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Sunday, December 22, 2013

THE GOLDEN DELICIOUS APPLE, WEST VIRGINIA'S GIFT TO THE WORLD

The Golden Delicious Apple, A West Virginia Success Story
 
Ever since my childhood, I have loved good, fresh apples and my favorite apple has always been the Golden Delicious.  I love the sweet, fresh, crisp, but somewhat mealy texture of the Golden Delicious.  I firmly believe it is exactly what an eating apple should be.  It is also a great apple for fried apples which I love at breakfast.  I suspect I must have been an adult before I realized that the Golden Delicious is a product of Appalachia, specifically West Virginia.  This apple is well known to nearly everyone who loves apples and is grown, sold, and eaten all over the world.  There could not have been a finer contribution to the world than this sweet treat.  The apple related website Orange Pippin  lists the Golden Delicious as the parent, grandparent, or possible ancestor of more than 40 other apple varieties.  There is probably no more popular apple for orchardists to grow, sell, and use as breeding stock when attempting to produce new and useful apples. 
 
The Golden Delicious was a chance seedling discovered on the farm of L. L. Mullins about 1891 in Clay County West Virginia and the original tree and the earth surrounding it were sold to Stark Brothers Nursery which first marketed it about 1914.  The rest, as we say, is history.  The Golden Delicious moved on to take over the apple world.  The story of how the apple tree was found and saved in the middle of a field being mowed is a wonderful little vignette in the history of West Virginia, food culture, and the world when we consider how much this particular little tree changed life and food culture and might just as easily have never grown to maturity.  I do not currently own a good history of apples or fruit trees and am forced to rely on Internet stories in order to compile a story of how the tree was found, saved, sold, propagated, and disseminated worldwide.  The West Virginia Archives and History site run by the West Virginia Culture Center has published a story by Adrian Gwinn of the Daily Mail from 1962 which contains a first person interview about the apple's history.  That story can be found at Daily Mail Story About The Golden Delicious .  J. M. Mullins at age 87 gave the mail this account of how the tree was found and saved by him on the farm of his father.
 
I was born in 1876 on the farm where that apple tree later became famous. My dad was L. L. Mullins, who owned the farm. "Now one day, when I was about 15 years old, that would have been about 1891, dad sent me out with a big old mowin' scythe to mow the pasture field. "I was swingin' away with the scythe when I came across a little apple tree that had grown about 20 inches tall. It was just a new little apple tree that had volunteered there. There wasn't another apple tree right close by anywhere..."I thought to myself, 'Now young feller, I'll just leave you there,' and that's what I did. I mowed around it and on other occasions I mowed around it again and again, and it grew into a nice lookin' little apple tree and eventually it was a big tree and bore apples." Charleston Daily Mail 1962.

Stories like this about any kind of wonderful, world changing discovery are few and far between.  They deserve to be told repeatedly and, in this case, West Virginia deserved perpetual credit for the discovery and propagation of the Golden Delicious.  The official website of the Stark Brothers Nursery gives only this brief account of the tree: " In 1914, Paul Stark Sr. discovered an apple with an outstanding flavor that was sweet and juicy with a hint of zest."  The Stark Brothers' side of the story can be seen at this address: The Stark Brothers' Story .  The official story of the Golden Delicious Apple can be found on the website of the Clay County Golden Delicious Apple Festival .  I am sure that somewhere in all the differing versions of the story that the real story lies waiting to be written firmly in stone.  But the one thing on which the world seems to agree is that the Golden Delicious Apple was a product of Clay County West Virginia and is one of the greatest products Appalachia has ever produced.  It is a story of which every Appalachian should be proud.
 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

PATENT MEDICINES AND OTHER THINGS WE SOLD IN COUNTRY STORES

MORE MEMORIES FROM A COUNTRY STORE
 
 
A recent encounter in which I came in contact with a fairly good collection of vintage to antique patent medicines brought back a lot of memories of the items we regularly sold in country stores.  I came to be in possession of a fairly sizable collection of these patent medicines recently and sold them to a neighbor and friend who still runs a fairly authentic country store and antique shop.  But as I went through the collection, I was reminded of dozens of similar items my parents and other country store operators used to sell which I never see anymore.  I have discussed some of these items in one of my earlier posts, The Country Store And Travelling Salesmen.  While I had these recently found items in my hands, I took photos of most of them and will just post the photos and write a few of my own personal reminiscences of them. I apologize for the quality of some of the shots.  Many of the items are small and I cropped the photos a bit too small since I use a fairly cheap digital camera. 
 
Phillips Milk Of Magnesia Tablets Store Display (Roger D. Hicks)





One of the nicest items in this group I found was a vintage Phillip's Milk of Magnesia Tablets store display box of about 12 boxes of tablets.  These and several other types of "stomach medicines" were sold regularly in country stores in my childhood.  It was fairly common for country people to avoid going to doctors both because of poverty and distrust of medicine in general which translated into  faith in both folk medicines and readily available patent medicines which could be bought from  the country store operator who was a neighbor and friend who was generally better known and more trusted than the doctor at the county seat.  But I do not want to leave a blanket negative impression of the country doctors of my childhood.  Two in particular, Dr. Dempsey and Dr. Wicker from Floyd County both deserve posts on this blog at some time in the future. 
 
 
Tube Rose Scotch Snuff (Roger D. Hicks)
 
 
 
Another item which I found in this same collection was an unopened can of Tube Rose Scotch Snuff, which may well have been a contributing factor for some of the usage of "Stomach Medicines" by people all over Appalachia and the south.  I do not recall that my parents ever sold snuff or that there were ever many people who asked for it in Knott County during my childhood.  Most of our neighbors, my father, and even myself, for a short while, were chewers of tobacco.  This tobacco usage was split between pouch, plug, and twist with Red Horse, Red Man, Beech Nut, Kentucky Twist, Brown's Mule and a few other brands carrying most of  the business.  Since tobacco was not commonly grown in Knott County, there were very few chewers of homegrown.  But I have known of a few people who got a few seeds and raised a small patch or often just a row or two for private use.  But getting back to this can of Tube Rose Snuff, it was a fine example of a vintage country store piece and was unopened with the Internal Revenue Stamp still attached and unbroken.  It was manufactured in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and also carried a union labor stamp which is rarely seen on any item today.  That regrettable loss of union shops began about 1981 with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and a strong anti-union element in  American politics.  Today's fight by fast food workers for an increase in the minimum wage is directly rooted in the changes of attitudes which were promoted by the Reagan Administration beginning with the firing of the air traffic controllers shortly after he became President. 
 
 
Ramon's Pink Pills (Roger D. Hicks)
 
 
Another of the items in this collection which brought back instant memories of itself and a dozen other patent medicines was Ramon's Pink Pills, "an adult laxative for sluggish bowels due to temporary constipation".  This is a classic example of "stomach medicine" and Ramon's Pink Pills were sold by the millions across Appalachia and the rural south along with Carter's Little Liver Pills, Fletcher's Castoria, Geritol,  Black Draught, SSS Tonic, Lightning Hot Drops, and a wide variety of purgatives, antacids, and putative cure all's.  My parents must have sold thousands of boxes, bottles, and cans of these medicines.  And I have to say that finding the Ramon's Pink Pills and the Milk of Magnesia in the collection were a lot like meeting old friends after too long a time apart. 
 
 
 
 
Old Hickory Throat Troches (Roger D. Hicks)
 
 
 
 
Another item in this collection which I found fascinating but did not recognize from my childhood was a tube of Old Hickory Throat Troches which were made by the Old Hickory Medicine Company in Andalusia, Alabama.  I even tried calling a number I located on the Internet to learn more about them and found it disconnected.  I have to assume that the company, like most of the patent medicines, is no longer in existence.  I believe these were sold as a treatment for minor sore throats and must have been similar to cough drops.  If any of you remember them, please send me a personal E-Mail or comment on this post.  I would love to know exactly what they are.  I am sorry to say that I have never been to Andalusia even though I have travelled extensively in Alabama. And I also recently sold a vintage 1953 Hank Williams Song Book to someone in Andalusia.   
 
