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somebody’s darlin’
Some mother’s pride
Who’s going to tell her
where her boy died. . .

Tennessee Wesleyan College, a small United Methodist school in Athens, turns up frequently in books about Tennessee hauntings and college ghosts thanks to a historically improbable tale about a daughter of the great Cherokee chief Attakullakulla, her British soldier husband, and two trees. There are statues of Nocatula and Conestoga, the doomed lovers, on campus, donated by alumni; such is the power of that story.

When I was a student there in the 1980s, though, another campus ghost story was passed around among us. That story dates to the Civil War, when what was then Athens Female Academy’s lone building–now called Old College–was used, during the Chattanooga campaign, as a hospital, successively by both Union and Confederate forces.

He was a southern soldier boy, they say, and young–barely seventeen. People grow up fast in wartime, and he was no exception: you could see in the old man’s eyes that looked out of his child’s face that he had seen and done more than any boy should have to see and do.

But he was a good soldier, who had the misfortune to be wounded and taken to the big building on the campus of the girls’ school. An amputation with gangrene following took his young life, there in an upper room near a window. Toward the end he was delirious, and like any child sick unto death and in a strange place, he bedeviled those around him calling weakly, Mama? Mama. . .

Then he was gone.

Eventually, the UMC made a college of the ladies’ academy. The old building was supplanted by newer ones, and stood empty for many years until finally it was refurbished and, for a time, housed a museum.

Still, there were stories: on some nights, especially in the fall of the year, students reported seeing an odd light in one particular window of Old College, and sometimes, a flash of a grayish color passing across it.

Parking has always been a problem on campus (some things don’t change), and one young female day student, in the fall of 1980, had the misfortune, one morning, to have to park at the Methodist church on the corner next to campus. Although spaces cleared out later in the day, she was so busy she completely forgot to move her car to a closer lot.

She had a night class, and by the time class was dismissed, it was full dark, and cold, and windy, and she had to walk alone clear across campus to her car in the church lot.

As she made her way through the dim light cast by streetlamps, she heard something that was affirmatively not one of her fellow students, most of whom were already in their cars and gone. She stopped and listened.

It sounded like a boy’s voice–a young boy’s voice, barely past the breaking onset of manhood.

Mama? . . .Mama. . .

She looked up toward Old College. In an upper room, there was a light where no light should be, and a figure in Confederate gray silhouetted against it.

Mama?

She had never heard anything so pitiful in her life.

Then light and figure were gone, and the chilly wind carried off one last call: Mammmmmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. . .

She nearly broke her neck getting to her car, and didn’t sleep a wink that night, haunted by what she had seen and heard.

She didn’t confide in anyone for several days, but she finally went to an English professor, a lovely lady who had been at the college longer than any other instructor and knew its history and secrets like no other, and told her strange story.

Yes, the professor told her; there had long been tales of the ghost of a young Confederate soldier who looked out a window on an upper floor of Old College. But this was the first time, she added, that anyone had heard him calling for his mother.

I envy you, she added. I’ve been here many a dark night in the fall of the year, but I’ve never seen him.

The story goes that the coed transferred to another school after fall quarter that year. She would rather not have heard the dying boy’s calls, and didn’t want to risk hearing them again.

somebody’s darlin’
some mother’s son
who’s going to tell her
that her boy is gone?

Don’t go searching for me in 1980s online yearbooks or whatnot; I hadn’t yet adopted my pen name, and in any case, my career at TWC was not an especially distinguished one. And no, I wasn’t the girl who heard the young boy calling for his mother; the only night classes I ever had were in spring quarter, in daylight savings time, so I likely would never have encountered him. I have friends who did, though, and they told me this story.

Musicologists will recognize the song from which this post takes its name: “Somebody’s Darling”, a lachrymose piece written apparently c. 1864 with lyrics by Marie Ravenal de la Coste and music by John Hill Hewitt (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). In Ken Burns’ companion volume to his series The Civil War, it’s said that some soldiers would, with nervous bravado, point to corpses by the wayside and say that’s Somebody’s Darlin’ back there. . . And, if I remember right, in Gone with the Wind a distraught India Wilkes, mourning for one of the Tarleton twins, begs Scarlett O’Hara not to sing it.

