A Spiritual Journey into America
Beattyville, Boone County
by Don Noyes-More
|THOMAS HART BENTON
"The people loved one another with all their flaws and shortcomings. As the
woman at the clogging event said to me, “You’re home now.” This was an America where everyone seemed to
fit in, and what you had was usually enough, many times it was enough to share with a neighbor in need..."
I suppose no
matter where I go or what I do I am psychologically geared
to make some sort of philosophical reflection or statement of fact, of course, as
I understand it.
Only upon rare occasions have I encountered spirituality and the meaning
of America together in one place. I found it this time in a small
out-of-the-way place in rural Kentucky.
For me that one small place was in the backwoods of Boone County
Kentucky, down a darkly wooded road, on a moon-filled icy night.
Beattyville, in Boone County
Kentucky is for the greater part at the confluence of two rivers within a state
park, the Kentucky and Ohio rivers, with thousands of acres of forested
parklands. Mainly populated by Cherokee mixed white people of Scot-Irish
backgrounds. Families come to Beattyville and all of Boone County for vacations
during the long humid summers. College kids from colleges party on
the river and in the parklands.
I went to Boone County to
Christmas celebration with a local older couple, the husband had been sheriff for
a few years, and his wife had been a part-time county magistrate. They lived in
a beautiful hill top farmhouse with a large pond, trees, ducks, geese,
chickens, a few pigs, one milking cow, beehives, goats, dogs, cats, one pet
raccoon, whose name is Willie and a large 19th
century tobacco barn.
At one end of the property their oldest daughter shared a trailer with her
three boys, all in their teens. There was a wood stove sitting in the middle of
the tiny living room, blazing away while dogs and cats roamed without control
through the tiny trailer, trying to find food or a place for a nap. The boys
spent most of their time outside of school, hunting and fishing, or sitting for
hours smoking and drinking the local “moonshine” made in the next county. The
“hooch” is about 100 proof, “or there-abouts”. Beattyville was a “dry” county
where the Feds still-hunted down “moonshiners” in the woods, somehow
overlooking the marijuana crops planted all over the place. Some agents got
themselves killed in the process of enforcement. Beattyville retains what so
many small late 19th and
early 20th century towns looked like; one bank, one general store, grocery
store, town whore, filling station, town hall, city jail, town restaurant, one
pie shop, hardware store, all strictly Mayberryish.
And it was into this town I drove one very dark and icy winter’s night.
Winding through a midnight forest with streaks of golden moonlight cutting the
dark in front of the car. Every few miles deer ran across the highway and bats
darted. I called to find out the right road to take up to the house. Two of the
boys jumped into grandma’s truck and came down the hill so I could follow them
I was put up in a bedroom with a fireplace; it was cozy, and comforting.
Victoriana was everywhere, the real thing. It was late; Grandpa had already
gone to bed. I was given a hot cider and a cinnamon roll and told breakfast was
at 6:30 “don’t be late.” Goodnight. I set my alarm on my phone. I fell fast
asleep in the deep folds of the goose down mattress and pillows.
At 6:15 in the morning there was knocking on the door, “breakfast” come
and get it, “breakfast, com’on now”.
The long oak table sat in a large airy room just off the massive
kitchen. There were a number of people sitting and talking. Grandpa saw me,
came up and gave me a hug of welcome. He is also half Cherokee, raised only 2
miles from the farmhouse. Grandma’s daughter and sons were there and a sad
alcoholic uncle Rob, who died of AIDS a year later. He never got treatment. He
lived in a room in the old barn. Everyone greeted me warmly and as family.
Wonderful wood scented smells from the wood burning stove filled the
house. Fresh baked rolls piled high on a platter sat in the middle of the
table, with dark honey from the hives outside. Johnnycakes sizzled in the
skillet. Home smoked hardwood bacon piled in a mound graced the platter next to
the rolls. Grandma’s honey-orange pecan syrup sat warm and ready for use with
the johnnycakes. Home churned butter sat as a monument of freshness. I had not
seen this kind of breakfast since 1968 easily. Grandma served the johnnycakes
and then a platter of fried eggs was served with a mound of home made cottage
fries, crispy outside and so tender inside. Strong freshly ground coffee with a
shot of homemade summer brandy was added to every coffee cup. After breakfast
grandma served up “pie”; flaky slabs of spiced apple and preserved cherries,
(preserved in brandy), flaky buttery crust with a mountain of whipped cream and
cinnamon on top. Breakfast lasted about a hour or so, at which time most everyone
lit a cigarette and started to gossip. Yes even the 14 year old smoked.