 
Colgate Tooth Powder (Roger D. Hicks)
 
 
 
Another item I found and did not remember ever seeing in our store was a small metal can of Colgate Tooth Powder which I assume was a precursor of tube toothpaste.  And to be honest, I do not recall that we sold a great deal of tooth paste in our store.  As I think about it, I believe this might have been due to one or more of several reasons: 1) due to poverty, many people might have been using other methods such as baking soda; 2) a lot of our neighbors never seemed to brush their teeth regularly which is also often connected to poverty; 3) folkways of cleaning teeth such as brushing with fragrant twigs might have also been practiced.  Whatever, the reasons, Colgate Tooth Powder or any other brand was not common in our store in my childhood. 
 
 
Zenith Brand Tibet Almond Stick (Roger D. Hicks)
 
 
 
Another unknown, at least to me, item which showed up in the collection was a metal can containing a Zenith Brand Tibet Almond Stick which was used to either repair or disguise scratches in furniture.  I do not recall any similar items to this being common in the area when I was growing up.  Many of our neighbors had either homemade furniture or cheap store bought furniture and never seemed to pay a whole lot of attention to minor dings.  It probably had nothing to do with a particular disregard for caring for property but was rather more about a different set of priorities which did not place scratches on furniture at the top of a to do list for the average parent with a garden, a house, livestock, and several children to care for. 
 
 
Windsor Rubbed Sage (Roger D. Hicks)
 
 
Another old friend which showed up in the collection, much like a long awaited letter from home, was a can of vintage Windsor Rubbed Sage.  I have written in this blog before about my love for sage as a spice in both sausage and turkey dressing. In the post Thanksgiving In Appalachia, I disclosed my love of sage. And in the recent post Hog Killing Time In Appalachia, a reader and I engaged in an interesting exchange in the comments section which discussed the love of sage.  I always associate the smell of sage dressing and, to a lesser degree, sage sausage with the wonderful memory of coming in out of the Thanksgiving or Christmas cold to the smell of hot sage dressing, steamy windows, and a plethora of other traditional Appalachian seasonal dishes on the table.  Many people in the area during my childhood grew their own spices including sage.  My own family only grew our own hot peppers, dill, and one or two others.  When my wife and I moved into our current home 21 years ago, we found that the deceased owner had kept a greenhouse for years and also had planted garlic, dill, mints, and numerous other spices around the property.  Sadly, I have not kept them all alive and now I have to buy them all.  I do not specifically remember Windsor Rubbed Sage from my childhood.  The brands of spices we were most likely to sell were McCormick's and Sauer's which were then and still are high quality spices.  But still, seeing this box of sage brought home a hundred wonderful food and country store based memories. 

 
 
Dr. LeGear's Flatulent Colic Medicine (Roger D. Hicks)
 
Another of the non-food items from this collection was Dr. LeGear's Flatulent Colic Medicine, a patent medicine for use in horses, mules, and cattle.  I spent a childhood in a country store, worked about 15 years in the Central Kentucky Thoroughbred business, and spent more than 3 years working on the Vision Quest Wagon Trains and I had never seen this medicine before.  But veterinary medicine in Appalachia during my childhood was nearly non-existent and many counties at that time did not have a single veterinarian.  Just as they did with their children, most Appalachians until the late 1960's treated health problems in their livestock themselves with remedies based primarily in folkways. 
 
This was a wonderful walk down Memory Lane for me as I found, inspected, remembered, and wrote about these items from my childhood.  I hope it is a source of warm Appalachian memories for my readers as well.  I will expand this post a couple of times in the near future.  But, for now, I want everyone of my readers to enjoy it as much as have I.  Therefore, I am posting it while it is still in progress.  
 












Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas Hospitality In Appalachia

An Interesting Evening In Menifee County Kentucky
 
This past Saturday, December 7, 2013, my wife Candice and I took  a trip from our home in White Oak, Morgan County Kentucky down US460 into Frenchburg, KY, the county seat of Menifee County to post some handbills for an upcoming auction.  Along the way, we stopped at nearly every kind of business one can find in a small county in Kentucky or in Appalachia in general for that matter.  Altogether, the trip was probably about 80 miles since it is roughly 35 miles from our home to Frenchburg and we took a bit of a side trip to Cannel City on our way home.  We spent the biggest part of the afternoon on this trip, had a ball, and experienced one heartwarming dose of Appalachian hospitality like I had not seen in a while.  We put out a few handbills along the way and came to the Oldfield Farm Store and Mize, KY, post office where we once again saw a US Post Office being run inside a privately owned business which does not happen much anymore.  Mize is one of the small post offices which came up for possible closing last year as the post office management tried to complete a plan by which it can become profitable again.  But, like many other small post offices across the country, Mize escaped the budget axe at least for the present. 
 
After a brief stop at Mize, we travelled on west into Menifee County.  Along the way, I reminded Candice of a place just across the county line which we had visited several years ago known as the Swamp Valley Museum.  It had been run for about 50 years by a man named Clayton Wells who also had several old log buildings full of assorted antiques along with his country store.  Clayton Wells is now dead and I told Candice the store was probably closed.  But as we rounded the curve, I saw wood smoke coming from the store chimney and surmised that maybe Clayton's children were continuing to run the store.  We pulled in and I walked inside just as I would have in the past only to find that the store was actually closed and now being used by his children, widow, and other younger descendants as a family gathering place.  But I was invited inside the store anyway by Clayton's son, Gary Wells, a former deputy coroner of Menifee County and current member of the volunteer fire department.  There was a large number of the family in the old building which has been kept just as it was when Clayton was alive.  There was a large cast iron Dutch oven full of homemade beef soup steaming on the wood stove and Gary Wells, the cook, quickly invited us to have a bowl.  I told him I would have to check with Candice, who is in a wheelchair, to see if she was interested. Candice usually stays in the van when I am making short stops rather than make the effort to get in and out of buildings which are not handicapped accessible.  It turns out she was interested in going inside and eating with the Wells Family and Gary and one of his brothers helped me get her up the single step & through the door into the store.  The family made room for us, passed out paper bowls & plastic spoons for the soup, and gave us both a cold Ale 8 One, the national soft drink of Eastern Kentucky.  Ale 8 One is a mild ginger ale made exclusively in Winchester, KY, not far from Frenchburg & is drunk daily by thousands of Appalachian Kentuckians.  It probably deserves a separate post at some time in the future since it  is a Kentucky institution.  The store, although it is just as it was the last time I was there in about 2001, is no longer operating.  This was a family gathering in a place that is near and dear to their hearts and which had become a shrine dedicated to family memories.  But they still invited two strangers in, fed us, talked for about an hour about country stores, antiques, local politics, family life in Appalachia, and a dozen other topics just like we were all old friends.  They even allowed us to bring our 13 year old Dachshund, Giggles, into the store too.  She walked around in the floor along with a small great grandchild of Clayton Wells and was ignored just as if she was also a member of the family.  The soup was great.  The hospitality was a wonderful reminder of how people all across Appalachia used to treat strangers.  It reminded me of many visits I made as a traveling salesman or simply a traveler to many stores and homes across Appalachia in the last 60 years. It also reminded me of how many times I had seen my parents doing the same thing in our country store in the 1950's & 1960's.   The experience was a bright spot near Christmas which showed us the Christmas spirit as it had been long ago and may well never be very often again.  We enjoyed it greatly and I will post some photos in the near future of the Swamp Valley Museum and Store since I did not have my camera with me.  Perhaps in the spring I will go back on a Saturday when I can find the family in and take photographs for a while. 
 
For now I will let a description suffice.  The store is a small wood frame structure with a low porch in front.  Nearly every square inch of the building is covered with vintage to antique advertising and political signs.  The parking lot is slightly graveled and gets muddy in wet weather.  There is an old wire corn crib right beside the store and a fine old log house full of antiques  which used to serve as the Swamp Valley Museum about 75 feet downstream on the side of the parking lot.  It is fine place to visit although it is no longer being operated commercially and I would not expect the Wells Family to always be this hospitable to the random stranger.   But it is a fitting reminder of life in general stores in Appalachia when I was a child. 
 
