Tag Archives: ballads

DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH: THE “STIR-OFF” – SORGHUM MOLASSES

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 16: Special Events

DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH:
STIR-OFF – SORGHUM MOLASSES

The following account details a “Stir-off” in 1944 at the home of “Uncle” Henry Creech, son of William and Sally Creech who lived approximately a mile northeast of the settlement school. “Uncle” was a common form of both respect and affection. Henry Creech, son of William Creech gave his land that Pine Mountain might begin its work educating families in the Pine Mountain valley in Harlan County, Kentucky. But,  Pine Mountain soon learned that education was born a twin and that they had much to learn from the community. The Creech home was a favorite gathering place for many who worked at the School and a rich learning environment for those interested in mountain ways and customs.  Uncle Henry was a man of many talents and one of those was his understanding of what makes a good batch of sorghum and more importantly, what makes a good neighbor.

A “stir-off” was a common community event in the early years of the School and one eagerly looked forward to by the children.  The warm, sweet sorghum, dipped out on long canes cut from the sugar cane stalk was enough to satisfy even the most discerning “sweet-tooth”.

[From 1944 NOTES]

STIR-OFF AT UNCLE HENRY’S 

Children's Stiroff - Mable and Ralph Cornett, Helen and Steve Hayes, David Barry, Mr. Creech, Kathy Barry, Elizabeth Dodd. September, 1946. nace_1_047a.jpg

Children’s Stiroff at Uncle Henry’s House – Mable and Ralph Cornett, Helen and Steve Hayes, David Barry, Mr. Creech, Kathy Barry, Elizabeth Dodd. September, 1946. nace_1_047a.jpg

GALLEY

DESCRIPTON OF A STIR-OFF AT UNCLE HENRY’S HOUSE ON ISAAC’S CREEK

“You who have been using the 1944 Pine Mountain calendar have during October looked many times at the picture of a “stir off” at Henry Creech’; place. When sorghum is plentiful, and the weather is right it is Henry’s good custom to invite the whole school for an evening “stirring off”. Early in September we began asking each other when the cane would be ready, and presently on the heels of our wondering. came the invitation. All of us knew that that day since dawn, cane cutting had been going along down on Isaac’s Creek, and all being well, we would “stirr off” about eight o’clock.

We tramped up the creek as dusky dark changed to night, and our torches were stars strewn all down the road, from the speedy vanguard to trailers clambering over the stile above Big Log House, a shouting, singing crowd. We rounded the last bend to see the
fire glowing in a gulley below, close to the creek, and Henry Creech’s dark figure weaving shadows with the swinging lantern. Early arrivals clustered about the fire, whittling ends of cane for us to dip the foam with. While we waited for the foam to be ready the roup settled here and there to sing -ballads or run sets on the grass. The steady hand-clapping of the dancers and the shrill calls of the leader accompanied strains of “Sourwood Mountain” and ‘The Ground Hog”.

As usual there were newcomers to the mountains who had never heard of a stir off and we asked Henry if he would tell the new ones all about the process.

“You have to cut the cane and then strip the stalks and seems like one or two men working on the job can do more than all the women you could set to it in a day. I don’t know why, but it’s that way. You have to put the stalks in the cane mill, and then hitch up the horse, so he pulls it around and around, and then the cane juice drips down the spout in the tub and you pour it in the trough here.”

He paused to adjust the lantern, and we looked at the trough, which was like a wide flat boat, divided into two sections, and about three quarters full of dark liquid, now beginning to foam on the top. It was not yet ready because the foam was still green, although some of us were licking green foam to Henry’s mild disapproval. He said it “would cause stomach complaints” before it was ripe.

“Then you cook it, and it has to cook for about eight hours, ’till it boils up and foams over the top, and when the foam comes on you skim that off and throw it away—and finally it’s a nice yellow foam, and that’s when it’s good for licking—and then you decide when it’s done and pour off the molasses in a lard can, and that’s all.”

It was not all really, for by the end of the explanation the foam was ready for dipping. This, we should explain. is done with paddles, which are cane stalks with flattened ends, used like spoons. (To be sure it takes time for the uninitiated to get used to the idea that everybody can hygienically dip into a common trough of boiling sorghum.) 120 paddles dipped, 120 eager tongues tasted and licked. Before sorghum melted in the trough before our eyes.

