Category Archives: Oakley

Mystery Musician Identified!

Several weeks ago, I posted a snapshot that I found among my grandmother’s family photos, and identified one of the two individuals as Frank Jenkins, a musician from Surry County, N. C.  His companion, who held a guitar, now has a name:  Walter Barney Smith.

Walter Smith wrote several songs that are known to old-time music fans. He recorded several with the Carolina Buddies in the early 1930’s. “Otto Wood the Bandit” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” were based on real events that took place in North Carolina. Apparently Smith led tours of the Lawsons’ cabin in Stokes County and performed his song as a finale. The 78 rpm record label pictured is from my mother’s copy of the record.

The Carolina Buddies and Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers contained many of the same personnel over the years, including Posey Rorrer and Norman Woodlief. However, I find no record so far of Smith performing with Frank Jenkins, his partner in the photograph.

Smith’s wife and three daughters performed with him over the years. In the Smithfield, Va. Times of July 20, 1939, was an ad which read: “On Stage In Person! Kid Smith and Smith Sisters WGH Radio Station Stars in Their New Radio Hillbilly Show–Good string music with harmony singing–Featuring Expert Tap Dancer Little Lorene” (Smith’s youngest daughter.)

At the top of the page is a portrait of the four of them, with “Kid” dressed as a clown, and daughters Dorothy and Thelma with ukulele and guitar. WGBH was a station in Newport News, Va.  Kid performed many humorous songs, including some he learned from his father, Luther B. Smith, such as “The Cat’s Got the Measles and the Dog’s Got the Whooping Cough,” and some which he wrote, such as “Evolution Girl.”

I found several photographs of Walter Smith online which helped me identify him in my family snapshot. (Including one with his collar stylishly turned up.)

A good illustrated article about Smith can be found in Tony Russell’s book, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 87-90.

Many of his songs can be found on Youtube. His songs have been covered by many other artists, including Doc Watson and the New Lost City Ramblers.

Walter Smith died in 1977 in Virginia.

Sources consulted:

At https://www.discogs.com/Walter-Smith-Carolina-Buddies-And-Others-Vol1/release/4168817 is a discography and an album cover photo showing his distinctive haircut.

https://www.discogs.com/Walter-Smith-Friends-Volume-2-March-1930-February-1931-North-Carolina-Blues/release/6194294 covers more of his recording career.

Smithfield Times, Volume 20, Number 16, 20 July 1939, p. 4.

Copyright 2019 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved..

“Grand-daddy, which way did the cows go?”

I learned a lot of folklore from my mother, who grew up in the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains Her ancestors from the British Isles were no doubt the origin of a lot of the stories, nursery rhymes, games, superstitions, etc. that she shared with me when I was small.

Before tv, video, and cell phones, children relied more on one another and whatever was at hand to amuse themselves. They learned more about nature–plants, animals, weather, etc, because it was their world.  In our day of pesticides and well-sealed houses, we regard any bugs in our homes as pests and deserving to be squashed or sprayed. A hundred years ago or so, they might have been a source of amusement.

Mama taught us a game when we saw a spider-like creature we called Grand-daddy or Daddy Long-Legs. It loves damp basements, as well as your garden, and it hunts for small insects it can eat with its tiny mouth parts. When threatened, it often bobs up and down with its long, thin legs, perhaps trying to look fierce or disguise itself as twigs blowing in the wind. What children used to do is say, “Dance, Grandaddy,” and the critter would entertain them.

grandmammy spider

They also would ask, “Grand-daddy, which way did the cows go?” and it would lift one leg off the ground, appearing to point. The two longest of its eight legs function as antennae, and “Grand-daddy” was, no doubt, trying to figure out what kind of danger it was in.

The real name of these animals, according to scientists, is Opiliones. They belong to the same class of animals as spiders–Arachnids–and are kin to scorpions as well. Some people believe they have a venomous bite, but according to those scientists, that just isn’t true.

The one that lives in my bathroom at the moment is a differently-abled arachnid, as it is missing two of its legs. It has the ability to drop a leg and run, while the leg twitches and distracts the predator, in this case, probably, a house cat. Most unfortunately, this grand-daddy long legs has lost one of its “antenna” legs, which makes its existence more fragile.

