Of These Hollers I Sing

January 1, 2001

January 1, 2001

Walt Michael
(L-R) Richie Bailey, Walt Michael, Anna Bailey
Lawson's General Store, Panther West Virginia
July 1966
While an English major at Western Maryland College, 1964 - 1968, Walt spent three summers as a student volunteer in McDowell County, West Virginia.  Here is a narrative that Walt wrote for a published collection of student remembrances entitled The Journey Outward, published in 2001.


I suppose that my interest in Appalachia and its people was initially kindled by my mother’s interest in true frontier life.  She read about the subject voraciously, most likely as a result of her many visits as a young girl to her parents’ childhood homes in southern Illinois.  She spent many hours with her grandparents on the farms there, growing up with a sense of family oral history.  She knew that her maternal grandfather’s people had originally come from Kentucky, and that they were Scotch-Irish immigrants at some point in the dim past. Other ancestors were Roger Williams and the Wright brothers, but it seemed that my mother’s fascination was with the Appalachian folk.

I remember her showing me an article in the Washington Post about the people of Appalachia.  I was struck by the look of these people….their high cheekbones, plain dress and rough-hewn features.  What interested me most was the fact that they played mountain music, something that I was obliquely aware of as a result of playing folk music.  I, like so many others of my generation, played the popular folk music of the day, the music of the Folk Revival …..Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the rest. I had learned to play the guitar and banjo while working as a page in the US Supreme Court and attending the Capitol Page School, located in the Library of Congress.  In that same building were the Folk Archives of the Library of Congress, the repository of great collections of folk music.  I passed by them every day, aware of their existence, but didn’t do any research there until my freshman year of college.

In 1960, my father, Marion Michael, was appointed District Superintendent of the Washington East District of the Methodist Church.  We worked across the street from one another during this volatile era of change.  Dad was a major player in facilitating the merger of the Washington and Baltimore Conferences of the Methodist Church, in essence, the racial integration of the Methodist Church.  I witnessed the excitement of the Kennedy Administration and the Warren Court as I fulfilled my duties as a page.  My high school years were filled with the issues of the day, both on Capitol Hill and around my family’s dinner table.  It is only recently that I have come to fully understand how very different my raising was from so many of my WMC classmates.

SOS on Campus

At Western Maryland, I was lucky to be placed in the freshman English class taught by then Associate Professor Ray Phillips.  After a semester of composition, we studied American folklore.  My term paper that semester was on folk-blues artist Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly.  I made a trip to the Library of Congress and was shown around by Joe Hickerson, the head of the Archive.  The academic, scholarly world of “roots” or “traditional” music opened to me at that time.

In my sophomore year, it was announced that there would be an SOS project in Appalachia.  I believe that I first heard of it from David Carrasco, and he urged that I get involved.  As well, Dean Ira Zepp encouraged me.  I had known of David before coming to WMC, as he was baptized by my father at the Marvin Memorial Methodist Church in Silver Spring.  He encouraged me to write for the Gold Bug early in my sophomore year and I took on sports writing under his tutelage.  David later became Editor in Chief, I assumed his sports editor position, and was later appointed Editor in Chief in my junior year.  Dean Zepp was a household name in my family, as he attended my father’s first parish appointment in Belair, MD.  I first met Ira when he spoke at my father’s church in Bethesda in the late ‘50’s.  Dean Zepp’s presence in the student life of WMC was essential to the SOS experience, as he exposed us to the difficult issues of the day.  Being named to an SOS team meant that I would be working with Dean Zepp, and that fact was reward and reason enough to be involved.

At the same time, I remember feeling quite apprehensive about being involved in SOS, as it appeared to be the project of some very intelligent, powerful and eloquent upper classwomen. I was a lowly, struggling sophomore, and had a hard time imagining myself in such a peer group, Encouraged by Carrasco and Zepp, and excited about the announcement of a new SOS Appalachian venue, I applied. SOS was highly respected on the campus, and a student/faculty committee reviewed the applications.  I remember hearing the announcements at supper in the dining hall.  It was as if I had been nominated for the Nobel Prize. Classmates congratulated me; it was perceived a big honor to be chosen.  Fact is, a group of us were chosen to go to not the exotic tropics of Puerto Rico or the Philippines, but to the mountains and hollers of Appalachia where we would confront rural white poverty.  I was excited, knowing that I would be bringing my guitar and banjo along.  It was also a huge plus that my best buddy, Will Davis, would be going too.  We shared a love of the outdoors, basketball and a sense of adventure.  Will’s sister, Carol Davis, was one of the founding students of SOS, having graduated prior to my arrival on campus.

My freshman and sophomore years included classes in sociology and anthropology with Dr. Griswold.  I remember enjoying his use of films in the classroom, and his keen interest in other cultures. I was excited about being involved with Dr. Griswold and Dean Zepp in a project taking us into the larger world, away from the confines of the campus.  “Dr. G” and “Igz” were our mentors, and offered different varieties of guidance and support.  Dr. G knew the sociology of our projects, knew how to connect our goals and work to resources, and had an infectious “can-do” attitude, believing in our youthful abilities, perhaps more than we did ourselves.  Igz was the heart and soul of our work.  In short, he was interested in our hearts and souls and the effect our experiences would have on us as human beings.  Dean Zepp’s chapel services at WMC were both the well from which we drank and the classroom challenging us to understand and heal a wounded world.

The Appalachian team was led by Dan Bohi, another WMC student I had known from before coming to college.   Dan’s father was a Methodist minister and a member of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the same conference my father served.  Dan had taken part in a non-SOS Appalachian project the year before, and helped prepare us for the realities of mountain life.  During the semester prior to our departure, our team helped in the collection and cataloging of books to be included in the library we would take with us. We read Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, the definitive book on southern Appalachian history and culture. Other team members were Casey Henson, Linda Sullivan and Jan Hazelton. On a hot July morning, we departed for southwest West Virginia in my red Volkswagen beetle and a U-Haul truck and trailer, dangerously overloaded with books. Somewhere, we found room for my banjo and guitar.  Linda’s guitar was safely on board as well.

I’d Rather Be in Some Dark Holler – Traditional Song

At the end of a mountainous and winding twelve-hour drive, we arrived in Welch, WV, and put up in the Hotel Carter.  Night had fallen and we were exhausted.  It was said that Welch, the business center of the coal fields, had more Cadillacs per capita than any other town in the USA.  Meanwhile, the outlying hollers were filled with the disenfranchised, the poor, the ignored. The next morning, we met with our contact agency, The Council of Southern Mountains.  We were told about the two-room school house in Mohawk that had been allocated for the library.  We met retired Army sergeant, “Sarge” Baker, a Vista Volunteer, who would be our contact person, as he rode around the hollers in his jeep, checking up on various projects, making sure that people had food, housing and medical attention. Sarge was a great spirit; it was inspirational to see a military veteran switch gears and continue to serve his country in this way.  The staff at the Council warned us to be careful, to stay away from juke joints, to be aware of potential violence. Our area, Panther-Mohawk-Bull Creek-Isaben was in a remote part of McDowell County, in short, a dangerous place to be.  .

After the meeting, we unloaded the cartons of books, storing them temporarily in the Council office.  Dan and I drove back to Bluefield to return the truck and trailer to the U Haul franchise.  In Keystone, on the way back to Welch, we encountered an enormous funeral procession for a fallen black soldier killed in Vietnam. This was a chilling reminder that no matter how deep into the mountains we had come, Vietnam was with us.  It would be with us for a long time, and we were just beginning to fathom its ramifications.

Later that day, we drove to Panther, where we met up with our community contact, Chick Lockhart, the principal of Panther Elementary School.  He led us back into the remote hollers of Panther, Mohawk and Bull Creek, introducing us to our host families. We first stopped at my destination, the home of Roland and Anna Bailey. Roland was not home, and Anna had just returned from a funeral, and was very distraught. This was my first encounter with the sometimes, mournful and tragic nature of the Appalachian people. She told Chick that she had no recollection of agreeing to be my host family.  I would not be welcome in the Bailey home.  

