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

The Transcript
Part I

Charles Hardy III & Alessandro Portelli

The script of the aural essay "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home" begins below and is included here for reference. We have divided the script into four sections for faster browser loading. It is best not to read along while listening.

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Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains, 1990, Malcolm Wilson. Source: The Appalachian Archive, Southeast Community College, Cumberland, Kentucky. Used with permission.
Cades Cove, 1990, Malcolm Wilson.
Source: The Appalachian Archive, Southeast
Community College, Cumberland, Kentucky.
Used with permission.
Sound Effects (SFX): Saw mill behind the Gents 

Dee Dee Napier:
One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock rock
Four o'clock, five o'clock, six o'clock rock
Seven o'clock, eight o'clock, nine o'clock rock
Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, midnight.
Peaches, pumpkin, apple pie,
If the ghosts in the graveyard ain't ready, holler "Aye." 

Music: "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home"


In June, 1983, University of Rome professor Alessandro Portelli traveled to Harlan County, Kentucky, in search of the class struggle in the United States. A literary scholar and political activist, Portelli has returned almost every year since to conduct oral history interviews that explore the shared memories and culture of some folks who live in an isolated corner of the southern Appalachians. 

In October 1996, Portelli returned to Harlan to tape a new set of interviews with a portable DAT recorder and stereo microphone. What emerged from these three days of recording were a series of connections: connections between the residents of Harlan County and people in Third World nations, not only in their poverty and exploitation by outside business interests, but in their complex relationship to nature and the importance they place on family and place; connections between the violence of the rural South and the war in Vietnam where so many young Kentuckians fought during the 1960s and 1970s; connections in a shared search for the meaning of life by Portelli in Rome, Italy, and his friends in Crank's Creek, USA. In Harlan County, Kentucky, Portelli found a world in which death and the supernatural are a constant presence. Here, too, he recognized the broad sweeps of American history: of a people who grew up on a wilderness frontier, who watched the industrial revolution come and go, and who now confront the forces of the post-industrial world. What began as a search for the class struggle in the United States has over the years expanded into a complex story of an extraordinary people, and a researcher who has found new roots. Welcome to "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~ A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky."

Hiram Day: recites lyrics of song


Hardy: Ah, there we go. Yes. I see it moving. Okay. 
Portelli: Are you ready? 
Hardy: Yes. I should be on mic two. We've got our two-track mono going here. I'll move that down a little bit. Let's start from the beginning. Last October, you went back to Harlan County, and you did a series of new interviews. What were you trying to get? 
Portelli: Well, basically I was trying to get some decent sounding tape and try to experiment on using another medium to present my findings. I began fieldwork in Harlan County in '86. So that was ten years. Also, for the first time, I was getting a chance to air some of my views in front of people in the community. Because there was a seminar that the University of Kentucky was setting up in Benham, which is one of the mining towns in Harlan, and I got a chance to speak to them. 

SFX: audience chatter

Portelli (at Benham): Well. Thank you. And it's really from the heart because I've been wanting to come here for 30 years ever since the sixties, of course, when everybody wanted to come to Harlan County. Fortunately, I didn't And I did some study previous. It took me about 20 years. I finally made it. And I've been coming here almost every year, and depending on whether I could afford it for the last ten years or so. And last night I ran into a friend in the streets of Whitesburg and he says, "How come you're here?" And my response was, "Well, I needed to touch my roots." 


Bill Johnson:
"My Home Up in the Hills" (music) 
Come and see me in my home up in the hills
Where the mocking bird is singing by the rail
And the lonesome dove that sings at break of day
From my home I wander never far away.

When I was a lad a cabin was my home
As I watched the river flow I longed to roam
But as seasons come and go with friends so near
I enjoy my mountain home from year to year.

Friends and neighbors gathered round when work was done
'Neath the tree there in our yard that set off sun
Where we'd talk and sing of times both good and bad
Oh such memories of those folk make my heart glad.

Once I wandered from my home in search of fame
Sought for fortune and to make myself a name
Then one day a whistle blew along the track
Tell my ma her wanderin' boy is comin' back.

