Joan Boyd Short

“The music and the storytelling has always been a part of this culture. It sort of gets canned up like fruits and vegetables do, and held onto. “

Joan Boyd Short, Retired Teacher, President of the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association at Natural Tunnel State Park; Duffield, Virginia: 

“I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I lived in a very comfortable, middle class family about eight miles out of the city, in a suburb that’s now Hamilton Place, which is hard to believe. [Hamilton Place is one of the largest retail and lifestyle centers] in Tennessee. That is where I went camping with the Brownies and the Girl Scouts, so it was a wilderness at the time I was growing up there. Everybody was kind of alike, working class families, little working class school. We all went to the same church. It was very comfortable. I came from a family of coal miners in the Sequatchie Valley, which was just over the mountain from Chattanooga. There were a lot of mines there in Whitwell, and my great grandparents, grandfather and uncles had worked in the coalmines there. 

My great-grandfather was the closest thing the Sequatchie Valley had to a vet, so he rode all over the valley taking care of people’s animals, and he took care of the mules that they used for the mines over there at Dunlap, Tennessee. The mountains are a little different from the south. Chattanooga is definitely a southern town as opposed to mountain, but I’ve lived here for forty-five years at this point and so this is really home to me now.

The music that I grew up singing in church and the folk songs we sang in school were what I later discovered, when I was probably in high school, Appalachian folk songs. I began to hear that term more as I got older. We tended to say ‘from the mountains,’ and ‘mountain people,’ so I see the people that I grew up with as mountain people and the people that are here as mountain people. I came to call it Appalachia as I learned about that mountain chain and that culture. 

[Here there is] a sense of the importance of extended family; my cousins were more like brothers and sisters [and] I had lots of them. We saw each other every week. We all took care of each other. Now people are so spread out. That next generation, including myself, kind of left the place where we all grew up, but all of my cousins lived in and around Chattanooga, the Sequatchie Valley. So [there is] certainly that idea of extended family, neighbors, of faith.

I went to a little Methodist church out there in the country, but it was kind of the community church, and so we all knew each other. The idea that everyone is equal and that we’re all in this together is, I think, a value that we’ve lost. I hear so much, people say, ‘this is my right to do this.’ You don’t hear people say, ‘our rights,’ as much anymore. I was raised to believe that democracy meant people and not person. I was raised to look behind me to make sure the door I was closing wasn’t closing in someone’s face, and to say, ‘excuse me,’ and ‘thank you,’ and ‘yes, ma’am,’ and ‘yes sir,’ and things that made living a little more civil than they can be today. 

Education was very, very important to my parents to give us opportunities that they had not had, and they worked very hard to do that. I think that there is, certainly in that generation, a sense in this area of the importance of education. I think we’ve also lost that a little bit; people don’t stress that as much. Being able to be independent, and able to pull your weight early was something that I learned, and a love of the natural world, and a love of music, especially. I was very lucky to have people to sing with. We sang in school. We sang in church. We sang with the family. I assumed all families did it. It took a while to figure out that really wasn’t true.

My grandfather played the fiddle, and he also played the piano. My two uncles, his two boys, would travel from church to church and sing together sometimes as a little family trio. All my aunts loved to sing. My mother was very shy. They didn’t like to perform so much as they liked to just sit down, and one would start a song and the others would sing. I learned a lot of Carter Family songs very early from my Mother and her sisters. I guess it never struck me to ask them, I just assumed that they had always known them. It was later that I learned about the Carter Family, and became very interested in them, because I had been hearing their songs for so long growing up.

I didn’t grow up in a coal mining family, per se. My father and mother both worked outside the home until we came along, then Mom stayed at home with my brother and myself until we were old enough to maneuver on our own. It was my grandparents that were the coal miners, and my uncles. My father just had a high school education, as did my mother, but he worked as a planning manager for Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company. He taught himself. I know my brother went off to MIT for graduate school, and would call my dad to get his help with math problems. My dad was self-taught, and it was amazing to see how hard people would work to learn things at that time. My coal mining roots were the generation before that, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, but I think a love for rural life and a respect for farmers, and for people who worked the land, and people who had to work under the land, certainly was a part of forming who I am.

I went to school in Chattanooga, the University of Chattanooga, and then I moved to Nashville, went to Knoxville, (Laughs) went back to Nashville, and worked as an editor for the University of Tennessee and also Vanderbilt University. 

I went to Boston to visit my brother, when I was a freshman in college, and I was terrified. I had never been in a big city, but he was afraid I’d never get out of Chattanooga, so he brought me to Boston and sent me off on my own to sort of look around. He got off the subway and went to work, and there I was. I was determined to show him I could handle it, and I went to the Durgin Park Restaurant. It was over where they slaughtered beef, and it had fresh beef, but you sat at long tables like picnic tables, and I sat down. 

There I was in my little Jackie Kennedy A-line dress, sitting at a table with people I didn’t know. I was pretty shy, and I ordered my lunch. This gray-haired man, dressed in a business suit sitting next to me, turned to me and said, ‘are you from Chattanooga?’ It terrified me, I was afraid to say, ‘Yes.’ I thought, ‘How could he possibly know?’ 