Rejected, our entourage left, continuing on our way to the other host homes.  Casey Henson was greeted warmly by matriarch store-owner Corey Collins in Mohawk, and taken in to her comfortable home.  We wound our way down the mountain, crossed the east fork of the Tug River, and met Woodrow and Josephine Cline.  This was to be the home of Dan Bohi and Will Davis. Woodrow was a “low-coal” miner, meaning that he worked on his hands and knees in seams of coal oftentimes lower than three feet high.  Josephine was a school librarian, and their two teen-aged children were college bound. The Clines were very friendly and took in Dan and Will with open arms.  Continuing up Bull Creek, we topped the mountain and settled Linda and Jan with their hosts, the Blankenships. This older couple, custodians at Chick Lockhart’s Panther Elementary School, was another good fit for our volunteers,

There I was, on top of a mountain, at the end of the road.  Night was coming on, and I had no place to stay. Chick Lockhart told me to drive back to Anna and Roland Bailey’s, that it would be okay for me to stay there.  I was very apprehensive, and asked Chick if some other arrangements might be made for me. He insisted that I would be fine at the Bailey’s.  He drove off, leaving me to find my way back to Panther.  By the time I arrived, it was dusk, and I was very uneasy about approaching the Bailey home.  I was a stranger in a strange land. In front of the Bailey’s general store, I encountered Roland, still in his mining clothes.  I told him about my dilemma, and asked if I might spend just one night in his home until I could find other housing.  After a pregnant pause, which I later discovered was merely Roland’s quiet way, he told me that I was welcome to stay.  He grabbed a TV dinner from the store’s freezer, and walked me across the tracks to their home.

The Bailey’s home lay between the tracks of the N&W Railroad and the Tug River.  It was a two-story block home, with a rather suburban appointment upstairs.  However, the unfinished basement was where the family lived, ate and relaxed.  I sat at the Formica table, ate the TV dinner and made conversation.  I learned that Roland was a private “small coal” operator.  He employed about six men, mining coal in drift mines, carved out of the mountains with sweat, dynamite and small machinery. Private coal truck operators transported the coal from Roland’s mine to railroad tipples, where coal cars were filled with the black gold.  Twice a day or more, the N&W pulled 150 or more coal cars past the Bailey home enroute to steel mills, electric plants and other major industries throughout the nation.  A myriad of mining operations, big and small, supplied the trains with this prehistoric cargo.  Roland told me that two hundred years worth of coal remained in the mountains around us.  I wondered why so much poverty existed in the midst of such vast natural wealth.

As we talked, an explosion from outside rocked the house.  Shaken, I asked what had happened.  Roland calmly, slowly replied “Just some fellers playin’ around with dynamite, I reckon.” He returned to our conversation.  Twenty minutes later, there was a slow knock on the basement door, and an old man poked his head in and said, “Roland, there’s a man dead up on the railroad tracks.”

We rushed out of the basement and scrambled up the bank onto the railroad tracks.  A hundred yards down the tracks, a demolished car lay upside down.  The driver, a relative of Chick Lockhart, had put a stick of dynamite under his belt, lit a slow-burning cigarette fuse, and gone for a drive.  It was said that he and his wife were having difficulties and that he was depressed.  The car passed the Bailey’s store, rounded the bend and climbed the mountain above the tracks when the dynamite exploded, blowing the man in two and hurling him and his car off the mountainside onto the tracks below.

Soon, it seemed that the entire community gathered in the night.  Teenage boys spit tobacco and smoked cigarettes that had been blown out of the car onto the road. Violence and death hung heavy in the damp air.  It was my first night in the mountains.  

Keep on the Sunny Side – The Carter Family

During that first summer, we experienced the cultural wealth of the Appalachian people.  Although mired in poverty, they were people with profoundly deep roots, reaching way back to a time before the lumbering and mining industries had decimated their land.  These roots continued to sustain the mountain folk after the plundering.