Many years have past and still the river flows
Late at night I listen to the wind that blows
Spring or summer, fall or when the winter chills
I shall ever be at home up in the hills.

Dee Dee Napier. Source: Annie Napier.
Dee Dee Napier.
Source: Annie
Portelli: And what do they make you read? Do they make you learn poems and recite things?
Dee Dee Napier: They just make us read in our reading book and our Kentucky history book.
Q: Okay. So what's Kentucky history about?
Dee Dee: It's about Kentucky and the first settlers.
Q: Alright. And what do they teach you about the first settlers? Like Daniel Boone? You've read about him?
Dee Dee: Uh-huh.
Q: What did you read about? Do you remember something about Daniel Boone from school?
Dee Dee: He freed thewell, the slaves or whatever they was, and he —
Q: I thought that was Abraham Lincoln. Was it Daniel Boone?
Dee Dee: He freed some slaves in some foreign country, and then he walked back there wherever it is, made that wild place, and they call it Boonesboro. 

Annie and Chester Napier. Source: Annie Napier.
Annie and Chester Napier.
Source: Annie Napier.
Annie Napier: Oh, I don't know if that was me or Chester who told you about that but there, there was ah, a tree down here at the foot of the hollow. And there was a man that raised a family of seven children in a tree stump. You can't imagine the stump being that big. 

Gladys Hoskins: And I came to Harlan when I was 15 and finished high school here. But that year I had gone to four high schools. We sort of followed the trees around. At that time, Harlan was just finishing the labor disputes and all the labor trouble that had been going on in Harlan County. 
Q: So that, that must have been '39—when was it?
Gladys: '37. And so it was really getting over. There was still some of that going on, but Harlan, at that time, did have that terrible reputation, which, as you know, has calmed down and it is a changed place. It's not as violent as it once was. 

Annie: And it's a thousand wonders any of us survived. I'm telling you the truth. . . . And you got a laxative once a month whether you needed it or not. I said, "No wonder I's sick," you'd sit in the outhouse for three days in the wintertime. [laughs]

(Underneath Bill Gent:) But you know, ah, just to think back, you know, how we'd growed up and I never have found out why they put a dime on a string, it had to be a silver dime and they'd put it on a string and a kid wore it around their neck. I don't know what that was for. I never have found that out. And one of the things they did for colic. You know what a sowlbug is?
Q: No.
Annie: You know what a pillbug is?
Q: No.
Annie: Well that's a scientific word for it's a pillbug. It's little ole bug about that long.

William (Bill) and Omie  Gent. Source: Annie Napier.
William (Bill) and Omie Gent. Source: Annie Napier.
Bill Gent: We owned our own property and stuff but where you know generated down, handed one generation to the other down so that it'd the property would be owned and most the stuff it was ate ate, grew you know up then then, hogs, chickens, cows E'en for milk, butter and this such. Most of the camp folk they would some of the some maybe a house raised or some or built the brothers, the sisters, the cousins, whatever, come in and it'd all putted it together. And in 'bout half a day it was done. 

Annie Napier: And what it looks like is a little bitty armadillo. You find 'em under a rotten wood. You can touch em and they'll roll up in a little ball. For the colic, a baby's colic, they'd go under the floor and nine healthy sowlbugs.
Q: It had to be nine?
Annie: Nine.

(Underneath Gladys Hoskins:) How they ever found out they were healthy is beyond me 'cause they're all wrinkles. But they'd get nine bugs, put 'em in a white cloth and tie 'em up in a white cloth, and drop 'em in boiling water. And make like a tea. And they'd give the baby a teaspoonful of that sowlbug tea for the colic.

Gladys: And it is a changed place. It's not violent, as it once was. . . . It's certainly not true any more. And I'm glad of that. And Harlan is a beautiful place, and I found it to be a very warm and friendly place. At that time Harlan County had 75,000 people, which is just unbelievable now, to think that we're down to 37,000, and, of course, the mines were very, very active.