For the story of Nocatula and Conestoga and the two trees, the best sources are Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey (1977) and Daniel W. Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities (2004).

As for the story of Somebody’s Darlin’, other than a post written some years ago by a friend of mine on the defunct Blogstream, I don’t think I’ve run across it anywhere else.

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Now if you see that girl of mine
Tell her if you please
That when she bakes those biscuits
To roll up her sleeves. . .

With temperatures hovering, following TS Lee’s progress like a rainy monarch through Knobite Corner, in the upper sixties–a great relief after a high of ninety-eight last Saturday–I’ve spent three of the last four days cooking. Monday, I made a beef Veg-All cheddar casserole. Yesterday, I made a pot of vegetable soup and cornbread muffins. The soup is excellent, even if I do say so myself; the casserole needs extensive tinkering but is edible. As for the cornbread muffins–hey, who can eff up a Martha White cornbread mix?

Today, feeling frightfully brave, I decided I’d do some more baking.

So I began with my one and only five-star accomplishment: apple raisin muffins. Lacking the requisite two cups of raisins, I was about to throw up my hands in disgust when I heard Her Majesty Queen DinoSnob murmur, use what raisins you have and add extra apple, dingbat.

Excellent idea, Your Majesty, I said aloud.

Aren’t they all?, she said. She loses no chance to remind me that, in addition to being a traditional country music maven, she has a fearless culinary heart; one failure and I’ll never make a dish again, while she’ll try till she gets it right.

So, I used my scant half-cup of raisins, chopped up not one but two Red Delicious apples in place of the rest, mixed up my muffins, and set them to bake in my funky square muffin pan.

As the rest of my sad story has nothing to do with the muffins, allow me to say that A) Her Majesty was correct in her choice of ingredients and thinks next time I should eschew raisins altogether and B) Mom, my captive test subject, announces unequivocally that I have outdone myself.

With the homey fallish scent of apples, cinnamon and nutmeg wafting through the house, I decided I’d use up some more of the quart of milk I’d invested in to make the cornbread muffins and make biscuits.

After all, who can eff up the recipe on the Bisquick box, right?

But that was before I realized that box of Bisquick had been in the cabinet since the Christmas Her Majesty made Jimmy Dean Sage Sausage Balls for a brunch– sometime, I fancy, in the Stone Age, because it was hard as rock and crawling with mealworms.

Ewwwwwwww! Her Majesty and I chorused as I slamdunked the box into the trash.

Then I decided to try the recipe the way it was given on the White Lily bag of flour I’d used in making the highly successful muffins.

Her Majesty pointed out, You don’t have Crisco. . .

No, I said stoutly, but I have cooking oil.

That, said Her Majesty, isn’t what worries me.

Ah, c’mon, where’s that fearless culinary heart?

She left me alone to court disaster.

Bake them biscuits, baby
Bake ’em good and brown,
Cause when I’ve had my breakfast
I’m Alabama bound. . .

All went fairly well, I guess one could say, at first: I put out my two cups of flour (self-rising; I’m a lazy woman 😉 ), then added two thirds of a cup of milk and enough cooking oil to make three-quarters of a cup of liquid.

And I mixed it up, and it did form a nice doughy ball.

So I’m home free, right?

Wrong. I’d forgotten–my two previous adventures in biscuitmaking having induced traumatic amnesia–how damned sticky the dough can be.

The rest of the story is too painful to share save in outline.

I did manage to salvage seven biscuits from a doughball that should have made a dozen.

I had to vacuum up a copious amount of flour from the floor around my worktop.

There’s still dough clinging to the ceiling and a light dusting of flour in my hair and eyebrows, which has a peculiar aging effect.

But–to my surprise–such biscuits as did come out of this round of insanity are the best ones I’ve made yet.

And I comfort myself with this:

My sister, a world-class cook, can’t make biscuits at all.

Nanny nanny boo boo. . . 😉

Walkin’ in my sleep, babe,
Walkin’ in my sleep
Up and down that Dixie line
Walkin’ in my sleep. . .

