Profiles of Mountain People

My Father always Whistled in a Minor Key

Today’s guest post was written by David Anderson.

man in suit

“My Father always Whistled in a Minor Key” written by: David C. Anderson

When my father came along into the world in the year 1907 many firsts were being placed into the log book of history. Included among these few historic and tragic events it was noted that this was the first time Albert Einstein began to apply the laws of gravity to what was later to become the scientist’s famous theory of Relativity. In that same year Ford Motor Company produces the first Model R automobile. There was an enormous earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica that killed more than eight-hundred people and produced what was later estimated to be a 6.5 reading on the Richter scale. This scale was later to become the measure of magnitude for earthquakes and the scale was established in the year 1935. The bridge that spanned the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, Canada collapsed into total destruction and, Oklahoma became the 34th state to be admitted into the union. These events at that point in time there in the hills, the coves, and valleys of the North Carolina mountains were most likely paid equally as much attention as that of a star exploding somewhere in the universe some hundred-billion miles away. Most news wasn’t given a great deal of attention other than news events that directly affect the welfare of the immediate families.

It seems when someone is trying to describe and relay the circumstances of an individual in a historical context it sometimes becomes too easy to make it sound that this person or persons were the only folk in the world that were hitting on hard times, or who had been drawn into critical circumstances. Casual observation quickly teaches the lesson that no matter what devils a person may be fighting there always seems to be a worse situation just up the cove or around the bend of the road. During the period at the turn of the twentieth century vast numbers of folks here in the mountains were riding along, or for the most part, were being dragged along on the hind wheels of hard times. The Buchannan Anderson family was no different and could have been in a better situation than some, or could have been worse off than others. Who’s to say? Circumstances molds lives and I believe that is one thing that would bring on the melancholy that would bring Cline Anderson to always whistle in this sad, and distant sounding minor key.

The steep and convoluted mountain range which made up the long valley where his father’s log cabin was situated were beginning to show their new spring coat of green foliage, and his father could begin to take some ease in the fact that he wouldn’t be needing to worry about piling up too much more wood for the fireplace that was needed to keep the small cabin warm and  the family nourished. It had been a bitterly cold winter and James Buchannan Anderson along with his wife Sarah Anita had once again managed to come through the siege of winter without having to bury another child from some unknown sickness that so often plagued the mountain folk.

The latest child; Woodard Cline Anderson came into the family on May 7th, 1907 and was the fourth of what was to be a large family with a total of ten children. Of these ten children only seven were able to survive into adulthood. Weltha, who was the second daughter was the first to be taken by some malady that was often described by the older children; “as being drawn into some sort of a seizure” with the results being an early death.

Then little Prady, the third girl to be born into the family was taken by a whooping- cough epidemic, and was soon followed in death by her little brother William who was called Little Willie by all of the remaining family members. The trips that were taken to the little cemetery there in the valley had become a regular and sad occasion. Little Cephus, who was next to the last son born into the family survived into adulthood but was at that time referred too “as not quite right in the head” because he had as an infant became sick with such a fever that he was essentially rendered deaf and was never able to communicate properly. Cephus died as an old man and had been cared for by other family members from time-to-time throughout his life. His care ultimately fell to his oldest sister Zelia who had been born in the year 1898 and who shepherded him through all the last years of his life.

Given the fact that it would be a physical impossibility for someone to pretend to place themselves in a position, a time, or a place, such as has been explained, to correctly describe what affect all these tragedies might have on an individual being? Woodard Cline Anderson seemed to have managed the disappointments and tragedies that he had experienced throughout his life, one of which would bitterly come home to him in the early years of his marriage by having his own infant daughter Doris die in his arms. How does someone manage such events without bearing a scar on their very being for the remainder of their lives?

During his long life Cline had done more than his share of slavish work. He had worked on the WPA crews back in the Roosevelt days. He had worked as a timber cutter for the W.M. Ritter Lumber Company back in the 1940s. He had worked for a time in the shops up in Ohio. He had managed to run his own small subsistence farm as well as managing a dairy operation for another fellow in the community. He and his wife had raised seven children who all seemed to find their successful place in the world without their having to worry about putting up with a member bringing disgrace to the family. He was well respected in his community and had often said that for his use there wouldn’t be any need for a court house, there wouldn’t be any need of a sheriff, there wouldn’t be any need for a judge or for lawyers. He had managed to survive without the need for any of these figures of authority. He was proud to have lived his life in such a fashion as this and was proud just being able to say so without reservation.

