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Alabama Folklore, Part V – Hill Billy Lore and Divine Wrath from Pioneer days, and Quivering oaks

(Continued – from Alabama Folklore Part IV)

Unemployed authors were employed through the Works Project Administration WPA to record the life and culture of Americans during the Great Depression era. Many were employed in Alabama. In 1937, this excerpt was part of an essay written about Alabama Folklore. The author stated this purpose in writing the essay at the end. The essay is long so it has been divided into several parts. Since it was written in the 1930s, it captures some of the language of the times so be forewarned that it might offend some readers.

The simple tales that have colored existence for the generations also become fewer, unless captured and put on the printed page. The line of story tellers grows thin. Widespread education, new modes of thought and life are responsible for the passing.



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To preserve these legends that are so essential a part of the history of the people, the chronicler must prepare his records with haste before the sources have dried.

(The excerpts below have been transcribed from an Essay titled Alabama Folklore March 26, 1937, by J. Edward Rice, Pettersen Marzoni and rewritten by David Holt, Editorial Department, Federal Writers Project Dist. 2, WPA Project 3014, Identification No. 0149-17374)

Alabama Folk Lore Part V

Hill Billy Lore

The mountain folk of Alabama are racial brothers of those of Tennessee, Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky. The natives of the Applachians and the Blue Ridge stem from the same source. In their oft told tales and more frequent songs may be found a similarity not due to accident. So, too, with their customs and their habits.

The charm used by midwives and others for stopping blood is common to most, if not all, of these states and has long been in use among Alabama mountaineers. It consists merely of thrice repeating, “When I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live: yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live. Ezekiel 16:6.

In the doleful tenor of their music and the graveyard strain of their lyrics is to be found a literary gloom that springs from austere morality and the stern struggle for existence. The songs deal with the simple essentials of life, love and hate, hunger and cold.

Many of the so called hillbilly songs so frequently heard over the radio are based on ballads that were unwritten for generations, being handed down from minstrel to minstrel.

A celebrated ballad deals with the everlasting theme of the unhappiness that lies in a marriage for gold above one’s station. For many generations mountain folk of North Alabama have sung of the sad results of Nellie’s choice in the following verses:

Come, listen to me, a story I’ll tell,

A story so sad and so true,

I once lived and courted a dear little girl,

Whose eyes were soft and dark blue.

I know that she love me,

For she told me so then and promised to be my dear wife,

How happy it made me to hear that dear girl

Agree to live with me through life.

The next time I saw her she had tears in her eyes,

Saying, “Johnny, my promise can’t stand,

Papa and mama are both angry with me,

They say I must marry a rich man.

The next time I Heard from Little Nellie,

She had gone and married that young Mr. Brown.

He was wicked but wealthy, owned horses and land;

Little Nellie was living in town.

He soon ceased to love her and drank all the time,

And her life was so lone and so sad,

Her grief soon o’ercame her, she sank in despair

And nothing could make her heart glad.

The good Lord of Mercy took pity on her

And told the bright angels to come

And take little Nellie, the drunkard’s wife,

To where she might have a bright home.

I hope that I’ll meet little Nellie up there,

Where friends will never part.

The only inscription I want on my tomb

Is the tale of a broken heart.

Divine Wrath

From Pioneer traditions comes the story of divine wrath dealing with the desolation of St. Stephens, which was the metropolis of the Spanish frontier in Alabama and was the territorial capitol. A zealous preacher sought to hold a revival there but found that the only hall large enough for such a gathering was the main saloon. The men helf (?) responsible for much of the towns lawlessness not only refused to let him preach there but actually ran him out of town. As the preacher left the sinful capital he threatened to pray God to visit His wrath upon that modern Gomorrah. With startling suddenness the place was deserted by the elements that had made it prosper. The capital, land office and business houses were removed and goats grazed in its streets. This punishment for sin and unrepentance was widely attributed to the preacher’s prayers and greatly exaggerated.

St. Stephens occupies a limestone bluff high above the Tombigbee river. Millions of tons of excellent material for the manufacture of cement support the town, which has evidently repented and been saved for there is not a more orderly village, anywhere, as the peace records of Washington county will show. Its business sins and prosperity were moved to Mobile when the Spaniard was expelled from that shore.

Quivering Oaks

An opposite view of divine action will be found in the shuddering oaks of Cahaba. Cahaba was the first capital of Alabama after it was admitted to the Union, situated on the Alabama River about eleven miles from Selma. (See History).

While floods did not destroy Cahaba, they were frequent in the Spring and at times the legislators found it necessary to take to boats to avoid the rising waters. The inhabitants of Cahaba notice then that before each advance of the river a large grove of oaks quivered as though in apprehension. Within a few hours the flood waters would descend. Until Cahaba was abandoned this was considered a divine warning of approaching floods.

Materialistic engineers decided to make an investigation and discovered a geological fault which permitted rising waters to flow beneath the grove, thus shaking them and causing the quivering which had once and still is among the superstitious, assigned to supernatural causes.

Some Alabama Descendants of JAMES ACTON (1746-1819)



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