Since it’s Thanksgiving week, I’ll recall a memory for which I’m thankful. Among the many gifts my father left me was a number of songs he learned in his boyhood from his maternal grandfather and uncles. I guess you could call the tunes Appalachian Folk Music, but to me in my childhood they were simply the songs Dad sometimes sang, in his memorable bass growl, when we were by ourselves. I learned the ancient Irish murder ballad “Rose Anne Lee” from him long before I ever realized that the hymn “I’m a-Gonna Die on the Battlefield” had exactly the same tune. Interestingly, that old ditty was one of the cleaner pieces in Dad’s repertoire. Another was about a man who came home one night to find a stranger’s head on his pillow, which his wife insisted was a cabbage head although the husband had never seen a cabbage with a mustache before. Then the poor soul got confused similarly about a rolling pin. And there was still another that… nope.You’ll have to wait to hear me sing it sometime in privacy. Strict privacy. I can’t even put the title in a family newspaper. Mom never could stand it, and neither can Sweet Tater. But it’s still durned funny.
I suppose you could say that our stalwart ancestors sought pleasure and amusement humbly, in a time and place that offered very little of either. But ribald music was only one evidence of their quest, and modern-day local historical investigation often finds itself checked by a heavy dose of our already cussed-and-discussed Appalachian maxim “if you don’t talk about it, it never happened.” Many of Dad’s humorous songs centered around women outwitting men sexually, but real life was very much the man’s world—and largely still is. Doing genealogical research I’ve found at least four male ancestors who hired “housekeepers” to assist ailing or invalid wives, started siring children on their new employees, and then married their “hired girls” after their wives passed away. And this all occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an era not only when people were supposed to be more godly and religious overall than they are in our own supposedly degenerate times, but when adultery was actually a legal offense, punishable by fine if not imprisonment! Add illegitimate births, shotgun weddings,sufferers from so-called “bad diseases,” and one great-great aunt, a minister’s wife, who died “trying to keep from having children” (I never dared ask what that meant), and I’ve got one interesting family tree.
Though males enjoyed their dalliances, females often didn’t have that luxury. Poor women frequently had to assume the “housekeeper” role simply to avoid starvation. One of my ancestors was the orphaned teenaged sister of the son-in-law of an old Revolutionary veteran. I suppose her brother and sister-in-law got her the caretaker’s job with the ex-militiaman, but I wonder what they must have thought over the next thirty-odd years as she bore him child after child—a couple before his wife’s death and six or eight afterward. She finally married the old soldier after their children were grown, when she was fifty and he was eighty-four. Another instance was that of a destitute widow with a baby to feed; my great-great-great grandfather gave her five more after the two moved in with him and his wife. Still one more case was a girl driven from her parents’ home for bringing the “shame” of an illegitimate grandchild on them, but who found another of my male ancestors to be more forgiving. And we can’t forget the sad plight of the first wives, who were probably in ill health and in any case were unable to oppose the new household arrangements foisted upon them by their lusty husbands. I guess they all learned to get along someway, although I can’t imagine how. And then there was my poor great-great aunt…
I can hear my mother and grandparents now: “John, must you write about this? Our people are respectable!” But any family tree has as much honor and distinction in it as dishonor, and after the latest Presidential campaign it’s become obvious that both “honor” and “dishonor” are actually pretty nebulous terms in most people’s minds. The only way we can ever really understand the present is to accept the past as it was, and that means being honest about both beauty marks and warts. It’s better to seek the truth wherever you may find it, and if a little music helps the search, just hum along with the ballad about the man who lost his… err, never mind.