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

The Transcript
Part II

Charles Hardy III & Alessandro Portelli

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Becky Ruth Brae:
"Smokey Mountain Sunday Morn" (music)
Just little white church in the mountains
At the end of that old black tar road.
Well, I found me a friend
I will have good memories,
And wish on the savor and lord.

And we would pray for the sick
And we'd pray for the rain
And God bless the beans and the corn.
And we would sing songs of praise
In my childhood days
On a Smokey Mountain Sunday morn.

We would lift up the lost and the needy
Thanking God for his apples of life
And although we were poor
We had so much more
Than money could ever buy.

And we'd pray for the sick
And we'd pray for the rain
Sing God bless the beans and the corn
And we would sing songs of praise
In my childhood days
On a Smokey Mountain Sunday Morn.

Many years now have passed since my childhood
And that little white church house is gone.
Oh, I often think back to that small mountain shack
And all the love that my life's built upon
Well, we'd pray for the sick

And we'd pray for the rain
And God bless the beans and the corn
And we would sing songs of praise
In my childhood days
On a Smokey Mountain Sunday Morn

And we still sing songs of praise
From my childhood days
On a Smokey Mountain Sunday Morn.

Chester Napier: Our closest neighbor was approximately a mile away. And there wasn't many families in there, so. And everybody was just like family, you know, the whole [inaudible]. We'd go pick beans all day. And the rest of the neighbors, they would gather round the next day and help us work them beans up. We'd can beans. We'd dry beans. And we'd pickle beans. We didn't pickle beans like they do today in a quart jar. We put them in a 55-gallon oak barrel. And corn. We pickled it the same way. Kraut, we had a 35-gallon barrel for sauerkraut. So I guess we lived just about like the pioneers did.
Q: That's something that I always moved me about this part of the country that it's so near and yet, you know, it's so much like the beginnings.
Annie Napier: So much like the beginnings and yet so modern, too, to what it was when I was growing up. See, they didn't even have highways in the part of Smith where I was raised at when I was growing up. All they had was wagon roads. A lot of people still used the horse and wagon. And back where we lived out in the mountain there wasn't anything back there but a wagon road.

Portelli: Well, ever since I began work in Harlan I had this question. What does the title of the movie Harlan County, USA mean exactly? Because, I mean, it does not mean that all of USA is like Harlan County. To some people, and maybe in the intention of the authors, it's an oxymoron. It's a contradiction. How can such a place exist in the United States? 

Chester: I guess we was just about like the Indians back in the mountain where we was raised at.
Q: In what ways?
Chester: Oh, we just, you know, we just hunted and fished and would raise all of what we would eat from just a hillside farm. Use horses, didn't have a tractor or anything. Have no automobile. Where we went, we walked. We'd walk from where we lived at into Rose Hill, Virginia, and carry our food back, either on our back or on a horse or a mule.
Q: You're talking about the forties. 
Chester: I'm talking about the forties and fifties. So in the fifties well, we made moonshine and sold it. During the summer we'd pick huckleberries, blackberries; sell them. The huckleberries we'd carry into Virginia, sell for a dollar a gallon. The blackberries we only got a quarter a gallon. But we'd get enough money from that to buy clothes and some food for the winter. Mostly what we bought for in the food line was cornmeal and lard, beans, soup beans, what we got pinto beans. We call 'em soup beans yet today. So it was a rough life but a good life. 

Q: Well I had the microphone off, of course. So, Lowell Wagner, and you live in Jackson, County.
Lowell Wagner: I live in Jackson County right.
Q: OK. And you were here in?
Lowell: I came here in 1968. I came here to work with the VISTAs or the Appalachian Volunteers back in 1968, but I was originally from Virginia And I felt a real kinship between this part of the United States and the Third World culture that I experienced in the Peace Corps. There was a lot more personal relations, things were slower, people seemed more interested in how they related to one another than they might have in the mainstream culture. Those were the things, I guess, that attracted me, and just the physical beauty of the place. Although I knew that there were some things like wherever you had coal controlling things . . . environmental things like pollution and strip mining and stuff that, you know, were sort of detrimental to the way people lived. 

Q: She was part Cherokee, wasn't she? 
Chester: Yes, yes. She was part Cherokee. And I got Cherokee coming in on both sides, my mother's side and Dad's side, too, so, I guess I'm still like, in a way, like pioneers. I like to hunt and fish. I raise a lot of my own food that I eat. It's still, like I said, when I was a kid we was raised just about like the pioneers. I guess they'd call it a Third World country. But we loved it. We may not have had much, but we had love. 

Portelli: As for being an Italian doing this, I got all sorts of reactions. It's the first thing people told me as soon as I started doing this Appalachian thing. For one thing, why are you studying Appalachia and why aren't you studying Las Vegas, Hollywood? And my sense is that, as you've said, Americans have been studying us and of course they do expect us to study you, but not the way you study us. We're being studied, on the one hand and on the other hand we should learn from America. 
Charles Hardy III: We diagnose you and you emulate us is the traditional formula. 
Portelli: Yes. I mean, God knows, we need diagnosis and there's a lot to emulate. But on the other hand, you need some diagnosis, too, although that's not what I'm here for. That's the other great thing that Mildred told me. My friend Mildred Shackelford. She's a woman miner. She's a poet. She's a political organizer. And she said—because I asked her—I said, "Look, what am I doing right? Why are people talking to me?" And she says, [Shackelford on other channel] "Well, first of all, you're not from New York. You're not from Chicago. You're not from Lexington. You're not from Louisville." And I said, "Okay, I'm not from where power comes from." She says, "Right." 

And immediately you see that—well, I formulated this in an article once. It's called "Two Peripheries Talking to Each Other." And it's a strange definition of peripheries because Rome, after all, is not exactly—it's not Caput Munde, it's not the center of the world anymore. And on the other hand, these people may be marginal, but they're United States. So, it's contradictory there. And then [Shackelford on other channel] she went on and she said, "Also, you don't have anything to teach us." She says, "Now if you were a coal miner from Wales and you were telling us about mine safety, people will listen to you. But you're only listening to us. You're only trying to gather a little knowledge."

And so ultimately, you know, I've talked about fieldwork as an experiment in equality. And that's what it turned out to be. The reason I was able to have access to something was that there was no sense of me being superior. Basically because I was Italian. Of course, on the other hand, anybody who's from across the waters is a Russian or a Communist but that didn't come up much. I've never put it this way, but it's really been an experiment in equality because I don't have any power over them. On the other hand, they don't know that the Italian State Oil Conglomerate, ANI, owns coal mines in Kentucky and uses non-union labor and all sorts of terrible things. 


Arthur Johnson:
"Lost Creek" (music)
I went down the road to see my gal
I went down the road to see my gal
They said she was gone with my best pal.

My friends up on Lost Creek are gone
My friends up on Lost Creek are gone
It looks like I'm left here all alone.

I moved up to Jeff in '29
Why I moved up to Jeff in '29
I heard that the work up there was fine.

I worked hard from dawn 'til setting sun
I worked hard from dawn 'til setting sun
They paid me my 20 cents a ton.

Last half I didn't get much pay
Oh the last half I didn't get much pay
They said I'd laid off about three days.

Got a brand new pair of safety toe shoes
Got me a new pair of safety toe shoes
And I lose these coal miners blues.

John L. Lewis is our best friend
I said John L. Lewis is our best friend
He will stick with the miner to the end.

Now I got that new pair of safety toe shoes
Got of new pair of safety toe shoes
Still got the new pair of safety toe shoes
And I lose these coal miner blues. 

Annie Napier: Yes? 
Q: Okay. I think it works. 
Annie: You got it working, huh? 
Q: I got it working. 
Annie: Okay. That'll work. 
Q: One thing we should remember is, we've talked to each other so many times that we can—it's hard to say anything new. But we're probably going to use this tape for people who haven't heard about you, so let's just keep it natural, but remember that there's another possible audience for this.
Annie: Another possible audience for this. 
Q: Okay. Just to get started. 
Annie: What do you want to know about me? 
Q: Oh, everything. Why don't you just tell me about what you did today, what time you got up, you know, these things, your work day. 
Annie: Well, I got up at six o'clock this morning, and then I went out and drove a school bus until one, and come back in home to referee the kids until bedtime. And it's not too bad. Well, we're going to play music after a while. At least that's fun. That's not working. Yeah. 
Q: How long have you been driving a school bus? 
Annie: About five years. 
Q: Five Years. Now is it a full-time job? 

Portelli: And one of the reasons I got involved with this, this fieldwork at Harlan was also part of a bigger research and teaching project in Rome that we call the Appalachian Project, and we still have an exchange program with the University of Kentucky and the reason we did that was partly that we wanted a hometown. We wanted to be able to look at American culture from an internal point of view. To combine the facts. You know, the advantage that we're foreigners, we're outsiders, we get that perspective. But we also wanted to get it from the inside, and to be able to say, "Okay, what is this going to mean in Kentucky? This is going to mean in Harlan." And to me, "How's this going to affect Annie Napier and her family?"

Music Makers at Annie's: All that mud back in there. Never be like it was. Hey Mike, we just escaped by the mercy of the Lord. Four foot of water displaced there.
Annie: You'll get to feelin' better. I want to see it.
Man: Go out there and get it, Junior. Bring it in here and beat them strings out.
Woman: Every time I feel bad, I get my old guitar out and start feelin' good.
Man: Alright, Annie, your turn. 

Annie: We tried to rob bumble bees for honey. Bumble bees don't make honey. But boy do they have stingers. If you think about the way we growed up, it was a miracle that we survived. When a baby's born, the first thing is, when a baby's born, all odds in the world is against it, back when I was growing up. The first thing, the houses are so cold, they're lucky to survive. Most of them is born underweight because of nutrition. But then after you get the little critters here, they start doctoring them with these homemade remedies. First thing you do is make you a sugar tit. You know what a sugar tit is? 
Q: Like a piece of cloth with water and sugar? 
Annie: Right. Then they give you catnip tea, which gives you a chronic bellyache. I know that for a fact. Liked to kill Becky Root. And then you got all the childhood diseases to go through—measles, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough. Typhoid fever went around here back in the fifties. I guess it was back in the fifties, late forties, early fifties, from a flood, which one of my uncle's little babies died. And you just think about survival, you know. Before you're ever two years old, you've already beat the odds of survival.
Q: Well, you know, survival is another big word here. I remember the first time I went to—well, the first time I came here, actually. And I knew that the center was called Survival Center, but I'm an intellectual, I'm an academic, and I thought it was a metaphor, it was a figure of speech. And then I got there, and there was baby food piled up to the ceiling. I asked Bob, "Well, what is this? What is this for?" He said, "Well, hungry people." So I realized, when people talk about survival here, it's not a figure of speech. 
Annie: It's not just a word.

 Becky Ruth Brae:
"Candles on the Table" (music) 
The Candles on the Table
Its burning way down low
And I must have checked that driveway
Every half hour or so. 

.  .  .  . 

Darling, I don't need all those things you're working for
I need you here, here with me so much more
I get so tired 

This house, oh this house, this old house
Just ain't a home. 

Chester Napier: When I was a teenager, Smith and Joneses creek, that was the two of the roughest places around here. Well, I started carrying a pistol when I was about 12 years old, and I've carried one ever since and I still carry one.
Q: Why was it so rough?
Annie: Well, I guess they were just carry-overs, you know from years gone by. Everybody fight. Didn't believe in no law. If you had a problem with somebody, you just walked out and you fought it out and the best man was the winner. 
Q: Carry-overs from what? Like family feuds?
Annie: Ah, just carry-overs, I guess from where there was so many, was so many killed in the Smith [inaudible]. Then there was on the lower end of it there, it was the Middletons, and we had a rival with them. And they, when we got in their part, and we'd fight; they'd come to our part, we'd fight. So they were really, the Middletons were really rough people, Middletons and Delmans and Stevens, they were really rough people. I mean, when you were driving a car past, they fought amongst each other. Sometimes it was dangerous to drive a car past their houses where one would be on one side of the road shooting at the other; they'd be shooting at each other. And sometimes you'd have to stop and wait till they quit shooting.
Q: What was the rivalry about?
Annie: I don't really know. It was there when, like I said, when I was, I guess I helped carry it on. 

