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Laughter in the Mountains: A Conversation With Appalachian Studies Scholar Loyal Jones

Submitted by clester2014 on Thu, 02/05/2015 - 21:06

By Ben Self Born in 1928, Loyal Jones was raised in a farming community in Cherokee County, North Carolina, deep in the Appalachian Mountains. His passions for the people and culture of Appalachia and for fighting poverty in the mountains led him to work at the (now-defunct) Council of the Southern Mountains in Berea, Kentucky, eventually becoming its Executive Director. In 1970, Loyal then took a job at Berea College where he served as Director of the Appalachian Center (that now bears his name) until 1993. He has authored and edited numerous books on matters relating to Appalachia, including Faith and Meaning in the Southern Uplands (1999) and five books of Appalachian humor, of which four were co-authored by his friend Billy Edd Wheeler. As part of Christian Appalachian Project’s 50th anniversary, Loyal agreed to sit down with me at his home in Berea to talk about the subject of Appalachian humor, and, as he would say, “other serious matters”. Loyal, thank you so much for being willing to sit down and talk with me this morning. For this interview, I’m particularly interested in the subject of humor in Appalachian culture, and how it relates to the life of faith. But to get us started, I would love if it if you could tell me a little about your childhood in Cherokee County, North Carolina. Well, first of all, we were tenant farmers, which was a more benevolent situation than the sharecropping you think of in the Deep South. Usually, you’d have someone who’d gotten ahead in business, and who bought a farm as a sort of investment for his money, but he had to get reliable tenants on it. Anyway, as I remember, since my family had the tools and the workhorses—of course, we never had tractors or anything like that—and since we furnished all the seed corn and fertilizer, we were able to do pretty well as tenant farmers. We had abundant land for pasture and for a potato patch and a roast’n’ear patch, and we paid only one forth of what we grew. But we were expected to maintain the property—the fences, the house, the barn and so forth—and like I said, we had to buy supplies, so we had plenty to eat but just not much money. My parents didn’t have much in the way of cash. But, while you had to buy baking powder, salt, sugar and few other things from the store, most of what we really needed on a daily basis came off the farm. So it wasn’t a bad way of a life. So tell me a little about the role of humor in your childhood. In those days, everybody had stories to tell, and a lot of them were humorous stories. Everybody had their family stories—stories you told about your odd uncles and such. And you learned a lot about people that way. I remember this one story about my grandfather and one of his two brothers. My grandfather was Francis Marion Morgan, and he was a Baptist preacher. He had two brothers, one who was another Baptist preacher and then one who was a horse trader, alcoholic, jokester and so forth. Now during the Depression, my family members were pretty passionate Democrats—FDR had won great numbers of those Lincoln Republicans over to the Democratic cause. I know my great grandfather, William Riley Jones, had been a Republican, because even though he was from North Carolina, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War. So, anyhow, I still remember this story. One Sunday morning my grandfather was riding to his church, and he saw up ahead his brother’s horse—that is, the errant brother’s horse—trailing its reins. So he went over—this was Sunday morning you see, after Saturday night—and he found his brother sleeping off his drunk in the ditch. So he came over and said, rather loudly, “Uh, brother Bill, this is your brother Marion, can I do anything for you?” And supposedly Bill just rolled over and said back, “Yes, brother Marion. You can become a Democrat!” Anyhow, that story is how I know my grandfather had at one time been a Republican. There were just lots of stories like that that people told, and lots of jokes as well. I remember hearing lots of jokes, including lots of naughty, bawdy, off-color jokes. I even collected a lot of them. During my teenage years I did a book of the punch lines of all the jokes I’d heard, at least that I could remember. So I really had quite an interest. And that early interest eventually led to your books of humor? Well, Billy Edd Wheeler and I did four books of humor together, but that was much later. We had four conferences on Appalachian humor here at Berea and the books came out of those conferences. But we both used a lot of humor in other ways. Billy Edd Wheeler is a musician and songwriter—he’s in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He was the one who wrote “Jackson”, made famous by Johnny and June Cash. And he and I were friends in college at Berea. He made a living doing concerts as well as writing songs for other people, and he would always tell a lot of jokes on stage and use a lot of humor to engage his audiences. Originally he was a folk singer. He would sing all these old English ballads, where everybody died, or suffered from unrequited love, or whatever—and you couldn’t just sing these old ballads without telling a few jokes to lighten things up! I’ve written a book about country music humor, and there were a lot of old country musicians who would tell jokes like that. They’d say the best way to get into an audience is to get them laughing. Tim O’Brien, the great bluegrass musician, told me that he learned that from Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro, the great country comedy team. Jethro told him one time, “What you’ve got to do when you get on stage is to get them laughing in the first 15 seconds by stumbling or just doing something absurd, and then they’ll like you, because they feel that you’re an equal if you make a fool of yourself.” And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. In the late 1950s and 60s I was working for the Council of the Southern Mountains on serious things like education, poverty—and I would collect a lot of funny stories and information from people in the mountains. And I learned that when you can get people laughing, they really open up. I remember, there was a man named Brooks Hays, a congressman from the Ozarks, that I got to know a bit. He was a liberal, a great supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Anyhow, once I was invited to go to a humanities conference. This was in the 1960s down in Nashville, and it was a gathering of intellectuals and writers, but also politicians and others who were interested in the welfare of the general public. So Brooks Hays was there and he was a wonderful storyteller. He got up and made a speech where he was telling all these old Ozark stories, and the people listening were just rolling with laughter, tears were running out of their eyes. And I was watching all that, and then all of a sudden he switched and he started talking about the glories of the New Deal and how the government had tried to help solve the basic problems of the Great Depression. And I looked around and people were still sort of tearful but over an entirely different matter. So I learned a whole lot just in that moment about humor, that humor opens people up. If you can get people to laughing, you can then say some serious things and they pay attention to you. They’re not angry, they’re not mad, and so you can hit them with truth. So a lot of times, in my own work, if I went out to give speeches about gloomy subjects like poverty or racism or whatever—I’d try to use a little humor and then say something serious, and then maybe say something uplifting too, and it all works together pretty well. So humor, in a way, helps open people up but also provides a counterbalance to gloomier matters. That’s interesting. I wonder if you could expand a little on the relationship between humor and hardship, and especially as it relates to life in Appalachia, or Central Appalachia, a place where there’s been a more than normal amount of hardship over the years. I think there’s been lots and lots of black humor—humor that makes light of otherwise serious subjects—dark humor, and off-color humor in Appalachian culture. But I think it comes out of the necessity for some relief from whatever life you’re living. You’ve got to have some kind of relief from that struggle and humor is one of the things that brings relief, and I think humorless people sometimes can’t see that. I made a speech over at Alice Lloyd College once and in my speech I told some jokes, you know. They were mountain jokes. And there was some kind of foreign missionary couple—I mean, people from out of the region—who came up to me afterward. The man said to me: “Where’d you learn those jokes?” He and his wife were standing there very sour looking. And I said, “Well, I just learned them from people around here.” And he said, “We don’t believe that people in as much trouble as these Appalachian people are, would be telling those jokes...” And I said, “Oh no, you have to have a sense of humor to survive in some of these situations...” Freud, as you know, was a great believer in the benefits of humor, and lots of people that have come after him have found that people who are overcome with depression—that their depression often has to do with this sense of “Why me?” “Why is God picking on me?” “What have I done?” They’re angry because they feel put upon, in a way. But if you can get them to see that everybody is put upon and that everybody has some of the same problems, and if you can get them to laughing a little bit about all of that, then that can sometimes help them come out of depression. It helps just seeing you’re not the center of the universe. God didn’t pick on you out of seven billion people. You know, everybody has some of these problems. So humor’s a coping mechanism. Earlier you mentioned the role of humor in early country music. Tell me a little bit more about the history of Appalachian humor and country humor—how it developed over the past hundred years. Well, there’s a lot of Appalachian humor that came out of vaudeville, burlesque shows, medicine shows, Jewish humor—from the borscht circuit. One of the things I’ve always been interested in is why so many Jewish people in the 20th century came out of New York and Chicago and came to Appalachia and embraced Appalachian culture and learned to play the fiddle or square dance or whatever, and became important figures down here. I asked one of my colleagues, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee—who is Jewish—about that one time. I said, “Why do you think all these Jewish entertainers would find communion with Appalachian people?” And he said: “Why, it’s because we are both the ‘other’ people—we’re not the mainstream people. Just like mountain folk, the Jews were the ‘other’ people on the outside wanting to get in.” Many of the great comedians in the 20th century were Jewish—people like Jack Benny and George Burns and Jackie Mason—and a lot of them got into entertainment through burlesque or those borscht circuit hotels, and they did it partly by making fun not only of themselves but also of the mainstream people. Then at the