Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Maurice Brooks Defines Appalachia for Me

Appalachia is defined in so many different ways. It's a cultural region, no it's an economic region, no, it's a mountain range. The only time I've ever felt clear on the concept was when I took a graduate class in biogeography. You could make vegetation maps, and classify an area, and know what you had. That's why I was so happy to find Maurice Brooks' The Appalachians. This 1965 book gives a clear, unambiguous biogeographic description of Appalachia, its extent, its history, and its special character. It never once mentions hillbillies, the Scotch-Irish, fiddle tunes preserved in amber, or any other imaginary phenomena.

For a better understanding of all that Appalachia includes, there must be mention of its principal mountains. Some, the low ranges of western Newfoundland and the Shickshocks in the Gaspe, for instance, have been noted. South of the Shickshocks are Quebec hills that rise above the St. Lawrence plain, the Notre Dame ranges attaining respectable heights.

In Maine there is the great modadnock of Katahdin, and farther west in that state lower Appalachian ridges. New Hampshire's White Mountains are splendid, one of Appalachia's finest features. The Green Mountains of Vermont extend from Quebec to Massachusetts, and southward in the latter state they are named the Berkshires, whose hills enter Connecticut and eastern New York.

New York's second mountains, the Catskills, are a part of Appalachia; its most extensive and elevated range, the Adirondacks, are not. These bold peaks, between the Hudson and the St. Lawrence, are a southward extension of the great Canadian Shield, most of which is in Canada but which again enters the United States in the highlands just south of Lake Superior. The Appalachians cannot claim the Adirondacks, and so they lose some of the finest of eastern peaks.

South of the Catskills, across northern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, there are many Appalachian ridges, none of them high but making rugged country nevertheless. Scarcely noticeable among other ridges, the great Blue Ridge begins to rise south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and it continues--sometimes as one main axis, sometimes as divided ranges--south to South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. In southwestern New York the Alleghenies begin, covering much of western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, eastern Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Great Smokies (actually a portion of one of the Blue Ridge divisions) lie farther west, and farther still, in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and Tennessee, are the irregular masses of the Cumberlands. There are, of course, local divisions of all these ranges, and many of them will be mentioned in the proper context. Here we are concerned only with primary features.

pages 19, 20.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Maurice Brooks' The Appalachians

Russian olive berries

I was checking Dewey Decimal numbers on my local library's "West Virginia Collection" when I came across a very interesting misfiled book, The Appalachians, by Maurice Brooks (1965). It's a discussion of the biogeography (including flora, fauna, and geology) of the Appalachian Mountains.

Brooks grew up on French Creek in Upshur County, West Virginia, the son of an entomologist. Born in 1900, he went on collecting trips with his father from the time he was a child. He mentions a particularly exciting camping trip in Pocahontas County's Cranberry Glades, in which his father collected an unusual rodent, a yellow-nosed vole. The novel record attracted the attention of Arctic researcher Edward Preble, who came camping with them. Preble was a collaborator with Ernest Thompson Seton. Reading Brooks' book, realizing that he spent much of his professional life here in my neighborhood, I have an exciting connection with a prominent nineteenth century biologist. (I get excited over the strangest things, I know.) Brooks research interests were broad, encompassing ferns, forestry, ornithology, paleontology, bog ecology and mammalian physiology. He was the sort of naturalist I wanted to be when I was a teenager, before I had graduate faculty to tell me that such interests were "unprofessional." (Actually, I think they said things like "for losers" and "stupid," but let's give them the benefit of the doubt.)

This is exactly the book I have been wishing for. He defines in a biogeographic sense what Appalachia is, and discusses northern and southern localities, but he writes at length on the portion of West Virginia that was his home--Randolph, Pocahontas, Greenbrier, Monroe, and Upshur counties. I've got some local field trips planned for the warmer months this year.

Friday, January 27, 2006

DVD Pirates in West Virginia Capitol Building

I first heard about this story on This Week in Tech, podcast number 39. Slashdot showed me the link to the Charleston Gazette article (January 18, 2006). I'm quoting a big chunk of the article here because the Gazette's links go dead quickly, and I want to keep this around. I begin to see parallels between this and some computer "issues" I've observed in my part-time work for the state of West Virginia.

January 18, 2006: Makeshift studio, piracy software found at Capitol
By The Associated Press

State investigators have stumbled onto a basement office in the West Virginia Capitol outfitted with computers, video and audio gear, and software used to pirate movies and music recordings, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

Specifically, one hard drive contained approximately 40 full-length motion videos, state Chief Technology Officer Kyle Schafer said in the Jan. 5 memo to Administration Secretary Robert Ferguson. Two other hard drives contained over 3,500 MP3 music files consuming more than 14 [gigabytes] of hard drive space.

Hundreds of blank DVDs, CDs and jacket covers were also found, as was software commonly used to crack header codes on copyrighted materials such as movies and music to allow duplication, Schafer's memo said.

Ferguson confirmed Tuesday that his staff found the makeshift audio-video studio amid his widening probe into spending and other abuses at the state General Services Division.

The review found that someone in General Services sidestepped state purchasing rules to buy more than $88,000 worth of computers and related equipment over the last three years, including the items discovered in the basement office. Not all the purchased computers and gear can be located, Ferguson said.

