Appalachian Dialect

On a High Lonesome

full moon

Over the weekend I was going through some old blog papers and found something I had forgotten.

I’m constantly jotting down things here and there that I hear and think I’ll write about. Often I do exactly that: write about whatever idea I’ve taken down. Other times I never get around to writing about the subject and forget I’ve even written it down at all. Then there are the times that I don’t write down enough context and don’t have a clue what I was even thinking about 🙂

The piece I found over the weekend was a bit of Appalachian language that I thought was unique.

Several years ago I heard some folks talking about the time one of them had a little too much to drink on a school night which resulted in missing school the next day.

It was an important day of school and the teacher and staff were concerned over his absence. They called his house to see if something had happened to him. His mother told them “No he’s alright, he got on a high lonesome and he’ll be back tomorrow.”

Seems like I’ve heard the phrase high lonesome used to describe someone who goes out drinking, but I’m not quite sure.

I looked in my “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English” and there was no entry for the phrase, but I did find it in two other books.

“Mountain Range – A Dictionary of Expressions from Appalachia to the Ozarks”

high lonesome: Said in the Ozarks of someone drinking heavily while alone. “He went on a high lonesome.”

“The Dixie Dictionary – Your complete guide to the Southern Language”

high-lonesome n: debauch, spree

Have you heard of a high lonesome?


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  • Reply
    Dennis M Morgan
    June 22, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    I have never heard of a high lonesome but I have heard of people being as high as a Georgia Pine. That seems to be about the same thing.

    Dennis Morgan

  • Reply
    Patricia Price
    June 22, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    Well, Missy, you sure enough did strike a chord with your audience today!

  • Reply
    Daniel D.A. Ventresca
    June 22, 2021 at 2:59 pm

    I’ve heard the expression ‘High Lonesome’ used to describe the unique singing style and voice of Kentucky Bluegrass singer Bill Monroe. Glad to hear that the expression has other meanings. Thanks, Tipper. I learn so much here. Always a joy and a pleasure.

  • Reply
    June 22, 2021 at 2:56 pm

    Pinnacle Creek, Ed Ammons, Gene Smith, Patricia Price, and Ed Karshner all express understandings of “high lonesome” similar to mine. I also grew up in a family where drinkin’ was nil to none; but we knew “high lonesome”. It was felt by a young woman whose husband had just gone off to war, anyone who had just had a break-up with a long-time serious relationship; felt by a parent upon the death of a child – probably what you felt when Pap passed on. It’s that ache in one’s soul so painful that you don’t want to see the light of day and want to hide in the blanket of night even from the stars and the moon. A body doesn’t even want the good intentioned attempts of others to comfort them – and their real friends know it and give them time to work things out for themselves – they just stand by at the ready. I can’t help but imagine that those who try to use drink to get through it probably just prolong the pain.

  • Reply
    Shirley Stone
    June 22, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    “High lonesome” eventually was shortened to just being “high”. It now includes marijuana and other drugs along with the alcohol, and nowadays people are seldom alone. But once upon a time it meant having the blues, going off by yourself with a bottle and drinking until you didn’t remember your blues any more.

  • Reply
    Donald Wells
    June 22, 2021 at 1:54 pm

    Tipper, never heard the words high lonesome in reference to someone being drunk, but sure enough, Merriam:Webster definition is:drunk, bender,spree got on a high lonesome and told the bar keeper his business. J.F.Dobie Enjoyed all the comments on this subject.

  • Reply
    D Blackwood
    June 22, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    Tipper I just love your post. Not a drinker but I know the feeling of a high lonesome since childhood. You just put a name on it for me.

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    June 22, 2021 at 12:37 pm

    Having spent thirty years in the Navy, I am very familiar with strong drinks and those who drink them. I’ve heard drinking all night, or all weekend called many things but never “high lonesome.”

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    June 22, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    I see a lot of old time music referenced here. I’ll add on to that thread: John Cohen, credited with discovering the great Roscoe Halcomb of Daisy, Kentucky, described Roscoe’s singing as “that High Lonesome Sound”. He also published an album of Roscoe’s music and an accompanying documentary of the same name which can be watched for free here. I think it’s outstanding:

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    June 22, 2021 at 10:44 am

    Oh, yes! A high lonesome meant a severe drunk.

  • Reply
    Kat Swanson
    June 22, 2021 at 10:00 am

    Only time I heard that in wise ,was about music…like our Ralph Stanley played….sad, forlorn songs…Every generation of our mountain family had one person that was bad to drink. My uncle made and drunk enough whiskey to float a boat. …lived to 92…my oldest ugly brother, died at 73…but I never heard high lonesome used to describe those fellows.

