Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Holy Ghost People, Taking Up Serpents and Tales From Stump Holler

I would hardly describe myself as a cultural anthropologist, far from it in fact. More, what shall I say, watcher, no not watcher, observer, yes observer, that fits better. Observing peoples or cultures, brings with it various rewards in varying degrees, from the absolute negative, as in the case of Islam, to to the quite positive, experiencing a certain fascination and often respect for a people, its culture and its practices.

This fascination and respect, invariably, but not exclusively, reserved for that dwindling group of cultures, some who have hardly been touched by the influence and trappings of man and modernity, yet manage to maintain a society more civilised and more just than anything you could hope to find among, we the enlightened; a rare group indeed.

The other group that oft fascinates and for the most part earns respect, be it given grudgingly or otherwise, are those that, inspite of the modernity that surrounds them, still live a traditional lifestyle and follow traditional ways, availing themselves of modern society only when needs must. Be that the want of a steel axe, a bag of salt, or a shot of penicillin, or whatever.

But there is another group, a group for reasons manifold, that has always fascinated me and earned my respect, and far from grudgingly I add. Finding themselves due to geographic location and circumstances of birth, quite often undereducated, invariably impoverished and often downtrodden, yet despite such adversities, display a degree of tenacity, a humble pride under-spoken, and all the more meaningful for it, and integrity inherent, that, if it is not the envy of America, then it should be. I speak of the communities of the hills and mountains of Appalachia.

I quite recently posted on one such community, and freely admit to waxing lyrical about the documentary that catalogued the trials and tribulations of this community, as they fought with the mine owners over their right to belong to, and have that right recognised by the pit bosses, to belong to the United Mineworkers Union. Given what we are witnessing today in Wisconsin, the struggle of the miners of Harlan County, must qualify as one of the all time irony of ironies.

So what's on offer today? First up, by way of an explanation, a brief history of Pentecostal snake handlers and in turn acting as an introduction for a reminisce of one, Cletis L Stump of Stump Holler, Kentucky. The Kentucky part you can believe, the rest of it, I wouldn't bet the farm on.

But what you can believe is that Cletis L Stump grew up around those parts, informing me no less than he is in fact, a Harlan County boy

Following the trip down memory lane with Cletis we come to the main feature as it were, but not only by virtue of its length. The magic of this fifty five minutes or so is, just like Barbara Kopple’s film, Harlan County,

Peter Adair's 1967 documentary, shot at a Pentecostal service in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. Documenting the ostensible healing laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, and snake handling as a testament of faith.

it is a wonderful social history piece. There are more ''entertaining'' clips on snake handling as there are equally better clips of Pentecostals getting their freak on, because let's face it, nobody gets their freak on like these lads n lasses; it's like watching a rave where ''Jesus is my E.'' But to do that would be to miss the point entirely; this documentary shows simple folk in simple churches coming together as a community and getting it on with their Lord.

As the inimitable old darling once said: Religion is the fashionable substitute for belief. Well 'taint so in the hills of West Virginia, these are the believers, these aren't mega churches where every last sanctimonious motherfucker with a bible in his hand seeks to be recognised by his equally sanctimonious and disingenuous neighbour and peer, just simple shacks for simple needs. And I have to add, showing more true Christian charity as your ever likely to see. (last clip)

And at the risk of sounding terribly patronising, I will allow them their religion, I will allow them their self induced hysteria, drive on for Jesus. Continued below.

eta. Links for a sixty minute historical documentry, Bluegrass Roots, added below.