General Services maintains the Capitol Complex grounds and buildings, among other duties. Yet Schafer's memo shows that it purchased $51,000 worth of computers during the 2005 budget year alone, compared to the $45,726 worth bought by the state auditor's office.

The [purchase] card system was abused, in what seems to be an intentional attempt to bypass rules to buy equipment that for General Services was outside the norm, Ferguson said. There was no question on what they could do with a P-card, in my opinion. As a Cabinet secretary, I would say that it was out of control.

Both the FBI and the Legislature's Commission on Special Investigations are investigating his department's finds, Ferguson said.

He declined to identify who made the purchases, or whose office contained the makeshift audio-video studio.

We will hold accountable those people who have abused the letter and the spirit of the law and undermined my responsibility to safeguard the resources of the state, Ferguson said.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Shopping the Smithsonian

In contrast to yesterday's Library of Congress free resources, the Smithsonian Center for Folkife and Cultural Heritage is mostly a commercial site. They do have quality material for sale. I have several of their recordings and publications. However, I am disappointed that they they don't share any samples of traditional culture freely. Also, they list the Folklife Festivals for 2004 and 2005 in their upcoming highlights section. This seems like a bad sign. Here's something from their "About Us" section:

The Center's activities are funded by federal appropriations, Smithsonian trust funds, contracts and agreements with national, state, and local governments, foundation grants, gifts from individuals and corporations, income from the Festival, and Folkways product sales. The Center's experienced staff is culturally diverse and extremely productive, combining interdisciplinary scholars with technical specialists. The Center has distinguished advisors and cooperates with numerous international, state, local, and professional organizations.

Over the years, I had some short-term contract jobs at a couple of Smithsonian agencies in Washington, D.C. They are a strange mix of for-profit, federally-funded, and non-profit organization, and their administration seemed unintelligible when I worked there. Nevertheless, the Smithsonian Center for Folkife and Cultural Heritage is worth a look if you are ready to buy recordings.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

American Folklife Center Online Presentations

Pete, Paris, and Neal Hammons

Another bulletin from my "Internet Resources on Traditional American Music and Craft" (or whatever it turns out to be): The American Folklife Center, part of the Library of Congress. In contrast to some federal agencies and research institutions, the Library of Congress has been steadily improving and adding to its Internet resources for many years. Here's a quote from their "mission statement" (Does that phrase give you the creeps? It does me.):

"The mission of the Library of Congress is to make its resources available and useful to Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. The goal of the Library's National Digital Library Program is to offer broad public access to a wide range of historical and cultural documents as a contribution to education and lifelong learning."

The American Folklife Center has made many interesting collections accessible for free on their American Folklife Center Online Presentations. One of particular interest for me is Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection.

"Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection is a multi-format ethnographic field collection of traditional fiddle tunes performed by Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Virginia. Recorded by folklorist Alan Jabbour in 1966-67, when Reed was over eighty years old, the tunes represent the music and evoke the history and spirit of Virginia's Appalachian frontier. Many of the tunes have passed back into circulation during the fiddling revival of the later twentieth century. This online collection incorporates 184 original sound recordings, 19 pages of fieldnotes, and 69 musical transcriptions with descriptive notes on tune histories and musical features; an illustrated essay about Reed's life, art, and influence; a list of related publications; and a glossary of musical terms."

Henry Reed was a West Virginia fiddler from Monroe County. (Go out my driveway, turn left, keep going, and you'll be there in under an hour.) Alan Jabbour and The Fuzzy Mountain String Band made his acquaintance when he lived just over the West Virginia border in Virginia. This band made some of Reed's tunes standards among the "hippies" in the 1970's. (The "hippies" usually call themselves "revivalists," or something more dignified. They are people who play traditional Appalachian music, but were not raised in that tradition. Local musicians call them "hippies" to be kind, and "horseflies and chicken chokers" to be unkind.) Some of Reed's unique tunes, like "Over the Waterfall," have been played so much by outsiders that West Virginia musicians won't play them on a bet.

The upshot of this overexposure is that Henry Reed is not as well-known locally as he deserves to be. The .mp3 files in Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection are gems, given away for free, and represent a chance to hear Reed's "licks" and interpretations of standard tunes, and some unusual melodies that are not widely played any more.

I'm making my way through other American Folklife Center Online Presentations a little at a time. I'm very impressed with the quality and variety. I should also point out that the Archive of Folk culture sells some recordings taken from their collections. You can sample the "Online Presentations," and browse for things you need at Folk Recordings Selected from the Archive of Folk Culture. The photo above is on the cover of "The Hammons Family: Traditions of a West Virginia Family and Friends," a favorite recording/publication of mine, and one I quoted extensively in Haunted Pocahontas County, "Signs and Wonders from the Hammons Family."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Little Joe the Wranger Lyrics

As part of my "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" lyric search, I hauled out my copy of Songs of the Cowboys, compiled by N. Howard (Jack) Thorp. This is a favorite song of mine, but I learned the words long before I ever found Thorp's book, and I don't have them quite right. The song appears in many collections of "traditional" songs (usually without attribution) and with various manglings of meaning. For example, Joe is often wearing "broken shoes," rather than "brogan shoes." I assume this is from people who don't know what brogans are. Another common deviation is that Joe is beaten by his stepfather, rather than stepmother, as Thorp wrote it. To me this is a radical change of meaning--a woman would have a hard time beating a teenage boy. Thorp's Little Joe was probably a younger child. Boys as young as eight worked cattle drives at the turn of the twentieth century. This is such an unattractive fact that people have probably suprpessed it, especially when we see what happens to poor Little Joe.

