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Voices from the Mountains

posted Aug 24, 2012, 6:06 PM by David Burkhart   [ updated Apr 23, 2013, 1:44 PM ]
Brian, Amy, Robert, Lynn, and David
Writers think a lot about journaling, but that's all. They think about it. At least I do. Pity. As years go by I recall certain trips and fun experiences and wish I had written down the details - who was there, what we talked about, impressions of what I saw.  Most of the writers I know say the same thing - they wish they had journaled.
Yet, I'm sure there are many people who have the discipline to sit down and write about their lives and how they feel about everything - every day. However, I try to make up for my journaling shortcomings by delving into the lives of others who have a story to tell. Funny about that. Not everyone wants to talk about their lives. That's why so many of us wait too late to hear the history of our parents and everything they know about their parents and grandparents. Had I paid more attention to what my mother had to say about life in 1915 I would be happier. What I did get from her is amazing stuff - remembering the opening of "Gone With the Wind", going to the first school that had a cafeteria (the same way schools are today), remembering the first "talkie". Now I wish she was still around to get the tiniest details.
So, I went to West Jefferson and Sugar Grove, North Carolina this week with David Weatherly, producer of Roy's Folks, and Roy Ackland - the real Roy of the same "Folks". They do a wonderful job adding stories that are historical, interesting, and positive to local broadcasting. It's an 8 minute magazine-type feature on people who add to society through their stories, art, collections, and general talent for doing things. They featured Amy Michels, (featured here,) the fabulous Appalachian banjo picker one day. Actually, they featured her out picking ramps. Another day, it was my web designer, Melody Watson, who is also a fabulous jewelry artist. They've had James Young demonstrating the art of illustrating children's books. Their range is vast and interesting.
I have the habit of collecting stories like some people collect stamps, or seashells, or china. I want to hear from a living human being who tells what life was like before electricity. I must admit, there are not many people left who can talk about this. But in the mountains of North Carolina, most people didn't have electricity until after World War II.  
When I wrote Young Ray Hicks Learns to Tell the Jack Tales I had his oral history to draw on. The fact that he was raised to live on "animal time" (animals know when to get up by the sun and when to go to sleep at sundown) became a central focus of the book. After that, I never fail to ask my interviewees if they remember when electricity came to their town or into their house. 
I had so much fun writing oral histories for people featured in Voices of the Crystal Coast in 1999, I've made it a habit to interview people regularly. And then again, not as regularly as I'd like. 

So, this week Roy, David, Amy Michels, my husband, and I visited the flatfoot dancer, Robert Dotson. What a story he had to tell. He's nearly 84 and couldn't stop talking about dancin' and couldn't stop dancin' when he talked. Never mind he got run over by a dump truck hauling gravel last year. He's back dancing up a storm. He'll be at Merle Fest this year - again for the umpteenth time. Amy played the banjo and he danced and danced. (Her band the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers will also be at Merlefest.)
The best part of all, Robert had a lot of funny things to say with Amy there, that he didn't say during six hours of interviews for my upcoming book for The History Press. He was so clever, so alive, so witty, and so downright charming, I came home and rewrote an entire chapter. We all had fun. It was like a big party and to think we were working.