Annie: Chester had it. He also had polecat grease.
Q: Polecat?
Annie: You know what a skunk is?
Q: Yeah.
Annie: Well, they catch a skunk—this is for asthma—they kill a skunk, skin it, boil the whole polecat, and take its two hind legs, make the kid eat the two hind legs and over a period of weeks drink a pint of polecat grease.
Q: This was for asthma?
Annie: Asthma. It's supposed to cure asthma. It didn't.
Q: How 'bout sheep tea?

(Underneath Gladys Hoskins:) What was that for?
Annie: That was to break you out with measles. Sheep manure tea. That was to break the measles out.
Gladys: Because I can remember going to California. And we were in a restaurant in San Francisco, and Georgella was just little. . . . But the woman who owned the restaurant came over, and she said, "You have such nice, well-behaved children." And I said, "Well, they're very tired. We've come a long way." And she said, "And where are you from?" And we said, "Harlan, Kentucky." And she just sat down, and she said, "Oh, have you ever seen any television?" 

Bill Johnson's "Home Up in the Hills" continued. 

Annie: I'm a hillbilly. 
Q: Well what is a hillbilly? 
Annie: I don't really know what a hillbilly is. They call them a back woods person. But I ain't a back woods person because I've been in 38 states. 
Q: Plus, at least in Italy.
Annie: Yeah, and Canada.
Q: And Canada, yes.
Annie: But, I've drove through 38 states. I wouldn't classify myself as a hillbilly. But I am proud to be from the Appalachian Mountains. They call it Appalachian Mountains but the old people called it the Appalachee Mountain.

SFX: "Here kitty, kitty. What's that? What's this tape recorder? That tape recorder pointing to you?" 


Portelli: And then, I guess, the other thing I wanted to do was to bring out this whole dialogic thing. 
Hardy: How do you think we're going to do that? We have this series of interviews that you did in Harlan County, and really they're not complete. They're snapshots that we have of your ongoing relationship with these different people. All we have are these snapshots which fit into a greater continuity that only you understand.
Portelli: Well, for one thing I did try to make them talk about . . .

Portelli: . . . and this snake crawled into the house.
Chester Napier: Oh, yes, I was just five years old. So the snake he gets in bed with Dad and me. Every time we would move the snake would start rattling. That's what they call a rattle, what a rattlesnake does, so Dad he gets out and he goes on to work at the coal mines. Mother, she gets up and sets all of us kids out the window. We had one window in the house. So she sits us all out. She starts looking for the snake agin. So she hears something outside, and she goes, we had what we called a fireplace. It was where we kept the fire. It was just a chimbley that used about six-foot logs in it to keep the old house warm, and so she goes out there and the snake had bit a rat. And the rat was making a noise. And the snake was half in the house and half out of the house where it crawled through the logs. Between the logs we just had the clay mud to keep the weather out. Sometimes the mud would fall out. So she gets what we call a hoe that we work in the garden with. She chops the snake's head off. And my brothers, two oldest brothers, they bury the snake. And it still comes back later in the day to the top of the ground out from under where they buried it. And later on, oh, maybe six months later on, Mother was out barefooted, and where she had knocked the fang out of the head when she cut it off, she stepped on the fang. And she was in bed for a couple of months with that. Almost died, just same as, I guess it was same as a rattlesnake bite.

SFX: Prayer at Riverside.

SFX: Sound of windshield wipers. 

Portelli: And on the one hand the snake was a powerful symbol, because the snake is both—you know, the earth, nature. People tell snake stories all the time. They made snake jokes on me all the time. But I found things that went beyond that. And I remember . . . the epiphany was I was driving, I was actually driving a pick-up, so I felt very native. It was on one of those winding roads going from the area where the Brookside strike was in High Splint toward Harlantown. It was night. And I began to notice the roadkill, you know, animals lying on the road. And I was scared because it was a dangerous road and people drive very dangerously and in fact, a lot of people get killed in accidents. And I began to think of all the ways in which death is present. It goes from the animals to people killed in car accidents. Of course, the coal mining. And also violence. And black lung. And this very, very intense religion. And one of the symbols was the snake. And the snake is a powerful symbol. 

Liddy Surgener: You can really feel it. 'Cause I got saved. Said they shall take up servants. Now that is what you want to know about. Said they shall take up servants. And if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them. 


Liddy Surgener with Ricky and Dee Dee Napier. Source: Annie Napier.
Liddy Surgener with Ricky and Dee Dee
Napier. Source: Annie Napier.
Q: You were talking about miracles.
Liddy Surgener: Okay. I just know one, anyway. My finger. We's a workin' on the church, me and my brother-in-law and his little son, and he stood at a board. I told him to push the board in the floor, and it caught my finger and just clipped it off at the first joint, and I just went running to the house. And it was a miracle how the Lord visited with me and stopped the blood. The first thing I done, I had my nephew pour some oil on my finger, then the second thing, he got the washcloth and wet my face. The third thing, he got a little piece of cloth, and I was gonna cord it. And my eyes went toward the hill. The Bible says, "Lift up your eyes towards the hills from whence cometh thy help," said, "Thy help cometh from the Lord." See, you have to have the Bible to back you up. And from that, when my eyes left my finger, well, I had a vision, or a visit, with the Lord. And the first thing I saw was where Peter smote the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear, and Jesus healed that man's ear. That would have been Jesus' enemy. He healed his ear and told Peter to put up the sword, he didn't need no fighting. So there's two great messages in that one thought.

Second thing I saw was whenever Jesus asked that man that had the lame hand, the little wilted hand, he said, "Stretch forth your hand." It's that easy for the Lord to do for us. So he stretched forth his hand. He could have hid it, put it under his coat or behind him or anywhere, but he wouldn't have been healed. He had to obey the Lord. So there's two more messages: healing and obedience.

Then the third thing was whenever Ezekial was out in the bone yard, and the Lord, very dry, a valley, a whole valley of bones. The Lord asked him, "Can these bones live again?" He said, "Lord, God, you know." And no doubt Ezekial didn't know them bones could live again, but he knowed the Lord knowed. So he spoke it back to the Lord, and He give him permission to prophesy to the bones, and every bone went right back to place. Everything was there exception' the breath. Then He give him permission to prophesy to the wind, and when he prophesied to the wind, the wind just lowed on it, and stood up a great army.

Well, when I looked down at my finger, the blood had stopped. So it hasn't got no stitches, no doctor never seen it. You can see what it looks like. And after a—lacked one day of being a month, and that old finger growed off. I put that little tip back on there. It was right against the joint. So I just put it on there and wrapped it up. It lacked one day of staying a month. And my mother had a blood hemorrhage, so we seen two miracles, seen the Lord raise her up and seen the Lord heal my finger. So I've seen a lot of miracles, Sandro.

Hiram Day: God works miracles don't he. He works miracles for all of his folks. We could have already been gone. But it wasn't God's will for us to leave. You go down in those coal mines and pout up as many years as me and Brother Noye has and you are extra lucky to be here.


Becky Ruth Brae:
"Coal Miners" (music)
Coal mine, coal mine, you've claimed too many lives
Taken too many fathers from their children and wives
Oh, ain't you n'er gonna be satisfied
And stop taken' our men from the midst of our lives.

You sit up on the hill and you bide your time
For someone to come along to take a chance on his life
But he's doing the only thing that he knows how to do
He's been taught by his father, and he's nobody's fool.

Coal mines, coal mines, you claimed too many lives
You've taken too many fathers from their children and wives
Oh, ain't you never gonna be satisfied
And stop taken' our men from the midst of our lives.

He lays in the darkness in the coal, steel of morn
And today there'll be no sun to keep him happy and warm
And he knows tomorrow that it's gonna be the same
But he's workin' for a livin', not for fortune or fame.

So coal mines, coal mines, you've claimed too many lives
You've taken too many fathers from their children and wives
Oh, ain't you never gonna be satisfied
And stop taken' our men from the midst of our lives
Please stop taken' our men from the midst of our lives.

Coal miner with a pick. Source: The Appalachian
Archive, Southeast Community College, Cumberland,
Kentucky. Used with permission.
Bill Gent: Lady lives down the street here on the end. Her husband was killed where the mine stand here when it was running. Him and his brother-in-law and another guy, they went in on Christmas Eve. Company wanted some holes drilled and some charges set off so they'd have some coal ready for after Christmas. They went in there. Anyways, sunk the hole up, put the dynamite and stuff in. And when he backed up, got into the high voltage wire and it barbecued him, roasted him, killed him instantly. Like that, that much power, two or three thousand volts, something like that it went though. Killed him, and he was killed in that mine. That's 1956. Name of Robert Camel. 

Annie Napier: I growed up with strip mining, it's scary. 
Q: What's it do to you? 
Annie: Well, when we lived up in the hollow they stripped in front of the house. I must have been about seven or eight years old. And you'd wake up at morning to this gosh awful screeching and rocks coming off that mountain and, at that time they just stripped trees and all, you know, right over the hill. Sometimes rocks would jump plum over in our yard, from in front of the house. And when it gout behind the house it's worse than ever because it was coming right down at us. And I was terrified, I'll be honest with you. I'd growed up terrified. You was afraid to go in the yard to play.
Q: You never told me this before. 


Hiram Day and Annie Napier. Source: Annie Napier.
Music Makers at Napiers:
"The Night Old Crank's Creek Went Down" (music)
The night Ol' Crank's Creek went down,
The breezin' high water's all around.
The night Ol' Crank's Creek went down.

I like livin' in the country bein' free,
Like the mountains that God meant to be.
You can't put them back in place,
If they were misplaced,
I like livin' in the country bein' free.

We like livin' in the country bein' free,
You can go down late at night [inaudible] like the wind,
That bird had to flee, been livin' in a dream,

I like livin' in the country bein' free,
Like the mountains that God meant to be.
You can't put them back in place,
If they were misplaced,
I like livin' in the country bein' free.

I like livin' in the country bein' free
Back when this world was the water
When the boys come back home [inaudible] father,
Well the sorrow flied so high,
It nearly reached the sky,
I like livin' in the country bein' free.

I like livin' in the country bein' free,
Like the mountains that God meant to be.
You can't put them back in place,
If they were misplaced,
I like livin' in the country bein' free.

Gladys Hoskins: But the flood was horrible. It was absolutely horrible, that '77 flood. 
Q: Was the town hit very hard? 
Gladys: Yes. Yes, it was. And in the building next to this church, it was, I would say, five feet deep, the muddy, horrible water five feet deep in there. People lost their lives. The floods were horrible, that's all I can say about it, just horrible. 

Annie Napier: But when the flood started in '77, by '77 they had strip mined everything up in here, up in main Crank's Creek, because that's where the big coal seams was. That was where the good coal was at. But they'd also put it mostly all of it down into the rivers, too. And what it does, this whole thing will fill up with water, and all you got is like a lake, lake of water, and from time to time it busts. And you get all these trees and rocks and mud and car bodies, refrigerator bodies, bulldozer parts, everything's down into the creek bed, and the river don't have nowhere to go but out. 
Q. And it swept people's homes away? 
Annie: There was 37 homes damaged up there. One was completely washed away. That was my cousin's house. And Walt Reimer's house, it was tore all to the pieces, 'cause it was sitting on the edge of the river bank, and that log jam caught it. But it tore his house all to pieces.

Gladys: I have friends who, every time it rains, they keep calling me, "Do you think I ought to stay up all night?" Because they're so worried about it. And it was in my house.
Q: Was it?
Gladys: Yes.
Q: Did it do much damage?
Gladys: Yes, it sure did.

