On evenings out on the porch of my grandparents’ small house, up on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River, my grandmother would sometimes conjure visions of life growing up “down in the country” – the dances that Mamaw and her sisters liked to instigate at their parents’ farmhouse, cold early spring mornings out on the mountainside fields, the smell of tobacco curing, stories about witches and old drunkards and briar patches, Barbry Allen and her cold heart.
The word nostalgia was coined in the 1600s to refer to the “pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again.” My grandparents held a nostalgia something like that for their old mountain home, for years after they had left to find a better – that is, more economically viable – life up North, across the Ohio River in Cincinnati. The hills of Old Kentuck, as Papaw Jackson used to call it, never really left their hearts despite the poverty and hardships that they were glad to leave behind. They willed their nostalgia to their progeny, living in an Appalachian diaspora, and I guess I inherited a little bit of it.
I can remember my grandmother singing around her house when I was small, although when we grandkids got to be older she always claimed to have forgotten those old songs. My Uncle Homer – a gifted self-taught musician and singer – passed his passion along to me, along with some harmonica licks and guitar chords. But his music was the country, honky-tonk, and rockabilly of the kids who grew up in the Appalachian enclaves of northern cities. None of the living relatives I knew played fiddle or banjo.
I had the great good fortune to rediscover the old-time music nonetheless, as if something were guiding me to it. People I’ve chanced to meet, recordings that I either stumbled across, sought out, or had been given by generous friends. I have been honored to meet and learn from some elder old-time musicians and singers over the years, and I’ve also been inspired by some amazing musicians of the younger generations.
Old-time music is now found in American families from diverse backgrounds, and while it recalls bygone times and places, it’s also very much a living, contemporary musical tradition. Most of my friends play and sing it, and that provides another whole set of associations and memories for me. I can’t think of old-time music without also thinking of those good friends whom I’ll meet up with at fiddlers’ conventions and festivals, or in kitchens and on front porches, going late into the night leaning into long, wild fiddle tunes, maybe sipping a little whiskey, and singing tragic old ballads, heart songs, banjo songs, and mountain blues.
When my eighteenth-century forebears crossed the Cumberland Gap from North Carolina and Tennessee to settle in the verdant country of Old Kentuck, I’m sure they never imagined that musical traditions which their descendants would take pleasure in through the generations would go back over the mountain to live and thrive in a new fertile ground. But I think they would be happy about it, and they would surely be honored by it.