I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~
A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky

Field Notes from Harlan County, Kentucky

Alessandro Portelli

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Part II

Why Harlan? There were a number of reasons, partly explained on the tape, that have to do with the left-wing myth of Harlan coal miners, and with my love for mountain music. Harlan, like Terni in my own country, seemed to be one of the places where labor struggle and folk music came together and expressed each other. But there was more.

In my teaching of American literature, I had placed myself in an Italian scholarly and critical tradition in which literature is less an end in itself and more a way of approaching a study of American society and culture as a whole. In a way, "American literature" in Italy has always been a name for "American Studies," even before the name existed. This was, on the other hand, the cultural demand of students who came to my classes out of an initial interest in rock and roll and movies rather than Henry James or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I became increasingly aware of the fact that, if we wanted to pursue that line of research, we both needed to look at aspects of US culture that are not readily presented by official sources or by the literary canon, and try to find a way in which to combine our vantage point as external observer with an internal point of view. We had to be able to look at the United States both from the outside, and from the inside. In other words, as I later came to phrase it with my colleagues and students, we needed a hometown, a sense of place. Harlan, and the Appalachian region, were ideal in this sense: it was a less glamorous and publicized part of the US; we already had some contacts; local scholars and artists were anxious for an international dimension; and finally, if one is looking for a sense of place, it is easier to find it where it is a conspicuous part of the culture, as in Eastern Kentucky.

This was the foundation of what we called the Rome "Appalachian Project," a collaborative teaching and research experiment also made possible by an ongoing faculty exchange program between the University of Rome, Berea College, and the University of Kentucky at Lexington. The program culminated in a number of "Appalachian conferences" held in Rome between 1984 and 1990 (with the support and participation of such Appalachian groups as the Highlander Center, the Cranks Creek Survival Center, and Appalshop), and with the publication of a book of essays.[12]

What made the program a success, however, was not only the collaborative student-faculty approach and its interdisciplinary dimension, but the personal involvement. Also, because the exchange and the conferences included not only scholars, but artists, performers, "common people" (like Annie Napier, featured on this tape, whose visit to Rome was memorable), the cultural perspective we wanted also became a personal perspective, in terms of personal friendships and concerns. Ultimately, this is the only way a long-term project can continue.

Part III

Against better scholarly practice, I hardly ever take notes—as if I instinctively feel that anything that does not stay in my memory is not worth noting down. For the same reason, in addition to technical shortcomings, I hardly ever take pictures. I want them to be in my mind. But a few times in Harlan I have been moved to write, less to remember than to express a feeling. These are my field notes from 1988, almost verbatim:

What is in question here is the essentials: life, death; the water, the air, the earth. All is down to the bare bones here. The hills slope steeply down to the narrow valleys where there's hardly enough space for anything but the road, the creek and the railroad tracks, the hillsides either wildly luxuriating with untamed foliage, or stripped bare to the coaly bones of the earth. Life is tangibly violent and extreme from the frankness of sex to the pervasiveness of death, teenage pregnancies to car accidents. I am as disturbed by the number of animals of all kinds lying smashed by cars on the dangerous, slippery, winding roads, as by the hillsides torn open by bulldozers; accidents are a constant possibility, whether it be from coal mining or fast driving: hardly a family among those I interviewed is without an immediate and recent experience of violent death, disability, blindness, serious illness. Religion is still dramatic, emotional, dangerous. People still die from snake bites, in church and in the marijuana patches which replace the old moonshine stills in the woods. The continuing preoccupation with snakes and panthers, ghosts and hants is the living reminder, together with the presence of a dramatic and obsessive God, of a relationship with the natural and the supernatural worlds, in both of which death was, and is, an almost physically tangible presence.

This stripping bare of life's essentials generates a strident dissonance with the culture of the contrived, the artificial, the "new and improved," which dominates the crust of chain fast food places and shopping malls that has grown around Harlan, regurgitating from the myriad television sets through the omnipresent satellite dishes. The over-sugared drinks and sweets double the enhanced, vitamin-added cheerfulness expected of employees, who fall frequently and pathetically short of the required standard. Pop drinks are an essential item in a welfare family's budget: people drink pops because they can no longer drink the water, and because by now they dimly sense that the superfluous is a new form of the indispensable. Then it ruins their teeth and swells their bellies.