  • Reply
    June 22, 2021 at 9:59 am

    To me that is one of the most mountain or Appalachian phrases I have seen in a long time. It goes way back to my earliest understanding that I was indeed a mountain girl. I associate it with the old Bluegrass sounds of Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley. Also definitely the high lonesome sound of a train off in the distant mountains. This was a common sound at one time, but with not as much coal coming out of the mountains I rarely hear the trains. One could even hear their far off high lonesome distant sounds on Pinnacle Creek.
    When I was growing up they were so straight laced that I never heard many wxpressions associated with “tying one on.” This is a whole subject in itself, and it is one I would like to see explored further. I am so grateful when you remind me of a long ago memory of a phrase, a word, or a thought I had almost forgotten. By far the lonesomest sound I ever heard were the old time Acapella sounds at the early Primitive Baptist churches. They sung this sound at the earlier funerals of my kin and the sound seemed to carry far off into the mountains with the church windows open. This sound brought me to tears faster than even the loss of the relative. Ralph Stanley does it best.
    I often rethink as I did about my very late post yesterday. I called snatching a few new potatoes marbling. Wrong! I remembered as soon as I posted they called it graveling/ That is probably just a mispronunciation of the original word grabbling. We cannot lose these old Appalachian words, and with your help, I do believe they will stay forever. Just think of all the folks who have their memories refreshed or see the words or phrases for the first time on your YouTube videos. I look forward to when you may possibly do an interview with an old old timer. You interviewed an older lady once on your blog; so interesting. I also thought Eva and B Ruth added so much to your past blog posts, and I surely miss them. Like it or not your readers are like extended family members of the Blind Pig!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 22, 2021 at 9:30 am

    High Lonesome is where my deceased cousin Bill Burnett was born according to him. It’s a place up the Little Tennessee in Swain County right before you get into Macon County. The GPS coordinates are 35°17’39.7″N 83°29’44.0″W if you want to look it up. High Lonesome the place itself doesn’t appear on Google Maps but High Lonesome Road does. High Lonesome Road begins way up in Macon County at Tellico Creek and comes back into Swain. The old road, which was much steeper, that led to High Lonesome has grown up and is no longer recognizable as a road.
    I grew up hearing the words High Lonesome. It was a place and a feeling. The feeling is one of unexplainable sadness. I have experienced that feeling myself. I’ve never heard it in connection with alcohol consumption.
    Have you never been suddenly overcome by a feeling of utter desolation for no apparent reason? That’s the High Lonesome feeling.

    • Reply
      June 22, 2021 at 10:08 am

      Ed, I think you have really captured the meaning. “Utter desolation” is exactly what it meant to many. Many times words cannot adequately describe, but I think you did just that.

  • Reply
    Joe Chumlea
    June 22, 2021 at 8:46 am

    I have heard of High Lonesome as a style of singing,as heard mostly in Bluegrass. Bill Monroe is a great example.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    June 22, 2021 at 8:13 am

    Never heard of high lonesome personally here in southern WV. I awoke to a cold yet steady and refreshing rain. I watched as the rain was “made” yesterday. Nothing to see or discuss so move it along….

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    June 22, 2021 at 8:04 am

    Can’t say as I have ever heard that. I may have read it somewhere. Now I have here so if my memory serves in future, I will remember this. Maybe a ‘high lonesome’ is about getting away from everybody to wrestle with a personal problem and/or to not have anybody see one’s behavior ‘in their cups’. Certainly makes a lot of sense to me to do that.

    Your description of your note taking is also something I do. And I also sometimes think, ‘What did I have in mind when I wrote that?’ Some of the ideas wither on the vine. Some grow and blossom and fruit, just never know. I’m ‘bad for’ doing notes in church which I would have thought at one time was a terrible thing to be doing.

  • Reply
    Bob Creswell
    June 22, 2021 at 7:46 am

    I remember Vince gill had a song entitled “High Lonesome Sound” some years ago, but I don’t remember the words. I’m sure it had to have a connection to the drinking references that you’ve mentioned.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 22, 2021 at 7:19 am

    There are songs with the name but my memory says that high lonesome is when someone goes of alone, to the mountain top so to speak, to think/ponder life happenings and such things.

    • Reply
      Gene Smith
      June 22, 2021 at 11:04 am

      Aussies call that a “walkabout.” Same thing. A time to one’s self, outback, or “back of beyond,” a la Jim Casada.
      To me the term “high lonesome” has always denoted a bluegrass singer’s high tenor, which in my mind is close to keening, mourning, lamenting. Think Ralph Stanley singing Oh Death.

  • Reply
    Patricia Price
    June 22, 2021 at 7:01 am

    Also…the way a freight train whistle sounds in the middle of the night is high lonesome.

  • Reply
    Patricia Price
    June 22, 2021 at 6:58 am

    I have heard high lonesome used to talk about a person going off alone just because they needed time and space to sort out a problem. I’ve also heard it used to describe some bluegrass music, like Bill Monroe’s, that sounds lonesome and mournful.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    June 22, 2021 at 6:52 am

    This is interesting. I grew up in a household that was anti-alcohol, so it was strangely never discussed (except in hushed tones by adults after my great uncles went home). But, I’ve heard this phrase used. But, it always meant, or seemed to mean, depressed or being in a sour mood.

    Now, I’m going to need to ask my mom if that phrase was re appropriated or if it was being used as a euphemism for a hangover.

  • Reply
    Jerry Wright
    June 22, 2021 at 6:37 am

    I have a CD with the song “High Lonesome” by Longview (one of my favorite Bluegrass Bands). I never understood the meaning of the song title until I read your blog. Thanks.

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