The detailed description of where Thorp first wrote and performed is probably provided because so many people believed it was a traditional song based on a particular incident. Many people who never met Thorp were certain they knew the song's author and the "real" Little Joe.

Little Joe the Wrangler
by N. Howard Thorp

Written by me on trail of herd of O Cattle from Chimney Lake, New Mexico to Higgins, Texas, 1898. On trail were the following men, all from Sacramento Mountains, or Crow Flat: Pap Logan, Bill Blevens, Will Brownfield, Will Fenton, Lije Colfelt, Tom Mews, Frank Jones, and myself. It was copyrighted and appeared in my first edition of "Songs of the Cowboys," published in 1908.

Little Joe, the wrangler, will never wrangle more;
His days with the "remuda"--they are done.
T'was a year ago last April he joined the outfit here,
A little "Texas stray" and all alone.

T'was long late in the evening he rode up to the herd
On a little old brown pony he called Chow;
With his brogan shoes and overalls a harder-looking kid,
You never in your life had seen before.

His saddle 't was a Southern kack built many years ago,
An O.K. spur on one foot idly hung,
While his "hot roll" in a cotton sack was loosely tied behind
And a canteen from the saddle horn he'd slung.

He said he had to leave his home, his daddy'd married twice, 
And his new ma beat him every day or two'
So he saddled up old Chow one night and "lit a shuck" this way--
Thought he'd try and paddle now his own canoe.

Said he'd try and do the best he could if we'd only give him work,
Though he didn't know "straight" up about a cow;
So the boss he cut him out a mount and kinder put him on,
For he sorter liked the little stray somehow.

Taught him how to herd the horses and learn to know them all,
To round 'em up by daylight; if he could
To follow the chuck-wagon adn to always hitch the team
And help the "cosinero" rustle wood.

We'd driven to Red River and the weather had been fine;
We were camped down on the south side in a bend, 
When a norther commenced blowing and we doubled up our guards,
For it took all hands to hold the cattle then.

Little Joe, the wrangler, was called out with the rest,
And scarcely had the kid got to the herd,
When the cattle they stampeded; like a hailstorm, long the flew,
And all of us were riding for the lead.

'Tween the streaks of lightning we could see a horse far out ahead--
'T was little Joe, the wrangler, in the lead;
He was riding "Old Blue Rocket" with his slicker 'bove his head,
Trying to check the leaders in their speed.

At last we got them milling and kinder quieted down, 
And the extra guard back to the camp did go;
But one of them was missin', and we all knew at a glance
'T was our little Texas stray--poor Wrangler Joe.

Next morning just at sunup we found where Rocket fell,
Down in a washout twenty feet below;
Beneath his horse, mashed to a pulp, his spurs had rung the knell
For our little Texas stray--poor Wrangler Joe.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Two Versions of Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane

With all the Web sites I've been visiting looking for "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" lyrics, I should report that I found what I was looking for, sort of. Below is a bluegrasser's version of the way the song is commonly sung today. I've corrected some misspellings and some words that didn't make sense. One of the good things about lyrics collections on the Internet is that anyone that knows something can make it available. One of the bad things about lyrics collections on the Internet is that anyone who thinks he knows something can slap it up without checking or editing. The more popular a topic is, it seems, the more mis-information is available. Bluegrass songs seem to be popular enough to accrue a lot of junk.

Oh I'm gettin' old and feeble and I cannot work no more
My rusty-bladed hoe I've laid to rest.
And my papa and my mama they are sleepin' side by side.
Their spirits now are roaming with the blest.

   Oh the chimney's fallin' down and the roof is all caved in,
   Lettin' in the sunshine and the rain.
   And the only friend I've got left is that good old dog of mine
   In the little old log cabin in the lane.

Oh the path is all growed up now that led around the hill;
The fences they have all gone to decay.
And the creek is all dried up now where we used to go to mill,
And time has changed its course another way.


Oh I ain't got long to stay here; what little time I've got
I want to rest content wile I remain.
'Til death shall call this dog and me to find a better home
Than this little old log cabin in the lane. 


Below are Will Hays lyrics for the original song. As you can see, they are in minstrel show fake dialect, which these days is considered fairly offensive. The "modern" version looses this problematic feature, but it also gives up the poignant content. Singing the modern version, I imagine an older man living a simple, contented life in his old home, with his faithful dog. The original version is the voice of an elderly freed slave, slowly starving to death on the abandoned plantation. It's a strange mixture of contempt (the fake dialect) and pity.

"The Little Old Cabin in the Lane" (1871)
As Sung by Manning's Minstrels.
Words & Music by William Shakespeare Hays, 1837-1907

I'm getting old and feeble now,
I cannot work no more,
I've laid de rusty bladed hoe to rest,
Ole massa an' ole miss's am dead,
dey're sleepin' side by side,
Deir spirits now are roaming wid de blest;
De scene am changed about de place,
de darkies are all gone,
I'll neber hear dem singin in the cane,
And I'se de only one dat's left
wid dis ole dog ob mine,
In de little old log cabin in de lane.

De chimney's falling down, and de roof is cavin' in,
I aint got long round her to remain,
But de angels watches over me when I lays down to sleep,
In de little old log cabin in de lane.

