Makin' Music

Entertainment.  Billboard reported last year that by 2016 the entertainment industry would top two trillion dollars. Entertainment is pivotal to our modern lives – we think about it, we plan for it, we pay for it.  But how often do we work for it?

T.E. Hixson pictured with instruments he made.  Photo from article published in The Tennessean, no date is given on the clipping.

T.E. Hixson pictured with instruments he made.  Photo from article published in The Tennessean, no date is given on the clipping.

Can you imagine the day when if you wanted to hear music, you played it or sang it?  Such was the world for the Hixson family at the turn of the twentieth century.  T.E. Hixson fathered ten children, his brother Steve had six.  They entertained themselves, their families and neighbors with homemade instruments and God-given talent.  None had ever had formal lessons but they filled every venue they played – of course they played in living-rooms and front porches.  It was a weekly event and they had the reputation of being incredible musicians. 

The music was native to the mountains.  A mixture of Scottish, Irish, and African influences the lyrics praised God, mourned lost love and celebrated family.  They sang about the struggles they faced and the joys they celebrated.  Today we call this mountain music Bluegrass and Kentuckian Bill Monroe is known as the father of the genre.  But long before Mr. Monroe’s 1911 birth and far from his birthplace in Rosine, Kentucky, the Hixson family were enjoying the same music in Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley.

Steve and Elbert (as T.E. was commonly called) grew up on the banks of the Sequatchie River where they farmed the rich bottom land, trapped and fished to churn out a subsistence living.  They were not accustomed to a lot of ‘store bought’ goods and at a young age each learned to make what he needed.   The boys talked little of their father in later years; he would pass down to his sons the farm and farming skills as well as a love of music and rich talent.  The talent they passed to their own children who played alongside them.  Outside of large orchestras, we are accustomed to bands of three to five members.  Of course the whole bunch wouldn’t have played at the same time when the Hixson families met, but it would surely have been closer to orchestra numbers than the Country and Western bands we know today. 

Bluegrass music is known for its improvisation.  These brothers and sisters who played alongside each other day after day could surely have anticipated the chord changes, the added notes and when each instrument would insert a quick run of notes instead of holding a single, long note.  They might have thought the word belonged to another language, but they improvised naturally. 

In that secluded valley, there were no music stores and no one importing finely crafted instruments from European master-craftsmen.  The Hixsons scarcely knew they were missing anything for they made their own instruments.  Whatever their Mountain Music required, the men made from the resources available to them.  Fiddles, banjos, mandolins and guitars were crafted for each member of the family.  When Elbert’s oldest daughter gave him his first grandchild, he declared she would be a fiddle-player and he made a child-sized instrument for her.  Over the next four years, four more grand-daughters were born and for each a small instrument was built. 

Elbert Hixson became so adept at and accustomed to building musical instruments that in his later years he sought new challenges.  He built a fiddle made entirely of matchsticks which was photographed and documented by numerous periodicals.  That one was a novelty and could never produce the sound he’d sought from earlier instruments – instruments that were played for years and in fact some of which are still around and in very playable condition after a hundred years of musical service.

T.E. Hixson holding a mandolin made from a gourd; his daughter Opal Hixson holds the match stick fiddle.

T.E. Hixson holding a mandolin made from a gourd; his daughter Opal Hixson holds the match stick fiddle.

That beautiful valley still seems secluded despite modern roads, power lines and internet service.  It isn’t hard to imagine I can still hear a lingering hum of a dozen instruments celebrating the beauty of the harvest season and foretelling the gloom of winter.  I find myself inspired by these men who created music out of raw materials that valley produced and then passed the beauty of it to their children.

A Soldier Comes Home

A Fictional Short Story

Private William Stepp caught his reflection in a dusty window of the Campbell Station Depot and it stopped him in his tracks.  Despite the stiff brushing he’d given his blue, woolen blouse and the attempt at shining the heavy leather boots, he looked thin and haggard.