As we put the library in place and developed its routine, we took part in and initiated a number of activities in the community, enjoying the spirit, joys and traditions of the mountain people.  We visited many homes as we developed a campaign to petition the state government to invest in road improvements.  The petition went with us to Charleston, ultimately falling upon deaf ears.  We fished for catfish in the fouled water of the Tug River, played basketball, volleyball and baseball in the coal dust, ran art and literature classes with the children at the library, held box supper fund raisers, rode the ridges and abandoned strip mines in a borrowed jeep, played music for a “hootenanny” and worshipped at a number of mountaintop churches, where the unaccompanied singing would echo and resound through the hollers below, striking an ancient tone.  We listened to the hellfire and brimstone sermons of fierce preachers, had dinner on the ground, and went on picnics at the Panther State Park, savoring Woodrow Cline’s fresh-caught bass and Anna Bailey’s unparalleled stacked-apple pies.  Some nights we drove to the ever-burning slag heaps in Isaben, peering into vague gas-lit hollers that appeared to be gateways to Hell. We went deep into Roland Bailey’s mine, feeling the weight of the mountain above us, and ducked behind a pillar as he touched off the dynamite, shooting a seam of coal.  We delivered groceries with lead-foot Bobby Collins in his V-8 Chevy pickup truck, always fearing for our lives.  People bought food with cash, food stamps and credit.  We delivered everything from corn meal to cracked corn while people cooked everything from corn bread to moonshine.  Every house had a pot of pinto beans on the stove. Dried apples and string beans were strung up and hung on front porches.  Every house had a framed picture of JFK on the wall, the man who made good on his promise to feed these hungry people.  This champion of the poor had been slain less than three years prior to our arrival in the mountains.

Library, Mohawk, West Virginia

One Sunday, we went with Anna and Roland to a beautiful state park and heard the Revelators, a seasoned itinerant gospel group.  On the way home, we stopped at Jolo, attending a church where poisonous snakes were handled. On the winding ride home, will Davis and I chewed tobacco in the back seat of Roland’s car. It was an ill-advised activity.  Some Saturday evenings we flat-footed to the juke box and drank weak 3.2 beer at a bar-club in Iaeger.  We were barely 20 years-old.  We were, at once, student-volunteer-activists, and children.

Dr. Griswold and Dean Zepp visited us that summer.  The purpose of the visit was to assess our work and shoot some film footage for a promotional film about SOS.  Dr. Griswold piloted down in a private plane and I met them at the Welch airport.  My car had blown its engine on the mountainside below the airport, so Dr. G. flew us to Bluefield where he rented a car.  As we flew above the mountains, I was shocked and sickened to see how extensive the strip mining was throughout the region. The team was bolstered by our mentors’ visit, and we managed to shoot a good deal of effective footage.  Back on campus in the fall, I worked with Dr. Griswold and David Carrasco to edit, script and narrate the film entitled The Journey Outward.  This film became an effective fundraising tool as we spoke to civic groups and churches throughout the ensuing school years.

Our Borrowed Jeep

Little Birdie, Come Sing to Me Your Song – Stanley Brothers

My richest experience in the mountains centered on its traditional music.  As soon as the library was in place, we wanted to have a gala opening, and thought that a “hootenanny” would be a fun activity for the community, and an opportunity to help organize the community in to a year-round support system for the library/community center.  Linda and I would play, but we thought it important to find some local folks to play music as well.  We had heard that Zink Bailey on Bull Creek was a fine mandolin player who had played on radio shows.  So, we drove to his store and introduced ourselves.  Zink was a very friendly and humble man, but told us that he would be driving his coal truck on the evening of the opening and could not play music for us.  We were disappointed, and as we turned to leave the store, a short-stooped old man winked and asked me if I “picked the banjer.”  I replied yes, whereupon he asked if I would like to see his “banjers.”  I could hardly contain myself, for I knew that I had hit the jackpot. I had found what I had hoped to find in these mountains: roots music inextricably linked to the rich past of the oral tradition.

This old man was William Christian Bailey, brother of Zink Bailey.  We climbed the hill to his home and he showed me into his living room, where hung seven or more hand-made fretless banjos.  They were relatively crude instruments in appearance, made of oak, maple and cherry woods and fox, squirrel and groundhog skins. Christian took one from the wall, walked to the front porch and commenced tuning the banjo while he introduced me to his mother, who was 89 years old.  I learned that she had witnessed the hanging of famous outlaw John Hardy in Welch many years before.  She was born on this very spot back before the timber and coal industries had ravaged the land.  She remembered the great canopied forest before its mammoth trees were clear cut and floated downriver. She remembered Bull Creek when it ran clear. Christian brought his banjo into tune and played an old modal tune.  This was the first of many visits to his home, where I listened to stories of the union wars and the Baldwin Thugs, moonshining and jail, and adventures of local hero Matt Justice.  Over the next two years, Christian sang ballads dating back to 18th Century England and played banjo tunes of antiquity.  Joe Hickerson, of the Library of Congress, provided me with reel-to-reel tapes upon which I recorded Christian’s music and stories.  These recordings now reside at the Library of Congress.