Dar was a happy time to me,
'twas many years ago,
When de darkies used to gather round de door,
When dey used to dance an' sing at night,
I played de ole banjo,
But alas, I cannot play it anymore.
De hinges dey got rusted an' de door has tumbled down,
And de roof lets in de sunshine an' de rain,
An' de only friend I've got now is dis good ole dog ob mine,
In de little old log cabin in de lane.


De footpath now is coverd o'er
dat led us round de hill,
And de fences all are going to decay,
An' de creek is all dried up
where we used to go to mill,
De time has turned its course an-od-der way.
But I aint got long to stay here, and what little time I got,
I'll try and be content-ed to remain
Till death shall call my dog an' me to find a better home
Dan dat little old log cabin in de lane.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection--A Fine Resource

In the course of my search for "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" lyrics, I found some good traditional music resources on the Web. Because search engines return so many "ungood" folk music resources, I thought I'd present a little "Show and Tell" about sites I can recommend. I plan to start an annotated list of resources on my Web pages soon.

John Quincy Wolf Folkore Collection: "This Website contains documents, audio recordings, and other materials from the John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection, part of the Regional Studies Center at Lyon College. It is divided into eight topical sections...." Ozark Folksongs includes transcriptions and audio files for hundreds of songs collected from 1952-1970, and Sacred Harp features Wolf's recordings of Sacred Harp singings. Other interesting sections include "Memphis Blues" (recordings from Bukka White's visits to Wolf's classroom), "Life in the Leatherwoods," Wolf's folklore publications, and biographical materials.

I've been working my way through the song collection slowly. Even these small .mp3 files take a while with my dial-up connection. The first one I downloaded seems to be representative of the collection's high quality. "Little Log Cabin in the Lane Sung by: Gus Mahon" contains a temperance version of the song I've never heard anywhere else. Mr. Mahon is a fine traditional singer, and accompanies himself on the fiddle. As a bonus, he follows up with a very nice version of "The Eighth of January," a tune played here in Greenbrier and Pocahontas Counties.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Louise McNeill Meets a Local Color Author, But Doesn't Enjoy It

Book Cover: The Milkweed Ladies

You may have noticed that I collect quotes from the urban sophisticate set about natives of rural areas. Because Appalachia is a much disparaged rural region, I have quite a collection about my adopted home. From nineteenth century "local color" writers to modern horror movie screenplays (which are so often set in West Virginia that we laugh about it), there is an extensive literature detailing the shortcomings of those hillbillies. Pocahontas County native Louise McNeill describes her first encounter with this genre, at age eleven, in her memoir The Milkweed Ladies (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988).

The summer I was eleven, we held a Vacation Bible School for the little children at the Lower Church. It was a new thing, and a lady came from way-off to hold the school. Hiram Barns, who lived in a neat painted cottage just above the village and was active in the church, had helped with all the plans. The lady's name was Miss Virginia, and Mr. and Mrs. Barns had her to stay with them and fixed their spare room all nice for her. Since I was a big girl then, I helped Miss Virginia with her teaching. She had colored paper and crayons for the little kids, and new songs to teach, and a little play to put on. I went down to the church every morning, and I loved Miss Virginia. She had a nice soft voice and curly hair and wore lace on her white blouse. I read to the little kids and helped them with their songs. Miss Virginia let me take them outdoors, where we sat in a circle on the grass near the graveyard, and I read them stories about Jesus. The children got to take their pictures home, and on the last day Miss Virginia had a program so all the mothers could come to see.

When Miss Virginia told us good-bye, I almost cried and could think of no one else for a week. Later, we began to hear things about her. It turned out that Miss Virginia had gone away and written a bad story about us in a church magazine. Hiram Barnes was a subscriber to the magazine; and when it came, there was a story about the community of S---, by Miss Virginia. In the story, she told how it was up in the mountains, how ignorant and crude the people were. She told about Hiram Barns's house and made fun of it and of how Mrs. Barns dipped snuff. Hiram Barns passed the magazine all around the neighborhood, and we all read what Miss Virginia thought about us. I felt sorrow and disillusionment, and, for the first time, I began to wonder about the people beyond Swago Crick.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Charles Dickens Didn't Like the Country I Come From

Dickens' novels were my first taste of real, adult literature. I read Oliver Twist when I was ten, and while there were huge chunks of it I didn't understand (I imagined a beadle as half-human, half-insect), I felt pain for the hungry orphan, shuddered at Nancy's murder, and almost shed tears when Oliver's kin claimed him at last. By the time I was fourteen I had read David Copperfield over and over, and was deep into Bleak House. By the time I was sixteen, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the narrow range of female characters (saintly sisters, dopey wives, and dangerous viragos). Every few years I reread some of the books, and find amazing things I never noticed before.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable as a teenager was American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens' account of his first visit to North America in 1842. I was never able to finish reading it. I grew up on the prairie between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and all my ideas of natural beauty involved untamed grasslands, great sweeping expanses of sky, and lines of cottonwoods following seasonal creeks and wide, shallow rivers. The country I come from (and my ancestors, the European settlers) did not appeal to Mr. Dickens at all. Here's Fred Kaplan's (1988) rundown of the western leg of the American tour.

