Friday, May 27, 2011
The Mountain Whippoorwill
When I lived in Arkansas there was a saying "When you hear the first song of the whippoorwill in Spring, it's time to plant peas". Of course they meant black eyed peas, that was understood. I discovered this ballad called The Mountain Whippoorwill: How Hillbilly Jim Won The Great Fiddler's Prize by Stephen Vincent Benet. This ballad reminds me of childhood visits to my Grandma Ruth's in Arkansas. I miss my grandma, she lived to be 98. It's rather long but well worth the read; think of it set to fiddle music.
If you want to hear a you tube version from the 1970s Florida folk festival by the Ozark Mountain Dare Devils, please scroll down to the end. Apparently the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded this in 1974, but I couldn't find it on you tube. Last night I found myself reading this aloud with a rather quick cadence, it was fun. There were several renditions on you tube of folks reading this ballad, but very slowly. In my mind this should have a quicker tempo.
Up in the mountains, it's lonesome all the time,
(Sof' win' slewin' thu' the sweet-potato vine.)
Up in the mountains, it's lonesome for a child,
(Whippoorwills a-callin' when the sap runs wild.)
Up in the mountains, mountains in the fog,
Everythin's as lazy as an old houn' dog.
Born in the mountains, never raised a pet,
Don't want nuthin' an' never got it yet.
Born in the mountains, lonesome-born,
Raised runnin' ragged thu' the cockleburrs and corn.
Never knew my pappy, mebbe never should.
Think he was a fiddle made of mountain laurel-wood.
Never had a mammy to teach me pretty-please.
Think she was a whippoorwill, a-skittin' thu' the trees.
Never had a brother ner a whole pair of pants,
But when I start to fiddle, why, yuh got to start to dance!
Listen to my fiddle -- Kingdom Come -- Kingdom Come!
Hear the frogs a-chunkin' "Jug o' rum, Jug o' rum!"
Hear that mountain whippoorwill be lonesome in the air,
An' I'll tell yuh how I travelled to the Essex County Fair.
Essex County has a mighty pretty fair,
All the smarty fiddlers from the South come there.
Elbows flyin' as they rosin up the bow
For the First Prize Contest in the Georgia Fiddlers' Show.
Old Dan Wheeling, with his whiskers in his ears,
King-pin fiddler for nearly twenty years.
Big Tom Sergeant, with his blue wall-eye,
An' Little Jimmy Weezer that can make a fiddle cry.
All sittin' roun', spittin' high an' struttin' proud,
(Listen, little whippoorwill, yuh better bug yore eyes!)
Tun-a-tun-a-tunin' while the jedges told the crowd
Them that got the mostest claps'd win the bestest prize.
Everybody waitin' for the first tweedle-dee,
When in comes a-stumblin' -- hill-billy me!
Bowed right pretty to the jedges an' the rest,
Took a silver dollar from a hole inside my vest,
Plunked it on the table an' said, "There's my callin' card!
An' anyone that licks me -- well, he's got to fiddle hard!"
Old Dan Wheeling, he was laughin' fit to holler,
Little Jimmy Weezer said, "There's one dead dollar!"
Big Tom Sergeant had a yaller-toothy grin,
But I tucked my little whippoorwill spang underneath my chin,
An' petted it an' tuned it till the jedges said, "Begin!"
Big Tom Sargent was the first in line;
He could fiddle all the bugs off a sweet-potato vine.
He could fiddle down a possum from a mile-high tree,
He could fiddle up a whale from the bottom of the sea.
Yuh could hear hands spankin' till they spanked each other raw,
When he finished variations on "Turkey in the Straw."
Little Jimmy Weezer was the next to play;
He could fiddle all night, he could fiddle all day.
He could fiddle chills, he could fiddle fever,
He could make a fiddle rustle like a lowland river.
He could make a fiddle croon like a lovin' woman.