Becky Ruth Brae's "Candles on the Table" (music)


Q: Okay, I think we got it going now. Okay, can you tell me your names and ages and the name of this place?

Bill Gent: This here was Kildov, but they changed it to Kildave according to that sign over there. And her name is Omy Gent. And she's 78 years old. And mine is William Gent, and I am 48 years. 

Portelli: And one thing about this project is each trip opens up new areas, and this whole conversation with William Gent—I'm going back to interview him again and his friends and the other veterans that he knows. That is a very hard level to crack, in fact. Because ultimately the people who are really, really excluded, really, really marginalized, are very hard to talk to, are very hard to reach. 

Q: Have you been living around here all your lives more or less? 
Bill: Pretty well. We's born in Blackie, on a place called Gent Mountain, and the, well, Mom, she grew up there, even went to school there in the city. And I went some when I used to stay with my grandmother. And we went to Michigan for a while and back, when we come back, some over here went back to Michigan. So I am in and out the last 18 years I guess it is we've been here. Don't travel much anymore. 

Portelli: But the reason I got to William Gent was that Annie Napier drives a school bus to his community. So she met him. And she told me, "You got to interview this man." And she also told me—the way he looks and the way he—you can be turned off, but he is really a very, very sensitive person. And so talk to him. 

Bill: [Coughs] Smoking too much. When I get nervous or something or real nervous I have one right after the other. 
Q: You have bad nerves? 
Bill: Yeah. When I get nervous, I can't stand to balance anything, I take off and walk, so it helps, quiets me down some. Find me something to do to keep my thoughts occupied and I'll quiet back down. 
Q: You mean you feel like some excitement mounting up, you say? 
Bill: And too, then, sometimes you have one of them days that where small things come closing in on you, and you feel like grabbing your hair and pulling it out. And I'd get out and walk sometimes until I wound up up there and talked to Lou Anne there and pretty well told, be all nervous or something I'll start to be looking off in the distance, not paying attention when, "Heh, wake up in there, your brain is falling asleep." [Laughs] Tickled me. 

Portelli: The other thing about William Gent is—and that has to do with the dialogue. The actual reason I wanted to talk to him was I wanted to hear about Vietnam. But I also knew from Annie that he wouldn't talk about this when his mother was there, because his mother just could not take those stories. They would make her very ill, very nervous. So halfway through the interview I asked him, "Were you ever in the Army?" He said, "No." 

(Overlay: Bill) Q: Were you in the service at all? 
Bill: No, no, I wasn't in the service. I didn't make it. I wish I had have though. But I never made it. 

Portelli: And I let it go at that. And then we kept talking and the interview was over and I left and we said goodbye and then I decided to go back. I was out of film or something, so I got some film and I decided to go back and take his picture because in that case, the visual was very important and I wanted his picture. So I went back and took the pictures. He walked me to the porch and he said, "I didn't tell you the truth before. I was in Vietnam." So I said, "Could we talk about it?" And he said, "Yes." And we went and sat in the car. And it was raining and thunder and things. 

SFX: Rain 

Q: You were talking—you did go to Vietnam. 
Bill: Seven different times, pulled 18 months ever time I went. Wounded several times. A small kid. One was about seven, the other one about nine. One of the two girls. One was shot. Hit in the shoulder. Spun me around, and the second one throwed a hand grenade and the fragment hit me in the back and then when I straightened back up, the first girl shot me again, hit me right in the breast, knocked me and took me down. And that was, some of my buddies got them. I didn't know they was kids. That aggravated me to death for ever so long, you know, on account of that . . .
Q: What unit were you in? 
Bill: The B company, 3rd platoon. And I was in special forces, or Green Berets. I went in '62, was 14 years old. I lied about my age. And I had a friend of mine. And he also was in 'Nam with me. We both was the same age. We passed for twins. His uncle signed my papers as my guardian and he signed my papers for 17 years old. That I was 17 but I lost my birth certificate and stuff and I hadn't got 'em back yet. But they was in which was a flib and Uncle Sam wasn't too choosy to question you know us about it. They sized me up a little bit. But they accepted it. 

