has been a part of human history since its beginning. In fact, new research
suggests that early hominids developed the ability to create song before they
became capable of speech itself. Primitive song probably began as a sort of
embellishment of the rhythms of daily life, like breath, footsteps and our own
heartbeat because there is something in the way we, as humans, are wired that
is stimulated by metered patterns of pitch and tone.
Fast forward a few tens of thousands of years, and this pattern perseveres. Records show that primarily oral cultures used a system of rhythm and pattern, often translated into actual song, to preserve their own cultural history. Homers Odyssey, one of the most widely known pieces of ancient literature is thought to have been transcribed from the stories of the past, told in paced hexameter and using poetic epithets that, somehow, tuned into the wiring of the mind and the memory. Matty Groves, which I learned listening to flat-picking Doc Watson, is over 400 years old and originates as an Old English ballad. But the manner of our singing is not like that of our speech. Different contexts and purposes call for different modes of communication The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan would quip.
In this age of information, though, song and epic tales are not necessary for the preservation of history: a square centimeter of silicon can do that. Folk songs do persist, though, with quite an unexpected fury, especially in places not as touched by technology. The Appalachian mountains are steeped to perfection in folk music, ballads of love, war and family that have survived through generations and are still widely known today.
The entirety of the paternal side of my family originates from the mountains of Western North Carolina and a little place called Soddy Daisy, Tennessee. It is an extensive and colorful, but generally close-knit bunch, with a seemingly infinite number of stories to tell. Ive found that many of those uncles, aunts, or cousins, are not even truly related to me; Im not quite sure of the exact number of halves, steps, or family friends, there are, but those niceties arent even used when were all together. We are all family, my father always says. Music, too, has always been a part of my family; Ive only met four generations, and all of them are musically inclined, usually preferring a guitar or the banjo. I cant remember a holiday at my Aunt Elaines house that didnt involve a night of music, whether it be playing seven guitars at once, or listening to old recordings of nights just like this from 25 years prior. Thanksgiving of 2002 was just like every other holiday, and it was the first time I heard, The McDevitt Saga, a title that was carelessly tossed out when some little voice asked what the name of this song was.
This song is a narrative of a story that Ive grown up with. The details are incredibly vague, almost to the point where they become less fact and more legend. In fact, the only person in my family that has any real knowledge of the details is my great grandmother, whom I only know as Momma Mary, and who is, for lack of a better term, unreachable. But the important part survives: sometime in the 19th century, a troop of hunters were traveling through some place north of here in the winter. They came upon a woman on the ground with no identification, only a child. She had frozen to death, but had kept the baby alive with her warmth. The leader of this group, a general named McDevitt, took the child and raised him. It is from this child that my family tree sprouted.
Mary Elaine Tasker is my fathers sister, mother of two and grandmother of (almost) five. She was born on August 16th, 1958, to Jere McDevitt and Mary Haynes (then McDevitt as well), and now lives in a wonderful little cabin in Maggie Valley, NC. She has always been a musician, much like the rest of my family, and became inspired to write this song two years ago, when my grandfather, Jere, was just beginning to show signs of ALS. This is what she replied when I asked her via e-mail about her reasons for writing this song.
I felt compelled. At the time I thought about the song, Jere was having problems, but no one knew what was really happening. I came home and from [our Thanksgiving celebration two years ago] and couldn't stop thinking about who this man was.....my (and your dad's) father. Father. We had never really had one. We've always known Jere was our biological father, but so what? As we see in Kenny...a father is more than sperm. Anyway, I kept thinking about my heritage and began to ask questions.... Who was the mother of the baby in the snow? This means we don't really know where we came from! Who are my childrens' ancestors? And as I worried about this, I began to feel a very warm, glowing warmth in my heart for Jere. I thought to myself, He's never known, but he's always been grateful. He always loved his grandparents..they raised him (Momma Mary did not raise Jere technically). So I decided to try to acknowledge the existence of a 'happening'..an event that marked the 'beginning' of someone's life who had no other marker. I cried to myself as I wrote it, and others cried as I sang it. The song had a strong impact on all our family members...Ev, Carol, Julie, Clay, Lisa, Dan, and Elaine.....all Jere's children...and you do the rest..all the grand..and great-grand kids.
