#003 Heritage

“Kantner once told me, ‘You’re never going to grow up,’ and I’m making a determined effort at it.” – Grace Slick

I’m doing my best not to grow up, but try as I might, it’s happening slowly. A couple of years ago, I decided I was finally mature enough for community college. School’s going well. I seem to have finally nailed how to focus, concentrate, memorize and regurgitate for a full three and a half months at a time. I celebrate such small victories.

Last year in my group communications class, populated with Gen Z’s and Millennials, our final project was called “Music Meltdown.” Each group of eight students was to put together a presentation analyzing  bands that had broken up. 

Our group chose The Spice Girls. Yawn. It wasn’t my choice, but I went along.

During the final class of the semester, each group made it’s presentation. One at a time, the other bands in question were revealed: NWA, Destiny’s Child, Led Zeppelin and *NSYNC. I sat in stunned silence.

My life keeps following me around. Call me paranoid. Call me whatever you’d like.

I wanted to raise my hand and announce that I had connections to all the groups. I had been Jason Bonham’s tour manager, Dr. Dre’s tour accountant on his “The Chronic” tour, *NSYNC’s merchandise accountant twice and Destiny’s Chid’s tour accountant in Europe right before Beyonce blew up into, well, Beyonce. 

What would have been the point? Although I’ve always been treated well by my fellow students, it’s hard to call them peers. Nobody likes a showoff, especially a showoff old enough to be one’s grandfather, or even great grandfather in a few cases. I had a vision of myself morphing into Grampa Simpson before their eyes. What would have been the point, indeed. No one would have believed me anyway. 

As David Byrne once posed, “How did I get here?” That, dear reader, is the $64,000 question. I promise you, if you come back week after week, and we both live long enough for me to unfold the story of my life from zygote to forty, you’ll get the whole story.

[Deep breathe.]

Let’s begin, shall we?

The number one song the day I was born was “Sukyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. That’s only relevant for one reason: it’s such a major uncool song. Not that I’ve ever been cool, but only “The Purple People Eater” would have been worse. Were it not for the randomness of my mother’s fertility cycle, my song could have easily been “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore or “Surf City” by Jan and Dean. Far cooler, in my opinion,

I was born in the tiny town of Hazard, Kentucky, population then and now around 5,000. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, the region was, and to some degree still is, a time capsule of an earlier era. The dialect, music and simple way of life there have changed little over the decades. These attributes are more reflective of the original settlers’ English heritage, and given the geographic isolation immune to the rapid societal progressions of city folk.

Hunting, fishing, trapping, planting by the signs, using plants as natural medicines, distilling corn liquor, curing meat, dehydrating vegetables and cabin-building were but a few of the skills necessitated by their hardscrabble existence in those mountain hollers (hollows).

I’m proud of my English-Appalachian heritage. For the record, I detest the word “white” when it refers to my ethnicity, the word “Caucasian” being no better. Unless one is sight-impaired one can easily see that my melanin composition is actually a slightly-tanned beigish-pink. 

I far prefer the term Appalachian-American. For the record, yes, I am a Hillbilly. Use that word as a pejorative, however, and my first reaction will be to throat-punch the offender or worse. (The term “Saltine-American” is acceptable in all cases.)

If you care to know more, please consult Chapter 6 of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller “Outliers” which discusses in detail my Howard heritage and our propensity to shoot first, ask questions later and be slow to forgive.

My Howard and Combs ancestors abandoned Mother England for the New World in the early 1700’s, for reasons unknown to me, and landed in Virginia. Samuel Howard was my first forefather to be documented as born on this continent. He fought in the Revolution against King George and was present at Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington at Yorktown. 

Back in the 70’s, when the pre-internet genealogy craze hit after the mini-series “Roots”, my father and I spent hours looking at census records in the basement of the Perry County library. We sent for and received by mail from the National Archives Samuel’s narrative of his service in the war, written by his own hand, which was required as proof to qualify for a military pension.

[As an aside, I once ran into LaVar Burton at the spa I frequent. I didn’t recognize him. A couple of hours later I had the Aha! moment. My only excuse is that we were both naked at the time. I’ve seen Laurence Fishburne there a few times, too.]

From my mother’s side, I was told my great great grandmother, Nancy Parker, was full-blooded Cherokee. I believe it’s easy to see Native features in my mother, grandmother and pictures of their mothers. That would make me 1/16th Native. DNA analysis suggests I’m less than that, 1.2% to be specific. While far more than that of Elizabeth Warren, I nonetheless continue to self-identify as of both European and Native American heritage.

The music of Appalachia is derived from English ballads, as well as Irish and Scottish traditional folk songs, with fiddle, banjo and fretted dulcimer as the main instruments. The music from the motherlands evolved into the genres of Old-time, bluegrass and country music, and featured prominently in the folk music revival of the early 1960’s.

I’m listening to Gospel bluegrass right now as I finish this post. It’s my Sunday morning ritual, as close to church as I get these days. It’s a satisfying feeling to know that bluegrass was enjoyed and studied by the great American Jerry Garcia in his musically formative years. He actually visited Bean Blossom, