The Which There Mostly Ain't No More
September 1, 2007
The South is today, for so many people, a symbol of lynch law, slavery, benightedness, and masked riders in the night. Like the American West, it has become a Hollywood fable bearing little resemblance to the place it was and barely, in spots, still is. The other night I was listening to Ode to Billy Joe, Bobby Gentry’s song of bleak rural poverty near Tupelo not all that long ago. To many, such ballads make no sense or seem whiney and self-pitying. No. It’s how things were. I saw the tag end of it.
The rural South, like the West Virginia coal country where I was born and briefly lived, was in many places pea-turkey poor, red dirt and not much else poor, hookworm poor, hopeless poor. It was ugly poor. It bred hard, mean people with a Calvinist streak that fit their hardness and meanness just fine.
Theirs was an isolated world in the years before television and electricity, especially in the countryside. Imagine: No babbling screen and no radio, if only because no electricity. Neighbors few and distant. Little schooling and little to read anyway. No familiarity with anything beyond a day’s walk. Dirt roads. No telephones.
In the soft smoky evenings of the Delta where things seemed to blur a little in a sensual heat, or those then-remote hollers near Bluefield where inbreeding turned the people strange, in blindingly hot rural Alabama where fields of goober peas—peanuts—ripened in silence broken only by insects, there weren’t many neighbors. Life was profoundly local, like the Garden of Eden. And it was hard. People died of preventable causes and went below in raw pine caskets. Death was more routine for them than for us.
By the time I got old enough to see what was going on, it was ending. There was still some of it. When I was a kid in Athens, Alabama in 1957, school vacations in nearby Ardmore coincided with cotton-picking and cotton-chopping time. In Athens, Johnny Cox and Jim Bob McAllister lived in unpainted trashwood shacks with a hanging bulb on twisted wire as the sole evidence of electrification. I wasn’t supposed to play with them, though I did anyway.
Here were residual social eddies consequent to Appomattox. My parents, first cousins, were both of the Venables, a family of some prominence in antebellum Virginia. To call those far-off people “aristocracy” would be stretching, but they were respectable country gentry. They were instrumental in starting Hampden-Sydney College in 1776. Charles Scott Venable was on Lee’s staff, Andrew Reid Venable on Stuart’s. On my shelves I have today books, The Venables of Virginia, The Reids and Their Relatives, The Cabells and Their Kin, recalling the ascendancy of English and Scots-Irish Protestantism, and perhaps a thirst for alliteration. These people were looked up to, being by no means arrogant but aware of their worth and position.
As a small boy I remember Hampden-Sydney as an expansive campus surrounded by woods, unutterably still in summer when the college boys were gone, sparkling by night with lightning bugs, and shaded by huge oaks. Nearby Farmville, county seat of Prince Edward County, was pure Virginia. Stately frame houses marched up High Street past the statue of the Confederate soldier, across from Longwood, a teachers college. It was quiet, peopled by folks who had been there for generations, maybe not so much remote as uninterested in anywhere else. It was reliable, stable, immutable. Social position sprang from ancestry. My parents grew up there.
The trouble with immutability is that it doesn’t last. The modern world arose and the rules changed. Suddenly it wasn’t who you were but what you had done. A fierce and unseemly competitiveness set in across the nation, lapping even at the shores of Southern sensibility. Before, walking down Main Street of Farmville it was “Why, good morning, Mrs. Reed,” and a cordial but not too close “Good morning, Sara” to the black woman who worked in the kitchen sometimes. It was a world of established and easy hierarchy.
Then mobility set in and my father, Southerner to the core, found himself in Athens, working as a mathematician at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville. Venable meant nothing in Limestone County. Before Sputnik, the federal government didn’t pay mathematicians well so we lived in a small tin-roofed frame house of the sort characteristic of the lower middle class. I didn’t know this, but my parents did. They found themselves in a pushing world of people oriented to achievement instead of sleepy dignified stratification. And they were terrified of falling into the lower middle class that economically they resembled. It was a not uncommon problem for people set in the old way.
Again, I didn’t know any of this and wouldn’t have cared, picking up both the BB gun and the sorghum argot of the mostly lower middle class Huck Finns of the place. (“I’ll knock the far outa that no-count scandal,” I could say with native syllabically padded fluency. Fire. Of no account. Scoundrel.)
We moved about, my father being an itinerant sort of mathematician. My parents were never quite content. Southerners of their day were from somewhere, and they stayed from there, wherever they were. My mother taught school briefly in West Virginia while she and I stayed with my maternal grandfather, a coal-camp doctor. We lived in Crumpler, an unincorporated townlet up the holler from North Fork, near Bluefield. My father, with the simple-minded patriotism of the South of the time, had gone back into the military to be an artillery spotter for the Marines in Korea.
Crumpler, though not technically in the South, might as well have been. The miners were raw men, angular Scots-Irish, hard, living sometimes in sod-roofed shacks, living on fat and dough and ignorant beyond today’s imagination. In economic effect, the difference between share-cropping and coal mining rarely exceeded the orthographic.
My mother told me later of having gone up the mountain to see the parents of a wild, dirty little girl among her students. It must have been a sight: My mother, nicely dressed as befitted her status, walking in a wilderness of broken rock toward a wretched shack. The little girl appeared on the porch, stared wide-eyed, and shouted, “Gret Gawd A’mighty! Here come that teacher lady!”
Today, country music is the only remnant in the public mind of a world fast being forgotten. Increasingly it is sung by people who were never there. Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, to my eye anyway, pretend to be what they aren’t any more. The South of Billy Joe, of desolate hillsides glittering with mica and no running water, is pretty much dead. Good riddance, too. From New York, most things Southern are regarded as cornball if not actually evil. But singers like Gentry, like David Allen Coe aren’t making it up. They just report. It was like that.