The contrast does not reconcile one with progress. But neither does it allow an idyllic cherishing of the past. The apparent achievement of consumer culture is to replace both the natural and the supernatural with the artificial—safer at one level, and more poisonous at another. Yet the folk culture seeps through the veins of mass culture, reinterprets and readapts it subtly from within. Fast-food places become lounges where people sit and talk and loaf, partly displacing the new ideology of fast, impersonal, efficient consumption with the persistence of an older sense of time, of the country store and the courthouse steps. When small children ask for ghost stories or talk endlessly of vampires and werewolves, they reflect the nationwide popularity of monster movies, but they also manifest the transformation and survival of the old stories of ghosts and hants that their grandparents used to tell. A 22-year-old, semi-literate young woman who wants to be called Mary says she likes "Scary movies. Ghost stories. Suspense stories. I think young kids now like Pretty Kruger and Jason and Howl, I think they like movies like that," she says: but then, "Me, I like to hear an old-fashioned ghost story." Watching monster movies may be the last refuge of a pre-modern, magical rapport with the natural world of animals and the mysterious world after death, as well as with the artificial monsters with which modernity populates this workaday world.

It's a long way from Harlan indeed, from the Harlan of the mind that I had imagined since Barbara Dane sang for me Sara Ogan's "I Hate the Capitalist System" in Brooklyn (later, I included this recording in the very first LP I edited for the Istituto de Martino, L'America della contestazione).[13]

I remember my first lesson, in Cranks Creek in 1986, the first time I met the Napiers and the Simpsons. As they do on this tape, they got together to make music, and I was elated to hear Hiram Day sing one of my all-time favorite songs, the beautiful hymn "Life is Like a Mountain Railway." Later, I asked him if he knew that there was a union version of the same song, and he said he didn't. So I wrote down the words of "Miner's Lifeguard" (as performed by the Almanac Singers in 1941) on a notebook page that he folded into the breast pocket of his shirt.[14]

I was amused by the thought that I was "tampering" with the ethnographic data. What if a musicologist came to the area years later, "collected" that version and drew unwarranted conclusions on the persistence of protest songs in Appalachia? As it turned out, there was no danger of that at all. In the first place, Day hadn't worked at a union job for 30 years; the union, alas, was almost irrelevant to his life as a semi-disabled, semi-unemployed, occasional miner in one-horse strip operations. In the second place, there was no way I could tamper with his tradition. In a county with almost 25% illiteracy, he couldn't read my writing anyway. In other words, the class struggle in the form I imagined might be a thing of the past, but the class oppression was very much a thing of the present, and much more violent and painful than I had supposed. The capitalist system was very much in place.

What were the forms of struggle, then? One was right before my eyes: Bobby Simpson, blind and disabled but not whining, hammer in hand and nails in his mouth, building and wiring a room stockpiled with baby food at the Cranks Creek Survival Center. "Survival is a big word," says Annie Napier, and "not just a word." The struggle included politics: the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth successful drive to end the broad-form deed that voids people's rights on their own land; the lawsuits and mobilizations to obtain reparations from the coal companies responsible for disastrous floods and landslides in Cranks Creek and Cumberland; the need to stop the destruction of the last resource of the land, the clear-cutting of its forests; and, of course, the continued presence of the union, at least in other parts of the county.

But it went deeper than that: the people of Harlan might be unable to even conceive sinking the capitalist system into the pits of hell but were using all of their resources—physical, economic, and most of all, culturalto prevent that system, by whatever name they knew it, from destroying their bodies, their water, their trees, their land, and their minds.

This—in free affluent America, at the end of history.

Part IV

History is another idea I had to redefine. On our first interview, Becky Simpson told me the following story, about a man who "Actually he was the first one that was known to live on Cranks Creek. That was down here at the mouth of the holler—[at the crossing of routes] 421 and 68. The sycamore tree was there, that he lived in the trunk of. And he had his stove, he had his table, he had his bed in that tree. That's a good-sized tree, ain't it."

If Harlan County has a foundation myth, it must be the story of George Burkhart, an Indian fighter and scout from Virginia, of Dutch (i.e., German) descent, who came to Cranks Creek probably around 1806. He was apparently born in 1741, is first documented as owning two tracts of land on Cranks Creek in 1806, was remarried in 1833 and died in 1849 or 1850. This is how his story was recapitulated by the local newspaper, drawing from oral sources: "They had two beds and a fire place with a fluke. One of the beds was in one of the roots of the tree where a man could roll up in blankets and sleep comfortably for the night. Burkhart was from Virginia. Isaac Burkhart was born in the sycamore tree house. Isaac told that they had a brush fence around the sycamore tree to keep the bears out. They kept some sheep within the enclosure and bears would come around the fence at night and try to grab the sheep. One night they became very frightened as a bear got inside the enclosure, and put his feet on top of the fence. At this point Isaac's mother grabbed a gun as the bear jumped back. She fired the gun, shot the bear, and killed it."