Triumphant, indeed, he thought as he remembered a newspaper he’d glimpsed on the short train ride from Knoxville.  The only thing he felt triumphant about was going home.  These last few weeks had seemed longer than the entire four years of bloody battle.  When the Confederate surrender was announced to his company, he was sure he’d be home in a fortnight but he’d been wrong.  The troops had been ordered to Washington, D.C. for a Grand Review.  Nothing ever seemed so nonsensical to Private Stepp – and in fact to every soldier around him.  Each man reviewed each battle, each campaign, each bitter encounter every-time he dared to close his eyes.  William feared he would do this for the rest of his life.

With a shake of his head, he turned his eyes and his thoughts from the morbid and toward the future.  He tried to prepare his heart for what he might find at home – he’d seen so much destruction of homes and farms that he dared not hope that the little cabin he'd left behind to shelter his widowed mother and two young sisters would even still stand.  But he prayed it would.  That had been his prayer every time he saw the burned out hulk of a home, every time he felt the stares from tree-lines of terrified and homeless women and children. 

Now Private Stepp was no more.  Yesterday, Captain Hargrove had given him a paper in Knoxville that said he was now plain old William Stepp.  For the first time in more days than he could count, that lifted the edges of his lips in a half-smile.  But this new man, William Stepp, he had a new challenge on his hands.   Four years ago, he’d not been off that mountain since his mother carried him in on her lap.  Now he’d certainly seen a lot of this country, but he’d been ordered every step of the way, told when to march and when to kneel and shoot; told even when to turn and run in retreat.  Since no trains ran to  Fentress County, he was given a week’s rations and offered a train ride to wherever he wanted to start his trek.  After a look at the ragged map hanging in the captain’s office, he decided to ride as far west as Campbell Station.  He knew the mountain well enough to know it wasn’t going to be an easy walk from any direction but at least this starting point got him out of the busyness of Knoxville’s streets.  There were so many wagons, buggies and saddle horses that he was sure he’d be trampled at any moment.

Another glimpse at the stranger in the window and he stepped off the wooden porch.  Was his pack lighter?  Was the rifle in his right hand now an extension of his arm?  He turned away from the sun, enjoying the warmth on his back, and took his first real steps toward home. 

The climb began almost immediately.  There were other men heading generally the same direction and from time to time he’d walk a way with one of them – some in the familiar blue uniform, others in tattered rags of gray.  There was no malice in these woods now, they all had the same mission – getting home.  He learned the stories of some of the men.  One old man said he’d been home twice – deserted in order to make a crop for his family, then picked up his weapon and returned to fight for his land.  This one looked exhausted, but not ashamed.  He’d fought for what he believed in and William could not argue with that – right now he felt like he would never argue again.

Homesteads were sparse here, and towns even rarer.  William slept at night wrapped in the blanket he carried over his shoulder and warmed by a small cooking fire.  He ate the hardtack and crackers he’d been issued and enjoyed a cup of weak coffee in the mornings.  It had been three days since he’d seen another soul when the leveling land told him he had made it home.  Well, it was still miles to the cabin and to his mother, but he knew he was on the mountain now.  Soon he began to recognize paths he and his brothers James and Pres had followed as young boys out on a ‘long hunt’.  It was a game they’d played, imagining they were frontiersmen exploring the new country.  They packed a sack with whatever food Mother could spare and headed out.  It mattered little that they had only one gun between them, they were all great hunters and they were sure they’d return with enough meat to see the family of ten through the entire winter.  Papa had allowed it, probably because they’d worked so very hard through the hot summer and there was little he could reward them with.

William looked around the terrain he was covering.  Even here it was relatively flat, good farm land though the soil seemed a little on the thin side.  He smiled now – the smiles were coming more readily with each step he took - thinking of Papa’s tells of settling the hillside.  His first stop when he and Mother came from Virginia was on the banks of the fertile Wolf River.  However, he’d soon learned he couldn’t get along with the flatlanders who lived there and decided he’d rather eke out a living on lesser ground than be surrounded by people so unlike him.  So he headed south and twenty hard miles later, among rolling hills and steep gorges, he decided on a north-facing hillside near The Campground.  The infrequent visitors to this well-known stopping point were all the company John Stepp thought he needed.  Amanda had not offered her opinion but William would later hear her telling her daughters how happy she was when they were born and she knew she’d have some kind of feminine companionship. 

