Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mountaintop Removal Bill Dies

This is a real shame. Jeff Woods puts it in perspective:

With a coal company essentially promising to mine by blowing off the tops of Tennessee mountains, lawmakers inexplicably refused to act and all but guaranteed great swaths of ecologically important woodlands will be laid to waste.

The National Coal Corp. threatened to shut down in Tennessee if mountaintop mining were banned. So to save 234 jobs, the sum total of the company’s workforce, lawmakers decided to sacrifice the natural beauty that underpins a gazillion-dollar tourism industry.

There is some hope for next year, but tragedy looms if the legislature doesn't act soon:

Environmentalists say they’ll present their bill again next year, and the governor has indicated he might help this time. There’s a sense of urgency. Mountaintop mining is about to become more familiar to Tennessee. National Coal sold its operations in Kentucky this year to focus on mining in this state. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plants are about to be fitted with newer pollution scrubbers, making this state’s high-sulfur, dirty-burning coal more marketable, according to Barger.

Via ACK (cross posted at Appalachian Scribe)

Coming Back Home

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Podcast Appalachia: "Appalachian Music"

The latest episode of Podcast Appalachia is now available! In this episode I discuss the musical heritage of Appalachia, who influenced this heritage, and how numerous genres of music (including rock, country, blues, and others) owe a dept to Appalachian musicians. You may listen here or view a transcript here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sassafras tea - THE spring tonic

My mother was a great sassafras drinker. And every spring we had to have sassafras along with our poke salad (that was a wild green). The mountain people particularly gathered a lot of wild greens to supplement their diet, because most people back in those days lived mostly on cornbread and peas. My mother used to enjoy going into the mountains and picking the wild greens. They have a thing called (and I like it today—they cultivate it, by the way, in Tennessee and Virginia) highland creeces. Oldtimers called them creecy-greens.

Eula McGill
born Resaca, GA 1911
February 3, 1976 interview
Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Interview G-0040-1.

To some Appalachian farmers, it was simply an aggressive weed tree cluttering old fields. Others believed its wood could prevent chicken lice, and so used it to build chicken houses and chicken roosts. But sassafras’ most famous attribute has always been the healing properties of the springtime tea –a spring tonic- made from its roots.

The Cherokee people utilized sassafras tea to purify blood and for a variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and ague (the tree is sometimes called an ‘Ague Tree’). "The country people of Carolina crop these vines (Bigonia Crucigera) to pieces," said William Bartram in Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, "together with china brier and sassafras roots, and boil them in their beer in the spring, for diet drink, in order to attenuate and purify the blood and juices." The Cherokee would also make a poultice to cleanse wounds and sores, while they’d steep the root bark to treatment diarrhea or for 'over-fatness.'

They emphasized that the tea should never be taken for more than a week at a time. They didn’t know about safrole, though they knew its long term effects. The bark of sassafras roots contains volatile oils, 80% of which is safrole. Commercially produced sassafras was pulled from the American market in the early 1960s after experiments showed that safrole caused liver cancer in rats and mice.

Sassafras 'Sassafras Albidum'Early white mountain settlers, perhaps influenced by the vine/brier/sassafras concoction described above, made a beer by boiling young sassafras shoots in water, adding molasses and allowing the mash to ferment.

The varied leaf shapes are the Mitten Tree’s trademark—in fact, its Latin name was once Sassafras Varifolium. Today Sassafras Albidum ranges widely over the eastern United States (only two other species of sassafras exist elsewhere in the world: one in central mainland China, one in Taiwan).

‘White sassafras' grows along roadways in thick clusters, usually from three to six feet tall. It has roughly the same characteristics as ‘red sassafras,’ however the bark does not turn pink to red when the root is damaged.

The red variety is the species that is most prized. Generally found on hills and ridges, it sometimes grows in mountainous areas to a height of thirty or more feet. The American Forestry Association's National Register of Big Trees lists a 77-foot champion in Owensboro, KY.

According to H.L. Mencken's The American Language (1936), the word sassafras traces back to 1577 and is of Spanish origin, probably deriving from the Spanish term for saxifrage.

