Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The best of the story

I just posted a review on Goodreads of a wonderful book by Betty N. Smith: Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer Among Singers (University of Kentucky, 1998). Briefly--it is a biography of the native mountain balladeer and Jack-tale-teller of Hot Springs, NC, whose memory in the early years of the 20th century supplied folk culture collectors like Cecil Sharp with much of their material; the book is also--marvelously--a compendium of her Jack Tales and her songs.

Again briefly--there is so much richness in this book, particularly the portions that describe the mountain life as remembered by Hicks Gentry's children and as passed down in family stories. I would have to transcribe whole chapters to give an adequate flavor so will let one passage suffice.
The Gentrys were hard workers. Everybody said so. They raised almost everything they ate, raised their own sheep, and Jane spun, wove, dyed, knitted, and sewed their clothes and household linens. Their children learned to work and always had chores. Sometimes Jane and [husband] Newt hoed corn after the children had been put to bed, and they were seen repairing the barn roof by moonlight. But in spite of the hard work and long hours, her children said their mother sang all the time and they always knew where she was for they could hear her singing. In the evening the family would gather around the fire for stories and songs, little hands busy, each with a shoe full of fleece out of which he or she must pick the briars and sticks. The child's own shoe was used because the amount the shoe held reflected the size of the child and the amount of fleece each could be expected to pick. [p. 5]
 So, if you want to read this book, do what I did: go to Gentry Hardware on the Appalachian Trail in downtown Hot Springs, NC, and buy it. It is on display up at the checkout in the back of the store, which is owned by a descendant of Jane Hicks Gentry.

I bought it on my second visit to Hot Springs. My first visit I had seen an Appalachian Trail-side marker about Cecil Sharp's song-collecting activities in the town--

 the "here" of the sign being this capacious house--

but while I recognized Sharp's name from my musical studies, I overlooked the name of Jane Gentry until I came back a second time and happened upon it while shopping with my wife in Gentry Hardware.

Another thing that makes the find of this book so fortuitous: in the hardware store, having picked up the book to examine it, I noticed right away the name of the author, Betty N. Smith. Years ago I had gotten  a beautiful walnut dulcimer from a Bill Smith in Marietta, GA, whose wife Betty was a ballad singer. It had to be the same person, and sure enough it was. Connections like that are to me not unlike divine visitations.