same time you had all these traveling troupes going throughout the south and playing little schoolhouses and theatres and one thing and another. You had people like Roy Acuff who played these medicine shows, playing songs and telling jokes and doing all kinds of other things. And then along came country music. Lots of the early country music performers, people like Uncle Dave Macon, were first in vaudeville, burlesque shows, or these medicine shows. Anyway, all that humor got just mixed in together and got into the oral tradition here in Appalachia. And a lot of these guys became highly accomplished actors and musicians, but they were playing off this rube vs. the city slicker theme and it just made everybody feel good, you know. You also had the clownish kind of humor, people like “Stringbean” Akeman, who was from the next county over [Jackson County]. He was with the Grand Ole Opry all those years. A lot of these guys were incredibly smart too. Take Grandpa Jones—he was a banjo player and songwriter, and he was great on the one-liners. This one time he was on an airplane and it started to get bumpy and shake and all, so he told the stewardess: “Ma’am, can you please go up and tell the pilot that if he sees a gap in the fence to get this thing back on the road!” I mean, he was wonderful. But the point is, all this stuff just got amalgamated, from Jewish humor, vaudeville and medicine shows, and then you had places like Renfro Valley—radio brought a lot of this to the country folks—but anyway, it was an amalgamation of things. Wow, I never knew Appalachian humor had such diverse influences. So what are some of the common or distinctive characteristics of Appalachian or Central Appalachian humor? Well, I think there’s a lot of Appalachian humor that’s come out of ordinary people’s everyday problems, their shortcomings and frailties and struggles, but also, as I mentioned, out of their dealings with the larger world—in other words, the rube vs. the city slicker theme. You see that theme a lot in Appalachian humor, and particularly country music humor, and it has to do, in a way, with reifying one person who is considered to be not as important as the other person. You see, sometimes the laughter itself and poking fun can be used as a kind of resistance and a way of keeping your own sense of worth and honor alive. There’s this joke about this city fellow who was out in the country one day and he drove up alongside this farm in his big Cadillac, and there was a farmer out in the field—and the city fellow yells to him out his window: “Hey grandpa, which one of these roads goes to Hazard?” And the farmer looks at him and says, “How’d you know I was a grandpa?” And the city fellow says, “I guessed.” So then the farmer says back to him: “Well, why don’t you guess the road to Hazard then.” A lot of Appalachian humor has that reifying effect: the person who thinks he’s better than you, you turn the tables on him. People in Appalachia loved to hear these kinds of jokes, and it was also a way to maybe get a message across to the overzealous evangelist that there might be a better way of going about his preaching. The thing is, just the presence of missionaries suggests that there’s something wrong with you, that there’s something someone has to come to help you with… A lot of do-gooders in Appalachia have run into this same problem. There’s a fine line, I think, between defining a problem to get people’s attention without demeaning the people you are trying to help. And it’s not easy to do because there are people out that need help and you have to describe their condition before you can get money to help them, but sometimes, if you’re not careful, you may insult them with your description of their situation. That’s certainly a line that CAP works hard to approach with sensitivity--to identify and describe the needs of people while at the same time maintaining their dignity and justified sense of pride. Yeah, Berea College has had to confront the same challenge. You know, we’ve always prided ourselves on educating “bright, but poor” people, but the way you describe that to donors is always a challenge. I’ve often thought about what kinds of courses we ought to be teaching in colleges. And I think that if I were a dean of a college I would make sure that every freshman took a course in anthropology or folklore or musicology or something of that nature, something that would help them learn to accept other people as they are whether or not they want change. Something from the standpoint of: if you’re going to work with people who are different from you and try to serve and to help them, then you’ve got to go out there with a sense of modesty and humility and realize that you don’t know much about these people. You need to learn about them and, first of all, accept them as they are. And that’s the hardest thing for a lot of missionaries and do-gooders to do. These ambitious “change-agents” often don’t deal well with that. I was involved in the “War on Poverty” back in the late 1960s and my organization, the Council of the Southern Mountains, was one of its casualties. It disintegrated over the “War on Poverty” because as good of an organization as it was, it was ultimately overrun by zealous do-gooders who wanted to use it as a way to stop strip-mining right now or to end segregation right now, and do all these things that are good and great… And it was wonderful to experience, but painful at times, because you realize that all these problems can’t be solved all at once, so maybe the best thing you can do is keep going and just do the best you can in the meantime. In other words, delusions of grandeur and aspirations