From Baltimore, he journeyed into an America whose boundary of comfort was the eastern seaboard and whose boundary of civilization was just slightly beyond the Mississippi, "the renowned father of waters." The railroad extended twelve miles west of Baltimore. After that, it was stagecoach and river travel only. On the seaboard, he had experienced the American experiment with democracy leavened by the high culture of the British inheritance. Traveling westward, he expected to see not so much the frontier but the wilderness, the exciting but comfortable European myth of the scenically sublime and exotic, a vast region of natural beauty suffused with transcendental power.

But his journey to St. Louis up the Mississippi, "the beastliest river in the world," was distressing. The constant jarring efforts, especially at night, to avoid the steamboat's colliding with floating logs, frightened him.....The farther he moved into unsettled, fragmentary communities, the more frightened he became. He had the sense of a society without supportive circles and communities of friends. In Cairo, Illinois, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi....he had found an epitome of ugliness that he afterward anathematized, "a dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away...on ground so flat and low...a breeding place of fever, ague, and death...the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it...an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it." The edge, the frontier, the open spaces, seemed to him empty or, even worse, savage. Deserted and decaying settlements along the riverbanks quickly slipped back into the wildness of nature. The settlers soon reverted to instinctive barbarism. Civilization was more fragile, more superficial, than he had imagined....

Despite all the adulation he had received on his journey,he felt even his professional self-definition challenged by this near-wilderness. Without community and hierarchy, the artist could have neither subject nor position. American individualism, in the marketplace, in politics, and now on the frontier, seemed to him anticommunal, intolerably lonely, brazenly selfish, inherently materialistic, and threateningly brutal. Ultimately, it emptied life of its highest joys. Such open spaces were a "great blank," a world of chaos, decay, and death, nature unredeemed by man and community. There could be no morality or God in such an unhierarchical society and in an empty continent. The frontiersmen, so different from the Yankees, seemed "heavy, dull, and ignorant," their manners increasingly offensive as he moved westward into a world that was paradoxically larger in its empty spaces but narrower, more confined, in barges, boats, and stagecoaches. It was difficult to be either a gentleman or an artist in such a world. The frontier was community at its most inchoate, landscape unredeemed by either man or God, a world of "swamps, bogs, and morasses" whose limitations were embodied in the country's commercialism, corrupt politics, and obsession with the inescapable issue of slavery. Despite all the similarities to English culture and corruption, he increasingly saw America as distinctive in its vices.

Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan (1988) pages 136-138.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Which Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane?

A few weeks ago, I was playing music with some friends, when the fiddler started playing "The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane." No one could remember very many words, so the next day, I went through my song books. I found the song in four different books, representing three different versions. I also had various sets of lyrics for "Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plain" and "Little Joe the Wrangler." Now, from fifteen years of faithful listening to The Dick Spotswood Show, I know that "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane" is a composed song, by William Shakespeare Hays. "Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plain" is a nineteenth century parody, and various versions appear in folk song collections, like Vance Randolph's and the Lomaxes'. "Little Joe the Wrangler," which uses the same melody, was written by N. Howard (Jack) Thorp in 1908. It's my favorite cowboy ballad, and it has an anonymous parody, "Little Joe the Wrangler's Sister Nell." (When I say parody, I don't mean to imply that these songs are funny. Both cowboy ballads are tear-jerkers for sure.)

All this started me on an Internet search for "definitive" lyrics for "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane." Here's what I found.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Million Little Serpents and Rainbows

I hadn't intended to add to the buzz about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (Oprah's Book Club). It looks like another mediocre (or worse) book getting too much attention. Truth or fiction, it'll decompose in the landfills by and by. Rebecca Blood's blog pointed me to The Smoking Gun's exhaustive demonstration that it is indeed fiction (or at least not true).

However, over at Via Negativa, Dave quotes a couple of bloggers who explain why it matters. To recovering addicts, Frey's dismissal of essential stages of recovery is an affront, and to writers of fiction, his sneaking fiction into the autobiography category is dishonest.

I'm still mad at Wade Davis for his voodoo fantasy, The Serpent and the Rainbow. I don't mind that he made lots of cash on the book and the movie rights. What galls me is that he got a PhD in ethnobotany from Harvard for a work of fiction. (Check out Robert Lawless's article for other reasons to be offended.) I had to present actual, factual data, and people checked up on me. Of course, I didn't go to Harvard.... And then there was Carlos Castenada. Whatever you think of his shaman's philosophy and insights, it seems like your informants ought to be real people if you're going to be awarded a PhD in anthropology. It all depends on how close to home the liar hits.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Charles Dickens and His Accordion

Book Cover: Dickens: A Biography

I've been reading Fred Kaplan's 1988 book, Dickens : A Biography. I was moved to run out and buy it not long after it was published, starving graduate student though I was. Strangely, I didn't begin to read it until this year. To my surprise, the New York Times Book Review articles that had inflamed my interest were still folded and tucked inside the end-papers. It is a fascinating book, although I wish I had waited to buy it until now, when cheap used copies are available. I could have bought a lot of groceries with that $24.95 back in grad school. It is a long, dense book, and the first half now bristles with little slips of paper and notes to myself. I have been particularly interested in the sections that deal with his American visits and his interest in "ragged schools" and social reform. But today, I present his interest in the accordion, acquired on his first American trip. (That's Kaplan's spelling of "accordian." I don't know if it's a typo, or if it has some arcane significance.)