William’s musings stopped short as he topped the hill opposite the homestead.  There was the rough cabin, stacked stone chimney with a thin wisp of smoke curling from the top.  Emotion washed over him.  The war-toughened soldier dropped to one knee, the rifle rattled on the rocks at his side and tears streamed down his cheeks.  Here was the victory.  Suddenly, for the first time since the surrender was announced, Private William Stepp, U.S. felt triumph.

Land Grants and Curious Records

Today I want to share a recent research-find which has left me with more questions than answers.  I share it both for the sake of sharing and in hopes that you might supply some of the answers.  If you have any thoughts on the subject, please click “Comment” at the end of the article.  Squarespace, my site host, is currently having some issues with comments if you are using Internet Explorer.  If you are unable to comment here, you can share on Facebook; if you aren’t on Facebook, click here to send me an email and I’ll post the comments for you.  Thanks!


We have a pervasive myth among us that various family lands were granted to ancestors for military service, specifically during the Civil War era.  I’ve been systematically investigating these stories by simply locating the original deeds which clearly show the former owner and which have so far made no mention of government involvement in the purchases.  And then a visit to the office of the Registrar of Deeds threw me for a bit of a loop!


First about the myth:  I have heard from several different people, referring to lands across two or three counties, that land was granted to ancestors for military service.  Certainly, that is a proud tradition in the United States.  When our nation was still in its infancy, we needed to raise an army and we had a lot of land but very little money.  Therefore, after much paperwork, Revolutionary soldiers were granted lands based on their rank and length of service.  According to, one Captain Robert Todd (a random selection from their data) was granted 4,000 acres for three years of service as of February 21, 1784.  The document doesn’t really specify where this land was located; it only gives a ‘unit’ name “Virginia State Line”.  As the years past and more land was claimed in the country, soldiers were more likely to receive some form of monetary payment rather than the quickly disappearing free land.  There were still some land grants for the War of 1812 but these were Western grants.  As far as I can determine, the policy of granting land for military service appears to have ended just before The Civil War started.


If you’ve never looked at old property records, the process is pretty simple.  Deeds are indexed both directly (Grantor to Grantee) and in reverse.  As I flipped through the index for years 1865 – 1930, my eye was caught by a grantor listed something like, “Company D, Second Regiment of East Tennessee Infantry, U.S.”  This certainly appeared on the surface to be a military grant of some sort.  However, when I pulled the associated deed I found no specific mention of property.  Usually, there is a detailed description of the land, where it begins, how many rods or poles to the next marker, if there is a body of water on one boundary, and so forth. 

First half of William Stepp affidavit

First half of William Stepp affidavit


In this document, the reader is informed that Mr. William Stepp, age twenty-one, six feet tall of fair complexion with light hair and blue eyes, enlisted in military service in 1861 for the term of three years or the duration of the war.  He has been discharged from the service of the United States as of January 1865, this discharge taking place in Knoxville, Tennessee.  And that seems to be all of the facts presented.  There’s no property mentioned, even though this document in smack in the middle of property deed registrations.  There is no oath of allegiance as one might expect if it were a Confederate soldier returning home.  There is simply no indication why this document is registered, except that William Stepp is who he says he is.


I don’t even know what to call this document so it is hard to begin a search for its meaning.  In previous research about The Civil War, I have never heard of such a requirement for returning soldiers.  One expert I asked suggested the William Stepp document could be an affidavit to confirm identity for some other official document.  If that is the case, that essential other document doesn’t seem to be readily identifiable.


To compound the questions this raises, after studying my photocopy of the William Stepp document, I happened to notice the record preceding it seems to be a similar affidavit for William R. Davis who enlisted in 1862 and was discharged at Louisville, KY. 


Even though this mysterious record leaves me with more questions than answers, I am still very fascinated to find a physical description of Mr. Stepp along with information about where he was born and what his occupation was before the war.  These are the fascinating little tidbits I’m always looking for – aren’t they much more exciting than cold facts of names and dates?  I am awfully curious to learn more about this official document, but in the meantime, I think it’s sparked a short story!  I’ll try to put that together for you next week.