An' they clapped like thunder when he'd finished strummin'.
Then came the ruck of the bob-tailed fiddlers,
The let's-go-easies, the fair-to-middlers.
They got their claps an' they lost their bicker,
An' they all settled back for some more corn-licker.
An' the crowd was tired of their no-count squealing,
When out in the center steps Old Dan Wheeling.
He fiddled high and he fiddled low,
(Listen, little whippoorwill, yuh got to spread yore wings!)
He fiddled and fiddled with a cherrywood bow,
(Old Dan Wheeling's got bee-honey in his strings).
He fiddled a wind by the lonesome moon,
He fiddled a most almighty tune.
He started fiddling like a ghost.
He ended fiddling like a host.
He fiddled north an' he fiddled south,
He fiddled the heart right out of yore mouth.
He fiddled here an' he fiddled there.
He fiddled salvation everywhere.
When he was finished, the crowd cut loose,
(Whippoorwill, they's rain on yore breast.)
An' I sat there wonderin' "What's the use?"
(Whippoorwill, fly home to yore nest.)
But I stood up pert an' I took my bow,
An' my fiddle went to my shoulder, so.
An' -- they wasn't no crowd to get me fazed --
But I was alone where I was raised.
Up in the mountains, so still it makes yuh skeered.
Where God lies sleepin' in his big white beard.
An' I heard the sound of the squirrel in the pine,
An' I heard the earth a-breathin' thu' the long night-time.
They've fiddled the rose, and they've fiddled the thorn,
But they haven't fiddled the mountain-corn.
They've fiddled sinful an' fiddled moral,
But they haven't fiddled the breshwood-laurel.
They've fiddled loud, and they've fiddled still,
But they haven't fiddled the whippoorwill.
I started off with a dump-diddle-dump,
(Oh, hell's broke loose in Georgia!)
Skunk-cabbage growin' by the bee-gum stump.
(Whippoorwill, yo're singin' now!)
My mother was a whippoorwill pert,
My father, he was lazy,
But I'm hell broke loose in a new store shirt
To fiddle all Georgia crazy.
Swing yore partners -- up an' down the middle!
Sashay now -- oh, listen to that fiddle!
Flapjacks flippin' on a red-hot griddle,
An' hell's broke loose,
Hell's broke loose,
Fire on the mountains -- snakes in the grass.
Satan's here a-bilin' -- oh, Lordy, let him pass!
Go down Moses, set my people free;
Pop goes the weasel thu' the old Red Sea!
Jonah sittin' on a hickory-bough,
Up jumps a whale -- an' where's yore prophet now?
Rabbit in the pea-patch, possum in the pot,
Try an' stop my fiddle, now my fiddle's gettin' hot!
Whippoorwill, singin' thu' the mountain hush,
Whippoorwill, shoutin' from the burnin' bush,
Whippoorwill, cryin' in the stable-door,
Sing tonight as yuh never sang before!
Hell's broke loose like a stompin' mountain-shoat,
Sing till yuh bust the gold in yore throat!
Hell's broke loose for forty miles aroun'
Bound to stop yore music if yuh don['t sing it down.
Sing on the mountains, little whippoorwill,
Sing to the valleys, an' slap 'em with a hill,
For I'm struttin' high as an eagle's quill,
An' hell's broke loose,
Hell's broke loose,
Hell's broke loose in Georgia!
They wasn't a sound when I stopped bowin',
(Whippoorwill, yuh can sing no more.)
But, somewhere or other, the dawn was growin',
(Oh, mountain whippoorwill!)
An' I thought, "I've fiddled all night an' lost,
Yo're a good hill-billy, but yuh've been bossed."
So I went to congratulate old man Dan,
-- But he put his fiddle into my han' --
An' then the noise of the crowd began!
I dedicate this poem to all those who serve or who have served to keep our country and the countries of others free. Have a wonderful weekend. (First photo was borrowed to enhance the story)