Recordings made some seven decades ago of nearly 60 men and women who lived in what became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park soon will be made publicly available online.
In 1939, a young graduate student by the name of Joseph Sargent Hall traveled through the region’s coves and hollows with an audio recorder powered off his pick-up truck battery, capturing tales of bear hunts, lessons on herbal remedies and authentic mountain tunes. He spent eight months recording the experiences of older residents and the music of young aspiring musicians. Of the 60 interviews, 17 were from Swain County and 16 were from Haywood County.
One of the mountaineers recorded by Hall was the famous Steve Woody of Cataloochee Valley, who was 86 at the time.
“That’s not me; that’s my grandfather,” Steve Woody the younger said with a laugh. “I can remember him.”
Woody owns a tape rendition of the 1939 recording Hall made of his grandfather. It is a story about a bear hunt, Woody said, and there’s also a photograph in the family album of the actual interview taking place, too.
Woody thinks it’s terrific that the old recordings soon will be made easily available.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “I think people need to know the history of these mountains.”
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created, hundreds of people living in remote Appalachian settlements were forced to move. Hall’s recordings were made just as this was happening, capturing a moment in time and way of life that was coming to an end. Woody’s grandfather was the last person to move out of Cataloochee Valley after the park was created.
The City University of New York will host the non-commercial website where the recordings will be made publicly accessible. A release date hasn’t been set — the project’s members are trying to ensure that living descendants of those recorded are given notice first that the recordings are being made public.
Michael Montgomery, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of South Carolina and a member of the project team, said that the digitized recordings are being made from tape recordings that were, in turn, made in the 1980s from the original recordings.
“They are actually quite clear for recordings made more than 70 years ago,” Montgomery said, adding that the original discs are held in safekeeping in the Library of Congress.
Copies of the recordings are currently available for people to listen to if, that is, they are willing to drive several hours into Tennessee to the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.
A chronicler of the people
Using Civilian Conservation Corps camps for home base, Hall ventured throughout the area to record. For this work, Hall used two recorders, one that produced aluminum discs and was operated by cables hooked to a pick-up truck battery and another that made acetate discs and ran on a portable battery pack.
Montgomery said that Hall became close friends with many of the men working in the CCC camps and returned to visit them for many years after the first recordings were made. Hall died in 1992.
Luke Hyde of Bryson City, who had family members who once lived where the park was subsequently created, said he believes it will be helpful to families such as his and for park history buffs in general to have the recordings easily available via a website. In addition to the recordings, searchable texts also will be online.
“I like the general concept,” Hyde said, adding that he is well familiar with the important work done by Hall to record the people of the Smokies.
“He was fascinated by a lot of things, and he listened to people,” Hyde said. “He was one of the chroniclers of the mountain people.”
Montgomery said Hall’s interest in making this set of recordings was to record dialect. That meant he didn’t care so much what people said as long as they said something — so what’s on the recordings are such things as “women talking about herbal remedies and fellows talking about bear hunting,” Montgomery said.
Hall himself wrote about his work that, “the topics of the recordings were anything the informant wished to talk about. Men talked about their farm, their crops, their cattle, and hunting. Women liked to tell recipes or talk about their interest in weaving and quilting and the like.”
Hall also recorded the music of the day. Young musicians played country and swing and other tunes they were hearing on the radio.
“Joseph Hall recorded anything people wanted to play,” Montgomery said.
In 2010, the Great Smoky Mountains Association released “Old Time Smoky Mountain Music,” a CD with 34 of the musical selections recorded by Hall.
Montgomery said that one of Hall’s most admirable traits was his determination to stay in the background and not overshadow the men and women that he was recording.
“He thought that was the best way to counter stereotypes. He wanted mountain people to use their own voices,” Montgomery said. “His approach really was to avoid general statements and to let mountain people speak for themselves.”
Not everyone is certain the release of the recordings is a good idea.
Harley Caldwell, 75, was the last person born in Cataloochee Valley before the park was formed. He’s concerned about the privacy rights of the people who were recorded, about whether they realized that one day their stories and tales would be released publicly.
