My family – mother and father sides – are from the Appalachian regions. We are from, as my father said “Coal miners and dirt farmers.” I was the 3rd person in either family to ever get a college degree, my father and older brother being the 1st and 2nd. When dad was younger he worked the Ohio river: on tugs, in bars and a little bit of coal mining and petty larceny as he worked his way to becoming a doctor. My mothers family was a bit harder off in Pike County, KY and purely of coal mining stock. On my mothers side, the family claim to fame is that a distant uncle burned the company store to the ground. Good on him. We have the usual list of family things that come from the region that I never knew were interesting until I started to study folklore at Indiana University. My mother was raised in a snake-handler church when she was young, watching the men dance with rattlers and such. My grandmother on her side was a “witcher woman” that did all the various remedies that they did. Even my mother as a child was supposed to be imparted with special powers. In her region, if the father died before the child was born, that child was assumed to have healing power. My mother was that child, and her step father would drive her around the area to heal people. Unfortunately, those in need of healing where often people with tuberculous and if she “breathed” into their mouths it would heal them. Unsurprisingly, that was just one of childhood illnesses my mother acquired over time. Of course, when I was growing up, my mother and father had left all of that quite behind. I only learned of it over time as I grew up. It was not something we discussed. It was for lack of a better phrase “The ignorant past” in their eyes. Well, all except the music. Sure I wanted to be an actor and in the 70’s and 80’s and I promise I knew the names of every Broadway and Off-Broadway show. But the music I was raised on was of the region.
I remember old scratched records by Peggy Seeger and June Carter and the Carter family the most. Partly because my mother played autoharp. Because of those recordings I learned to play my first instrument, the Appalachian Dulcimer. I even remember the first song I learned to play, “Go Tell Aunt Roadie.” It was fun and frankly easy to play. Make no mistake, at the time I was not in love with all “country” music! Anything other the Seeger or Carter was just radio country crap to my ears growing up…. well, mostly… partly. Imagine my shock to learn that all the songs I played on the dulcimer from “Aunt Roadie” to “Cruel Hearted Lover” to “House Carpenter” were a much older than my parents! Bluegrass was not problem for me, I fell in love with it from the first moment. Old-time (a phrase I never heard until 2000 or so) was just the stuff I listened to on LP’s.
Of course, Johnny Cash was part of all that. Cash, particularly because hes great last albums was seen in someways as a folk singer. He was in fact a major influence in rock and roll and bridged that gap between the mountain music and the commercial country. I still love his music, and this is the last music video he made and to me… a fitting end to a great journey. Its a cover of NIN, sorry… about the ad at the front.