Christian Bailey's Banjos

In subsequent summers, I discovered that there were two traditional musicians in Mohawk who were equally interesting.  Alex Cline was a wonderful harmonica player and dancer, elf-like in appearance and always of great humor.  He often hung around the Collins’ store in Mohawk and survived by doing odd jobs.  Eventually, we discovered that his 84 year-old brother, “Cripple Cleve” Cline, lived with him in an old abandoned company house near the tracks below the library.  Cleve had not owned a banjo for 15 years or more because his daughter had been “saved” and believed that traditional music was the work of the Devil. Russ Cottingham and I drove to Bluefield, and using SOS funds, bought an inexpensive but adequate banjo and gave it to Cleve.  He was a masterful claw hammer style player, and even though he had suffered a stroke, he played and recorded a number of old tunes which now also reside in the Library of Congress. I will never forget visiting Alex and Cleve in their home.  They had no possessions except the worn clothes on their back, a couple harmonicas, a shotgun, two ancient, dilapidated beds and two chairs.  An old pot of pinto beans sat on the stove.  And now a banjo hung on the wall.  America’s aged rural poor: ignored, isolated and uncounted.  Their music, to this day, rings vividly in my memory, and ranks among the best music I have heard anywhere.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?- The Carter Family

During our first summer in Appalachia, it eventually became apparent to us that our time and effort could be best spent in providing programming and activities for the children and teens.  There were wonderful children in those hollers, with great, colorful personalities and senses of humor.  In the next two summers, our efforts were directed almost entirely at children’s activities.  I was the only original team member to return in the summer of 1967, and was joined by Frank Bowe, Joyce Ferguson and Ellen Von Dehsen, a wonderful artist who had as well, a superb gift for teaching.  We continued to run classes at the library, lead outdoor activities and focus on broadening the scope of the children’s’ world.  Many children had never been further away from their homes than nearby Iaeger.  The end activity of that summer was a trip to Hungry Mother State Park, a 3 hour drive away.  It was an exciting event for some kids who had never been out of their local holler.  One young boy’s highlight moment was to call his mother from a pay phone!  It was as if he was calling her from the moon.

That summer we decided that we could have a lasting, positive impact on the kids by arranging for on-going year-round activities, giving them opportunities to get out of the hollers and experience a broader world.  We developed a relationship with the Isaben Baptist church, arranging for the church bus to take the kids to high school football games during the school year. It seemed like a good plan that the community was excited about.  We left at the end of the summer, feeling positive about the activities and focus of our second summer in Appalachia.

The call came to my apartment in Westminster on a cold fall evening in 1967.  After the final football game of the season, the bus carrying the kids of Panther, Mohawk, Isaben and Bull Creek had been sideswiped by a logging truck, killing 16 year-old Debby Cline and hospitalizing 32 others. Our kids. We were devastated.  We called Dr. Griswold and he assured us that we were not at fault nor responsible for this outrageous tragedy.  Certainly, we weren’t responsible for the fact that the truck driver was drunk, and running without his lights. But we knew better. We were, in the ultimate sense, responsible.  As outsiders, we had imposed our values on this community. Will, Ellen and I drove the somber, winding road to West Virginia, attending Debby’s wake, and mourning with families, friends and survivors.  Will and I were among the pallbearers who carried Debby to her resting place in the mountainside graveyard.  Anna Bailey collapsed on her father’s grave, sounding a low-pitched, mournful wail that spoke for us all.

In the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet, I slip away, like a bird in flight, back to the place that I call home.
– Hazel Dickens

Upon my return from my first summer in West Virginia, I remember being asked by a classmate how I enjoyed my SOS experience.  I could not summon words that would adequately convey the experience or how I felt about it.  I realized at that moment that I was changing in profound ways, impossible to define, and ultimately incommunicable.  By 1968, My SOS field experience had transformed me from a goal-directed college student to a student of a different sort.  I had witnessed the violence of poverty and classism.  As a voter registration volunteer in South Carolina, I had witnessed the ravages of racism.  As an advanced ROTC cadet officer and as Editor in Chief of the student newspaper, the Gold Bug, I had wrestled with the issues of the war in Vietnam. In the midst of a fine and demanding liberal arts education, I was directly exposed to the realities of an extremely troubled, violent world. The very same institution that was sending me to Appalachia to help eradicate poverty and isolation was grooming me to lead draftees into battle in a war against peasants in Southeast Asia. I was receiving extremely conflicting messages from the dual personality of my college.  The only thing I knew for certain was that I must return for another summer in West Virginia.  I knew that we would return to continue our work, and in doing so, bear witness to the tragic school bus accident and our complicity in it.