In his last years he would at times become somewhat distant and seemed to be in a state of deep reflection. He would take long walks around his home place and all the while whistling in a low, sad, minor key. I don’t ever remember being able to pick out any particular song that he was whistling, but he would occasionally hit on a few notes of an old spiritual but would then, and without reason, easily lead into another mournful tune. I never heard him whistle with any excess volume. It seemed as though he was whistling and communication with himself with no consideration or thought as to who might be listening.

In his early years he had been s singer of the old ballads and often mentioned that he once could sing the entire ballad; “The House Carpenter “without missing a word. He had made the trip all the way up to Bethabera which was located in Shooting Creek community where his great- grandfather Lazarus Anderson had settled in the early 1840s. He had made the long journey up to Bethabera Church Cemetery to sing at his grandmother’s funeral back in the early 1930s. He remembered that as he sang his sad song they had placed her casket across, and touching both the graves of her husband James Washington Anderson, and her son Bough Anderson. Bough had been killed in an accident as a young man while making a bow for a covered wagon. He had never mentioned the song that he was singing for his grandmother but one can readily assume that it was a sad and mournful dedication to his deceased family member.

He would sometime mention; “what the Irishman had said”.  For instance, if someone asked him if he had seen so-and-so lately he would say yes, and then would add; ‘like the Irishman saw the moon. From a great distance’! Or if he was frustrated at something he would sometimes softly say to himself; ‘faith o’ me Christ’.  These ancient utterings were no doubt in reference to stories that had been handed down from his own great-great-grandfather, James Anderson Sr. who was an Irish immigrant as well as an indentured servant to a wealthy plantation owner in the Virginia Colony back in the 1760s. James Anderson Sr. would go on to serve honorably in the Continental Army as a Private when the Colonies were wresting their independence from the British Monarchy.

I would guess that he must have been whistling a medley of the old songs that were taking him back to a time and place that only he knew about. He was once again being conveyed, and was once again able to visiting a long ago place where he could meditate on some of the events in his life that he and no one else on earth would know about. He perhaps could have been thinking on occasions or events that somehow soothed his soul, or perhaps about some mysterious friend or long lost companions that he had known and loved. I believe he drew great comfort from the mysterious and nameless tunes that he was whistling as he wandered along on his earthly journey. I often wonder if it would give him some small measure of comfort to know that someone, or perhaps numerous others still wandering here among the living has taken time to remember the times when he, and without knowing it, also blessed and greatly comforted other souls with the mournful minor tunes that he so eloquently whistled and ultimately blessed us with.

Of all the money that ere I spent, I spent it in good company,

And for all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas was done to none but me,

And what I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I can’t recall,

So fill me up the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all,

A traditional Irish song first published ca1782

dave did it 2019


I hope you enjoyed David’s guest post as much as I did. I wish I could have heard his father whistle.


p.s. If you’re looking for something to jump start your Christmas merry making I have just the thing. I might be a little bit prejudice, but I highly recommend Pap and Paul’s cd “Songs of Christmas.” You can pick up a copy here.

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  • Reply
    Nina Chastain
    December 6, 2019 at 10:58 am

    Enjoyed the writing by David Anderson about his Dad . That was one of our daughters in laws ( Kim Anderson Chastain ‘s ) grandfather . It would be great if every family could keep a record of things that happened to and about our forefathers . Thanks for sharing this Tipper !

  • Reply
    Hank Skewis
    December 6, 2019 at 9:52 am

    Lovely way to start my day. (I love to play those modal-y tunes on the banjo: “Coo Coo,” and so many others)…thank you so much.

  • Reply
    Garry Ballard
    December 6, 2019 at 1:35 am

    I don’t know why but right now I want to weep! Touched me deep down this story did!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    December 5, 2019 at 9:52 pm

    I don’t whistle much anymore since I busted up my face in a car wreck. It split my upper lip and when it finally healed up I didn’t have any feeling in the left half. Now that will mess up a pucker for shore. My precluded kissing and whistling for a good long while.
    As far as whistling in a minor key I enjoy both doing it and listening to it. As a matter of fact I have a proclivity for anything sung or played in a minor key. “I Am A Pilgrim And A Stranger” and “Look Down, Look Down That Lonesome Road” are my anthems.