Portelli: And the reason that Annie wanted me to talk to him was for one thing he would feel good if somebody went and talked to him. And for another reason, he was a Vietnam veteran and he had stories about that. Interestingly, the first story he told was about a snake. 

Bill: They sent us out, there's seven of us was sharp shooters? They sent us out at to find bodies and disrupt their communications, take out many of the officers that we could or whatever. Knock out everything. But we had to avoid any of the enemy, avoid a fight with 'em till we got to where we goin', our objective and knock it out and then we could on the return, if we faced the enemy we could fight 'em or go on. And we, a small patrol come by and we all had to find something to hide behind out of the way so we wouldn't bump into 'em. And I thought it was a down tree land that fell, and I laid down behind hit and I laid my rifle up on across it. And I was laying there. I started wiggling a little bit, moving, and I knowed there's a couple of guys on each side of me, behind me, and I thought it might have been one of them, bumping, trying to get my attention or something. And I looked around and that, it wasn't him, he was eight foot away from me. I looked the other way, and I turned on around and the other one was about the same distance. I turned back around, big, old snake I was laying aside of, it turned its head around, it was looking me right in the face. I couldn't afford to get up because the enemy if it had a spied me, we would have had to fight and they ruin our mission. And I thought about being' scared, that's the worst scare I ever got, that predicament.
Q: So you were more scared of that snake than—
Bill: Than I was the enemy. I'd rather face a hundred Cong by myself, than that one snake, you know with a whole platoon.

Portelli: And then of course, there's this whole religious thing about snakes and snake handling. A snake is something that has to do with a confrontation with death. And I think this is why William Gent talks about the snake. The first story he tells, he' going to tell me about Vietnam, but the first thing he says was he's confronted with this huge snake. It's a powerful concentration of the spirit, of nature, of death, of danger, and also of something very, very familiar. 

Prayer at Riverside

Riverside Church Music: "Travelling the Highway Home"

Hiram Day: (missing song lyrics) 


Song: "I Can Almost See the Lights"

Hardy: Okay. Let's talk about some of the tape that we're going to be working with. You did interviews with a half dozen different people. Can you tell me about the one or two moments that absolutely stand out, that you had one of those moments of epiphany and you said, "This I'm going to use."
Portelli: Okay, one was a story of seeing the light of the city. It's not final, but at this point I see it as a title for the whole project. "I Can Almost See the Light of the City."

(Hiram on right channel)

Hardy Is this "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home?" "I Can Almost See the of—
Portelli: The song is "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home." And then the story is about the city. "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home." Yes. So I can think of it as a title because it's both otherworldly, but then very concrete, and has to do with, of course, this theme of death and the road and symbolism. So that was one moment.

And then, of course, the interview with Dee Dee, with Annie's granddaughter, which had this great line, "What do you study in school?" And she says, "Kentucky history and that Lincoln freed the slaves, and Daniel Boone," [Dee Dee on right channel] and she mixes them up. And then she has this incredible nursery rhyme. And it's "Rock Around the Clock," and you can see what happens to "Rock Around the Clock," but it gets drawn into that culture, that "Twelve O'clock Rock," it's midnight and midnight is ghosts. [Montage of Dee Dee reciting ghost rhyme] So you can really see what they're doing with mass culture over there. And, of course, you can see the obsession with death and ghosts. That was one moment.

(Fade up) Dee Dee:
Peaches, pumpkin, apple pie,
If the ghosts in the graveyard ain't ready, holler "Aye." 


Annie Napier: It's something, I'll tell you. You get into folklore and ghost stories. Bout everybody's got a ghost story. you know, They 're all over. Yeah., they are. But now some people can't never see nothing... Its weird but. I've seen things I wished I hadn't seen. . . . But, I reckon I am the only in the family that can do that. Except since Johnny died. Becky and Bob says he walks in the house. So, I don't know. 

Hardy: So why your interest in death?
Portelli: Well, it's not that I'm interested in death, or maybe I am. 
Hardy: It would seem that if that's the theme that's emerging from the set of interviews you did last October, you've brought something with you.
Portelli: Well, it had been emerging for a long time. In fact this . . . 