“Grand-daddy” is completely unresponsive to the request that he dance, but perhaps that is a lot to ask of one who is surviving with only one food-finder and a missing leg. I have decided to live and let live, as he is very quiet and doesn’t bite, eat crops, carry disease, or do any other thing that is harmful to humans or house cats.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

Old-Time Musicians in the Family

The Old-Time music genre is rooted in the British Isles in centuries-old dance tunes, ballads, and folk songs. Pioneers in the Southern Appalachian Mountains brought the music with them when they came to America for a better life. They put their own designs on it when they played and sang about the Rights of Man, a Soldier’s Joy, and the Wife’s Lament. Their music blended with the music of other immigrants and African slaves and became the foundation of Bluegrass, Country, Rock’n’Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Jazz.

musicians012 copy 2 (1) copy

Searching through a box of photographs that belonged to my grandmother, I found a picture of two musicians that no one in the family could identify. The photograph was obviously a snapshot, slightly tilted. The building in the background looks like a very large house with a high-ceilinged porch. The musicians were standing on a large rock in front of the steps. The style of the men’s shirts and ties is typical of the 1920’s, which fits the look and condition of the photograph itself. That makes this picture almost a century old, and the people who would remember it are long gone. (The illustration here is cropped from the mentioned photograph. I like the shadow of the guitarist’s fingers on his guitar. I also like the way he rolled up his sleeves and flipped his collar up–shows a sense of style.)

My grandparents came from Surry County, N. C., so I did an online search of Surry County musicians and came up with a photograph of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters during the 1920’s.

The banjo player, James Franklin Jenkins, had a strong resemblance to the one in our picture. He was also known as “Fiddlin’ Frank” for his skill on the fiddle, which he played in his own band, the Pilot Mountaineers, which included his son, Oscar, on banjo, and Ernest Stoneman on guitar. His portrait with that band helped to confirm the identity of our banjo player to my satisfaction.

So, who is the guitar player in the picture? Comparing him to photographs online of Ernest Stoneman as a young man, I think he should be considered as a possibility, although I’m not convinced. I have made note of any old-time musicians who cropped up in my family history, but no one seems to be the guitar player in our photograph.

Frank Jenkins was born in Surry County, N. C., in 1888, making him the same age as my grandfather, Ed Oakley. He spent his life in the Marsh Township, south of Dobson, while the Oakleys lived north of Dobson, in the Round Peak area. Frank sometimes played music with a neighbor of the Oakleys, Ben Jarrell. Like the Oakleys, the Jarrells moved to Surry from Rockingham County. Ben also played with Houston Galyean, a relative of Ed Oakley’s first wife, Maggie Snow. Ed’s aunt, Matilda Oakley, married Gideon Moncus (1855-1943) who belonged to a family of musicians, the Moncuses and Prevettes. That family moved from Surry around the 1920’s and worked in the mills of Rockingham and Davidson Counties.

My mother once mentioned some uncles or cousins who played music and made a recording. I often feel that I am chasing ghosts in fragments of remembered conversation. Could the guitar player be one of those relatives? It may have to be enough that those musical ghosts whisper a fiddle tune in our ears once in a while, or pass on their legacy by inspiring a song.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander, including above photograph.  All Rights Reserved.

Sources consulted:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Jenkins_(musician)

Bob Carlin, String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004) pp. 24-25.

Tony Russell, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, (accessed online at https://books.google.com/) p. 10.

Death Certificate of James Franklin Jenkins, North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1976, database online at Ancestry.com; Original data: N. C. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death Certificates on Microfilm in State Dept. of Archives, Raleigh, N. C.

Census Reports on N. A. R. A. Microfilm, accessed online at Ancestry.com.

https://oldtimeparty.wordpress.com/category/dacosta-woltzs-southern-broadcasters/

http://www.bluegrassmessengers.com/ernest-stoneman-.aspx

Tuberculosis

September 25th, this week, was “World Lung Day.”The World Health Organization, concerned about a world-wide epidemic of tuberculosis,  got a hearing this week at the United Nations to ask for funding to fight the leading infectious killer of human beings in the world today.

The United States gained control over the disease during the mid-20th century, after the introduction of antibiotics and x-rays. I remember the mobile x-ray unit that used to visit the county seat at least once a year. My mother and other people with family members who had the disease were required to get a yearly x-ray so that the illness could be promptly diagnosed and treated. My brothers and I would wait in the car on the courthouse square while she stood in line.

Apparently this was a common experience all across the U. S. The American Lung Association raised money from the sale of Christmas and Easter Seals, stamp-like stickers you could put on your cards and letters, advertising the organization’s efforts against “lung diseases, air pollution and smoking.”

My mother’s half-sister, Reba Oakley, and Reba’s mother and grandfather, from Surry County, N. C., all died of tuberculosis. In 1912, when Reba was born, T. B. was causing more deaths than heart disease or cancer, and The American Lung Association was less than a decade old. Reba’s mother died of the disease only 3 years later.

Reba’s grandfather, William Tyson Snow, had already died in 1906, of “consumption,” as it was called then. The family apparently believed that the infection was latent in Reba’s lungs for decades. She became ill as an adult and was treated at a state sanitarium for several years, before succumbing to the debilitating effects of T. B. at age 34.

A latent infection from T. B. is now said to be very rare. It is possible that Reba was infected as an adult. However, because of her infection, her family were all required to be x-rayed yearly for several years. Fortunately, they all remained healthy.