    • Reply
      Jeffrey Anderson
      December 6, 2019 at 9:11 am

      Good job, Dad! I haven’t seen that photo of papaw in many years. Thanks for sharing your memories of him in writing. Without it, nuances of one’s life would be lost to history.

  • Reply
    December 5, 2019 at 8:59 pm

    Checking out the BP &A late. December too busy to keep my routine. Actually whistling very much a part of my early life growing up, and I learned to whistle a tune at an early age. This was with a warning from Mom about “Whistling women and crowing hens.” Whistling has kind of fallen from popularity much like many other simple but enjoyable pastimes of yesteryear. I cannot remember the last time I heard anybody whistle.

    Thanks to David for this wonderfully written and informative story. Stories about the folks and days gone by are my personal favorite. Maybe a family trait, but most of us never read fiction. Instead we found the realities of real living to be much more interesting. Also, enjoyed AW Grief’s post so much like what I was used to growing up. The whistling was joyful mostly. He mentions the old Baptist songs, and nothing has ever brought forth as much emotion in me as those really old Baptist tunes sung in acapella. I heard those quite often. and they always seemed to make me sadder than anything ever could just by the mournful sound.

  • Reply
    Kimberly Anderson Chastain
    December 5, 2019 at 8:23 pm

    I was so surprised when I opened today’s post and saw a picture of my Papaw Anderson. Papaw was loved so much by his whole family, and as a grandchild growing up I was probably at his and Mamaw’s house just about every single day. Uncle David did a fantastic job sharing the history of our family! I really enjoyed reading his post and am excited to share it with my children.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 5, 2019 at 3:40 pm

    Thank you, David, that was beautifully written! A very clear window back in time!

  • Reply
    Patricia Small
    December 5, 2019 at 11:54 am

    I can’t whistle but I wish I could. My brother was a great whistler. I miss him and his whistle!

  • Reply
    Kenneth Ryan
    December 5, 2019 at 11:27 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading David’s post! I would love to read more of his writings.

  • Reply
    December 5, 2019 at 10:44 am

    “The Parting Glass” is a beautiful, mournful, ballad. If you’ve never heard it, look up Ed Sheeran’s version on YouTube. You’ll be whistling along.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    December 5, 2019 at 9:55 am

    Very much enjoyed David Anderson’s story. It got my mind going in so many directions.
    Impressed by Cline Anderson’s way of taking care of his own family and there would be no need for outside authority. He evidently was the authority. So missing in todays broken families. Also not paying much attention to outside news unless it had an effect on the immediate family. Today we are so much over the top with news.
    My Dad was a whistler but usually whistled up lifting tunes and very loud. He seemed to get over the death of a son better than Mom but I suspect he didn’t because he rarely mentioned his death except to say he would see him again. At other times he would break out with one of the old mournful Baptist songs. Makes me wonder.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 5, 2019 at 8:27 am

    Seems to me that whistling in a minor key is as good a way as any to illustrate the thread of sadness that runs throughout our lives. Losses of various kinds come to us all and we each react in our own way. Whistling gets at the feeling when the mind can’t supply the words.

  • Reply
    Michael Anderson
    December 5, 2019 at 8:16 am

    Love reading a story about my grandfather written by my father. Always remember my papaw whistling in a minor key now I’ll always wonder the many reasons why. Blessed to have such great family.

  • Reply
    Melinda Kessler
    December 5, 2019 at 8:07 am

    What a wonderful item David wrote! Thank you for sharing it

    Now well into my 70’s I realize more & more the need to review & sometimes relive the various events & emotions of our lives.

    Thanks again – keep up the good work!

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    December 5, 2019 at 7:53 am

    Hi Tipper. I enjoyed the post. I think my grandparents would be surprised to know that I still think of them as much as I do and that I incorporate much of my memories of them into my writing. They were married in 1908. One thing about the article, tho, I think there was a typo. Oklahoma was the 46th state to enter the union, not 34th. The reason that stood out to me is that West Virginia was the 35th state to enter the union and we became a state in 1863.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    December 5, 2019 at 7:46 am

    Love these stories. Thanks.

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