When we started back home, we took a side trip to Cannel City, KY, to stop in at the Caney Valley Grocery which I have mentioned in this blog in the past.  It is an old wood frame two story store, still being operated by Roger Finch and family and also filled with antiques.  I was pleased to see a small display case full of vintage to antique patent medicines on the top shelf in the store to protect it from too many hands.  I had sold Roger Finch most of the patent medicines a few weeks ago and he was so enamored with them he brought the antique display case down from the upstairs antique shop to display them.  They include Dr. Drake's Glesco, Old Settler water treatment, Cloverine Salve, and several other items no longer on sale anywhere.  Altogether, it was a fine day on the road in Appalachia and I cannot wait to do it again.  I highly recommend a day long drive along US460 in Eastern Kentucky anytime one can find the time.  The remaining two lane sections of the highway contain some very interesting places to stop, visit, take a few photographs, talk a while, and occasionally see a bit of the Appalachia I remember from my childhood. US460 runs all across Kentucky from the Virginia border in Pike County to the intersection with US60 in Frankfort.  It is well worth spending a day or three driving all the remaining two lane sections in a leisurely trip to see a few reminders of life as it used to be.   At some point in the future, I will try to write a longer post about US460 in the My Favorite Places In Appalachia collection.  But for now I just hope it is also one of your favorite places. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

DEAD BABY MUSIC, A SUB-GENRE OF BLUEGRASS

DID I REALLY SAY "DEAD BABY MUSIC" YOU ASK?  YES, I DID!

Growing up in  Eastern Kentucky in the 1950's & 1960's I listened to a lot of bluegrass & classic country music primarily because that was what most of the people around me listened to and most of the radio stations I could pick up also played it daily.  But I also loved the music in all its manifestations.  As I became a hippie in the late 1960's, I ceased to listen to bluegrass and country for several years and listened primarily to rock and folk until about the middle 1970's.  At about that time, I returned to the music of my childhood and have listened to it nearly every day of my life since.  I generally prefer bluegrass over most other forms of music but do still periodically listen to classic rock, folk, blues, classical, jazz, and zydeco.  But, when I want to feel at peace, at home, comfortable and rested, I listen to bluegrass.  My favorite musicians include the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, Bill Monroe, the Carter Family, Tom T. Hall, Doc Watson, Area Code 615, Dale McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Clarence Kelly, Patty Loveless, Don Rigsby, and Larry Cordle.  Nearly every one of these people is an above average musician and there are some of the best songwriters in America in this group.  Nearly every one of them has written and/or recorded at least one American classic song which has woven its way into the hearts of the general public.  Several of them such as Bill Monroe, Tom T. Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Flatt & Scruggs, Dolly Parton, and Larry Cordle have written and recorded several such songs. 

Bluegrass music is the music of the Appalachian working class, the poor, the disenfranchised, and many of the people in the country who seek to move upward from an economic or social condition which they do not wish to live in for the rest of their lives.  Bluegrass music shares these qualities with both country music and rap. Like country music, bluegrass has commonly heard themes of love, drinking, unrequited love, cheating, home & family, hard work, prison, Christianity, and love of place, an Appalachian Value I have discussed at length in several other posts. Bluegrass also shares several of these themes with rap and at some time in the future, I will also write a post about common themes in bluegrass and rap.  But for now, my topic is a sub-genre of bluegrass music which I have always referred to as Dead Baby Music. And I have to give credit for the name Dead Baby Music to my wife Candice, a transplanted Wisconsin native, who first heard bluegrass with every negative opinion possible and has since come to know and love it.  I have searched for a slightly less off putting name for this type of music and to be honest, I cannot find one that is more accurate or more appropriately descriptive of the music I am discussing.  What I mean by Dead Baby Music is music which almost always has a central character, usually a child, who dies an untimely and often painful or cruel death.  In some of these songs, that death may have even come at the hands of a parent, family member or friend. 