Caldwell, in fact, is involved in a similar project to Montgomery’s. The Cataloochee Oral History Project teamed with Western Carolina University to record and videotape 33 living descendents from Cataloochee. A DVD is set for release in early 2013.
“It’s a bigger project than I wanted to tackle, but I tackled it anyway,” Caldwell said.
WCU provided the equipment and is editing the interviews and preparing the DVD. Caldwell facilitated the project by rounding up the Cataloochee descendents. Caldwell said, perhaps echoing what Hall also found, that he was most surprised by “the willingness of people to talk about their past.”
One of those men interviewed was age 99, Caldwell said, adding that the man remembered historic events as if they’d occurred yesterday.
“It was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve done a lot of exciting things,” Caldwell said of the oral history project.
One thing Caldwell and his team were careful to do was obtain signed releases from those interviewed — and he worries that, in contrast, Hall’s subjects were never cautioned that one day their voices would be heard again.
Speakers recorded by Joseph S. Hall in 1939:
• Mack Caldwell, 53, Mount Sterling.
• Mack Hannah, 81, Little Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Mack (Fannie) Hannah, 73, Little Cataloochee.
• Millard Hill, 27, Saunook.
• Mark Mehaffey, Maggie.
• Bill Moore, 21, Saunook.
• Howard Moore, Saunook.
• Manuel Moore, Saunook.
• Mrs. George Palmer, 65, Cataloochee.
• Will Palmer, Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Will Palmer, 69, Cataloochee.
• Herbert Stephenson, 25, Saunook.
• Eugene Sutton, 43, Cataloochee Creek.
• Jake Sutton, 63, Cataloochee.
• Jim Sutton, 70, Cataloochee.
• Steve Woody, 86, Cataloochee.
• Mrs. Bill Brown, Towstring Creek.
• Dan Cable, 73, Cable Branch, Proctor.
• Aden Carver, 91, Bradley Fork, Smokemont.
• Mark Cathey, 54, Deep Creek.
• D. F. Conner, 84, Oconaluftee.
• Bert Crisp, 47, Towstring Creek.
• Zeb Crisp, 64, Hazel Creek.
• Grover Gilley, Bryson City.
• Gladys Hoyle.
• Frank Lambert, 40, Towstring Creek, Smokemont.
• Grady Mathis, 50, Smokemont.
• Al Morris, 67, Kirklands Creek.
• Rebecca Queen, 70, Cherokee.
• Docia Styles, 66, Indian Creek.
• Zilphie Sutton, 70, Chestnut Branch.
• Jake Welch, 79, Ryan Branch, Hazel Creek.
• Fate Wiggins, 79, Deep Creek.
• Mary Wiggins, Deep Creek.
WCU’s Hunter Library releases online oral history collection
A series of oral interviews with the people of Western North Carolina are now available online through Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
“Stories of Mountain Folk” is the first all-sound collection released by Hunter Library. The collection’s interviews cover traditions, events and life stories of regional individuals including gardeners, herbalists, farmers, musicians, artists and writers. The archive is searchable by name, place and topic.
The interviews were produced by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by the sisters Amy Ammons Garza, an Appalachian storyteller, and Doreyl Ammons Cain, a visual artist, with the mission of preserving local memory. In September 2008, Catch the Spirit of Appalachia began “Stories of Mountain Folk” as a half-hour radio show.
Catch the Spirit of Appalachia teamed up with Hunter Library to preserve the recorded material. The online archive holds approximately half of the roughly 200 existing radio programs, with Hunter Library staff continuing to upload the backlog.
“The university has provided expertise to preserve the content, which is very different from academic creation of new intellectual content. This content was created in the community, and the library is providing a service in preserving the material,” said Anna Fariello, an associate professor in Hunter Library’s Digital Programs.
For her part, Garza is thrilled with the arrangement.
“I cannot tell you how my heart leapt when this agreement was signed,” she said. “Saving the voices of the mountain folk has been a longtime goal of Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, for listening to the mountain folk as they tell their own personal stories evokes evidence of an unmistakable wisdom and sense of place.”
The collection can be found at www.wcu.edu/library/digitalcollections/storiesofmountainfolk.