Do you think you have an accent when you sing?
Yes...I don't hear my southern twang in singing as I do in speaking..I don't know why... [I would] love to learn!!!
winds were cold and unforgiving
She wrapped the child held him to her bosom
screamin in the storm
were no papers, no clue to who they were
screamin in the storm
winds were cold and unforgiving
the perspective of a historian, this is a fascinating piece. It is a piece of
oral history in an age when it would be just as easy to save a document of the
narrative on a CD-ROM. Not only is it preserved in a digital form, I have learned
this song words and music as well, I can play it nearly note for note, and intend
to make sure that future generations have access to it as well.
It is steeped in the traditional style of Appalachian folk music, with the verse-verse-chorus style, sharp tone changes for the choruses, and use of repeated epithets that create an image while simultaneously delivering a narrative. Elaines daughter Sarah has also learned the song, and lends her angelic soprano to harmonize the choruses, adding depth and a pleasing contrast to Elaines deeper voice. With a solo, acoustic guitar and two raw yet dynamic voices, this piece fits in perfect harmony with the definition of a folk song. In an age that seems to be drawn to anything improved by the wonders of technology, it is refreshing and strangely comforting for me to hear such an important story preserved in a way that is so true to the culture that surrounds it.
However, from the perspective of a linguist, this piece creates more questions than it answers. The deviation arises in the differences between Elaines accent in the song versus her accent in the spoken piece.
Elaine is an educated and highly intelligent woman, yet still retains the wonderful Appalachian drawl. It is not nearly as strong as that of some of my other, more isolated relatives, but it is strong enough to rub off on me when I go for a visit. It was surprising for me to hear this song, and hear words that I would expect to be heavily accented barely affected. There are still subtle hints of that Appalachian drawl: the rs are particularly hardened in words like were, weathered, and storm, but other than that, no one would know that my aunt spoke with such an accent. However, in the spoken version, the difference is rather dramatic. Most of the vowels are slightly elongated, seeming to come from the front of the mouth with a slightly dropped jaw. Most telltale of all is the words with the long I sound that are heard as ah, again as though the jaw was dropped. (more linguistic analysis once the other recording comes!). My biggest question after hearing this differentiation was, What can account for such an accentual difference between speech and song?
This phenomenon is not only demonstrated by Elaine Tasker in Maggie Valley. Musicians ranging from Gomer Pyle to Ozzy Osbourne amaze fans with their song yet leave them a little taken aback when they speak.
Unfortunately, this is not a subject that has received a significant amount of attention from the researching sphere of linguistics. Piecing together bits of information from all ends of the spectrum, I have found this to be my most adequate explanation:
The area of the brain that is responsible for speech is not as connected to the part responsible for music as originally thought. The same mental processes to not occur when one is conversating as do when one is serenading a memorized tune. This phenomenon would both support and be supported by the theory that music evolved before speech in early humans, as that would point to different periods of brain development. If that is so, perhaps the memes that govern accent in conversational speech are not so easily absorbed or embedded in the areas that produce musical expression.
But even still, the song remains the same. It is fascinating to find a piece of cultural history so close to home, but to be able to analyze the social and linguistic implications of it is truly rewarding. In an age of such technological advance, one might lose hope that the old ways of remembering are becoming lost in the past. We are still, however, human, and the wiring of our brains (as well as that of our souls) still finds that the rhythm, pattern and sheer beauty of song stays with us long after the historical fact.
About the Author
Emily Headrick is a freshman at UNC this year, among other things. She greatly enjoyed researching her family history, and intends on continuing that quest (although, admittedly, she has not yet been able to correctly map her family tree in two mere dimensions.) Her goals are copious and idealistic, but that hasnt seemed to dawn on her yet. She is, in fact, a nerd. Her academic pursuits include the natural sciences and anthropology. Her hobbies include people watching, making lists, running in circles and crossword puzzles. Her interests include art, rocknroll, the weather, and food. She also likes socks, soup, siestas, sweaters, succulent plants and alliteration.
She would also like to thank her wonderful Aunt Elaine for being so candid and cooperative: she absolutely cant wait to get back up to the farm.