Until then, please leave me comments if you have any information to share.


Update 10/6/2014

While doing some other research, I happened upon this document which is a discharge record for one John Harding.  He's from Indiana, but it is the wording of the William Stepp document, verbatim. 

Now the only mystery that remains is why the discharge order issued in Knoxville, TN (Knox County)  was recorded by the Registrar of Deeds in Fentress County, TN.   The mystery continues...

The Beauty of a Cemetery

“Go rest high on that mountain, ‘Cause, Son, your work on earth is done.  Go to Heaven a shoutin', Love for the Father and the Son.”  Vince Gill wrote and recorded Go Rest High on that Mountain as he mourned the loss of his brother.  These are beautiful lyrics for anyone working through such a loss, as we all must at one time or another.  Unfortunately, somehow a lot of superstition has crept into our thinking about death and graves.  This superstition is of course unfounded, but it’s supported and exacerbated by Hollywood so I won’t try to fight it in this particular forum.  However, as with many weekend genealogists and hobbyist-historians, I spend a lot of time in cemeteries and that’s gotten me thinking about death and burial from a historical perspective.

John W. Key poses with his wife's tombstone.  Upon john's death, his children erected a new, double stone.  However, his youngest son was unable to part with the original stone and it now resides at his home place.  I wonder if someone will find it there in years to come and think the grave is there too?

John W. Key poses with his wife's tombstone.  Upon john's death, his children erected a new, double stone.  However, his youngest son was unable to part with the original stone and it now resides at his home place.  I wonder if someone will find it there in years to come and think the grave is there too?

We draw a certain comfort and closure from knowing where our loved ones are laid to rest.  An awful lot of people benefit from visiting those graves, especially during the very difficult early days of mourning.  This is common to humanity and no doubt it is the reason that historically only the most barbarous peoples have failed to properly bury the dead, even the dead among their enemies. 

As a research tool, cemeteries are a great source of information.  Usually we consider this information more trustworthy than government documents like census or immigration records where those people taking down information had little reason to be particularly accurate, especially with foreign names.  But when we die we hope to be among family or loved ones and those are usually the people who have the best information about us.  In my family research, one of my ancestors emigrated from Italy; I have found three different spellings of his name and several birthdates.  Since he died among his children, it seems safest to trust the dates and spellings they chose to use on his tombstone.

Historically, people have often accepted misspellings of their names.  Immigration clerks were notorious in their inability to decipher the myriad of accents and spellings.  Handwritten records were easily misread and hand-copied records could multiply errors.  One famous misspelling that stuck was Ulysses S. Grant.  He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant but upon entry to West Point, his name was mistakenly entered “Ulysses S.” and he was never able to get the error corrected.  Eventually, he resigned himself to just be Ulysses S.  Can you imagine how much easier it would be for people who were unfamiliar with the language and probably in near-shock by their new surroundings to just not worry about how their name was written?  Most of those poor immigrants were so happy to be on solid, American soil, they probably would have taken almost any name.

Dates are a very firm data point in our modern world.  We are frequently asked not just our name but our date of birth or social security number to differentiate us from a lot of other citizens.  However, in the not too distant past birth dates weren’t nearly so firm.  It seems like the birth of your children would be dates you would never forget, but the government advised my grandmother that her birth date was a couple of days after the date she had always celebrated.  Whether that was a clerical error or her family simply lost track of the exact date will never be known.  Maybe with eleven children exact dates are no longer so important to you.  Certainly there have been a lot of folks in past generations that knew only an estimation of their age, but we can still rely on those people who were closest to them to record the best information possible on the stone that will memorialize their friend or family member.

