Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

The Good Old Days–Dirty Dogs in the Senate

There was name-calling on the U. S. Senate floor in 1888.  So nothing has changed, except that a newspaper editor in the 19th century would report that as shocking.  If they only knew what was coming in the 21st, when “lie” would be a daily headline and “dirty dog” would sound like a compliment compared to things politicians admit and even brag about.

The editor of the Chatham Record, in Pittsboro, N. C., was relieved (and perhaps a bit self-righteous) to report that neither of the verbally abusive rascals was from the South.  They only sent gentlemen to the Senate down here.  However, it sounds like the Mid-Westerners knew how to play to an  audience:

“The most disgraceful scene probably ever witnessed in the United States Senate was that between Ingalls and Voorhees, a few days ago. The most abusive language was used–such as ‘liar’ and ‘dirty dog’–and the galleries indulged in uproarious laughter and applause. We are gratified to know that neither of the Senators was a Southerner: one being from Kansas and the other from Indiana. To make the disgrace still deeper is the fact that one of them (Ingalls) is the presiding officer of the dignified (?) body.

Source:  Chatham Record, Pittsboro, N. C., May 10, 1888, p. 2; on https://www.digitalnc.org/newspapers/chatham-record-pittsboro-nc/, accessed 5 May 2018; Puck Magazine illustration from 1881, U.S. Senate Collection (cat.no. 38.00519.001)

copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander–all rights reserved

My Intro to DNA

I am not making this up:  I have an ancestor named Isreal White.  When I found his name in an old census book in a library. I laughed out loud.  Then I saw his wife’s name:  Lily White.   The librarian looked at me like he might come out from behind that counter, hoist me up by my shirt collar, and frog-march me out of there.

Ironically, the White family claimed Native American ancestry, but they could not get their names added to a Cherokee census made by the U. S. government in the 1930’s.  The reason was that they had never lived within 150 miles of Cherokee territory.  Nevertheless, that family legend persists.  When Ancestry.com offered to test my DNA and tell me my ethnic background, I whipped out my charge card, spit in a bottle, and sent it off in the mail.

When I received my results, I was shocked to be informed that I am 34% Irish.  The only ancestry for which I have proof is Scottish and English.  The pie chart shows another third of British Isles, which I guess covers that.  The remaining third is countries close to Great Britain, many of whom invaded it or were invaded by it over the centuries.

I am pretty sure my so-called Scotch-Irish ancestors scooted through Northern Ireland pretty fast on their way over here.  I am not well versed in that history, but it has something to do with England’s mistreatment of the Irish, and such an unwelcome reception for Scottish settlers that they remembered it as “the killing time.”   A couple of Irish hitch-hikers on the ship to America could not account for 34%.

Native American ancestry might still show up in my siblings’ DNA, as each child gets 50% of their DNA from each parent, but not exactly the same stuff, unless they are identical twins.   This explains why I look like my maternal grandmother and my sister looks like our paternal grandmother, and therefore, we don’t look like we come from the same family.  A White descendant says one of our great-great grandmothers came from the Powhatan reservation in Virginia.  The Powhatan tribe lived on the coast, where our English ancestors entered the American continent.  This sounds more likely to be true than Cherokee ancestry.  Pocahontas might be our cousin.

No one in this country should be surprised, considering what we know about American history, to find multiple races in their DNA pie chart.  I was ready to embrace it all, as I love the diversity of my nation, and I was disappointed to find out how vanilla I am.

However, I got the results right before St. Patrick’s Day, so I thought I should celebrate my Irish heritage.  I went online looking for events.  I learned that Savannah has a parade and Chicago dyes a river green.  Sadly, closer to home, I found one activity:  drinking.  Many people do that every day, so to make it special, they dye the beer green. 

If I was going to choose a cultural stereotype, I would choose something better for my people.  Drinking for its own sake is an addiction.  Drinking green dye is just reckless.  However, drinking to relax your inhibitions so you can sing and dance in public is a party, and I guess that’s okay.  I love Celtic music and have been known to sing and dance with no alcoholic support whatsoever.

So, I am quite happy to be Celtic-American.  With my real-whiteness and my reddish hair, green is my best color.

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.

If my great-grandmothers were alive today…

Post Script to my post on great grandmothers–

I love what KristenLynn Writes on her blog:

“If our Great-Grandmothers would’ve had Facebook and Twitter when they were young mothers…”

This is hilarious…mostly.  “#roughtimes”

https://kristenlynnwrites.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/if-our-great-grandmothers-wouldve-had-facebook-and-twitter-when-they-were-young-mothers/

My grandmother Loula & her sister, Pearl, when they were young mothers.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  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.

How Quilts Contain History

I remember visiting New York City and experiencing its layered texture and gray color.  A huge number of people in a small space for centuries have left their patina of smoke and dust on every surface.  Handbills layered endlessly on every available wall made impromptu collages.  When I entered museums and galleries for the always main purpose of my visit, to see great art, I was struck by the number of 20th century pieces that reflected those surfaces outside.  They were obviously made in the city, which has long been an artists’ mecca.

Later, I took another trip to a museum in coastal Virginia to see works by the famous quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  The quilts were made mostly for home use, but they have become famous for their obvious roots in West African textile design, preserved by an isolated community of African slaves and passed on to their descendants.

The quilts were almost casually made, for practical reasons, but with roots in a distinctive type of design that the women of Gee’s Bend learned from their mothers and grandmothers and aunts.  They grew up with patchwork quilts that repeated geometric designs originally produced by narrow looms.  The quilts came from an organic process, not an academic tradition or formal instruction.  They came from an environment with fresh, bright colors, not automobile exhaust and building dust.

There was a quilt in the collection, however, made of material with a faded patina and rough surface, namely the work pants of a man who obviously did hard physical labor.  For me, it was the most impressive quilt in the collection, although I did love the vibrant colors and neater designs of the other quilts.  This quilt, by Lutisha Pettway, was rough, but it embodied history and emotion and spoke of the life of the family it came from.  The maker said that she made it when her husband passed away, so that she could wrap herself in his love.  She cut the pants legs apart and arranged the pieces so they formed a large rectangle.  The resulting design was simple and rhythmic.  The stained, worn, and faded denim had a surface interesting enough for any abstract expressionist, but this surface told a life story. 

Unlike the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, this artwork didn’t compete for status and money, this artwork spoke sincerely of life and emotion.  It embodied the economic struggle of a family and their day-to-day labor, and a wife’s grief.

Pettway lacked academic training and credentials, however, her work’s emotional power was greater than that of any I saw in New York.  I know that statement would make most (maybe all) of my university art professors dismiss everything I have said.  Their prejudice kept them from seeing the art in the work of females, minorities, or anyone without a university degree.

I still love the museums.  So much beautiful and inspiring art is to be seen in them.  After all, it was museums and galleries where quilts were finally hung as works of art and treated with respect.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

See a variety of “work-clothes” quilts here:

http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/quilt-categories/work-clothes