He was a professor at Yale, and was a language expert. He said that there were eight cities in the United States that had very specific language and he was pretty good at recognizing them, and Chattanooga was one of the eight. It was the way I said Chattanooga. It was the way I said rice, when I ordered rice, and I’d never really thought about the way I talked until I got to Boston. And I drawl, I get stuck in a word sometimes, but my brother had never done that quite so much, and so they didn’t make fun of him as much as they made fun of me, teased me. But it was meant to be good-natured, but there’s no doubt. 

I worked for WSM Television after I graduated from college, and that same man was on one of our TV shows, the morning show. I recognized him, especially when they said what he did. I introduced myself and he said, ‘oh my. What happened to you?’ Because I’d had so much response to the way I talked, I had unconsciously changed it, felt like it was wrong.

In the early seventies, I heard about a job that was available up here in Public Relations for an early childhood development program. That was really the area that I had studied, so I applied for it and got it. I was doing some three-chord folk singing at the time, and I came up for a festival. [One of the other performers] was playing the blues, and I was singing three chord folk songs and I thought his amplifier was too loud, so I went over to him and said, ‘could you turn down that amplifier just a little bit?’ 

The first day of the job, I was in a meeting and they said, ‘you’re going to meet your Regional Supervisors.’ These two guys in suits walk through the door, and one of them was Ron [musician, actor and storyteller, Ron Short] whose amp was too loud. I didn’t recognize him, because he looked so different in a suit. But he ended up being my boss, Regional Supervisor, and we got to know each other. He moved away for a while, but we stayed in touch, and then he became a director for an early childhood program in East Tennessee because he had written the grant for our early childhood program that I was working for. We just stayed in touch, and then when he moved back to the area, we got to see each other a little bit more and realized that maybe we did want to be a little more serious than friends. We got married in 1975, and we’ve been together ever since.

[Starting in 1977] we were at the Highlander Research and Education Center for two years. Ron was the Administrator there, and I was working in Knoxville at UT. Highlander is just out of Knoxville on Asheville Highway, so he came up here to work with some health clinics that Highlander was starting. When we got up here two years after we’d been married, I took a job with Mountain Empire Older Citizens and they put me in high schools to do sort of Foxfire Projects to help teenagers understand older people a little better and [learn] they have a lot in common. I realized I loved teaching. 

My intention from the beginning was to teach. A couple of the professors from Clinch Valley were interested in what I was doing, and helped me get my Teaching Certificate and the rest of my education courses. I started teaching at Powell Valley High School in ’78, and I was there thirty-two years.

Ron actually worked for Mountain Empire Older Citizens, too. He got sick for a while right after we came up here, and he stopped the health clinic work because he just couldn’t travel a lot. He started working for Mountain Empire Older Citizens and ran their nutrition program where they had sites where the elderly could come out and have lunch and social time together. It was called, Congregate Meals, and he did that for a couple of years. 

But he always was playing music, playing music, playing music and he knew the people at Roadside Theater. He started doing some music with them, and joined them fulltime. He wrote, I’ve forgotten how many plays now, for them and wrote music for those plays, and he worked at that for thirty-five years, I guess. Traveled all over the world.

Roadside Theater is an Appalachian based theater group. They primarily tell the positive side of Appalachian culture, and try to put off that negative side that we often hear in the media. They also worked with people who were representing other cultures. For instance, they wrote a play together with an African-American group from New Orleans. They wrote a play together with Zuni out in New Mexico, and looked for commonalities between Appalachian culture and Native American culture. And worked with recently, a Puerto Rican theater group, and looked again for commonalities between those cultures. Their goal was always to look for not what makes us different, but what makes us alike. When was first working with them, sometimes he was gone two hundred and fifty days out of the year, so I had to be a pretty independent schoolteacher. 

I think environment to begin with, makes [Appalachians] unique. The way that the western movement happened in this country brought a lot of people into this area. Many moved on to the West, but many stayed. We have to remember that this was such a melting pot because some of the first people on the frontier were Germans and not the Scots-Irish. They came a little later, so this area really was a melting pot and I think that we represent that. It took a lot of personal faith to send people on out to the fringes of society, so I think that makes the culture unique. 

The music and the storytelling has always been a part of this culture. It sort of gets canned up like fruits and vegetables do, and held onto. You see in this culture a lot of roots in our European culture, from which we came, and the people, the music, and the stories still represent that. There is a sense of fierce independence. I know you find that in other areas as well, but I do think this culture is unique, not only in those positive ways, but it’s also the last culture that it’s okay to make fun of. 

I think part of it is that nobody’s ever stood up and said, ‘Quit that!’ You would never say about African-American culture, or Italian-American culture, the kinds of things that people say and make fun of in Appalachian culture; the barefoot hillbilly, you know. 

When I taught high school, we had a group come down from a private school [from Connecticut] and wanted to have an Appalachian experience. We were not real sure what that meant, but we said, ‘Sure.’ Our kids had worked so hard to prepare for their visit, and they were excited about meeting someone from somewhere else. As soon as they got off the bus, they said, ‘Oh, we didn’t think you’d have shoes on.’ 