Understanding that these memorial gardens can be both comforting and informative, perhaps you can understand my sadness when I find a ‘lost’ cemetery.  You’ve seen them too, two or three stones posted along the side of a roadway or fenced out of the midst of a field.  It was a special place to some family who chose to bury there and now you wonder if anyone even knows where the graves are.  I wonder whether the family ever comes to decorate or check on the condition of these graves.  I wonder whether the names are logged in someone’s genealogy or would these graves fill a missing link for someone.   My family has a lost cemetery we still haven’t found.  My great-great-great grandmother died many, many years before her husband and while her children were tiny.  We assume she is buried with either no stone or an un-inscribed stone and we believe the grave to have been part of a small cemetery at the time.  Today, woods surround that area and there is not maintained cemetery.  Hunters and hikers frequently happen upon such places.  I remember being on a wilderness trip in Florida and finding an old cemetery.  It was such a sad place for there was no roadway leading to it and I couldn’t help but feel no one had been there in a very long time.  These graves represented someone’s family.  Even in established cemeteries, there are often numerous graves that have no name attached to them.  I would love to know why some of these old graves were left with only rough stones and no name.  One of my great-great grandmothers had lost several babies and while she was recuperating, the men of the family buried each one in turn with no stone at all.  Years later she would say, “Only God knows where my babies are buried.”

Searching for stones and information from them is not always so dreadful.  Some of our old cemeteries have now been mapped, listing all of the stones with all of the information they contain.  With this sort of resource, we can do lots of research in a library or even from your own home if the listing is published on the internet.  That is a convenience I will take advantage of anytime I can.  Yet there is something inspiring about walking among the stones memorializing people I’ve been working hard to research.  I can see their names and immediately I’m reminded of stories about them.  And when I see the neighboring stones, carrying the same family name, more questions always arise – and the research-adventure continues.

The Pot of Gold

Gold – it has the power to thrill or to kill.  Men have lost families, lives and all trace of common sense in the pursuit of this shiny rock.  Where is its value?  If you can’t eat, wear, or otherwise practically use something, value is assigned solely by trading worth.  After all, outside of our economy, those rectangular, green papers we carry around are useless. 

 I mentioned previously that The Cherokee traditionally placed no value on gold.  Despite having an incredibly rich supply of gold right in the middle of their Georgia hunting lands, they never mined it until the white man came and they saw the value he placed on the gold.  So the search for gold breeds many legends and today we explore another one.

This legend leads us to a beautiful and intriguing geological formation.  A natural bridge formed out of rock is always fascinating and it would seem people have been fascinated by this geological phenomenon for generations.  For it is under just such a structure that we find the key to today’s gold legend.  I’m including a picture looking up at this massive piece of rock with bright sunshine cascading down both sides. 

Today, this bridge is far from well-traveled roads, but it must have been on a native thoroughfare for underneath we find two Indian paintings.  The legend says it is a fox and he’s facing a pot of gold.  This was meant to be a marker that the fox is facing a gold mine. 

How does one authenticate Indian paintings?  Well, I suppose there are scientific methods, none of which have been applied to our painting, as far as I know.  However, the painting has always been there – back to the early part of the 20th century at least.  Don’t you just wish someone had written about it in the 19th century or before?

Local historian Luther Atkinson told that an aged Cherokee once came through the plateau and was asked about the painting and its legend.  He examined the painting and confirmed it was from his people, but instead of announcing riches for the taking, it warned of hunger.  What we’ve called a pot of gold, he said was an empty basket.  The painting was announcing this was a poor hunting-ground, there was no game to be had.  That’s the closest thing to expert analysis we’ve got but it hasn’t affected the legend at all.  I guess we’d rather hope for gold than mourn the missing wildlife!

As I stand awed by this incredible formation, I can’t help but wonder what my Cherokee ancestors would have thought.  Did they routinely pass by here?  Could this have been an overnight stopping point for them?  Can you see a young hunting party gliding silently over a leaf-strewn path that might be invisible to the untrained eye?  They stop under the cool shade of the bridge and listen for the movement of deer.  Then they see the sign left by earlier hunters, Don’t waste your time here, this is not a good hunting spot.  Move on.  A young man adjusts his quiver on his back, another shifts his bow to his left hand.  Cupped hands catch the sweet, cold water as it drips from the edge of the rock.  The leader looks to the sun; it is slipping westward and bathing the solid rock wall in warm light.  He decides they must press on; there’s no reason to camp where their brothers have already determined the land won’t supply the meat they are seeking.  The party slips on to the southwest, leaving little evidence of their passing.