SFX: Crickets 

Annie: Yeah. Well, Chester's brother died last September with cancer, and then Liddie liked to cut her foot off in October, and she don't believe in a doctor, so she didn't even go have it stitched up. She liked to bled to death, and that laid her up for a couple of months. And then Johnny died. And then in May, Uncle Charles got killed in that car wreck, and one of my cousins died at the same time. It's just—you know. But there's a lot of good things happened, too. 

Portelli: Well, I'll tell you why I'm interested in death though. The road I live on in Rome is called Via Casia, and it's been there for 2,500 years, because it's the first road that the Romans built when they fought and won their first major war with this town of Veyam, ten miles away from Rome. And as I swing into the road, just across the street there's a slab with the names of 14 people who were killed by the Nazis in June 1944. But before that, there's a small ribbon and a bunch of flowers always there just by the roadside. And that's where this Polish immigrant got killed by a car. And as you drive, well, there's a lot of these shrines that people have been creating all over the city, to make sense of people, especially of young people who have died in car wrecks or motorcycle accidents. And then you drive further on and the next little neighborhood is called Tomb Bar a Neroni, which means Nero's Tomb, that's a big Roman tomb. It's supposed to be where the Emperor Nero is buried. So death again. And you know, you walk along this road and you're confronted with the fact that death is there. 

Becky Ruth Brae:
"I Can Fly" (music)
A late night drive down the highway
Claimed an old friend of mine
He was gone before I got there
No time to say goodbye

Now I often think about him
And in my dreams I find
That he's still the same as he used to be
And no my friend can fly

He can fly high,
Up there in the sky
Way up in Heaven
With all the angels on high
And I find I'm looking forward
To joining him some day
Hand in hand we'll fly together
Across the USA

Sometimes it gets hard, holding on
There are days when I think
That I'll surely fall
Oh, but when my feet start dragging
I just close my eyes
And I lift me head towards heaven
And watch as he goes by

And he can fly 
Up there in the sky
Way up in Heaven
With all the angels on high
And I find I'm looking forward
To joining him some day
Hand in hand we'll fly together
Across the USA

Annie: Now if you want to get some racket go down there and startle them geese. And watch yourself you'll get bit.
Q: What is the story?
Annie: Sandro was asking you about that song, about the story.
Becky Ruth: 'Bout "He Can Fly?" You know Becky and his son got killed—Ricky. And when we were little, Ricky was always the daredevil. He was the daredevil of the bunch. I mean if you dared him to do anything he would do it. That's just the way he was, you know. He was just a little wild child. Really. But we used to have this spot behind my grandma's house. Just this level spot of ground and there's this big tree there and there's this big grapevine on it. And we used to go out there and swing on this grape vine when we were little and I mean we would wing out with no ground underneath it, nothing but a cliff. And he was more daring to do that than anybody else. I never will forget he would go out on that grapevine and he would say "Look at me Becky Ruth," he said, "I can fly." And so that kind of that stayed in my mind. And when he died I said, "Yeah, honey, you can fly now." So that promoted the song. That's where it came from. 

Hardy: . . . and you're confronted by the fact that death is near. 

SFX: Crickets 

Portelli: Well, I've been sheltered from death for a long time. I didn't have much to do with death. And I've always been troubled by how familiar with death my sons are. Teenage suicides, two in my son's school. Motorcycle accidents. Car accidents. Drugs. 

So you go to Harlan and it's right there on the surface. Because it's very private on my street. All the shrines, they're all very private. Death is a very private experience and it's not talked about much. And over there it's all over the place and it's what the culture is about, on the one hand. On the other hand, they're fighting it. I mean, they're talking about survival. And I've always admired the way in which people fight back under impossible odds and survive. Especially in a country like America where you're not supposed to have impossible odds against you. You're supposed to be in pursuit of happiness. Well, you don't see much pursuit of happiness in Harlan County. But you see the persistence of life in the face of death and the context of death. 

And ultimately, I guess that's another form of class struggle. That's one of the ways in which class struggle is taking place now.

SFX: Crickets fade out 

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