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Well my name is Mick Ryan, I’m lyin’ here still
In a lonely spot near where I was killed
By a red man defending his native land
At the place that they call Little Bighorn. . .

One hundred thirty five years ago today, a daredevil of a soldier, notable for both his bravery and his recklessness, took the biggest gamble of his military career and lost. George Armstrong Custer split his Seventh Cavalry into three columns and launched an attack against the biggest Native American tribal gathering ever seen: a giant village of some six to eight thousand Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho, led by, among others, the legendary warriors Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Gall.

Within an hour, Custer and some two hundred twenty, or thereabout, men under his direct command were dead. Another forty or fifty would be killed in action at Reno Crossing, so called after the commander at that point on the field, Major Marcus Reno.

It was, without doubt, the greatest victory–and the costliest–any confederation of Native American tribes ever won.

And, naturally, it left a remarkable ghostly legacy behind it.

Legend has it that there were odd phenomena associated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn–to Native Americans, the Greasy Grass–even before the battle itself. Custer’s wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, recounted in her memoirs that, when the Seventh left Fort Abraham Lincoln in mid-May 1876, a mirage appeared to split the long column, so that nearly half the regiment seemed to ride off above the trail into the sky and disappear.

Ominous, indeed: nearly half the regiment would, within six weeks, die in battle.

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The Little Bighorn battlefield became a military cemetery and national monument within a very few years after the battle, and almost immediately gained a reputation as a haunted place. In 1894, a stone house was built for the park’s first superintendent, whom the local Crow tribesmen called “the Ghost Herder”; they believed that the superintendent allowed the dead of the Little Bighorn to walk the night hours, after the American flag was taken down, then sent them back to their graves with the raising of the flag at sunrise.

The Stone House is said to be haunted itself. People who have stayed in it say that their nights were disturbed by phantom footsteps, banging and knocking noises with no apparent origins, objects that seem to move from one place to another of their own volition, doorknobs that turn on their own to admit nobody, lights that turn themselves on and off, and at least once by a partial apparition that appeared at the foot of a ranger’s bed, then vanished through a solid wall.

The oddest incident involving the Stone House occurred in 1983. A Crow ranger, park interpreter and tribal historian named Mardell Plainfeather spotted lights burning on the second floor of the then-empty building. A bit spooked–she knew the building’s reputation for strange happenings–she called another ranger named Michael Massie to come check the building with her.

Massie sent Plainfeather home and went into the building alone, leaving his wife, Ruth, back at their apartment in a nearby complex. Massie found the building deserted, but the lights on the second floor on. He turned them off and was leaving the building when his wife came running up, screaming in panic. When she calmed down a bit, she told him that, back in their apartment, the television had gone haywire; the picture had gone to snow and a voice–definitely not one belonging to an actor on the show she was watching–had said distinctly . . .the second floor of the stone house. . . Knowing that her husband was at the Stone House, and afraid something might have happened to him, she had rushed out, and almost collapsed when she found him safe and well and on his way home.

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. . .And the band, they played that Garryowen
Brass was shinin’, flags a-flowin’
I swear if I had only known
I’d’ve wished that I’d died back in Vicksburg. . .

In that same year of 1983, a young student intern named Christine Hope encountered a full-body apparition of a soldier killed at Reno Crossing. Hope lived, that summer, in an apartment right at the edge of the battlefield cemetery. She woke, one hot night, to the sight of a young blond man with a handlebar mustache and dressed in an 1870s cavalry uniform, seated in the easy chair across the room.

She had never seen, she would report later, such a look of fear and sorrow on a man’s face. She watched, frozen in horror, as he sat there, unmoving, and then vanished.

Later that day, she and a friend made a trip to Reno Crossing, where troops under the command of Major Marcus Reno had narrowly avoided annihilation that long ago June day. At the crossing, she abruptly paused alongside a marker, on the riverbank, honoring 2nd Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson. Hodgson had almost made it back across the river during Reno’s frantic retreat when he was shot through the leg by a bullet that killed his horse; Hodgson had grabbed another soldier’s stirrup and was pulled across the river. He was climbing up the riverbank to safety when a second shot killed him, and his body rolled to the spot now marked.

