Appalachia Appalachian Dialect

Joseph S. Hall and Swain County

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.


Photo from the Dot Weeks collection (Joseph Hall on far left)


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 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.


Appalachian Cooking Class details

Come cook with me!

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.

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  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    March 9, 2019 at 12:05 pm

    Tipper this artcle and picture is so rare a collection now but so nice to have to keep these mountains people alive with so many renounced people from yester year great post

  • Reply
    Marshall Reagan
    March 8, 2019 at 7:56 pm

    Speaking of Swain County, my dad was born in Swain co. my Grandfather James H. Reagan is buried in the Floyd/Carver Cementery next to the gangster PRETTY BOY FLOYD,S PARENTS in Cades Cove. my grandmother Inkeybo Huskey went to school with pretty boy Floyd. Inkeybo Huskey was Cherokee. her father was Tom Huskey . HE LIVED TO BE 111 YEARS OLD.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    March 8, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    I’m glad Jim is on here. His words are easily understood, and I’m glad you introduced him and Don as well as Susan. (Don’s wife)

    I wasn’t born when the Great Depression was on, but Daddy and Mama told us boys about it. Daddy said “I read where folks were jumping out of those Big Buildings in New York. When it was over, we never saw any change.” (I guess we were use to being Poor.)

    One time we were at Our Church and a Revival was going on. My brother, Harold had me to notice a Wasper bumping his head on the ceiling. This got me to sniggering out loud, so Daddy jerked both of us up, took us outside, peeled our heads real good and back inside we went. We didn’t think that Wasper was so funny anymore.

    I ain’t seen this much Rain in my lifetime. Nice story, Jim. …Ken

  • Reply
    March 8, 2019 at 11:33 am

    I will keep the link to this post and refer back to it often.

  • Reply
    Janis Sullivan
    March 8, 2019 at 10:18 am

    Thank you so much for this info. I love the history of my Appalachian English. My northern husband calls it my Southern talk. I have to explain all the idioms even after 43 years. You are invaluable to many people’s enjoyment of their lives. I know you and your family have enriched mine in many ways.

  • Reply
    March 8, 2019 at 10:09 am

    Tipper, I certainly enjoyed reading this post. I clicked on the link to Appalachian English and and after reading that page, I clicked on the interviews of stories Mr. Hall recorded. I read and then listened to the recorded story of the first gentleman listed on the page. Heard words I have not heard in a long time; such as, directly – went out of hearing directly, and deviling – he thought he was just a deviling his brother. So many words like eat up describing the bear attack on his dogs. I heard it as, he was eat up with chiggers or some disease. Takes me back to a little over 60 to 65 years ago when I heard those words a lot. I will enjoy returning to that website and hearing more stories.

  • Reply
    Brian P.T. Blake
    March 8, 2019 at 9:25 am

    Marvelous, Tipper! Thank you for reminding us that to know about our family’s past, so we can pass their personal heritage to our children and grandchildren, is to give our descendants a sense of community, continuity, and identity which, in these anonymous days, becomes ever more important to mental health.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 8, 2019 at 7:58 am

    We are an independent people with a rich tradition. I look forward to hearing more.
    My family roots are here and I love out people!
    Thank you, Jim!

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    March 8, 2019 at 7:36 am

    There is something special about stories of strangers who where taken to the heart of a very different people. It is hard to pinpoint just why that is, but much of the appeal is in having a window into how we are each and all in the fellowship of the human condition the world over. Even those with whom we disagree strongly on almost everything are yet of one blood with us.

    I checked out the “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English” at the library. The sheer size of it gives an inkling of the great labor it was to put together over about 75 years. Hats off the Hall and Montgomery. They crafted an enduring legacy. And you are carrying it on.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    March 8, 2019 at 7:33 am

    thank God for him and folks like him. Most of us are so busy living life we forget to record it. Keep up the great work you are doing. Future generations will benefit and not have to wonder about the past.

  • Reply
    Larry Proffitt
    March 8, 2019 at 7:33 am

    Thanks Jim and Tipper and Don, for this very interesting study on Mr Hall and his work. I look forward to hearing Mark Cathey and as old time radio used to say “the next episode”. Larry Proffitt

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