Tennessee Mountain Stories

Cleanliness is next to Godliness


Did your Mama or Grandma ever use that phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” to guilt you into taking the bath that children universally balk at?  Well let me just start off by saying that while that phrase is not in the Bible, the essence of it surely is.  Ritual washing is part of the Mosaic law and bathing is often mentioned as a common practice – remember Pharoah’s daughter found baby Moses while visiting the river to bathe.

There are things we take for granted these days and I guess bathing is one of them.  Well you know that when I’m writing a novel my characters are always going through the motions of everyday life and that drives me to research things like what kind of dish soap was available in 1900?  And I learn the most interesting facts that way.

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So we’ve all heard talk about the chore of making soap.  And maybe some of you have even seen folks doing it.  Generally soap on the mountain required a good store of hardwood ashes that would be placed in a hopper with cold water run over them to leach out the lye.  Once separated (and I suppose strained because I would’ve got a lot of trash in that water) the lye can be combined with lard to create soap. 

Most everybody used to have a big old soap pot – and since that was cast iron and therefore porous I’m not at all sure you could use the same kettle for anything else.  And since the lye is caustic, cooking it out in the back yard is a really good idea.  So you’d have to build a fire under the kettle and cook the lye, water and fat for an hour or more.  Then you’ll get the soap out into molds you’ve got ready and waiting where it will cool for another 24 hours.  I was taught they have to cure for some time after that although the online directions say it’s okay to use it right away.  Whew, it made me tired just telling you how to make it – do you see how we take that Dove bar for granted?

The American Cleaning Institute has a great article about soap’s history and it reminds us that those years of terrible plagues were directly related to poor hygiene.  And not much wonder because soap was considered a luxury item and taxed as such until the mid-1800’s!  When officials lifted that tax the people started keeping cleaner and therefore healthier.  Don’t you suppose that folks put two and two together and realized there was less sickness when they washed a little more often?  John Wesley said in 1791, “Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness" (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-88-on-dress/) so we know that phrase was common well before 1800.

I’m so often reminded how hard it is to really put myself in the shoes of my ancestors because it’s easy to assume they always had plenty of hogs to kill and therefore plenty of lard for soap.  But then I have to remember that lard was a staple of their cooking as well.  Remember there was no Crisco to soften biscuits or vegetable oil to give that crispy crust to cornbread not to mention how you would fry chicken or side meat without some kind of fat.  And if you’re raising ten children the amount of lard needed for cooking boggles the mind, not to mention how much soap that family could use.

I tried to do a little research on this and while lots of people are still making fancy soaps as a cottage industry, there don’t seem to be many people using hog lard.  It seems like the ration is something like 3 pounds fat yields 4.5 pounds soap.  That sounds like a lot of soap since I bring home bath soap in 4 ounce bars.  But then there’s the dish soap and the laundry soap.  How long do you think four and a half pounds of soap would last for all of your cleaning needs?


Songs of the Mountain by a man from the Mountain

A couple of weeks ago I set out exploring what we can learn from musical lyrics.  Well you  might not think the culture and history of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau has been set to music but I’m here to tell you it has indeed. 

Mr. Leonard Anderson is native to Jamestown, Tennessee and has written numerous songs about subjects close to our hearts, he writes about regional issues and concerns and if you are from the mountain or descended from the mountain you will identify with much of his music. 

I got the chance to speak with him at the Bluegrass Saturday Night Labor Day event.  Not surprisingly he asked as many questions as I did – but then I suppose were kind of in the same business, collecting stories and interesting facts and finding a way to use them in our songs or stories.  So after I explained that roots are in Martha Washington and I’m passionate about preserving the history and culture of our plateau people he began to tell me how he has been writing songs for more than 40 years with one of his first songs being about the people of Sharp’s Place where he came from. 

His favorite way to play his music is on the porch with just a few people gathered around.  Here’s a video on You Tube that shows just that type of gathering.

I really started planning to share this lyrical historian with you during the 127 Yard Sale because he has a song about that event which perfectly describes how the world’s longest yard sale got started in the mid-80’s in an attempt to draw tourist dollars to Fentress County.  Today it’s grown far beyond the original scope with more outside vendors than local and the residents seem to profit more by renting their yards to the outsiders.  

Even that 127 Yard Sale song is best heard with a little mountain-knowledge as he tells about falling into a pile of junk from an old barn and coming out “wearin’ a full set of harness”.  You even have to understand our accent a little bit as he has mentions to a neighbor how he’s checking dolls for the manufacturers name “Mattell” which of course we pronounce more like ‘my-tail’… and the neighbor advises him to look behind him where a tail my likely be located.

The particular disc I was listening to, Around Home ends with “Who Am I” and this particular author can certainly identify with his “I’m an ole’ bean picker, chicken catcher and ‘backer setter-outter” and we’ll have to talk more about that song very soon.

I’ve said here before that one of the reasons I love Bluegrass music and the local events is seeing the talent among us, and we have some very talented folks.  Isn’t it wonderful that Mr. Anderson has applied his particular talent to the task of recording our culture and recent history?

