The mountain cemetery, as often as not, was placed on the highest ground. My old neighbors Fred and Laurie Peterson had a family cemetery on a hill behind their house, on the highest point of land they owned. You could see miles down the Toe River, as it flowed toward Tennessee. Paying my last respects to them there, I felt uplifted, part of a vast universe.
Ola Belle Campbell Reid said that when she wrote her song “High on a Mountain,” she was standing by the grave of her mother. The lyrics speak of longing for “the days that used to be.” Many people have interpreted the words as speaking to a lost lover. I think they go much deeper than that.
In northwestern North Carolina, near Ola Belle’s home grounds, I found the graves of my own great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, as near to heaven as they could be placed. Standing at the top of a mountain, it’s hard not to feel inspired, even as you feel grief or nostalgia. Ola Belle’s lyrics begin with “High on a mountain, wind blowing free…” Every time I hear her song I see the Toe River valley stretching away into a blue-green haze and feel the free air all around, and imagine my neighbors and my ancestors gone to a well-deserved reward for their hard work, perseverance, and benevolence.
With all respect due to Marty Stuart’s interpretation of Reid’s song, I like Ola Belle’s own performance best. It has a depth no love song can reach.
Copyright 2021 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.
“As I looked at the valleys down below,
They were green just as far as I could see;
As my memory turned, oh,
How my heart did yearn,
For you and the days that used to be.”