Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The shallow graves of the moonshiner's secrets

For all his varied and remarkable accomplishments, Bascom Lamar Lunsford is anything but a household name. Yet his impact is felt, anonymously, by almost everyone in this country.

Almost everyone has attended a folk festival or been touched by someone whose life was changed, in some way, by a folk festival, and Bascom both invented and franchised the concept of the folk festival. His scrapbook, which I paged through (all 400 or so pages of it) earlier this week, is littered with notices from folk festivals all over the country - all over the world, in fact - that Bascom established. He even rated as Celebrity of the Day in The Celebrity Bulletin, Hollywood Edition, on April 15, 1947, when he was in Southern California to establish a folk festival there.

It's also possible that a majority of people (maybe only a majority of white people) know and can at least hum one of the two songs Bascom wrote: "Old Mountain Dew." I was encouraged in this impression by Googling around for the name of the song and stumbling upon a YouTube clip of some drunken guy trying to teach a sizeable group of people at a party how to sing the song. You can tell that most of the people already know the song well enough to fake it.

"Old Mountain Dew" was written from experience. Bascom had been a country lawyer. The reveneur and sheriff did harass the mountain moonshiner, and mountain lawyers did end up on country dockets arguing on behalf of craft distillers. In at least one case that became enshrined in song, the criminalized beverage played a critical role in securing a benevolent judgment on the accused.

"Old Mountain Dew" entered folk repertoire in the Southern mountains (and beyond) soon after Bascom composed it. From that living and mobile legend, and from ordinary scuttlebutt, Bascom earned a reputation as a man who had argued the moonshiner's part in court and encountered some success. One thing that amused me in Bascom's scrapbook is a letter from a country pastor that leverages this reputation in an attempt to pry some (presumably pro bono) legal advice out of our man.

"Now, I turn to you as a lawyer, and an honest man, to get me out of this scrape, just as you would any ordinary bootlegger in Marion Methodist Church who might appeal to you for your professional services and personal advice," wrote the Rev. J.H. Barnhardt, pastor of Tyrone St. ME Church, on November 22, 1924.

The folks at the Bascom archive were talking to Bascom's grandson, Ed Herron, about inviting a passel of Bascom descendents to leaf through the scrapbook and yarn about the man and the family. I'd also like to hear the archivists bring in some older church people to ponder a letter like that and see if they don't remember bygone pastoral rivalries. What did the Rev. Barnhardt know about the goings on at Marion Methodist Church? What did he know that Bascom knew about it?

I see there is a Marion District of the United Methodist Church in Western North Carolina, deep in the heart of Bascom country. Their secrets are among the thousands buried in shallow graves in Bascom's scrapbook.


The moonshiner photo (of Popcorn Sutton) is lifted from a Flickr page that includes a link to the depicted moonshiner's daughter's blog. A quick glance at Sky Sutton's blog yields the unsurprising impression that it is no picnic being the daughter of a notorious mountain moonshiner.


Sky Sutton said...


Confluence City said...

Thanks, Sky. You lend a little reality to my scarecely believable but entirely true musings.