Memories of Mountain Music
Hearing just a few seconds of Appalachian ballads took me back 60 years.
By Mary Daily
When I picked up my dry cleaning today in Los Angeles, the soundtrack inside the cleaners trilled out bluegrass ballads of Appalachia. Suddenly, on this ordinary Monday afternoon when I’m old enough to get the COVID vaccine, I was five years old again, lying in my twin bed in the corner room I shared with my brother Jim.
For two years we lived in a small town in northeast Alabama in the foothills of the great Appalachians, where my father was a minister for the church next door to our new brick ranch house. From the window above the sink in our pine-paneled kitchen, across a bumpy field and beyond the corrugated metal cotton gin and an old red barn, we could see a hill named Tater Knob that stuck up like the round end of a Russet.
My mother shed tears when my dad decided to move us there. She’d heard about the poverty, the illiteracy and the venereal disease. But move we did. A small man in the church named Gay Vaught who had a glass eye and owned a moving company packed our belongings in a big van and hauled them from the other side of Alabama. The only mishap in the move was a crack in the clear plastic cover of our red cake stand.
The house the church provided was pretty and modern and sat on a treeless lot. With no shade, the two noisy window unit air conditioners were no match for the heat of the Southern summer. But we sweated our way through July and August. When I tried to paint my toenails sitting on the front steps, the polish dried faster than I could apply it. In winter, we had electric logs for the fireplace — a Christmas gift from the church. The “logs” produced no heat but made a flickering orange glow that suggested warmth. In a severe tornado, the tall church next door shielded us from the worst of the storm.
We all adjusted as best we could. Daddy delivered a mini-sermon every day on the local radio station. My brother Tom became a cheerleader at the high school and sang “Old Man River” in the school talent show. Mother did substitute teaching and planted zinnias, marigolds, sweet Williams and gladiola beside the gravel driveway. Jim collected baseball cards, kept a talley of the makes of cars that passed on our busy street, and taught me to ride a bike. I went to first grade in a new school just a few blocks from home. A dozen of my classmates came to school barefoot every day and smelled of wood smoke. On warm days I walked to school in my Buster Brown oxfords that coordinated with my Dutch boy haircut. When I wasn’t at school, I made mud pies from red clay and “tomato soup” from water and red geranium petals. Little girls I had sleepovers with are grandmothers now and still my friends.
Over time, I grew to love an older couple who lived behind us in a drafty white house built in the early 1900s. The house had a broad front porch and linoleum floors and smelled of the cinnamon-sweet snuff the occupants dipped and spat into tin cans. Mr. and Mrs. Middleton graciously tolerated my daily visits and hours of chatter during which I sometimes greatly exaggerated the truth.
It was the Middletons’ radio that blasted mountain music early every Sunday morning, awakening Jim and me. I don’t recall that we minded the music; we came to expect it.
The existence of the ballads was already familiar to us. Daddy often sang one to us about a man named Sal who kept a meat skin laid away to grease his wooden leg every day. And a peach farmer in Cullman County had taught us this one. (Any name could be filled in.):
“Oh Mary, oh Mary, I love thee well. I love thee better than tongue can tell. And if you love me like I love you, No knife can cut our love in two.”
Today, six decades later and across the continent, 30 seconds of similar sounds brought back a whole world to me and broke my heart a little for people long gone and times passed that won’t return. The attendant at the cleaner had no idea where I was as I pushed my credit card into the machine.
Mary Daily is a writer in Los Angeles.