Hope later identified a photograph of Hodgson as that of the man she had seen in her apartment. She learned that she was not the first to see “Benny” Hodgson’s ghost, and that everyone who had ever reported a sighting of him had seen him the night before they made a pilgrimage to Reno Crossing.

**********************************************************************

Mardell Plainfeather, at one time, had her own sweat lodge along the banks of the river. She had, in 1982, allowed an old man of her Crow tribe to use it. After he was finished with his ritual purification, he stopped by and asked Plainfeather to go by before dark and make sure that the fire was out in the lodge.

Plainfeather went out on that moonlit night and poured water over the stones in the lodge and made sure the fire was out, then stepped back outside to a breathtaking sight: on the bluff above her, silhouetted against the moon, sat two warriors on horseback. She could see their shields and feather decorations on their hair and weapons, and was fairly certain they were either Sioux or Cheyenne. She also knew they couldn’t be living men, for no one was allowed on the battlefield at night, and–significantly–horses weren’t allowed there at all.

She left quickly. The next day, she went up on the bluff and found no traces to show horses or warriors had ever been there; nor were there any plants she might have mistaken for men on horseback. She said prayers and left offerings of tobacco and sage for all the dead of the Little Bighorn.

She never saw the warriors again.

**********************************************************************

. . .He spoke with Gen’ral Custer and said Listen, Yellowhair,
The Sioux air a great nation, so treat ’em fair and square
Sit in on their war councils, don’t laugh away their pride

But Custer didn’t listen. . .at Little Bighorn Custer died. . .

Well, you might figure a big personality like Custer–whose recklessness and thirst for glory cost him and his troopers their lives–would remain in this world.

Several times it’s been reported that Custer’s ghost, in the buckskins, red scarf and white hat he wore on the day of the battle, his famous hair cut unusually short, has been seen walking on Last Stand Hill. Those who have seen him say he seems rather confused, and apparently is looking for the men (who included, by the way, two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law) he lost in battle.

Custer’s spirit has also been seen at Fort Riley in Kansas, where he and his wife Libby spent several years in the late 1860s.

Libby Custer, incidentally, was with a group of women back at Fort Abraham Lincoln, sewing and singing hymns, on that long ago June 25th. All of the women, that long hot summer, were unusually worried about their menfolk, especially after that odd mirage they’d seen in mid-May. Sometime around four PM, Libby reported later, she fainted. She would later learn that 4 PM was roughly the time her husband was killed.

Perhaps the oddest sighting of Custer, however, occurred a full fourteen years after his death, at a most unexpected place: at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. It has been reported that, on December 29, 1890, both his ghost and that of Sitting Bull, who had been shot and killed two weeks earlier, were seen side by side, watching as one hundred fifty three Sioux were killed–by members of the reorganized Seventh Cavalry.

Those who saw Custer that day said he, like Sitting Bull, seemed to be grieving at the loss of life.

Hard to believe. . .

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The most striking accounts of ghosts of the Little Bighorn have come from people who have seemingly relived the battle. One such, a Vietnam veteran from New Orleans, was missing for several hours. His worried friends had just initiated a search for him when he reappeared, pale, shaking and covered in dust. He said that, as he walked along Last Stand Hill, he could see and hear and smell the battle taking place around him. . .and then, the whole ghastly tableau vanished.

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There are many haunted battlefields around the world (we have three in Tennessee alone, all dating to the Civil War era) but the Little Bighorn seems to be one of the most haunted. So much fear, so much dust, so much blood must leave an imprint, and so, it seems, they have.

And I’m haunted by that Garryowen,
Drums a-beating, bugles blowin’
I swear if I had only known. . .

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For more information about the ghosts of the Little Bighorn, check out these sources:

Haunted America (1994), by Michael Norman and Beth Scott.

Mysteries of the Unexplained (1982), Reader’s Digest Books

Ghosts of the Old West (1988), by Earl P. Murray

Haunted U.S. Battlefields (2008), by Mary Beth Crain

Painting, The Custer Fight by famed Western artist Charles M. Russell (1903)

Song lyrics: “Mick Ryan’s Lament”, written by Robert Emmet Dunlap. This story of a fictional Irish soldier who survives the Civil War only to die at the Little Bighorn is set to the tune “Garryowen”, the Irish quickstep that Custer himself chose as the Seventh Cav’s marching music–slowed down considerably of course. 😉 There are several decent renditions of the song on YouTube, but Her Majesty Queen DinoSnob suggests that you seek out the version recorded by her beloved Tim O’Brien on his CD Two Journeys (2001).