But we tasted more than sorghum. We tasted the joy of a real country function. Here in the mountains our social occasions are made of simple homely happenings. A “working” is when we gather to help a neighbor, and have dinner together. A “sanging” in the old days was a picnic made  up of neighbors who went out and camped while they hunted ginseng or “sang” to sell. At a bee-robbing a brave “robber” takes the honey from his hives, and we guests eat it comb and all, in great sweet chunks. A bean- stringing is work made play, and work that we will relish all next winter.

The stir-off ended. But the “sweetenin” we eat some dreary day next February will bring back the wood-smoke and firelight.” [Author uknown. From: NOTES – 1944]

DESCRIPTION OF A STIR-OFF and SET-RUNNING AT UNCLE SOL DAY’S

Sol Day‘s stir-off.  Behind the house they had set up a great trough on stones, under which they kept a long line of fire. Three or four men with lanterns (this was an evening affair) were keeping the sorghum from burning, by stirring it with paddles and the sweet smell just filled the air. All around were neighbors with sticks of sugar-cane, which they dipped in the foam on top and then sucked — good, but awfully sweet! The moon came up and lighted the sugar patch on the hilltop where all the sweetness came from.  Finally they drew the trough off the fire and poured the liquid off into buckets, and then we all went down to the sawdust pile and watched the set-running. A set is really a quadrille, only danced as fast as  you can do it, the boys snapping their fingers to speed things up and calling out the figures, “Wild Goose Chase,  “Home Swing”, etc. [From Evelyn K. Wells’ Transcription 1915 of of her letters home.]


DULCIMERS AT PINE MOUNTAIN

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 30: Music
Series 32: Object Collections

DULCIMERS AT PINE MOUNTAIN

TAGS: dulcimers ; mountain dulcimer ; musical instruments ; Ethel de Long Zande ; music ; ballads ; songs ; Appalachian musical instruments ; Appalachian music ; Evelyn K. Wells ; plucked dulcimer ; bowed dulcimer ;

Ethel de Long with mountain dulcimer, c. 1915

Ethel de Long with mountain dulcimer, c. 1915

THE MOUNTAIN DULCIMER

The mountain “dulcimer” is an oblong, box-like instrument, with in-curving sides, about two and a half feet long and eight inches at its greatest width. It has three strings of either gut or wire. One string is fretted, the other two are drone strings. The fretted string and the one next to it are tuned a fifth above the third string.

Angela Melville Album II - Part III. "E.K.W." [with dulcimer]. [melv_II_album_313.jpg]

Angela Melville Album II – Part III. “E.K.W.” [Evelyn K. Wells with dulcimer]. [melv_II_album_313.jpg]

The dulcimer is either picked or bowed. When it is picked, it is held on the knees, and the left hand plays the melody by passing a little stick up and down the keyboard over the fretted string, while the right hand plucks the strings. When it is bowed, the player holds one end in his lap and rest the other against a table, holding the bow in the right hand and passing the fingers or a stick up and down the keyboard with the left.

There are very few dulcimers left in the mountains now, but in the old days they were often found beside the fiddle and the homemade banjo. Now the fiddle, the banjo and the organ are taking the place of the old-fashioned instrument.

The theory of most scholars of the subject is that this instrument was brought into the mountains by some settler from the continent of Europe, because it is a well-known fact that the German zither of the 18th century is identical in shape, tuning and general appearance with the the mountain dulcimer. One of these zithers is displayed in the Crosby-Brown collection of musical instruments in the Metropolitan Museum in New York along with other 18th century instruments. This is supposed to be a descendant of the monochord of the middle ages.

There are two types of stringed instruments. the plucked instruments and the struck instruments. The former are psalteries, the latter dulcimers. Since the mountain dulcimer is plucked, it should belong in the class with psalteries, but the mountaineer, with his love of sweet-sounding names, has preferred to call it a “dulcimer,” and perhaps by this time he has acquired the right of possession.

[Source unknown. Pine Mountain Settlement School archive.]

As recorded in her letters, Ethel de Long Zande had her portrait made in New York City with a dulcimer in her lap. It is possible that the photographer was Doris Ulmann, who knew Ethel and photographed widely in the Pine Mountain region during the beginning years of the School.

In the following photograph by an unknown photographer, “Aunt Leah” sits and plays the dulcimer using a bow. As described by the anonymous author, above, this was a more uncommon form for playing the instrument, but it was nevertheless known by some community members in the early years of the School.

pmss00024

“Aunt Leah” using a bow to play a hand-made mountain dulcimer at Pine Mountain Settlement School. [pmss00024.jpg]


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THANKSGIVING AT PINE MOUNTAIN SETTLEMENT

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Thanksgiving Day

Excerpts from Narratives by Evelyn Wells and an Unknown Worker


 

THANKSGIVING DAY, NOVEMBER 1915

[*The following selection is taken from the notes of Evelyn Wells for her History of Pine Mountain Settlement School 1913 -1928 (unpublished).

A beautiful day. We started out with a nice breakfast party for the visitors from Hindman, at the Pole House, and by the time things were cleared up it was time to start up to the woods. What a procession: every child carrying some kind of bucket or pan of food. We established ourselves, some 60 strong, in a lovely glade about a mile from here which the children call the Fairy Forest, it’s so full of moss and soft grasses and pretty rocks and laurel. We had three big fires, one for the coffee, and two for the squirrels, which we toasted – roasted – on long sticks, while the children played in the woods. When the squirrels were done, we sat around and had pork, squirrel, sandwiches, jelly, pumpkin pie and coffee. It was so warm that we didn’t even need sweaters.

Then a very simple, lovely Thanksgiving Service. A hymn or two, and the story of the first Thanksgiving, told by Munroe, age 11, on the spur of the moment, very simply and dramatically. Then Miss de Long talked for a little while, using St. Francis’ Prayer to the Sun as a starting point. She certainly can touch and hold every kind of person, and there was nary a one of the sixty mountain people, children, or workers, that didn’t get much from what she said. We ended with “Come, ye thankful people, come”, and out in the woods I suddenly realized what the line, “Come to God’s own temple” meant, especially to people who have never been inside a church. Then the children sang “Under the Greenwood Tree”, some of them, a little way off, echoing the last line as if from another part of the forest. They call it the Robin Hood song.

Afterwards the little girls ran sets, and the boys had a shooting match with bows and arrows. The problem was to prevent Miss Cobb (of Hindman) from joining the party for Jack’s Gap, for she is delicate and won’t admit it. But finally Uncle William decoyed her away to show her some interesting trees, and we made our escape. Jack’s Gap is the most beautiful place in the world, and the lights and colors at this time of year are so soft. We got back to Miss Pettit‘s for supper – TURKEY – and a nice evening. The children sang ballads and Miss Pettit was in fine form, with many stories of the beginnings of Hindman and Pine Mountain. When I got back to Far House, there was another party going on. Several mountain young people, one of them with a banjo. They are perfectly content to sit and pick the whole evening the tunes that sound exactly alike.

When they sing to the banjo, there’s a long monotonous accompaniment and now and then a line of the ballad thrown in in a dreary nasal voice, and when the theme is thrilling as it usually is, you just sit on edge of your chair waiting to see what’s going to happen in the next line.

Friday afternoon we took the Hindman horses out for exercise. I rode the least “feisty” one, a nice little mare with a really stylish gait, and realized for the first time what bad nags I’d been riding. My, but I’d love to have a good horse at my disposal here, it makes riding a different thing.


By 1927 the School had institutionalized the celebration of Thanksgiving and many of the students also were accustomed to celebrating the day with their families. In this account by a worker at the School, a cultural tug of war is evident in the exchange that occurred on this holiday:

Thanksgiving morning one of our big boys asked if he could go home for the day. “You know I like to be with my folks,” he said, adding a second later, “but I like to be here too. I’d rather be here than at home.” Then, anxiously, so as not to have his meaning mistaken, “You know of course I like to see my folks, but you see my mother keeps house country-wise, and I like keeping house city-wise.” It was the only way the lad could think of to express his new views of order and cleanliness acquired since school began this fall!

Apparently the worker believed the School to be the purveyor of “city-ways” and that the city offered lessons in cleanliness and order that “country-ways” did not. The worker’s cultural tug of war seems as unresolved as was that of the student. [The name of the author is not known at this time.]


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