Ironically, having come miserably on a British steamship, he returned happily and comfortably on an American sailing vessel that left New York on June 2, 1842. On shipboard, he played perpetually on an accordian that he had bought in March and on which every night he had played "Home Sweet Home" as they had traveled through America.

There's nothing like playing your squeezebox "perpetually" in a confined space to win friends and influence people. Concertina practice has contributed significantly to my own popularity.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

My Student Blogs!

I apologize to the Powers That Blog for my two-day absence from the Blogosphere. I was, instead, present in the material world (Pocahontas County) in my guise as substitute teacher for second and third graders, and as homebound teacher to a high school student. Teachers of young children have a perk that I never really appreciated before--they find out EVERYTHING that's going on in the community. Preschoolers and kindergarten classes are most forthcoming with the things their parents don't imagine they know, but the older children can give you better details, and answer questions. Never fear, parents of Pocahontas County! Your secrets will not be blogged (at least not in a recognizable way, I hope).

My high school student, on the other hand, has started her own blog. I'm very excited about this. I worked with her last year a bit, and I'm looking forward to her blog as a new way to share ideas and writing assignments.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The End of an Obsession

At last, I'm preparing to hang the remaining window quilts. I've shaken off the obsessive feeling, and am looking back at what was fun about this project. I learned how to do several things I haven't done before--foundation piecing, machine quilting (I've only tied patchwork projects in the past), machine embroidery, using embroidery thread on the sewing machine, and combining "incompatible" fabrics.

In looking for advice on these topics, I was quite disappointed at the scant resources on the Internet. While I found a few useful sites on quilting, most of the "machine embroidery," "embroidery thread," and "machine quilting" links were to commercial sites crying "Buy our pricy books and equipment!" I'm puzzled. Why is there such good stuff about knitting, and such junk about quilting, garment construction, and machine embroidery? Here's one theory: Knitting is popular among young folks, who haven't taken up those other crafts. Ladies my age, who learned to sew back in the day, are not computer literate. The Linux boys, for example, all use their moms as the metaphor for a clueless person who can't be expected to move from Windows to Open Source software. Perhaps they're right. The (male) computer scientists who controlled access to the Unix Big Iron back in my youth did try to keep us girls out. Maybe it worked better than my friends and I realized.

In any case, perhaps I should be writing sewing how-to's, and getting the word out that there is an amazing world of fabric out there, waiting to be turned into cool stuff the ready-to-wear folks can't even imagine. I have been working sporadically on a how-to for sewing new necklines into old turtlenecks, at the request of an anonymous commenter. I'll be moving this to the front burner shortly.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Annie Proulx--Nonfiction Titles

I've recently discovered that some of Annie Proulx's non-fiction is still in print and available. The Literary Encyclopedia's biography of Proulx presents this:

....in the mid-1970s, Proulx moved to Canaan on the US-Canada border, and the question of how to make a living while staying in a remote rural area seemed to be answered by writing. She wrote journalism and published a series of how-to manuals on cooking, gardening and wine-making. Even though this work was undertaken mainly as a means of financial support, it also reflected the author's interest in country life and self-sufficiency: "What interested me at this time was the back-to-the-land movement communes, gardening, architecture, the difficulty of maintaining a long, dirt-road driveway. Not only could I solve some of these problems in real life and observe what people were doing to make things work in rural situations, I could write about them and make some money," she said.
Book Cover: Great Grapes Book Cover: Making the Best Apple Cider Book Cover: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider

Several of these are available on amazon.com: Two "Storey's Country Wisdom Bullitens, A.53 Great Grapes" and A.47 Making the Best Apple Cider, and a co-authored book, Cider : Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider, Third Edition". I look forward to reading these, along with her dairy foods cookbook and the treatise on maintaining country lanes and building serviceable gates. I expect she wrote well about these topics because she seems to have so much interest in, and respect for, writing of this sort. Here's a quote from her Missouri Review Interview.

Interviewer: Do you have a standard operating procedure in the way you work? Do you start with place, or history, or character and story, or is it different with each book?

Proulx: Where a story begins in the mind I am not sure: a memory of haystacks, maybe, or wheel ruts in the ruined stone, the ironies that fall out of the friction between past and present, some casual phrase overheard. But something kicks in, some powerful juxtaposition, and the whole book shapes itself up in the mind. I spend a year or two on the research and I begin with the place and what happened there before I fill notebooks with drawings and descriptions of rocks, water, people, names. I study photographs. From place come the characters, the way things happen, the story itself. For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning.

Interviewer: What's your approach to research?

Proulx: The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions\u2014natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers.

Interviewer: Where do you go for that kind of information?

Proulx: I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists' plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Annie Proulx Interview on Brokeback Mountain

I've found a couple more interesting Annie Proulx links, prompted by the release of the film "Brokeback Mountain," based on her short story of the same name. From advocate.com, 12/17/05-12/19/05, Annie Proulx tells the story behind "Brokeback Mountain." This is an Associated Press interview, and appears in a number of publications. It covers much the same ground as Planet Jackson Hole's interview with Annie Proulx December 7, 2005. Here are a couple of quotes to whet your appetite.

Planet Jackson Hole: How did you come to write "Brokeback Mountain"? What inspired the story?