Native Americans in Virginia pointed out 'wynauk' to British settlers, and in 1603, a company was formed in Bristol, England to send two vessels to the New World, principally with the intention of bringing back cargoes of sassafras bark. Thus, sassafras was one of the first, if not the first, forest products to be exported from what is now the mid-Atlantic states.

sources: Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, by William Bartram, 1789, From "Transaction of the American Ethnological Society," Vol. 3 Pt. 1. Extracts
The singular sassafras, by Henry Clepper, from "American Forests," American Forestry Assn 1989

Originally blogged at Appalachian History

Sgt York Country

Last month I visited Sgt. Alvin C. York Historic Park in Pall Mall, TN. I took many photos (as usual), the best of which I now share with you, in addition to a brief bio of a true Appalachian hero.

Sgt Alvin C. York was the most famous American World War I soldier. He famously killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 others in the Argonne Forest in France. A recipient of the Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre, he was the subject of a classic 1941 movie Sergeant York in which he was portrayed by Gary Cooper.

Ironically, York very nearly refused to serve in the war. Early in his life, he had been a bit of a hellion, enjoying hard drinking and hard living. This lifestyle was not without its dangers. One night his friend was killed in a bar fight, an event that so shook young Alvin York that he gave up drinking and joined his mother's church, becoming a devout Christian.

York's new church believed strongly in pacifism. York shared this belief that killing was a sin, which made it very difficult for him to join the war effort when he received a notice to register for the draft. York simply wrote "don't want to fight" on his registration card. He struggled mightily over what to do next, spending much time in prayer before finally deciding he must enter service.

In spite of his decision, York remained a committed pacifist upon entry into the Army, which led to numerous theological discussions and debates among his fellow soldiers. These discussions would eventually convince him that war could be justified in some cases.

On October 8, 1918, York performed an amazing and heroic feat that would make him a legend. Seventeen men, including York, infiltrated German lines to take out machine guns. Unfortunately, the Americans were hit with machine gun fire, killing six Americans and wounding three others, including York's superior, leaving York in charge of the seven remaining soldiers.

As his men remained under cover, York advanced toward the machine guns. German Lieutenant Paul J├╝rgen Vollmer fired repeatedly at York even as he dodged machine gun fire but failed to injure him. When Vollmer ran out of bullets, he surrendered to York. York and his men were able to capture 132 German prisoners. These deeds earned him the Medal of Honor and Croix de Guerre, among others.

Upon his return home, York remained humble and did not wish to be viewed as a hero. He decline numerous opportunities to sell his story, opting instead to marry his sweetheart and return to his home in Pall Mall. It was not until 1941 that he would authorize a film.

York's experiences in Europe led him to conclude that education was needed in his community, and he went to work establishing schools. He started a Bible school in Pall Mall, as well as Alvin C. York Institute in 1926. The Institute would struggle during the early years, and York sometimes paid teacher's salaries from his own pocket. The school was taken over by the state in 1937 and remains Jamestown's primary high school.

Sgt York was a powerful symbol of the region from which he came: a simple, kind hearted man capable to great heroism and who believed strongly in the power of education. We are all well served to remember his example.

Historic marker in Jamestown, TN

Wolf River Post Office and store. The store is still owned by the York family.

Alvin York's house.

Wolf River.

Alvin C. York's grist mill.

Wolf River.

Grist mill from the down river.

Another shot of the Wolf River.

York's former Bible school

Alvin C. York Institute, Jamestown, TN.

Wolf Creek United Methodist Church, established 1840 (York is buried here).

York's grave.

York and wife's graves.

Cross posted at Appalachian Scribe

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hillbilly Savants on Flickr

One of the best parts of this site is the frequent photoblogging. We've got some fine photographers around here, and they all bring us some fantastic images of the region. Lately I've become a fan of the photography site, Flickr (better late then never), so I thought I would create a place on the web where we could view photographs of Appalachia - from both our contributors and our readers - in one place. Thus I've created a Flickr Group called Our Appalachia.