The anomalous quote about a conversation with “Yellowhair”–the name Native Americans bestowed on the blond balding Custer–comes from a Johnny Horton song called “Jim Bridger”, recorded sometime in the late 1950s.

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Mom has had little wooden birdhouses hanging out on the front porch for years, but we’d never noticed any birds making use of the free accommodations until this year. I looked out today and saw a nesting pair of Eastern Bluebirds feeding their babies–at least two, possibly three–working in tandem, Papa an exuberant blur of blue and orange, Mama a more sedate and dignified slate in color, both flying fast as they could to fill up those voracious little mouths in the house.

It occurs to me in passing that in country music, we have a lot of songs about bluebirds (although our preferred bird 😉 is probably a tie between the mockingbird, who gets its name from being nature’s perfect mimic, or the whippoorwill, whose melancholy call at dusk can bring both a smile and a chill). Here are a few of them:

Hank Snow, “Gonna Find Me a Bluebird”

The Browns, “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing”

Mac Wiseman and Lester Flatt, “The Bluebirds Singing for Me”

The birds, and the songs, brighten up a chilly, damp, sunless day here in Knobite Corner.

(BTW, I have a sneaking suspicion this might be whippoorwill winter, the cold snap that usually accompanies the first calls of the whippoorwills in late spring.)

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Six tornadoes touched down within a twenty-mile radius of our little house across the road from the creek here in Knobite Corner during the outbreak of storms on April 27. We were lucky; despite fierce wind, rain and hail my immediate family is safe, though not all in their homes thanks to ongoing power outages.

For me, it’s a day of set pieces:

Mom in her wheelchair in the hall in the center of the house.

My nephew and his carpool buddy outrunning a tornado that chased them back up Route 95 on their way home from work.

My older niece spotting a funnel cloud as she approached town, hovering over her neighborhood, and turning back to the relative safety of Mamaw’s house.

My younger niece and brother-in-law taking shelter in the basement of a nearby church while lightning did a merry danse macabre over the graveyard.

Our local NBC station, WBIR-TV, Channel 10, Knoxville reports this morning that in our area the NWS issued sixty-nine tornado warnings and twenty-four severe thunderstorm warnings within a fifteen hour period, with a lead time of reaching safety that averaged out to about twenty-nine minutes. I’m sure that in other areas the total numbers are much higher, and there was less lead time.

In the old days, before our present early warning systems, there was no lead time at all.

All these circumstances reminded me of another spring, and a monstrous storm that came seemingly out of a clear blue sky. Out of that storm came a heartwrenching song by the great Original Carter Family–and a ghost story, with echoes right down to the present day.

Up until one o’clock in the afternoon, or thereabout, May 2, 1929 had been a quiet, very normal day in the little Scott County, Virginia town of Rye Cove. It was a school day; Rye Cove Consolidated School, with around one hundred fifty students ranging from first graders to high school seniors, was just settling in for an afternoon’s work following the midday lunch break.

Just east of nearby Cove Ridge, a bad storm was moving through a valley. A farmer out in his field was the first to notice that the storm was circling back on itself and becoming a “cyclone”, as Appalachian old people often still call tornadoes.

The school’s principal, who had gone to his boarding house for the lunch break, reached the school just about the same time the tornado did, entering through a door that splintered around him.

~~wood and glass sailing through the air, cutting down anything and anyone in their wind-driven path.

~~pencils, blackboards, hot coals from the stoves that still were in use that May afternoon, smashing, stabbing, and burning against flesh and walls.

~~and the screams. Oh, God, the screams, rising above the roar of the wind.

It was all over in little more than a heartbeat.

Of the one hundred fifty-odd people who were in Rye Cove Consolidated School that day, more than fifty were transported to area hospitals.