I was asked what I would like to see while in Beattyville. The one thing
I had in mind was, “I’d like to go clogging.” (A hill country Scots – Irish jig
like dance with the slamming of feet on a wooden floor to keep time, all to the
wild tunes of an assortment of violins, banjos, guitars and mandolins
accompanied by singing. Kentucky is a place where even the sad songs sound
upbeat; Hill country music.
Two nights later I found myself in the back of Grandmas van with an
assortment of family members. We wound slowly down the winding road in the
middle of a dark ice crusted forest, seemingly on the way to nowhere. We were
going clogging Grandma informed me. We turned off the narrow highway onto a
dirt and gravel road, all the while the boys in the van passed hooch and a
joint back and forth.
After about 10 minutes we came upon a large unpaved parking lot. There
was a long log building with a wide porch lit up with kerosene lamps and music
blasting out into the cold, clear night.
We walked up to the entrance, which was a doublewide Dutch door. Men
stood outside talking and taking swigs from their bottles, $2.00 entry charge and a smile is what
we got from the old woman standing at the door with a cigarette between her
dark yellow teeth. “Where you from boy?” She said with a grin. “I’m from
everywhere and nowhere,” she looked at me and smiled, “you’re from here now, everybody
comes home again, everybody, welcome home son.” Grandma pushed me through the
|BOY FIDDLER AT CLOGGING & MUSIC EVENT
There were about 100 men, women, and children clogging to the hill music.
Feet stomped loudly banging the floor in a symphony of bluegrass hill music. The room became a heartbeat on the floor. Lines
of people in almost a mystical trance danced wrapped in the lifting tunes of heartbreak and loss at a bluegrass tempo. Feet
slammed the old floor making the whole place shake. Indian yelps and screams came from the cloggers and from those on the
sides watching. Mandolins added a bit of a medieval touch to an American Celtic gathering of musicians. “You can
make medicine with what’s in our woods, but it’s never enough to cure all our woes.” Grandma remarked to
me, and then winked.
The old men
that weren’t clogging congregated at one end of the room with pint bottles of rye whisky and “shine” poured
from narrow bottles into half emptied coke cans from the inside of their jackets. Their faces were already red from drinking,
dancing and chewing too much chaw (tobacco). The teen boys went from clogging to smoking and drinking on the outside
porch that wrapped the building in chairs, benches, and wooden rockers.
A chorus of singing came from in front of the musicians; it was almost a shout,
“You got to walk, that lonesome valley, you got to walk it by yourself, no one else can
walk it for you, you got the walk it by yourself.”
This was an old gospel song set to a bluegrass tempo. It’s a deeply
spiritual song, strong, faithful almost triumphant as bluegrass with up-tempo banjo and all in accompaniment. Everyone in
the room regardless of where they were, started to clog, sing, or both, everything else stopped. There seemed to be a magical
connection here, something primal and spiritual, of connectedness and of the nature of a Celtic clan gathering. I could have
been at a Celtic Winter Solstice celebration in Ireland or an Indian ceremonial dance; I was transported to a different place
and time. It runs in their blood, it puts light into their faces, smiles on their lips and an ability to endure the biggest
hardships of life. The arms of the cloggers went above their heads in an attempt to touch heaven I would believe. An amazing
thunder of faith and love swept through the room. The room was shaking from the hundreds of feet clogging, the yelps started
again, tears flowed, people sang, the pounding on the floor increased. I knew why I was there; I knew why I had to witness
this, why I would leave a piece of my heart there. The people loved one another with all their flaws and shortcomings. As
the woman at the door told me, “You’re home now.” This was an America where everyone seemed to fit in, and
what you had was usually enough, many times it was enough to share with a neighbor in need. I was in need and they shared
with me one cold, winter, almost Christmas night, they shared their souls with me. Thank you.
|CLOGGERS, BANJOS, & FIDDLERS