If you're not already a Flickr member, then go set up an account (the basic membership is free). From there, as you upload photos, you can click the overhead "Send To Group" button and post them to the Our Appalachia. For HS contributors, if you do some photoblogging add your contributions to the group, and maybe the rest of your set that you didn't quite deem blog-worthy.

I look forward to everyone's contributions.

(Big shout-out to Katie Granju at Knoxville Talks for giving me the idea.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Podcast Appalachia: "Appalachian Literature"

The latest episode of Podcast Appalachia is now available! In this episode, I examine the contributions Appalachian writers have made to American literature. You may listen here or view a transcript here.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A conversation with Larry Keel

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting across the table from one of the most talented musicians of this day and age, Larry Keel. Keel rolled into town with his band, Natural Bridge, for a late night concert in Johnson City. I'm lucky enough to have friends in high places that know I'm a guitar flat picking junkie and that I would jump at the chance to meet the bearded legend. Natural Bridge will be performing at this year's Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and an interview was set up to introduce Keel to the festival's web-site readers. I was invited to tag along.
Those familiar with Larry Keel know that he has a unique singing style (click here for a sample). Well, he has a unique speaking voice too. Imagine it being like George Carlin's vocal chords transplanted into Bill Monroe. He was very gracious with his time, perhaps just enjoying the fact that he wasn't sitting in his tour van. He seemed to enjoy reminiscing about his start in the music business, what he's doing now and what he's planning for the future. He also gave me a pointer or two about working on my guitar skills. Part of the interview has finally made it to the R&R website, here.
As a side note, during the show he praised East Tennessee State University and their music program for offering Bluegrass studies. He wondered out loud when the day would come that scholars outside of the region would study Bluegrass music like Classical and Jazz is studied today. He also joked to the ETSU students in attendance that if they wanted to play like him, they needed to drink heavily and drop out of college.

A legend visits our neck of the woods...

Levon Helm at the Tennessee Theatre, April 8, 2008.

More photos here.

Podcast Appalachia: "Mountain Religion"

The latest episode of Podcast Appalachia is now available! In this episode I discuss the role of religion in shaping Appalachian culture and examine some of the most prominent churches in Appalachia. You can listen here or view a transcript here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Country Church

Dyllis Baptist Church, Roane County, TN (cross posted at Appalachian Scribe)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

It's that time again...

It only happens twice a year, and WDVX needs you. Twice annually East Tennessee's Own WDVX ("...probably the best radio station in the world." -Oxford American) appeals to its listeners for financial support - and that support is absolutely vital.

If you've not listened to WDVX before, go ahead and stream it live now. If you can't listen right away, know this: WDVX is one of the most important keepers of Appalachian culture that our region has, truly an irreplaceable asset. For that we should be thankful, but more than being thankful we can simply enjoy WDVX. It's just that good.

I won't go into all that's good about WDVX here, as I've been through that on HS before. If you listen to the station, you know how important it is to keep this great music going. If you haven't, please acquaint yourself with what is nothing short of a cultural treasure, and consider a pledge of support. In fact, I'll be manning the phones and making appeals for support this evening from 4-7 pm.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Free Popcorn

Famed Cocke County, TN moonshiner Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton has cut a deal with authorities:

Sutton, a Cocke County resident infamous across the country for both his skills and his arrest record as a moonshiner, agreed Thursday to a plea deal in Greeneville's District Court.

Sutton entered guilty pleas to one count of possession of a firearm by a felon, and to one count of knowingly distilling spirits. The first charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The second carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Also as part of his plea agreement, Sutton agreed to allow his moonshining photos and videos to be used to "deter others" from committing crimes as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods.

Sentencing for Sutton will take place on August 4. He'll remain free on bond until that date.

I find it hard to understand why authorities are wasting their time on this.

Cross posted at Appalachian Scribe

Podcast Appalachia: "The Scots-Irish"

The latest episode of Podcast Appalachia is now available! In this episode, I look at the Scots-Irish and their contributions to Appalachia and America. Are you or any of your relatives from the Appalachian region? Then you are probably of Scots-Irish descent. You can listen to this episode here or view a transcript here.