Thursday, March 17, 2011

Jackson County Mountain Music, Part Two

When the "songcatcher" Robert W. Gordon came to Jackson County October 28, 1925 he stopped in Cullowhee and recorded "Old Granny Hare" performed by W. E. Bird.

Included in the the Folk-Songs of America reissue from the Library of Congress, "Old Granny Hare" can be heard here.

Liner notes and lyrics follow:

This version of "Old Granny Hare" was performed by Professor W. E. Bird of Cullowhee State Normal School at Cullowhee, Jackson County, North Carolina, in the mountains to the southwest of Asheville. Gordon's interest in the song had a number of dimensions. Like the fiddle tunes he recorded, it was an example of a "fiddle song" which went with dance music. Versions appear in Ford (pp. 30, 193-94), Lomaxes (pp.283-84), and the NLCR (pp. 124-25). Gordon recorded a performance of the song by Lunsford (A104, NC154). An early commercial recording of the song was made by the Powers family of Virginia. Brown (III, pp. 211-213) prints a number of versions under the title "Old Molly Hare," and the editors indicate that the earliest collected versions came from Afro-American singers. Many of Brown's North Carolina texts combine the song with another Afro-American folksong, "Mr. Rabbit," which suggests that originally the song may have been concerned with the familiar "Brer Rabbit" trickster figure from Negro folktales.

Another facet of this particular version, which no doubt added to it's interest for Gordon, was that it combined the verses and tune of "Old Granny Hare/Molly Hare" with the chorus and one verse of another, probably older song, "The Old Sow." Although he did not comment on this connection in his writings, Gordon did print a cowboy version, "The Old Cow," in his article on "Cowboy Songs" (Gordon, pp. 105-6). Brown (III, p. 218) collected this song separately in North Carolina. Randolph, who collected versions in the Ozarks (III, pp. 149-50), notes early versions of the song under the title "The Red Herring," published by Newell as a game song (B, p.238) and by Sharp in a version from Somerset. Sharp (B, pp. 283-86), believed it had magical or ritualistic origins. But, typically, American versions substitute a comical refrain: "The old sow died with the measles in the spring." In any event, this text appears to be unique in its combination of this song with the "Old Molly/Granny Hare" song, representing a fascinating mixture of British, African, and American traditions.

Gordon cyl. A71, Item NC108
W. E. Bird
Cullowhee, North Carolina
October 28, 1925

Old Granny Hare, a-what you doin' there?
Runnin' through the cotton patch as hard as I can tear

Wheat bread or corn bread or any such a thing,
The old sow died with the measles in the spring.

Old Granny Hare, a-what yer doin' there?
Sittin' in the corner smokin' a cigar.

Wheat bread or corn bread or any such a thing,
The old sow died with the measles in the spring.

The old sow's leg or the old sow's tail,
I'll make as good a hammer as ever drove a nail.

Wheat bread or corn bread or any such a thing,
The old sow died with the measles in the spring.

It's a lot easier to find out about W. E. Bird than Julius Sutton.

William Ernest Bird was born in Qualla, NC, July 21, 1890. He graduated from Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School in 1915. He had returned as a professor by the time of this recording, and went on to become dean and then president of Western Carolina College. Bird died October 22, 1975 and was buried in Thomas Cemetery, Qualla.

Among several books he authored was The History of Western Carolina College, The Progress of an Idea. Professor Bird does tell some interesting stories in his 1963 history of the school.

From Bird's history of WCC, a 1924 photo of the campus.

He explains how upgrading and paving of the road between Sylva and Cullowhee made travel extremely difficult during construction in 1932-33. However, a rail line used mainly for freight ran from Sylva to East La Porte (Blackwood Lumber Company), so officials of the school and the railroad made arrangements to get supplies to the school and, in a pinch, carry passengers:

...while the highway was still under construction and weather conditions were least favorable for ordinary modes of travel, demands frequently made it necessary for representatives of the college to make emergency trips away from the campus. This was true for both faculty and students.

Under such conditions, with no other means of travel available, it was not uncommon to see a male member of the faculty or of the student body climbing aboard the freight-laden train at Cullowhee, bound toward Sylva from East La Porte, and occupying as his only available berth the top of a box car filled with lumber from the big band mill. Accommodations for return trips were usually better, empty cars, as a rule, making up the train, so that the passenger was able to find standing room inside a car instead of having to clamber up the outside for a precarious seat on top.


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