And our kids said, ‘There are restrooms inside. Let us show you.’ And they said, ‘Oh, we thought you’d have outhouses.’ It was like it was okay to say those things to these young people, who had worked very hard to be welcoming. I’m not saying that as a stereotype of the people from Connecticut, but it was interesting to watch. It was interesting to watch that for a week, and watch our students interact. 

In one case, when we were all together, somebody said, ‘Why did you want to come down here?’ They said, ‘we wanted to help the poor people of Appalachia.’ They had already said that they rode the subways to school, and one of my students raised his hand and said, ‘have you ever seen any street people in New York or in the subway?’ They said, ‘why, yes, we step over them every day getting on the subway.’ And [our student] said, ‘well, why would you want to come down here and look for poor people? Why don’t you help the poor people at home? How would you feel if we came up there and said we were going to help?’ 

There are poor people everywhere and they all need help, and there are gifted people everywhere. And of course, language is different. It’s very rich, and it’s very beautiful here, and you do hear the roots of the Anglo-Saxon English, but you hear a lot of other root words, too. But people make fun; if they think if you talk slowly, then you think slowly. I remember that being an issue when Jimmy Carter was elected President. One woman from Georgia said it was so wonderful to have someone at last, who did not have an accent, in the White House. So it just depends on where you’re from, and what your ear is attuned to. I find mountain people extremely warm and welcoming, but there’s a reserve that maybe you don’t find where people have to live so close together, in each other’s faces all the time. That’s hard for the people in this area to imagine. 

It’s more of just looking down and looking aside from a whole culture that brings so much to the American texture. Sometimes, when you’re made fun of, people tend to start as a defense, making fun of themselves, and that has happened in Appalachian culture some. [There was] ‘Hee Haw’ and there’s a couple of people not too far from where we’re sitting, who have been producers in Hollywood, who have tried to create a new Beverly Hillbillies where they would bring an Appalachian family out to Hollywood, and think it’s funny that they wouldn’t know what to do. Excuse me? 

My husband was in a group of people that auditioned for a movie that was going to be made here years ago. A lot of people went over and auditioned in Kentucky for that movie, and he was actually going to have a speaking part. He only saw one page of the script and he said, ‘I can’t even tell what this story’s about. I would like to know.’ They sent him a script, and he read the whole script and he said, ‘I can’t believe what this script says.’ 

They had people pulling into filling stations on their way to Ohio, and a voice coming over the microphone saying, ‘Pay before you pump,’ and they had the quote ‘hillbillies’ acting like they didn’t know what that meant, or where the voice was coming from. It was just so insulting, and they had on tombstones ‘Born, Died, Revenged.’ That was just so far off. 

So Ron said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t be a part of it. I couldn’t face people again, when I try to write plays that show a positive point of view.’ They never had anybody turn back a script and not sign a contract before. I was always proud of him for taking that stand. It would have been nice to have a new pickup truck at that time, but some things are more important. He was happy that he had made that decision.

Ron went to a two-room schoolhouse through the seventh grade, and they were all just alike, they were all from the same community, they all played together. Everybody got to play. He had to move to Kingsport, Tennessee. He had straight A’s. He had done very well in school, but when he got to Kingsport, they took him to his classroom, introduced him to the teacher, handed her his records, and she said, ‘well class, this young man seems to have straight A’s. We’ll see if he can make it in Kingsport.’ He was so shocked that anybody would even say something like that. He was just over there for a year, but he describes it as one of the worst years of his life. He had always been treated so well in school, and encouraged, and if he finished an assignment, got to help others. They gave him magazines to read, or they were constantly encouraging him to learn something new. It was almost a challenge to even belong. And he went out to recess, and couldn’t figure out how to play because they chose teams, and he was a stranger. As a teacher, I was always so attuned to new students who hadn’t been there before. It’s a very, very difficult transition to make. 

He said in many ways that was harder than Vietnam, because Vietnam, as hard as it was, had a context and you knew what it was. You knew why you were there. But in a school and a neighborhood, you don’t expect that kind of treatment. I think it’s a shame that we don’t appreciate each other’s accents, and the way that we talk, and the wonderful phrases we use. 

(Are you a hillbilly?) Well I think it depends on whose saying it. I have to say that. I don’t think, it’s because I’m so connected to my southern roots, I do not think of myself as a hillbilly, but I use mountain people all the time. That’s just the phrase I grew up with. I think if people who live here are talking about being hillbillies, it’s usually meant in a good-natured, ‘I recognize who you are,’ kind of way. If someone else says it, it feels a little different, and I guess that’s true for all kinds of cultures. I do feel it’s derogatory if I hear other people using that term. 

If we use the term hillbilly, like for the ‘Hillbilly Highway,’ that meant all those people who, on Friday evening got in those cars and headed back for those mountains; that for me is a warm, familiar kind of image. We went to England and people dressed up like what they thought the Beverly Hillbillies were, and that was meant as a parody or insult. I know that Ron said when he was in England, ‘you can call me a hillbilly if you want to. Once.’ (Laughs) It was interesting that they stopped using hillbilly after that.”