Granny, Sing a Song

One of my fondest memories as a child was going to see my grandparents on Sundays after church. My grandparents lived in Childress Hollow. The Hollow, as we called it, wasn’t a town. It was a small valley near the top of Childress Mountain. I used to ask Grandpa where he lived, and he would always answer, “Depends.” He loved to say, ‘The end of the dirt driveway is in Tennessee, but if you make it all the way up to the house, you’d be in North Carolina. Then if you went to the very end of the hollow where the barn was, you’d be in Virginia.’ He’d tell the story then slap his knee and laugh. His laughter filled me with joy.

My momma was the youngest of three children. She was born in 1908. She had two older brothers. Later, I found out she had one brother and a sister who didn’t make it past two-years-old. Granny rarely talked about them, and Grandpa never mentioned them to any of us grandkids. I was born in the summer of 1930. The first grandchild who lived long enough to go to school.

My uncles lived just down the mountain from the old homestead, but Momma married a man from town, so we, and 250 other people, lived in Omega Falls. Every Sunday we would get in the car, a 1924 Ford Model T, and drive ten miles up the mountain to see everyone. There were times when the old jalopy couldn’t make it because of snow, mud or washouts. That’s when Grandpa would meet us with his wagon. The horses could get to places no car of the era could go.

Granny would feed everyone. I can still smell the fried chicken, mashed potatoes and Irish soda bread. We would gather around the table and eat until we were ready to explode. After dinner, the women would hurry up and clean the kitchen. Grandpa, my uncles and father would sit on the porch listen to the leaves fluttering in the breeze and talk about the weather, the tobacco crop, the price of moonshine and the Great Depression. I never realized we were living through a depression because my whole family worked on the mountain. We were self-sufficient for the most part. The men would talk until their food digested. Then my uncles would get their guitar and banjo out and start playing some songs. Momma played an old Irish flute, and I would sit at her feet and absorb the sounds.

I heard the same songs a thousand times. They would play old tunes like Claire’s Dragoons, The Minstrel Boy, The Chainless Wind and other traditional folk songs. Sometimes they would make up new songs. They would sing about mine disasters, ships capsizing and the potato famine. One of my favorites was The Triangle Fire. I liked the melody and the way the Irish flute sounded. I didn’t always pay attention to the words.

My uncles would play for a time then stop and tell Grandpa to ‘git out the old fiddle.’ He would refuse for a while, but then Granny would get the case for him. He would sit on the edge of his wooden rocker, take the fiddle out of the case, do something with the horsehair bow, tune it up and begin sawing away. I would be mesmerized by the mournful sound. He would play a couple songs with my uncles playing their guitars and Momma doing her best to follow along. Then Grandpa would stop and say, “Granny, sing a song.”

Granny was under five-feet-tall, couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds, but she had a strong voice that could fill the hollow with sweet, mellifluous sound. I think the birds would stop their singing to listen to Granny.

I turned 70 last month, and I spend as much time as I can in the Hollow. The older generation is gone. Momma passed on four years ago. I am now the patriarch of the family, and I own the old homestead, and most of the mountain. I spend much of the year traveling around the country in a tour bus with my band, playing my guitar and singing a mixture of old and new songs to enthusiastic crowds. I am very fortunate to make a living at the thing I enjoy most. Five years ago I fulfilled a lifelong dream and recorded an entire album of the traditional Irish folk songs with my family. Tunes I remembered from my youth sitting at Momma’s feet on the porch. I even recorded a new version of The Triangle Fire with a mournful fiddle on the track.

Yes, I now have Grandpa’s old fiddle, and after Sunday dinner, I sit on the porch and listen to the leaves fluttering in the hollow. My grandchildren play their guitars, mandolins, banjos and Irish flutes. They will eventually beg me to ‘git out the old fiddle,’ and I always honor their request. I often close my eyes and let the music transport my mind back in time. I can hear Grandpa’s fiddle, my uncles playing their instruments, my momma on her flute and, on special occasions, I can hear a sweet voice join in.

I play for a time, and then Anna, my youngest granddaughter, will sit on my lap, look at my wife and say, “Granny, sing a song.”

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