Poverty contributes to the prevalence of the disease in Africa and Asia today. However, it’s easy to forget that only a century ago, many of our own citizens were working on subsistence farms and spending long days in textile and other factories, where their exposure to lint and other air pollutants made them sick. As unemployment and homelessness grow in our population, so do diseases we often consider misfortunes of the past.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

More about Reba Oakley and family:

http://home.earthlink.net/~glendaalex/reba.htm

Sources consulted online:

http://www.lung.org

Esther Johnson of the Surry County Genealogical Association commented, concerning the Mt. Airy Granite Quarry: “That was one of the things that happened to people who worked in our Quarry here in Mt. Airy. Everyone at school had to take a test for TB.”

Learning to Be a History Detective

I knew my grandmother was important. She was a modest little lady, even considering that she could put anybody in the family in their place with a sharp remark or a stern look. She never had her hair cut or wore a skirt any higher than mid-calf. She ignored the doctor’s advice to take a walk every day because she thought it unladylike to go walking down a public street like that. She preferred to stay out of the sun and do needlework, read her Bible, and watch the soaps and country music shows.

Fannie Johnson Oakley was a middle child, with four older siblings and five younger ones. She used to keep up with her siblings by letter. Remember snail mail? Born in 1892, she passed in 1976, when Bill Gates was barely out of high school.

Important to my research, I have been able to use her collection of photographs, and the list in her handwriting of her family’s birthdays, in lieu of a family Bible. I recall sitting in on conversations between her and my mother and Aunt Opal, who all remembered the family’s life in Surry County, N. C. The hints I remember from those conversations have been important clues for me in playing history detective.

However, once sister Fannie was gone, no one kept up with the Johnson family. There was no one to send an obituary to or share pictures of the grandchildren with. Now they’d be posted on Facebook or Instagram for everyone to see. I find pictures from my own Facebook albums whenever I go searching for clues on the web.

In 1976, Grandma’s sister Mary also died, without any of her nieces, including my mother, knowing. The last of the Johnson family, the youngest brother, Elijah, passed about eight years later, as I learned from a Social Security record on Ancestry.com.

Ancestry.com’s DNA tests and website helped me connect with a grandson of Mary, but Elijah had no children, and he moved to an area far from the rest of the family. I didn’t think that a long drive to his last known home town would accomplish anything.

Then I discovered that Rootsweb had a message board for Russell County, Virginia, where Elijah died. I joined and posted a message about my search and got an immediate reply that someone found a listing for Elizah Johnson in a cemetery book. I searched the web to see if such a book was available to me and found that it was in a number of far-away libraries.

Further inquiries on the board were lost in a flurry of messages saying the moderator of the list had died, which he then informed the group, he had not, and that was followed by apologies and people unsubscribing because irrelevant posts were filling up their email. In the meantime, I called the cemetery, and a helpful young woman found my kin in the records and confirmed that Grandma’s brother and his wife were indeed buried there. This gave me a record that qualified as genealogical proof.

I posted a message on the board to thank them and let them know that I had found Elijah with a “J.” No one lol-ed or even tehe-ed, and I know, being genealogists, they are at least as old as I am, and they should get the reference. I will excuse them, however, as most of them have unsubscribed and moved over to the Facebook page. Message boards are apparently becoming history, too.

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander–except the Liza image–All Rights Reserved.

International Women’s Day: Honoring My Great-Grandmothers

This is a quilt honoring my four great-grandmothers.

Left:  Martha Frances White Johnson (1862-1933) claimed Native American ancestry, and her maternal grandmother was said to have come from the Powhatan Reservation.

Right:  Margaret Matilda Stillwell Alexander (1847-1931) was an identical twin. She startled the neighbors at her sister’s funeral. Her husband was also a twin.

Top:  Mary Arabella McDonald Richardson (1867-1935) was the grand-daughter of immigrants from the Western Isles of Scotland. She loved to walk on her land in the Sandhills.

Bottom:  Margaret Jane Willey Oakley (1858-1934) gathered wild herbs for a living and ran the farm after her husband’s death. Her six children were all boys.

 

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.

Valentine’s Day

William Edgar Oakley married Jessie Fannie Johnson on December 24, 1916 in Surry County, N. C.

In July of that year, they had survived the worst flood in western North Carolina history.  Ed, a widower with a small daughter, had his entire house swept away by rising water.  Fannie, on the opposite side of the river, (probably the Ararat, a tributary of the Yadkin) didn’t know their fate until days later, when the rain stopped and the water receded enough for people to cross the river and check on their neighbors and family.

I don’t know if this photograph was taken before or after the flood, but the tree behind them is in full leaf, so it must have been in advance of their Christmas Eve wedding, which took place at the home of Baptist minister J. R. Cruise in Mt. Airy.