The three best examples of Dead Baby Music I can think of are "Little Bessie" written by Bill Emerson, Doyle Lawson, & Charley Waller, "Bringing Mary Home" written by Red Sovine, and "The Water Lily" written by Tom T. Hall. "Little Bessie" is an absolute classic which has been recorded by hundreds of bluegrass artists but the two best versions are by Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs.  Skaggs recorded a version which is nearly 14 minutes long and is timeless in its musical skill & heart wrenching vocals.  In the song, Little Bessie, a terminally ill child tells her mother of a dream or vision in which "a window opened on a field of lambs and sheep. Some far out in a brook were drinking.  Some were lying fast asleep."  The next stanza describes "a world that was filled with little children and they seemed so happy there."  These clearly Christian symbols of pairing children with lambs lead into the next stanza in which Bessie asks if the Savior "saw me would he speak to such as me".    Bessie does go on to describe a conversation with Jesus in the next two stanzas in which he tells her "come up here my Little Bessie. Come up here and live with me".  Then the poor sick child tells her mother that she had just been getting ready to go when the mother called and she proceeds to tell her mother goodbye.  "Oh to sleep and never suffer Mother don't be crying so" is a request by the child for permission to die.  At this point, the "mother pressed her closer to her own dear burdened breast. On the heart so near its breaking lay the heart so near its rest".   And naturally, Little Bessie must die and go to join Jesus as the final stanza says "at the solemn hour of midnight in the darkness calm and deep lying on her mother's bosom Little Bessie fell asleep".  That is Dead Baby Music at its finest.  "Little Bessie" personifies nearly everything that Dead Baby Music is. It is played by thousands of bluegrass musicians ranging from the great to the miserably ordinary.  It is a crowd favorite at bluegrass concerts and festivals and will continue to be so long as bluegrass music is played in public. 


Tom T. Hall, one of America's greatest living songwriters, with a portfolio of classics to his credit also wrote one of the finest pieces of Dead Baby Music when he penned "The Water Lily" which is best heard on the Hall & Stanley duet on Ralph Stanley's "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning" recordings.  The song also begins with a dream, another common element in Dead Baby Music.   But this time, the mother is dreaming "of a lily decked pool with a border of ferns and a beautiful child with butterfly wings trips down to the edge of the water and sings."  Hall has probably consciously reversed some of the best elements of the earlier classic by having the mother dream and the child beckoning from the dreamland asking the mother to come.  But he has also consciously kept the elements of the dream, the mother, the child, and the water.  Tom T. Hall did not become the unequaled songwriter he is accidentally. He has studied and written both novels and short stories.  His public nickname has for many years been the Story Teller.  During the time he worked as a regularly touring musician, his band was known as the Story Tellers.  And in the story of "The Water Lily", he has woven one of his finest and one of the favorites of all followers of Dead Baby Music.  The lyrics of the song are woven together by the chorus of the child with butterfly wings singing to her mother "come mother, come quick follow me. Step out on the leaves of the water lily."  And, naturally, the mother attempts to join the beckoning child "but the lily leaves sink and she wakes from her dream".  And of course, the writer and the mother let us all know the inevitable for "waking is sad for the tears that it brings and she knows it is her dead baby's spirit that sings".  There is no finer example of Dead Baby Music in the world today.  Hall kept the best themes from "Little Bessie" but reversed the position of the mother and child.  He has the child already dead and begging her mother who is unable to comply to come and join her.  But, like "Little Bessie" we still have the grieving mother left behind by the dead child. 


