alcohol from the manufacturers to the distributors in the Prohibition period, and about how this process led to the dawn of American autoracing, and ultimately, NASCAR.

MMS (I, 2: 33-48) The title tells it all here - - - "Mountain Wines, Ciders, and Beers." Ahha! Alcohols that can be manufactured by small craftsmen legally - at last. Ultimately, this one reads like a classic, 19th Century receipt book - you'll find receipts on cider, elderberry wine, mountain beer, peach beer, persimmon beer, tomato beer, scuppernong wine, pumpkin gin, grape wine, mead, parsnip wine, and rhubarb wine. My mouth is watering - for everything but tomato beer, at least. Similar receipts for something less, well, legal are found in the next chapter (I, 3: 51-70) as well - one which details the tremendous variety of brandies produced, formerly and/or currently in the Appalachians, including split brandy, apple brandy, apple/syrup brandy, Hog Sweet Apple brandy, Streaked June Apple brandy, peach brandy, crabapple brandy, plum brandy, and blackberry brandy.

Also, the series provides tremendous information on the craft and lifestyle associated with the manufacture of backcountry liquor, beer, and wine. That's not to say that Dabney supports the illegal manufacture of alcohol, quite the contrary. What it is to say, however, is that Dabney supports the manufacture of alcohol as a craft and the craftsmen who partake in the artform. Indeed, Dabney also dedicates tremendous time and effort to the lawmen who seek to suppress the illegal manufacture the liquor, an act which he admires just as much (see in particular MMS II, 8: 183-197). In particular, Dabney seems interested in the fact that lawmen who treat shiners fairly tend to be accepted in their communities, while non-lawmen who sell out their neighbors are regarded as traitors and receive the animosity of their community. Obviously this behavioral pattern is neither unique to illegal alcohol manufacturing nor to Appalachia - sociologically an intriguing case-study.

One of my favorite chapters is section III, chapter 10 in MS. The title? "The Moonshine Pockets". The push of it? Subsections on, among others, Dawson County, GA; Cocke County, TN; Wilkes County, NC; Greene County, TN; Sneedville, TN; and the Dark Corner of South Carolina - with apologies for not covering Franklin County, VA or the remainder of Appalachia, the Ozarks, and Oklahoma.

Insert random quote here:

Rum by many is preferred
And brandy makes its boast.
The Dutch and English like their gin
And ale goes well with roast.
Requests for rye in Eastern States
Quite Frequently are heard,
And the hill folk of the Southlands
Make corn a favorite word . . .

- Anonymous (MMS I, 4: 79)

But there is more - Dabney writes biographies with an attention to detail, particular the ethical and rational ironies and paradoxes that punctuate the men and women he's portraying, not to mention their place in their contemporary political economies - my favorites?

MS (II, 7: 90-101) The true story of "Uncle" Amos Owens, the Cherry Bounce King.

MS (III, 10: 138-139) The equally true story of "Big Betsy" aka "Aunt Mahala" aka the "Moonshine Queen" Betsy Mullins, a 450 lb. (some reports claimed 600 lb.) Melungeon (or, more properly Portygee) who dominated the region's moonshining market.

MMS (I, 1: 17-29) The similarly true story of Simmie Free, one of Dabney's closest sources for his books and a classic example of the moonshiners-as-craftsmen that Dabney enshrines.

Let me come to a close here by noting that two key themes run through both books: what were/are the causes and consequences of alcohol prohibition (and the stricter variants of regulation) in particular, both in the various states and municipalities and in the Union as a whole?

Key among the causes? An alliance between unlikely political partners - Christian fundamentalists, liberal progressives (including, but not exclusively, early American feminists), and elitist, um, bastards? Consider:

1. Christian social conservatives sought to save folks from themselves, noble enough, even if you don't agree with the sentiment, noting that crime and domestic violence are often correlated with substance abuse. Of particular, but by no means exclusive, importance among this genre were the more conservative variants of Baptist and Methodist theologies.
2. Liberal progressives and feminists sought prohibition for, well, exactly the same reasons - sure, they couched their arguments in different terms (well, sometimes - remember, there were and are Christian progressives, for instance), but their ends were essentially the same - save the normal man (and his family) from the demon of alcoholism.
3. Elitist bastards - ah, well, this refers to all sorts of sub-classes of people I flatly don't like. In essence, these were people who generally constituted the politically and economically dominant class in their region and who considered most of their society's ills to be the fault of the politically and economically dominated class(es). In some places, this meant immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Ireland, in others Catholics, in others native Americans, in some Americans of African descent, and in many all or most of these groups. These folks felt that alcohol had the effect of making the dominated class(es) "uppity," more likely to express their outrage at being discriminated against and/or exploited. Let me quote a broad section from pages 104-105 of Mountain Spirits here:
W.J. Cash, in his The Mind of the South, noted that, as the politicians saw it, "Cuffey [a colloquial synonym for Negro], when primed with a few drinks of whiskey, was lamentably inclined to let his ego a little out of its chains and to relapse int the dangerous manners learned in carpetbag days - to pour into the towns on Saturday afternoon and swagger along the street in guffawing gangs . . . It seems genuinely to have been believed that to forbid the sale of legal liquor, and so presumably to force up the price of the bootleg product, would be to deprive him of alcohol altogether and so make it easier to keep him in his place. Certainly the argument was much used in winning over the hard-drinking poor whites."
But there was considerable wet sentiment in the South - mainly among the moderates and the realists who wanted to see liquor remain legal but controlled. In 1907, Captain Swift Galloway of Greene County told the North Carolina House of Representatives that he was upset by the rising dry sentiment:

There is an era of fanaticism upon this country, that came here along with the epizootic, the trippe and hog cholera. It came here from the Puritans who landing at Plymouth Rock, who first go on their knees and then on the aborigines. I sometimes feel like wishing that instead of their landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock had landed on them. They tell me that in some sections of this State you have laws which make a man a criminal if a certain amount of liquor is found in his home and that a . . . upstart policeman has a right to break into that sacred home, to find out if he can find it. I do not hesitate to say that if I lived in a community of free men who would submit to such a tyranny, I should want to get an occasional furlough and get relief from outraged feelings by brief visits to hell.
Intriguing, eh? It reminds me of the "war on drugs" that still rages today, a war which seeks not the practical goal of controlling drugs, but of "obliterating" their use - something that no rational man or woman assumes possible. More to the point, however, it reminds me of the patently economically discriminatory punishments attached to drug enforcement laws - punishments for the drugs of the poor (not just dealer's punishments, which I can accept, but user's punishments), such as crack (a form of cut and adulterated cocaine), are radically more oppressive than those for drugs usually used by wealthy patrons, such as unadulterated cocaine.
In the end, this book has done more to convince me of the properness of my social libertarianism - the government should not ban substance abuse, but should seek to control it and provide centers for drug and alcohol rehabilitation - it costs less and works more effectively, to be frank. Part and parcel for that? I believe that we should once more allow small batch, copper-pot liquor-making with limits similar to those for home-brewed beer and small batch wineries. The effect would be to undercut illegal moonshine business, probably permanently, and increase the number of experts on liquor making in the Union, probably ultimately leading to the kind of renaissance in this field that home-brewing has helped to lead in small-batch breweries and East Coast wineries - imagine the possible boon to Appalachian small farmers if distilleries taxes were bracketed to scale. Liquor-making might once more become a craft, rather than only a business (a state of affairs much mourned by Mr. Dabney).

Cough and ahem.

Okay, so I still haven't scratched the surface - you know why? Because there is so darn much information in these books and so much utility for the students of sociology, anthropology, and political economics that any effort I could make will, simply put, fail. To say I love these works, well, that is an understatement. Thank-you, Joseph Earl Dabney, for writing two true masterpieces.

Still not convinced you need to read these books, eh? How about a few links . . .

Bright Mountain Books (Dabney's publisher for the series)
Online Athens: "Smith: Dabney Offers Spirited Stories About Moonshine"
National Public Radio's All Things Considered: "Scuppernong Wine & Corn Bread"
Southern Foodways Alliance: "2005 Jack Daniel Lifetime Achievement Award"
Time: "Samplings for the Summer Reader"
WAMU 88.5FM American University Radio's The Kojo Nnamdi Show: "Moonshine"

1 comment:

Jeremy Peters said...

Excellent review of the books and their subject contect, Mr. Smith. As an Appalachian ex-pat, a home winemaker, and a political historian, I say Cheers!

I am delighted with the emergence of the small wineries popping up all along the mountains. You are right, it could really turn into a tremendous economic engine, but that is provided the states (VA in particular) can get their commerce laws straightened out.

p.s.-I'll have to send you a bottle of "Jeremiah's Mighty Fine Wine".