of sweeping cultural and regional change can often undermine the best intentions, so it’s best to just focus on the issues upon which you can have an impact. Yeah. I said to somebody one time that my epitaph ought to be: “He done the best he could with what he had to work with.” And I think a little of that humility needs to be in everybody’s life. You’re not as all-knowing as you may think you are. And you’re going to run into things you don’t understand. And you may not be right. Just that kind of humility is important, but particularly in trying to bring about great changes. I think to some degree big changes have to be incremental. And you have to work with a mode of forgiveness towards people, some sense of forgiveness for their differences, even their ignorance, because you have some of that ignorance too. But that kind of incrementalism is something that some people can’t stand. They say “No! We have to change this right now.” And you have to learn to live with these tensions between people. I wonder if you could still tell me a little bit more about the relationship between laughter/humor and faith. I think there is a relationship there. I think you can be reverent and be jocular. I think there’s a whole lot in life that is absurd and illogical, and that’s true about religion as well. Laughter is one of those unexplainable things… My feeling about it is that I’m just so grateful for humor. A laugh is so pleasant and wonderful. It’s somewhere almost in the neighborhood of a beautiful sky, you know. The other day I came outside and I’ve never seen such beautiful thunderheads. It was a day where the sky was blue all around here, and then all around over here were these magnificent dark thunderheads, and I was looking around and thinking just how wonderful that was, just enjoying it, and I was asking myself why is that sky blue, and then with all these clouds over here—what is it about the atmosphere, about the universe, that makes that sky appear [like that]? Anyway, I think, in that sense, laughter is just one of the great gifts of human nature. There’s no other animal that quite shares that sense of humor. My cat plays and seems to have a sense of playfulness, but I can’t see that as humor. Because humor is all very intellectual. That’s why the humorists that I’ve known, they are such brilliant and insightful people. If you look at people like Jack Benny and George Burns and Jackie Mason, their minds were as quick as a flash. And it’s all verbal, and verbal means it has to be concepts, and there are all these cultural differences that you have to be able to play off of. It’s a miracle of the human memory. And I think the primates—a lot of them seem to be laughing and having a good time and everything, but humor is all very intellectual. Even though it may look so commonplace and often crude, it has to come from an understanding of human frailties and human conceits and of human differences and a response to the illogical and improbable things that happen to us every day and that you have to deal with in life. And some people deal with it as humor and some people become obsessed and depressed with these things that can’t be explained and I think the person with the humorous demeanor is able to deal with it and discharge it like a charge of lightning in a lightning rod by redirecting it somehow as something else. It’s not understandable. People have tried to write about humor, but as Bacon said, “When someone tries to dissect humor, it’s like dissecting an animal—in both cases the subject dies right in front of you.” And humor’s also very much relational, right? One of the things I really liked that your partner Billy Edd Wheeler wrote in one of your books is that “jokes wouldn’t be told if nobody laughed. The laughers, the appreciators, are as important as the jokers.” And what that reminded me of, which is so obvious in a way, is that humor is relational and even almost communal. Yeah it is. It has to communicate. And that sharing aspect—it’s one of the great pleasures of the world. I’m just an amateur, but I used to do a lot of after-dinner talks. I traveled with the Kentucky Humanities group, and they would get a club or a church to host these speakers… I would usually do a bit of Appalachian humor and talk about Appalachian values. But eliciting that laughter from telling a joke, that moment of sharing where we’re all almost as one, you know, it’s beautiful. One last question. Does God have sense of humor? Well, I don’t know. There’s an old bluegrass joke about somebody who went to heaven and when they got there they saw somebody sitting a ways off with a big hat on and long hair playing the mandolin, and they said: “Oh my! There’s Bill Monroe!” And the angel next to them said: “No that’s God. He thinks he’s Bill Monroe.” I tell that joke to say that I think the God with human attributes, the God that we have imagined in our own image—well, I don’t know about that version of God. So I guess my religious beliefs are a little amorphous. I read something by Albert Schweitzer in college about “reverence for life” that has stuck with me all this time. To me, the wonders of creation are worthy of reverence. Life itself is in some sense sacred. I usually pick up the little inch worms that get in here and take them outside and let them go free, you know, just as a little gesture… Anyway, I’m very appreciative of this world and the Creator. I wrote a poem once saying, “What if all we know of the Creator is creation?” And, well, I mean—isn’t this all holy? So I try to be reverent and appreciate what we have here and whatever brought it to me.

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