In the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, we fielded two Appalachian teams in the summer of 1968. WMC students were joined by students from William and Mary College. Ellen Von Dehsen and I were the only returning volunteers.  Ellen and Lin Lin Chen, a WMC student from Burma, lived with Anna and Roland Bailey in Panther. WMC’s Judy Harper, Cathy McCullough and Doug Smarte set up living quarters in the library in Mohawk, along with Steve Wilson (brother of WMC’s SOS Puerto Rican team member Ralph Wilson) and fine banjo picker, Russ Cottingham, both of William and Mary.  Jeff Davis joined me in living at Christian Bailey’s home in Bull Creek, up the hill from Zink Bailey’s store.  This was an energetic and gifted group of individuals, functioning really as one large team.

Our work that summer, as I can best remember, focused mostly on the children in the communities.  We mounted a very successful swimming instruction program, which took place at the swimming pool in Panther State Park. Providing transportation for over 90 individuals proved to be quite a task, but packing kids and volunteers into barely adequate vehicles became part of our daily routine.  A daily morning wagon train of Volkswagen bugs and vans wound its way through the hollers up to the Park.  Steve Wilson headed up the swimming classes as we offered a wide range of instruction including life guard certification.  The afternoons consisted of art and literature classes (I can remember leading a riverside class on The Grapes of Wrath), basketball and volleyball games, and more laid-back unorganized activities, oftentimes at Juck and Merlene Kirk’s new juke joint at their house across the river.  Judy and Cathy went from house to house, offering health care information to expectant young mothers.

One evening, we put on a square dance at L.E. Cline’s barn in Mohawk.  A wonderful old string band showed up, consisting of a fiddler, banjo player and guitarist, all from another county.  I wish to this day that I had gotten to know these musicians.  They really knew what they were doing.  I was busy making up square dances and keeping the evening moving along.  I regret that I was not more active in collecting traditional music during those years, when mountain music was drawn from the well of another time.  

One afternoon, a coal truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and careened over the side of the mountain in Mohawk.  He was thrown from the huge truck and killed as it rolled over him.  Some of us witnessed the aftermath of the event, another grim reminder that in Appalachia, the specter of violent death was always waiting in the wings.  

A few of the teenage boys had formed a rock band over the winter. They asked me for ideas for a good band name.  I humorously suggested The Lincoln Tunnel because there was a popular band at that time called The Brooklyn Bridge.  I remember being pleasantly surprised as I drove into the region the next summer to hear a radio announcement of an upcoming appearance by The Lincoln Tunnel!  I joined them on several occasions at the Iaeger skating rink.   It wasn’t mountain music, but it was their mountain music.

During my three summer seasons and many other visits to West Virginia, I maintained a good working relationship with Chick Lockhart.  We maintained a presence in his Panther Elementary School, and he valued our leadership abilities, our respect for the mountain culture, and our shared belief in the value of education. Chick was a decorated veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.  One day he proudly showed us his extensive battle scars as we stood outside his modern school. He also showed us the paddle he used to keep students in line.  It had air holes in it so as to attain optimum speed.  On many occasions, Chick asked us to consider leaving WMC to teach at Panther Elementary.  It was in my mind to finish college, move to West Virginia and take Chick up on his offer.  I would teach in his school, spending my days with these fantastic mountain children. As well, I would continue to collect and play mountain music, and I would pursue my growing interest in photojournalism.  It was a plan of the heart.

I don’t remember too much more about our project work that final summer in the mountains.  I do remember watching the Democratic Convention on television and seeing the Chicago Police bust the heads of protestors.  I do remember that L.E. Cline’s dance barn was burned down by two boys I had befriended and worked with for three years. And I’ll never forget the night that Debby Cline’s father got drunk and fired his shotgun at me from across Juck Kirk’s cornfield.  Jeff Davis and I ran to my car and frantically backed across the Mohawk bridge.   Later that night, we sped past Debby’s house on our way back up Bull Creek to our beds at Christian Bailey’s.  The school bus wreck still lay heavy on everyone’s hearts.