If you’d like to have your very own Leonard Anderson CD you can reach him at: 931-879-5278 and he’ll be happy to sell you one.

More Music from Yester-Year


Grist Mill.jpg

Last week we started talking about the history we can learn from lyrics of yester-year’s music.  While the song I highlighted last year was an encouragement to the World War 2 generation, today’s songs would have been relevant to all country folks, those rural Americans who knew about a hard days work in the sun and watching crops ripen then enjoying the fruits of the labor.

“What’s the Matter with the Mill” laments a broken grist mill, along with a few concerns about his girl and his 96 year old Uncle Bud – who seems to be able to play a fine horn.  Then the fiddles chime in with a line of Chicken Reel to which Bob enthuses “It don’t matter how you feel, you ought to play that Chicken Reel”.

Okay, so some of these rhymes are just kind of fun but can you imagine the grief if the grist mill was broken – remembering that in that day you couldn’t just go to the corner and buy 5 pounds of corn mill or flour.  So what are you going to do with a turn of corn?  Make hominy? Oh my!


Mr. Wills also helped write and sang “Stay a Little Longer” which has been recorded multiple times over the years.  In this song he again laments access to the mill because “the bridge washed out at the bottom of the hill” but not to fear, he goes on to remind us that “Big creek’s up, and the big creek’s level, Plow my corn with a double shovel.”

Now that line made me wonder whether my children would even understand what a double shovel is, or indeed what it would mean to plow with one.  Do you know?  It’s a horse (or mule) drawn cultivator.  And one day we’ll discuss the differences and preferences between that and a Gee Whiz.  But again, I’ve gotten off subject. 

“Stay All Night” also mentions how a “slop bucket fell from the window above” which ought to remind you to praise The Good Lord for indoor plumbing yet again because that slop bucket wasn’t for potato peelings.

I’ve also recently bumped into some Civil War era music and I’m pretty fascinated by it.  Much like “Smoke on the Water” is better understood with a bit of WW2 history, the music of the 1860’s sends me digging for facts. 

Certainly the music of the south has a hint of bitterness and anger and frankly some of it is so intent on shooting Yankees that I pass by it.  However, it seems I can feel a bit of the frustration of the day as well. 

While “Dixie Land” is recognizable to anyone who’s spent much time in the South, some of the best lines in the song are usually omitted.  The last verse creates a mental image of a Rebel soldier far from home, “Then hoe it down and scratch your gravel, to Dixie’s Land we’re bound to travel” and just before that they talk about “Buckwheat cakes and Injun batter” as though longing for the food of home.

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Here again is a lesson.  I didn’t recognize ‘Injun batter’ but I sure know the recipe – it’s Hoe Cakes or Fried Cornbread, a favorite quick dish in the Durham house I can tell you.

I tried to understand the inspirational character of “Will the Weaver” who appears in 3 of the verses as he romances and then deceives the “Ole’ Missus”, however there seems to be no real person from whom that character is drawn and he appears in more than one song by this author, Daniel Decatur Emmett.

Ironically Dixie Land was neither written by a Southerner nor written to honor Southerners.  In fact it was part of a blackface minstrel show that seemingly meant to mock people of the south both white and black.  When marching troops sang, “In Dixieland I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie,” their sincerity surely must have surpassed the foolish intent of the songs’ author.

“The Bonnie Blue Flag” would aid any history student to learn the geography of the Confederate States of America.  It lists each state that seceded in order, with only slight error when it transposes the sequence of Alabama and Mississippi.

Music is an age old means of remembering and recounting history.  Gospel lyrics often testify to their writers’ personal trials and victories.  I said last week I listen to this music in my headset, but I also play it for my children to hear and I explain to them (without them even asking of course) about the wars and the foods and the tools that it talks about.  There aren’t many radio stations where you’ll hear these songs but they’re not hard to find with our streaming resources so I hope you’ll listen in and see just what you can learn.  And be sure to comment below and share the lessons with us – I know I’m eager to hear about it!

Lessons from Lyrics

Now y’uns know I love old music – we’ve talked about it here several times before.  So it won’t surprise you that my modern, fancy phone pipes into the wireless earpiece Bob Wills, Bill Monroe and The Spears Family.  I sing along, tap my toe and often don’t even think about the actual lyrics – well until the Spears sing “He’s Still in the Fire” and that one makes me cry (and maybe shout) everytime.

Bob Wills.jpg

Bob Wills is the king of Western Swing music and if you can listen to him while you’re exercising the time will fly and you’ll be amazed how many miles or reps you’ll get in.  I was walking with Bob this week and really got to thinking about the words he was singing and I realized that these old songs can teach us a ton of history.

Bob Wills was at a career high in the 1940’s when he recorded “Smoke on the Water”, written by Zeke Clements.  Do you remember what else was happening in the world about that time?  War.  The second great world war raged and about 16 million Americans were in uniform while numerous others worked in munitions plants and even if you didn’t have a rank or title, the whole country served as supplies were rationed, services curtailed and families waited with baited breath to hear news from the front lines.  The music of the day was as affected as every other part of American life. 