A Question of Faith
By Jerry Richardson (Cletis L Stump)
It was the summer of my divorce and I was down visiting my sister in the western part of Kentucky. I thought I'd stop by and see my friend Duane on the way home. Duane lived in Louisville where he was and I believe still is working for General Electric. I asked him if he could give me a ride home. He said he couldn’t take me all the way but would take me as far as Corbin where he was going to visit his brother, the dentist.
This was how I found myself on 25E just east of Corbin on a muggy summer evening with about a hundred miles to home. Home was Lynch, Kentucky, a small mining town which once boasted the largest coal tipple in the world. Until recently, it was the sole property of U.S. Steel. Now, it belongs to Arch Mineral but nothing much has changed.
Lynch is a quiet place located in Harlan County where nothing of excitement has happened since the union wars of the 1930s. The pace of life is slow and predictable and I thought it would be a good place to calm my nerves. Mom and Dad still lived there and I figured I’d be home for a late supper. I made Pineville around seven o’clock and the rest should have been easy. It wasn’t.
Eleven-thirty found me outside of Harlan on a dark stretch of under-construction highway; twenty-two miles from Cumberland and five more to Lynch. I had covered about seventy miles in nine hours of hitch-hiking and was worn out. I was about to crawl under a bridge to sleep when I saw two weak lights bouncing toward me through the distance. The car rattled to a stop and an old face called out from under the brim of a faded hat.
“Where you going boy?”
“Up to Lynch, sir. My mom and dad live there.”
“Well, get in. We’re going to Whitesburg and we’ll take you as far as Cumberland.”
“That’ll be good,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
“Just climb on in. Push them baskets and things out of your way and scoot on in there.”
I climbed in to the backseat of what I believe was a two-door Ford Falcon and settled myself beside five or six wicker baskets. It was a tight fit but I wasn’t complaining.
It was dark and difficult to see but the men appeared to be in their late fifties or early sixties. They were not dressed like coal miners and gave more of an impression of being farmers. Each wore his hat pulled low over his face and sat motionless as if hypnotized by the road ahead.
As we bumped along the construction and on to the black snake curves of the old Harlan Road, the passenger shifted slightly as if to speak. I leaned forward to hear above the groans of the old car.
“You say you’re going to Lynch?”
“Yes sir. My mom and dad live there … just down from the Methodist church.”
“What’s your surname?”
“I’m a Richardson. My daddy’s Vivian Richardson.”
“Can’t say I recollect him.”
He didn’t say any more and I knew he probably wouldn’t. I sat back, glad to be off of my feet, and looked around. Except for a faint glow from the dash the interior of the car was dark. The men in front looked more like silhouettes than men and sat as if spotting prey in the on-rushing road. It was quiet and the only sound was the rustling of the wind through the baskets beside me. After a time, I leaned forward and spoke again.
“My mom’s got a brother over near Whitesburg,” I said. “His name’s Ott Hicks.”
“Hicks?” He turned his head and leaned back. “Now, that sounds familiar. Are they church people?”
“Yes sir --- they’re real good people,” I said. “My cousin married a boy who lives over there. His name’s Billy Conn.”
“Billy Conn!” he exclaimed. “Lord yeah, we know Billy! He’s one of the finest boys who ever lived. He does the work of the Lord, don’t he?”
“Yes sir, he’s a preacher,” I said. As I spoke, I edged closer and brushed the basket beside me. It made a faint rustling sound like that of a small animal moving through dry leaves.
“Do you all go to Billy’s church?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “we don’t hold the exact same beliefs Billy does.”
“Are you a different denomination?” I asked.
“No, nothing like that,” he said. “We all serve the Lord Jesus but we pick up the serpents and Billy don’t.”
It took a second but as the blood drained from my face I knew. I grew smaller and squeezed deeper into the corner of the backseat.
“Matter of fact,” he said, “we’re just coming from a meetin’ over on Crank’s Creek. They can’t get out though. Them lids are on there good … and even if they did the Lord wouldn’t let em’ bite you.” I wasn’t sure the snakes couldn’t get out of the baskets. I was sure I couldn’t get out of the car. I tried.
After that, the conversation tapered off and we rode in silence until eventually Cumberland came into view. I believe they helped me out in front of the old Corlee Theatre where the road forks toward Whitesburg. I crossed the street to the Texaco station and watched the snakes and the Falcon disappear along the river road toward home.
For once, the five miles separating Cumberland from Lynch were a welcome sight. I set out with a joyous step but had barely covered twenty yards when a familiar rattle pulled alongside and the old face leaned back out.
“Get on in here,” he said. “The Lord would never forgive us if we left you out here this late at night.”
“Yes, he would,” I said quickly. “You men have done you part. Really, I … I like to walk. It’s getting late and your people will be worried.”
“Nonsense,” the old man said as he got out of the car and pulled back the seat. “We won’t hear of it. Now, get on in here.”
It was after one o’clock when they finally let me out in front of our house on Church Street. I managed to say thank you and again watched the Falcon pull away. I knocked on the door and when Mom finally answered she said I looked sort of pale and allowed I had been drinking.
Jerry Richardson (Cletis L Stump)

Similar: The Book of Cletis - Prospectors

Below: But then, and there is no allowance for this display of self induced hysteria; but then we have to round off, a couple of minutes and a couple of cunts from Texas, I'm sorry but there's no more befitting description I can think of for these two sanctimonious little fuck cunts for Jesus. The first little cunt is bad enough, but the second one!? fuck me! I haven't got the words for her, other than to say, pity the bloke this little cunt traps at the alter, pity him indeed.

Update: I am in error in describing the above as starring two individuals, it is in fact the same little fuck cunt for Jesus in both scenes.

Bluegrass Roots: On The Road With Bluegrass Musicians

This is the 1st TV Special (1964) shot documentary style in the Mountain of North Carolina. It follows Old Man Bascom Lunsford as he casts the talent for his Asheville Mountain Music Festival (also the first such event)."Bluegrass Roots" takes viewers presents a who's who of the most extraordinary singers, players and dancers the Bluegrass Mountains had to offer. Many later became famous. Songs Include: Groundhog, Johnson Boys, East Virginia Blues, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Blue Ridge Mountain Blues, and Heavenly Light is Shinning On Me.

"Most of the amazing performers presented are now long gone on. It is a treat to see and hear them again..." Bill Morrison, The News and Observer, Raleigh, North
Absolutely brilliant, there's some pickin' n' a fiddlin' n' some dancin' going on there boy, n' scenes and characters that ain't never goin' to be seen again. Magic stuff.

Download or view stream here.

Update: Files timed out

716MB total. Join with hjsplit, no pass


Cletis L. Stump said...

Himself, thanks again for this post. I sent my son over from Florida and it touched him deeply as well. He was very close to my dad. You are an interesting fellow largely because you are an interested fellow.

Laci the Chinese Crested said...

I have a connection back to Kentucky (New Castle, Henry County) going back to at least 1801 with one of the Pryor Family. It could be the famed Nathaniel Pryor, or one of his cousins.

I did a post about Blair Mountain which, like Harlan County, was another battle between workers and the bosses. Blair Mountain has been threatened by strip mining in the ultimate sacrilege to the memories of those who died there.

As for snake handling. I did a post Prayer in School which was about religious tolerance and diversity. If you're going to have it, you had better let everybody practise in their own special way.

The British the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has said that the the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. My guess is that it is because it gives the foundation to life which is disturbed by change.

And bluegrass music, it comes from the Scots, Scots-Irish, Irish, and English folk music traditions.