Our Piano Player JoAnn Roberson recalls her early love for music

http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/12/06/visiting-past-music-community-pre-beaverdam/76888286/

Visiting Our Past: Music and community in pre-1980s Beaverdam

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 3 of three-part series. For Part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

In the days before Wild Cherry was a road, the Carter family walked along creeks to their farms below Elk Mountain in Beaverdam, where they enjoyed fresh milk, fresh meat, their own produce, sugar from their own cane, and evenings filled with song.

“We’d eat when the boys got the cows put back out,” JoAnn Roberson recalls about the early 1930s in the home of her parents, Elmer Carter and Carrie Mae Ralston Carter.

Elmer was the dairyman, mentioned in last week’s story, who smacked his driverless horse to send a wagonload of full milk cans to his son, Floyd, who’d then send the conveyance back with a cash box and empty cans.

After dinner at the Carter house, JoAnn and her sister, Dixie, washed dishes, singing.

Soon, JoAnn relates, “Daddy would go in and start playing the piano, and we’d gather around. Then, I played the piano and he the fiddle. We did that just about every night.”

JoAnn became a pianist and music teacher, and still performs at Kiwanis meetings.

Music men

It might have been a fiddle that had brought Elmer to Beaverdam when he’d met his wife, according to family lore.

“I was told,” JoAnn says, “that the boys (Elmer and his brothers, Ed and Charles) walked over from Democrat (where their great-grandfather, Solomon Carter, had built a mill) because the girls were over here. I remember him telling me about meeting my mother and how he’d take her a little flower.”

Elmer played at various events, including church picnics. “When I was a teenager,” JoAnn recalls, “he had a little band that played for dances at the pavilion at the Recreation Park. He knew all of the mountain songs.”

In the 1970s, David Holt, the Grammy Award-winning musician, made visits to the Carter house to collect traditional songs, even though Elmer had passed in 1968.

In Beaverdam before 1980, music filled every part of life. As young men, before World War II, JoAnn’s brothers, Maurice and Bo, could be heard singing a spiritual they’d revised as they walked along Beaverdam Road: “Born and raised in Beaverdam/ We shall not be moved.”

Spooks Branch melody

Across Beaverdam Road, up Spooks Branch, Carrie Mae Carter’s grandpa, Henry Palmer, used to “build up a big fire” in his 1880 cabin and “gather all the family around to sing,” his daughter, Burr, recalled.

The family had an organ in the parlor, and the girls “played beautifully by ear,” Helen Nelon, Henry’s great-niece, recounted in her memoir, “Mountain Patchwork.”

Burr also recalled “how her bed was near the little attic window. From here on a summer’s evening she would listen until she fell asleep to Ernest (Helen’s dad) as he played his guitar and sang on his porch on the other side of the hill.”

Cash scarce, food abundant

Henry’s land, not as rich as the Carters’, nonetheless nurtured giant cherry trees. A large spring kept milk and butter fresh. Honey made it to the table thanks to Henry’s bee tree-finding mastery.

Through hard times, the Spooks Branch folk made light of their plight in song: “Ralston Town, Palmer Street/ Nelon Motel, nothin’ to eat,/ Bassett straw bed without any sheets.”

Families came to each other’s aid through sharing and keeping in touch; and through community events, such as at hog-killing time.

“Along about Thanksgiving, at the first real cold spell,” Nelon wrote, “the neighboring men would get together for the hog killin’.”

Cleaning and scalding preceded hanging the hog head-down, its hind legs kept apart by a gambeling stick. After the hog was dressed, it was left to freeze.

“During the cooling period,” Nelon relates, “someone would be sure to cut off the pig’s tail, roast it in the hot ashes (where the men were gathered, warming their fingers), brush it off when done and eat it right then and there. The bladder was made into a balloon for the children.”

Every part of the hog was used, as was every moment of the process, as music and story-telling filled the waiting periods.

Did you hear

In the late 1930s, Ellis Credle, renowned children’s author, moved to Beaverdam with her husband, and got a good taste of the cove’s storytelling predilection.

One day, they climbed to the cabin of Hank Huggins, Credle wrote in the preface to her book, “Tall Tales from the High Hills.”

“Things just happen to me,” Huggins told them, such as the time a wildcat leaped at him at the same time a bear charged, and Huggins ducked, causing the cat to die in the throat of the bear, who choked.

Bear meat fed the whole community.

Asked how he knew so many stories, Huggins responded, “What is it that has a tongue but can’t talk?” A wagon, he answered, such as the ones, in pre-railroad days, that had heard many tales at overnight campfires.

This Spooks Branch series began with the recollections of Jackie Palmer, whose tumultuous and ultimately redemptive life gave voice to realism as well as nostalgia.

Part of his story was about his grandfather, Carl Palmer, and other old-timers. “In 1964,” Jackie says, “I was about four, and Tom Bassett; my grandad, Carl Palmer; and Charlie Ralston, my grandfather’s cousin, they would sit outside my grandad’s house and they would throw me a ball. How cool. I played with a guy (Bassett) whose father fought in the Civil War. I was born, I believe, in exactly the right time.”

When he was eight, his granddad took him to watch thoroughbred horses being put through their paces on what is now Beaverdam Run land; and 15 years later, he saw the track torn up and the stables torn down.

“Some of the Beaverdam guys I grew up with went up there and worked as laborers and equipment operators,” Jackie comments. “How ironic, people who grew up there actually running the equipment that’s going to displace them.”

Beaverdam Run, a gated community, opened in 1989. It had been preceded in Beaverdam by another gated community, The Timbers. The city annexed Beaverdam up to Beaverdam Run in 1991.

In looking over the history of his people in the valley, Jackie quotes a song by The Eagles, “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature and manages the WNC book and heritage website The Read on WNC. Contact him at RNeufeld@charter.net or 505-1973.

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