As “Smoke on the Water” plays through my car radio, thanks to music streaming services that let me choose the kind of music I want to listen to, I realize my children not only cannot relate to the analogies he draws, they are hard pressed to understand the history lesson he presents. 

The chorus says, “There’ll be smoke on the water, on the land and the sea when our Army and Navy overtake the enemy.  There’ll be smoke on the mountain where the heathen gods stay and the sun that is shining will go down on that day.”  Verse 2 calls out the Axis leaders by name, “Hirohito along with Hitler will be riding on a rail, Mussolini’ll beg for mercy as a leader he has failed.  There’ll be no time for pity when the screaming Eagle flies, that will be the end of axis they must answer with their lives.”


I confess while I understood that these were WW2 analogies I had to look some of them up.  The smoke is easy to understand as artillery fire must have clouded every news reel of the day.  The mountain where the heathen gods stay must have referred to the Buddhist temples in Japan and the ‘sun that is shining’ would refer to Japan’s rising sun flag.   I especially loved the image of riding Hirohito and Hitler out of town on a rail – I understand that ride often followed tar-and-feathering, but I suppose those words would be hard to work into a song. And did you know what screaming eagle would be flying?  That’s the 101st Airborne division that delivered paratroopers into the thick of the battle. 

I wonder if listeners in the 40’s were as moved by these lyrics as I am?  As I located the image of the paratroopers tears welled in my eyes.  The courage of those men to step out of the relative safety of an airplane and fall into unknown peril awes me.  My own husband has jumped over 300 times and while he never faced German troops on the ground the Marine Corps trains as realistically as possible and jumping into the ocean at night would be just about as terrifying to me!  He would gladly strap on a ‘chute today and drop behind enemy lines to ensure his children would grow up in freedom – in fact, I’ve rarely met a veteran who would refuse to take up arms if the American way of life was threatened.  Perhaps I’ve digressed a bit but the songs of World War 2 celebrated a courage that our troops still display today.

It’s easy to imagine how listeners would cheer as they heard Bob croon a promise of victory and the humiliating defeat and even death waiting for the leaders that forced husbands, fathers and sons to march off to war.   

Throughout time music has been used to teach history and preserve culture.  Not all of the music I listen too is so deep, but even in the fun stuff there’s history.  We’ll look at some more of Bob Wills’ work next week.

A Legacy of Faith in God and Love for Family

The loss of a loved one always sets you thinking about days gone by and memories of him or her.  Well when I heard last week that my great Aunt Lois Key Roberts had passed away I couldn’t help but think of the whole Billy Key family.  Aunt Lois was the youngest of 12 children and the last to pass; they were my Grandmothers siblings and were always a huge part of my life.

What a blessing to be able to tell you that I knew all of these great aunts and uncles – lots of you may not have known your parents’ siblings so well, much less your grandparents’.  This family left a legacy of faith in God and love for family that has impacted every one of us and I hope will be an impact on my own children who will never know them in this world. 

Lois’ mother, Ida Todd Key (known to all of us for a few generations now as Grandma Key) raised 12 children on a hardscrabble farm in Martha Washington.  Daddy calls the place they grew up ‘holy ground’ on account of how they raised that big family with little to no resources – they were raised on prayer! 

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Aunt Lois was more likely to talk to us than some of her sisters; and she had asked her mother questions too.  Maybe being the baby in the family she had more chance to get answer from Grandma Key since some of the older ones had moved off so Grandma had a minute to catch her breath.  Or maybe Aunt Lois was just more inclined to ask “why” – hmm, do you s’pose I got that from her?

She asked her mother how she survived losing her oldest son when he was barely 16 years old.  Grandma very practically told her that she had all these other children (there were 6 younger than him at the time) and she just had to keep going for them. 

Aunt Lois graduated from high school in 1948 – no small feat at the time and as far as I can tell she was the only one of her siblings to accomplish this.  You can see from her graduation photo that there were only a few other folks in the community graduating that year.  One of her classmates, Joyce Tayes Allred told me there were actually 8 in the class, one boy wasn’t in the photo.  Lois would go on to Carson Newman to study for a time, then she taught at the Martha Washington School. 

Clarkrange High School Class of 1948

Clarkrange High School Class of 1948

This was a family of servants – they served country, community, church and family – and I really believe they were given this servant-spirit from their mother.  She raised them in church and even if they didn’t see the importance of their faith early on, this family proved out the promise of Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

I’ve talked here before (maybe more than once) about our family reunion each September which has been recurring for nearly 70 years.  Well that’s Grandma Key’s family and her children were all faithful to come together really every chance they had but certainly that one Sunday each fall.  Aunt Lois has missed several reunions in the past few years and with her passing it’s now up to a new generation to ensure the Todds gather for another 70 years.  One of my cousins is fond of saying, “We were raised on it” and she’s right – we were raised on it and we will continue to gather and this year we will no doubt remember Aunt Lois and her sisters and Grandma Key and all the lessons we’ve learned from them.

Tennessee Mountain Stories chronicles the legends and lessons from the Cumberland Plateau.  Today it’s a legacy and I can’t help but wonder what my own legacy will be.  I pray it will be faith and service just like these ladies.