Red Sovine used a different approach but achieved an equally touching effect with "Bringing Mary Home".  The song begins with a narrator stopping in the night to pick up a small girl from the side of the road.  The child climbs into the car and tells the narrator "my name is Mary please won't you take me home."  And the narrator goes on to give us a touching physical description of the little girl.  "She must have been so frightened all alone there in the night.  There was something strange about her cause her face was deathly white."  Here we also see another common theme in Dead Baby Music with white symbolizing purity as it has in literature for hundreds of years.  Then the narrator and driver takes the little girl to the house where she asks him to go and when he gets out to open the car door for her  "I just could not believe my eyes the back seat was bare.  I looked all around the car but Mary wasn't there." And finally, Sovine brings the mother into the song with these words " A small light shown from the porch a woman opened up the door. I asked about the little girl that I was looking for. Then the lady gently smiled and brushed a tear away. She said it sure was nice of you to go out of your way. But thirteen years ago today in a wreck just down the road our darling Mary lost her life and we miss her so."  This time the mother is providing the consolation for the innocent stranger who has just happened to become an element in the child's quest to return to the home and grieving mother."  And then we reach the somewhat surprising and chilling end of the song when the mother tells the man  "so thank you for your trouble and the kindness you have shown.  You're the thirteenth one who's been here bringing Mary home."  At this point, it is not uncommon to see tears in an audience when a good singer and band deliver that line. 


Dolly Parton has also written and recorded some of the finest Dead Baby Music I have ever heard.  She, too, is one of America's finest song writers with more than a few classic songs to her credit in the fields of country, pop, and bluegrass.  But her best Dead Baby Music is rarely heard outside the world of bluegrass.  On her classic bluegrass CD "Little Sparrow", Parton actually recorded two fine examples of Dead Baby Music,  "Mountain Angel" and "Down From Dover".  Parton did some of her best writing in "Mountain Angel".  It is a song about a girl who was born as close to perfect as it is possible to be. "Skin as fair as lily's. Hair as golden as the corn. She was her momma's baby. She was her Daddy's pride."  And then a man enters the picture and changes everything in this woman's life.  He gets her pregnant and disappears before the child is born.  "They say she had a baby.  Some say that it had died.  They say it's just as well as it had been the devil's child".  And now the grief stricken mother disappears "into the wild".  The most powerful lyrics in the song come in the last couple of stanzas.  "She waited for him as her beauty faded. Her parents died from grief before their time." Not only has the tragedy consumed the mother of the dead baby in this song, it has also consumed the grandparents as well.  And like the other mothers in the other examples, this mother tries to deal with her grief but cannot. "She tried to gather pieces of her life, they wouldn't fit. Beside the tiny grave deep in the woods is where she'd sit. Talking to the child, herself, to him, who knew for sure. Possessed they say by Satan's insane lure."  At this point in the song, she has now completely lost her mind and become an outcast "high a'top the mountain"  And that is how she lives out her life roaming the mountains, grieving for the dead child and the man who ruined her. Parton takes her out into the hills and leaves her for all eternity where "for years they say she's seen. Looking down upon the town where she had once been queen. She'd sneak around the playground, watch the little children play. They'd see the crazy lady then run away. They say she roamed these hills for years, wearing not a stitch. The lovely mountain angel now thought to be a witch."


Parton also narrowly misses the genre of Dead Baby Music in another of her songs, "These Old Bones" from the "Halos And Horns" CD.  In that song, she tells a story of witchcraft or clairvoyance about another woman who lives alone in the mountains with her bag of bones, a dog, a cat, and a goat.  The narrator turns out to be a daughter of the woman which "the country took you from me said I wasn't right in my mind."  But this child lives to find the mother and takes care of her, burying her, and assuming her position of telling fortunes and living in the mountain with "These Old Bones". 


In the other example of Dead Baby Music on the "Little Sparrow" CD, Parton writes about another young girl who has become pregnant by a man who deserts her.  But this girl leaves her family and home and goes to take "care of that old lady" as a way to have a home away from her family who have ostracized her.  As childbirth gets closer, she keeps repeating the chorus line "I know he'll be coming down from Dover."  But the girl delivers the child still born and sings "dying was her way of telling me he wasn't coming down from Dover".  All the songs I have discussed here are fine examples of Dead Baby Music.  They share several common elements.  There are many more in  bluegrass which fit the genre.  They are part of what makes bluegrass unique and wonderful.  Rarely would anyone wish to listen to these songs all day long.  But when you mix them in among the other standard bluegrass themes of love, work, prison, heartbreak, and religion, they are well worth paying attention to and accepting as a treasured part of the bluegrass music many of us will love to our dying day.