But there’s no light in that window that shone long ago where I lived. - Bill Monroe

Upon my return to Maryland, I took a teaching job with the Board for Fundamental Education in Baltimore.  I taught reading, writing and arithmetic to black steelworkers employed at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point.  During that time, I wrestled with my convictions, and came to the difficult conclusion that I had become a conscientious objector and could not, in good conscience, take part in the armed services.  I notified the ROTC department at WMC that I would refuse my commission as a Second Lieutenant.  I would be the first cadet in the history of WMC to do so.  I was informed that the Army would issue me an honorable discharge as they did not want anyone of my convictions in a leadership position.  I was immediately vulnerable to the draft.  With the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee, I prepared my conscientious objector claim, but also began to prepare myself to be sentenced to federal prison.  If my CO claim was denied by my draft board, I would refuse induction and go to prison.

As part of my CO claim, I needed letters of support from community and religious leaders. I wrote to Chick Lockhart to ask his support, so that I might spend my alternative service as a teacher-volunteer in the Panther Elementary School.  His response was to write a letter to the editor of the Welch daily newspaper, asking that no one in McDowell County ever hire me for any type of work.   His desire was that no child in West Virginia ever hear the term nor understand the meaning of conscientious objection. His letter was printed.  I was no longer welcome in McDowell County.  The plan of the heart had been sabotaged. The dream was over.


I’ve a short time to be here, and a long time to be gone. – Stanley Brothers

In the fall of 1968, Jeff Davis arranged for Christian Bailey to come to WMC and spend a week on campus, playing banjo and telling stories.  It was, by far, the furthest Christian had ever been out of the mountains.  Christian’s mother had passed away the prior spring, and he had been very depressed.  We were concerned that if given the chance, he would drink and go into an alcoholic tailspin, as he had done in the past. But the thinking was that Jeff could control Christian’s environment during the visit and things would go well. After all, Christian had never been to a town of this size, and wouldn’t know where to go to find liquor, and he had no mode of transportation.  On the second morning of Christian’s visit, Jeff told Christian to stay put while he left his apartment and went to class.  When he returned, he found Christian drunk in the midst of a number of wine bottles.  This old mountain man had merely called a cab company and asked to be taken to the nearest liquor store.  Jeff called me in Baltimore and asked for my help.  Larry Eisenberg and I drove Christian back to Bull Creek throughout that night, arriving at dawn. He was in sad shape.

Some weeks later, we drove once again to Bull Creek to attend another funeral. Christian had put an end to his despair with a self-inflicted gun shot. We had a floral arrangement made up in the fashion of a banjo. We lost a real friend.  In a sense, I lost the most tangible, human element of my entire SOS experience. Ellen Von Dehsen’s painting of Christian and Cleve hangs in my dining room.  I say hello every day.

At some point in time after 1969, the Mohawk Library was burned down on a Halloween evening.  The books we catalogued have long since gone up in smoke.

As the years have passed, I have learned not to dwell on the tragedies I was a part of in the mountains.  Memories, good and troublesome, spring forward into my consciousness and dreams at unpredictable times. I will always carry with me the faces and spirit of the children we attempted to serve.

The plan of the heart has changed.  The music of Appalachia lives within me.  I have gone on to learn much more about it, and have played it throughout the United States, Canada, the British Isles and Europe.  It has nourished my soul, and put food on my family’s table.  It is the wellspring of Common Ground on the Hill, the program that now flourishes at McDaniel College, seeking peace through the traditional arts.   In the spring of 2000, 34 years after my first trip to Appalachia, I returned to the hollers with Don & Ellen (Von Dehsen) Elmes and five of my WMC students. We visited Roland and Anna Bailey and then drove to Bull Creek, where I was delighted to find Zink Bailey.  We sat on his front porch and played music for the first time in over thirty years. We played together better than ever.  In December of 2008, I made another pilgrimage back to see my dear friends, my mountain parents, Anna and Roland Bailey.

(L-R) Anna Bailey, Walt Michael, Roland Bailey
Iaeger, West Virginia, December 2008