Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.
Photo from the Dot Weeks collection (Joseph Hall on far left)
JOSEPH S. HALL AND SWAIN COUNTY
Recently, following the death of Dot Sitton Weeks, one of her children shared a large batch of photos she had collected over the years with my brother, Don. He in turn scanned them so they could be viewed by assorted cousins (by marriage) of Dot. She married a first cousin of mine, Gene Weeks, many decades ago. Most of the images were treasures to our immediate family but of minor significance otherwise. There was, however, one major exception.
Among the photographs (with no identifying information, as was the case with the vast majority of the hundreds of pictures) was a snapshot showing three young people. Don and I were immediately struck by the fact that one of the trio was almost certainly Joseph S. Hall. If it wasn’t Hall, he had a doppelganger roaming the Smokies at the same time he was visiting the area. The man’s luxurious, wavy hair, high forehead, genial face, and overall appearance drew the attention of both of us.
In all likelihood, the name Joe Hall won’t mean anything to the vast majority of those reading these words, but hopefully that will change a bit over the next few columns. They will be devoted to the man and his life’s work, which was set squarely in the Smokies and touched on numerous residents of Swain County. I would argue that his efforts were of immense and lasting importance to anyone who cares about our region and the roots of its people.
In 1937, as the nation slowly crawled out of the depths of the Great Depression, young Joseph Sargent Hall (1906-1992), an outlander who had never been to the Smokies, took a temporary summer job in the recently established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A doctoral student in linguistics at Columbia University, Hall was a native of Montana who previously had no particular interest in the Smokies. He was simply a financially struggling graduate for whom three months of summer employment promised needed funds to continue his education.
Hall’s job was one aspect of a wider effort to decide how to record, protect, and perhaps perpetuate folkways of the people who had lost their land with the creation of the Park. Along with Hiram Wilburn and a handful of others, he was charged with studying the area’s history and culture. His particular focus, in keeping with his graduate studies, was on mountain speech. Hall’s three-month stint would prove life changing–it gave him subject matter for his doctoral dissertation, launched an enduring love affair with people of the Smokies, and led to numerous visits to interview true sons and daughters of the Smokies.
Those interviews, meticulously covered in notebooks and preserved through phonographic recordings, cumulatively provided an incredible wealth of information on what has sometimes been described as “mountain talk.” They also laid the foundation for the 700+-page Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, lovingly compiled by a modern scholar, Michael B. Montgomery, a man Hall befriended late in his life and to whom he entrusted his literary and linguistic legacy. Simply put, there is no more meaningful work on our ways of speech than this book and its offshoots.
A substantial portion of Hall’s work focused on Swain County. Over the next few weeks this column will cover individuals he interviewed, dig more deeply into Hall’s work (especially as it relates to Swain County), share some of the marvelous work Michael Montgomery has done in perpetuating Hall’s legacy and making his recordings available on the Internet, and hopefully revive some memories of folks who met him or among descendants of those he interviewed.
Beginning with his first visit in 1937, Hall made 11 extended research trips to the Smokies–1937, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1949, 1953, 1956, 1959, 1962, 1967, and 1976. The duration of his stays, most of which occurred during the summer, varied from several weeks to seven months in 1939. While he was in the area he carefully made notes on speech characteristics and recorded mountain folks talking about their personal histories, notable experiences, and way of life. He was particularly interested in mountain music, hunting and fishing tales, folklore, and any vocabulary or speech mannerisms.
Initially Hall located likely interviewees through assistance from the Park Service and Civilian Conservation Corps. Increasingly over time, as his range of contacts grew and as he gathered a growing circle of friends, he had ample access to interesting folks. From the outset, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Hall’s endeavors was his ability to gain the trust of mountain folks. That wasn’t an easy task for an outsider, but clearly Hall had a rare knack for putting people at ease. His unassuming demeanor, obvious interest in those with whom he talked, and overall geniality gained him a rare degree of trust. Hall established not only rapport with scores of old-time Smokies residents; in many cases he fostered lasting friendships with them, took part in family reunions, stayed in their homes, attended church services and funeral services, and in effect became almost one of them. That was the hallmark of his genius, and it came from being easygoing, through showing deep respect for mountain folkways, and thanks to genuine sensitivity to those with whom he interacted.
It is highly likely that there are older folks currently living in Swain County, perhaps dozens of them, who had contact with Joe Hall. That would be especially true of his later visits. Likewise, given how many Swain Countians he recorded, it seems quite possible that family traditions and perhaps photographs survive marking those interactions. Next week we will turn to the names of Swain County residents whom he recorded.
Meanwhile, interested readers can learn much more about Hall’s work, thanks to the arduous and important efforts of Michael Montgomery, by visiting a new website called “Appalachian English.” It can be accessed at artsandsciences.sc.edu/appalachianenglish/index.html. It has several sections, and just to offer one “teaser,” you can listen to Mark Cathey tell hunting tales while simultaneously reading a transcript of what he is saying. To do so is to tread forgotten paths of wonder.
I hope you enjoyed learning about Joseph S. Hall. I never knew him, yet his work inspires me on a daily basis. As does the never ceasing work of Michael Montgomery. Without both men the Blind Pig and The Acorn wouldn’t be near as good.
Come cook with me!
MOUNTAIN FLAVORS – TRADITIONAL APPALACHIAN COOKING
Location: John C. Campbell Folk School – Brasstown, NC
Date: Sunday, June 23 – Saturday, June 29, 2019
Instructors: Carolyn Anderson, Tipper Pressley
Experience the traditional Appalachian method of cooking, putting up, and preserving the bounty from nature’s garden. Receive hands-on training to make and process a variety of jellies, jams, and pickles for winter eating. You’ll also learn the importance of dessert in Appalachian culture and discover how to easily make the fanciest of traditional cakes. Completing this week of cultural foods, a day of bread making will produce biscuits and cornbread. All levels welcome.
Along with all that goodness Carolyn and I have planned a couple of field trips to allow students to see how local folks produce food for their families. The Folk School offers scholarships you can go here to find out more about them. For the rest of the class details go here.