Q: Can you tell that story, how, how the Crank, or ah, the Survival Center came to be 'n what and what was the condition of the people after the floods?
Annie: Well it was just a complete disaster is all you can say about it. Nobody knew what to do, they didn't know how to go about doing nothing. They'd never been in that situation before. We had Red Cross that would give them blankets and clothing but beyond that nobody knew anything about, we'd never heard of reclamation or anything in that line of work. And Becky got it started. She got out and started going to meetings and the first thing they developed here was a flood control project. 

SFX: Sound of rain

Annie: Oh, I hate rainy weather.

Portelli: Well, I went to Harlan County looking for the class struggle. And the class struggle is still going on. Maybe not in terms of the unions but for instance right now, in terms of the environment. Annie Napier's family, all her kinfolks, all the people up in Crank's Creek, where I do most of my work, they got together first on the issue of strip mining, flooding, and now they're getting together again and they're getting organized again on the issue of cutting the trees. Timber. So this is one of those struggles that poor people keep waging against the corporations.

Napier family: . . . then its going to wash us away down here. They know that already.
Junior Day: Well the way they doin' it with bulldozers and stuff it's just, it's almost as bad as strip mining. 
Hiram: It's worse. They're making a road ever, like ever pitch it could 'round South Hill there, that bend it, it's much worse than strip mining. 
Woman's Voice: Well there's no laws against an Ingin they don't have these 'n.
Woman's Voice:—like trees for nothing back [inaudible] 
Woman's Voice: it's the [inaudible]'n
Annie: Well there ain't nothing left.
Man's Voice: That's what I said.
Annie: There ain't nothing left.
Junior: They, they ain't puttin' nothing back neither, they're not plantin' no trees. We really need to work on it.

Q: I remember the first time we talked about it. Ah, you told me that ah, you and some others had begun to inform the people of their rights and this. 
Annie: Right.
Q:—these, and these people didn't know they had rights. 
Annie: They didn't, they didn't know they had any rights. Um, it was just like "I'm here and that's it, I don't have no rights to say nothing about a coal company."
Q: That's something very, very tough to say when you, you know, you're talking about American citizens who are supposed to have more rights than anybody else in the world, which isn't true but they're taught they have rights and then when it comes to their own lives.
Annie: Right. Well see it goes back to you, you grow up with it. You're taught that you can't fight a coal company and win. Nobody's ever fought a coal company and won. You're wasting your time. They're very evil people, you know, they do things to the families. They do things to the young-uns. It goes back to when its organizing the union, you know, if you didn't go with the union, or if you went with the union, you was subject to get killed. But laws has changed since then. You do have rights. Everybody has rights.
Q: Except a lot of people don't know?
Annie: They don't know they have rights. Even if you're renting a house and it gets damaged by strip mining flood they're still responsible for what you've lost. The strip miners is responsible for what you've lost.
Q: Did they pay for any of the damage? 
Annie: M-hm. They paid 17 families.
Q: How'd you get them to pay? 
Annie: By going to court.
Q: Did you get support from outside groups?
Annie: Well, we got a lot of support from the Highlander Center, was where we got a lot of information and Lexington. We attended meetings everywhere and anywhere we could learn anything about it. And Hignman. We went to this big meetin' in Hignman. That was where this man from the State Department. Me and Bobby was there. We told him what happened here. And this man got up in back of the building and he said, "Don't you think that was an act of God?" And I said, "The rain was an act of God, but God didn't set that bulldozer on the side of that mountain and tear it all to hell either." Well, that man left. He didn't want to wait and talk to me when the meeting was over. But that's my feelings on it. 
Q: It's true. 
Annie: It's true. But, you know, after I thought about what I said, I thought, "God Almighty! I said that in front of 3,000 people." And I think it was probably televised, but I didn't care because it was the truth.
Hiram: Well they said, the last that I got there was 3,000 acres they had to take to build a log up in here.
Annie: We're in trouble. 
Woman's Voice: They'll be nobody left. But the trees and tree limbs and stuff. 

Annie: Oh, I don't, I don't know if that was me or Chester who told you about that but there, there was ah, a tree down here at the foot of the hollow. And there was a man that raised a family of seven children in a tree stump. You can't imagine the stump being that big, but he had an enormous amount of slaves.



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