This, of course, is a story about the rootedness of a history that begins literally inside a tree, within nature rather than close to it. This history immediately confronts nature in terms of danger and death: stories of bears and bear huntings are almost as pervasive as snake stories in the area. But the most impressive aspect of the story is that these origins are still within the span of human memory. Harlan, at the end of history, literally remembers its beginnings, a time when the land was only the animals and the trees. The settling of the land and the beginning of the country are a matter of a few generations. Mildred Shackleford, poet and deep miner, told me: "There's always been some of us [Shacklefords] living there. What was it? Seventeen [hundred] and eighty-seven I guess was when our first family came to Harlan County. It was '87, I guess. My grandfather's grandfather was a Revolutionary soldier, and he had got turned loose from the Continental army and he moved to Kentucky to settle. He still had his uniform when he got there. [He settled] on the Harlan-Bell county line. His name was Benjamin Shackleford. Had a whole slew of kids. His kids had a whole slew of kids. And so we always, for a long time . . ." (I was later able to check the basic accuracy of this family narrative).

"I seed de beginnin', en now I sees de endin," says Dilsey, the powerful black survivor in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Harlan County remembers seeing the beginning—the trees and the bears, settlement, frontier, revolution, civil war; it remembers the industrial revolution, the flush times, 1910, when the train came to Harlan and connected its coalfields to the world; the hard times, the hunger, the dying babies, the desperate struggles, the Communists and the repression of the 1920s and 1930s; and it has seen the deindustrialization, the mass migration that halved its population in less than 20 years, from over 70,000 in 1950 to less than 40,000; the destruction and contamination of the environment; the onset of drugs, unemployment, social anomie.

Here I was, straight from a country that has been lived-in forever, with its slow history of Comuni, Signorie, the slow formation of the nation-state. In Harlan, one senses how brief and temporary have been the historic eras—pre-industrial, industrial, post-industrial—and how non-linear they were. Our archaic past, and our looming future—it is all within living memory, and part of the same experience. Mildred Shackleford speaks about growing up in Harlan in the 1950s in these terms:

Sort of like growing up on two worlds, one world you'd go to school and there was this modern day stuff like television and telephones, people's talking 'bout rocket ships, and we'd come home from school and here our grandparents, both of them, my grandfather'd been born in a one room log cabin with a dirt floor, and my grandmother had been a little better off than he was, but not much. And it was just like living a hundred years in the past and then in the future, too.

Is Chester Napier pre-modern (the snake and bear stories in the log cabin), modern (the big industrial city of Chicago, the trucks and the mines), post-modern (no longer related to the time and space of work), all of the above, none of the above? And do any of the above make sense, and how, in Harlan County USA, maelstrom of history?

On my first trip to Harlan, I met Lydia Shackleford, Annie Napier's oldest half-sister. I first interviewed her in the used clothes store she had in Pennington Gap, on the other side of the mountains. She was a preacher, and she talked of snakes and miracles. Only after leaving Harlan, on my way back to a more urban environment, did I realize that I had never met a person more distant from me in every possible way—and yet it had seemed so perfectly natural, so easy when I was with her. On each later trip, I went to her church. She prayed over me, greeted me and took me in the fold, but never tried to convert me or to save me. She knew I was different; she could perhaps not even articulate the terms of my difference, but she respected it.

Her nephew Junior Day, guitar player and exhorter, worked and lived with her. On the first night of the trip documented in this essay, at the Simpson's place in Cranks Creek, as we sat around in the parlor, I looked at him. He wore a "Support our troops in the Gulf" T-shirt. He was almost the direct opposite of me—religiously, politically, intellectually, even physically. So why did I feel so warmly about him? And it dawned on me: these people are kin, are family; you accept them nevertheless unquestioningly. Then Lydia made us stand up in a circle, we joined hands, and—devoutly and off key—she raised "Amazing Grace."

Lydia died in the fall of 1998. Together with Becky Ruth Brae's song, this work is dedicated to her.

~ End ~

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Notes for Parts II-IV:
  1. A. Accardo, et al., eds., Un'altra America. Letteratura e cultura degli Appalachi meridionali (Rome: Bulzoni, 1991). [Return]
  2. A. Portelli and F. Pellegrini, eds., L'America della contestazione (Dischi del Sole DS 179/81). [Return]
  3. "Miner's Lifeguard," performed by the Almanac Singers in Talking Union (Folkways Records FW 5285). [Return]

I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~ A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky
Copyright © 1999 by The Journal for MultiMedia History