Annie Proulx: "Brokeback Mountain" was/is one of a number of stories examining rural Western social situations. I was trained as an historian (French Annales school), and most of my writing is focused on rural North American hinterlands. The story was not "inspired," but the result of years of subliminal observation and thought, eventually brought to the point of writing. As I remarked in a 1999 interview with The Missouri Review, Place and history are central to the fiction I write, both in the broad, general sense and in detailed particulars. Rural North America, regional cultures, the images of an ideal and seemingly attainable world the characters cherish in their long views despite the rigid and difficult circumstances of their place and time interest me and are what I write about. I watch for the historical skew between what people have hoped for and who they thought they were and what befell them.


PJH: I think it's clear to anyone who reads "Brokeback Mountain" that above all it's a wrenching, starcrossed love story. It is about two cowboys, but it seems inaccurate to call it gay literature. How do you feel about the film being assailed as gay agitprop emerging from liberal Hollywood? Did you ever intend for the story to be controversial?

AP: Excuse me, but it is NOT a story about "two cowboys." It is a story about two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in 1963 who have left home and who find themselves in a personal sexual situation they did not expect, understand nor can manage. The only work they find is herding sheep for a summer ­ some cowboys! Yet both are beguiled by the cowboy myth, as are most people who live in the state, and Ennis tries to be one but never gets beyond ranch hand work; Jack settles on rodeo as an expression of the Western ideal. It more or less works for him until he becomes a tractor salesman. Their relationship endures for 20 years, never resolved, never faced up to, always haunted by fear and confusion. How different readers take the story is a reflection of their own personal values, attitudes, hang-ups. It is my feeling that a story is not finished until it is read, and that the reader finishes it through his or her life experience, prejudices, world view and thoughts. Far from being "liberal," Hollywood was afraid of the script as were many actors and agents. Of course I knew the story would be seen as controversial. I doubted it would even be published, and was pleased when The New Yorker very quickly accepted it. In the years since the story was published in 1997 I have received many letters from gay and straight men, not a few Wyoming-born. Some said, "You told my story," some said "That is why I left Wyoming," and a number, from fathers, said "Now I understand the hell my son went through." I still get these heart breaking letters.


PJH: I've read you're a lover of coffee shops and yard sales ­ places where you can listen in on conversations, picking up on local dialects, aphorisms, story ideas. With your increasing notoriety, is it hard for you to stay anonymous in Wyoming so that you can move about unobtrusively as a writer?

AP: I don't love coffee shops, but I used to drive across the North American continent once a year, usually by back roads, and stopped at many cafes along the way where I did sometimes hear interesting things. One can hear equally interesting conversations in line at the grocery store and post office. Yard sales have been good places to find old books for me, especially valuable as so many small secondhand bookshops are disappearing. No, it is not difficult to move around Wyoming anonymously. Women of a certain age are invisible. And most Wyoming people don't give a damn whether you write novels or knit mittens.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

That Pesky "About Me" Page

Here's the "About Me" list I've been fretting over for longer than you'd believe. It is arranged in order of writing difficulty, from easy to impossible.

Places I've lived

  • two miles north of Cromwell, Iowa
  • Ames, Iowa
  • Storrs, Connecticut
  • Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area, including Arlington, Virginia and The People's Republic of Takoma Park (Maryland)
  • Pocahontas County, West Virginia

Jobs I've Had (see my on-line resume for details)

  • Newspaper proofreader, technical editor
  • Sorter of dead mosquitoes and ceratapogonid midges
  • Insect collection technician
  • Zoo-keeper's assistant
  • College instructor
  • Teacher of all subjects, for all ages, K-12 subject matter
  • Molecular geneticist
  • Bacteriologist
  • Bioinformatician

Subjects I've Taught

  • Introductory Biology for Biology Majors, labs and lectures
  • Entomology labs
  • Scanning Electron Microscopy
  • Adult Basic Education, including math from addition through algebra and reading and writing at every level

Computer Experience

  • Fortran programming course, 1976: The joys of a public keypunch area
  • Life in Unix Big Iron Land, running Xedit and SAS
  • Exile to DOS and Apple OS's
  • The joys of GNU Unix on Sun workstations
  • Some unpleasant exposure to Microsoft Windows
  • A return to *nix Nirvana via OSX and Linux

Fiber Arts Interests and Experience

  • Sewing--garment construction, quilting
  • Knitting
  • Spinning wool yarn for knitters

Natural History Interests

  • Heteroptera, the True Bugs (accept no substitutes!)
  • The Burgess Shale
  • Trilobites
  • Mushrooms of West Virginia
  • Nature writing, particularly of Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, Edwin Way Teale, Rachel Carson

Musical Interests and Obsessions

  • Baroque flute music
  • English concertina
  • Clawhammer banjo

Meaning of My Life

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Is My Blog Unusable? (Just About.)

I take Web usability issues to heart. I live at the end of an old phone line on a ridge with no broadband options in my immediate future. I've worked with several people with disabilities, and if I live long enough, I expect that I'll develop a few myself. That's why, when Jakob Nielsen points out a usability issue, I try to follow his recommendations. Imagine my dismay when I discovered my weblog flaunts at least four (and as many as eight) of his Weblog Usability: The Top Ten Design Mistakes. I've been fretting about these for a couple of months, but with limited remediation.

His first two mistakes are the ones giving me the most trouble.