Ten were found dead at or near the scene, including one teacher, whose body was found seventy-five yards away from the ruins, where the storm had dropped her. Two students died during transport; another died the next day in a Kingsport, Tennessee hospital, bringing the total of deaths to thirteen. The teacher who died was a twenty-four-year-old; of the students who were killed, the oldest were eighteen, the youngest six.

Three of the dead bore the surname Carter. They weren’t relatives of the famous A. P. Carter, songwriter and song collector; he was visiting friends in the next valley over when he heard of the disaster and rushed over to offer his assistance, however it might be needed. Carter wrote a song about the tragedy: he called it “Cyclone at Rye Cove” and a year or so later he, wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter recorded it.

Oh listen today and a story I’ll tell,
In sadness and tear rimmed eyes,
Of a dreadful cyclone that came this way,
And blew our schoolhouse away.

cho: Rye Cove (Rye Cove), Rye Cove (Rye Cove),
The land of my childhood and home,
Where life’s early morn I once loved to roam,
But now it’s so silent and lone.

When the cyclone appeared it darkened the air,
And the lightning flashed over the sky,
And the children all cried, don’t take us away,
But spare us to go back home.

There were mothers so dear and fathers the same,
That came to this terrible scene,
Searching and crying each found their own child,
Dying on a pillow of stone.

Oh give us a home far beyond the blue sky,
Where storms and cyclones are unknown,
And there by life’s strand we’ll clasp the glad hand,
Our children in their heavenly home.

The Rye Cove storm was one of a series of tornadoes that struck western Appalachia that spring; the others were less deadly.

Rye Cove held no school term in 1929-1930. In the fall of 1930, a new school, called the Rye Cove Memorial High School, opened some little distance away, and a memorial plaque with the names of the thirteen dead was placed on an outer wall. Other memorials are nearby.

They say that there are less tangible reminders of that dreadful day in Rye Cove, though–

for on May 2 each year, so it’s said, you can hear the freight-train rumble and roar of a circular storm tearing its way up the valley, hear wood being rent from wood and glass splintering and flying in an ominous tinkle, and hear the screams of the injured and the dying, even when the sky is a clear blue and no clouds blacken the sun.

For more information on the Rye Cove cyclone, check out Nancye’s site, which contains several contemporary newspaper reports about the storm and its aftermath. My favorite collector of Appalachian ghost tales, the great Charles Edwin Price, wrote briefly about Rye Cove in his 1993 book The Mystery of Ghostly Vera and Other Haunting Tales of Southwest Virginia. He expanded on the material in that book in an article called “Death in the Afternoon” in the May/June 1998 issue of Blue Ridge magazine.

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Okay, so I have Timothy B. Schmit’s excellent 2009 CD Expando on the CD player as I clean–and the opening track’s guitar work reminds me no end of Doc Watson–but in my head I’m hearing something else entirely–the bluegrass duo of Bobby and Sonny, the Osborne Brothers.

I can remember, actually, when I really became an Osborne Brothers fan. It was in the early seventies, when they were riding a string of hits following the phenomenal success of their recording of Felice and Boudeleaux Bryant’s “Rocky Top”–best known now as the University of Tennessee’s (un)official fight song and one of our eight official state songs. In October of my eighth grade year of junior high, we saw them perform at the Autumn Gold Festival in Coker Creek, up in the mountains–and I was hooked for life.

The Osborne Brothers aren’t native Tennesseans; they hail from Hyden, in the heart of Kentucky’s coal mining country.

This recording in particular is a favorite of mine. By origin a traditional English folk song, “The Cuckoo” consists of what have been called “portmanteau verses”–which belong to no single ballad, but sort of “travel” from one to the other. All versions of it (another favorite rendition, by Doc Watson, has a very different tune and several different verses) make mention of the singer’s wonder at “why women love men”, to the lover swearing to build a castle so he can see his true love pass by, and of course to the cuckoo itself.

This one appears to have gotten stuck in my mind’s ear. I’m singing it and typing in rhythm with it. 😉 🙂

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I learned this song from a recording by the late north Georgia singer Jim Padgett and his then-wife Mary, back in the early 1980s. It wasn’t until quite recently that I learned it was written and originally recorded by Jimmie Skinner.

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