1. No Author Biographies

....It's a simple matter of trust. Anonymous writings have less credence than something that's signed. And, unless a person's extraordinarily famous, it's not enough to simply say that Joe Blogger writes the content. Readers want to know more about Joe. Does he have any credentials or experience in the field he's commenting on? (Even if you don't have formal credentials, readers will trust you more if you're honest about that fact, set forth your informal experience, and explain the reason for your enthusiasm.)

2. No Author Photo

Even weblogs that provide author bios often omit the author photo. A photo is important for two reasons:

  • It offers a more personable impression of the author. You enhance your credibility by the simple fact that you're not trying to hide. Also, users relate more easily to somebody they've seen.
  • It connects the virtual and physical worlds. People who've met you before will recognize your photo, and people who've read your site will recognize you when you meet in person (say, at a conference -- or the company cafeteria if you're an intranet blogger).

It seems very reasonable when he puts it like that. His own "Author Bio" is a professional resume, with a photographic studio portrait. I have a professional resume on my Web page, too. Turning it into text wouldn't be hard. However, I have yet to blog about bioinformatics, or the phylogeny of the Reduviidae. (Something to look forward to, folks!) Explaining my credentials for blogging about knitting, quilting, Appalachian identity or Pocahontas County lore is a project I don't know how to approach. I've taken a run at it already with profiles (and portraits) of my cats Conrad and Princess, but I can't seem to fit myself into narrative form.

I notice that many bloggers respond to this need with creative writing prompts like "100 Things About Me." I confess I'm not usually up for reading more than the first 10 things about them. Fred First, of Fragments from Floyd presents a similar exercise for Where I'm From, more poetic than Jakob Nielsen's format, but not necessarily what the reader needs to know in order to trust me. Being a linear thinker (I know, it's unwomanly. Story of my life. No girls in the computer center, Missy.), I've been working on a list of lists, in the hope that it'll turn into an outline I can flesh out later. Then, it's on to my photo collection, to pick out something from this century that actually looks like me, but which I still like. How many impossible tasks do I have to complete here, Jakob?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Annie Proulx--Internet Resources

As you might expect, a Google search returns many Annie Proulx links. Here is a list of links with interesting or unique content, with the "write my book report for me" and university plagiarism services removed.

  • Author Annie Proulx's official homepage. This site seems to be updated a few times a year. Ms. Proulx offers some very interesting essays here, on a wide assortment of topics. This is worth a visit.
  • New York Times' collection of articles and reviews. (Free but annoying registration required.) These go back to the early 1990's. While none of them are new, most of them are quite interesting. Try Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales for a starter.
  • Wikipedia entry on Annie Proulx. Look here for your basic biographical information.
  • The Literary Encyclopedia on Annie Proulx. This article, by Aliki Varvogli, of the University of Dundee, goes beyond the Wikipedia bio for a brief discussion of Proulx's writings. However, the encyclopedia entries on her individual books require a paid membership. While I'm intrigued by the resources The Literary Encyclopedia offers, I'm not ready to sign up, reasonably priced as their subscription rates appear.
  • Annie Proulx's Musicology by Graeme Smith, September, 1996. Why an accordion? Mr. Smith has some ideas. Here's his abstract:
    The central protagonist of Annie Proulx's Great American Novel, Accordion Crimes, is a diatonic button accordion. In 1891, a Sicilian accordion player and maker meticulously puts together his master piece and, full of hope of musical fortune, takes the instrument with him to America. Over the next hundred years the instrument is owned by Texas Mexicans, Maine and Quebecois and Cajun French, Chicago Poles, Midwestern Germans and Irish. Eventually, the accordion disintegrates, perhaps a symbol of the disappearance of the working class subcultures in which it was played.
    I don't think I've ever run across the phrase "Great American Novel" used without irony. What do you suppose he means by it?
  • Missouri Review interview with Ms. Proulx (1999) Proulx discusses her writing at length in this interview. I found her views on fiction and history particularly insightful.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

E. Annie Proulx Fiction, Strange as Truth

Lately I've found my weblog entries expanding as I write. Several unfinished "essays" have been "in progress" since early November. With an eye toward more regular posting, I'm resolving to post more often, and to post smaller. For New Year's Day I'm presenting a single serving of the material I've been collecting on Annie Proulx. I had originally intended to post those choice quotes from Heart Songs, and accompany them with a list of her other books and links to informative Web sites. I've spent several hours on this so far, and the little project continues to grow. Today, I'm presenting the fiction links.

Book Cover: Postcards Book Cover: The Shipping News Book Cover: Accordion Crimes

Ms. Proulx's novels and short stories have been both popular and critically acclaimed, so my praise is redundant. Postcards, her first novel, won the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award, and her second novel, The Shipping News, won the 1993 National Book Award and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As a Proulx fan and devoted squeezebox player, I was waiting at the bookstore for Accordion Crimes when it was published. However, I think I like her short story collections best of all. Heart Songs and Other Stories (1988) is a vivid reminder for me of what rural New England was really like when I lived there. I've never been to Wyoming, but after reading Close Range : Wyoming Stories, I feel as if I have.

Book Cover: Heart Songs Book Cover: Close Range

There are more books I haven't read yet, including That Old Ace in the Hole : A Novel and Bad Dirt : Wyoming Stories 2. Since I moved to Pocahontas County, my book shopping has dropped off a bit. Fortunately for me, fiction like Proulx's is never dated.

Book Cover: That Old Ace in the Hole Book Cover: Bad Dirt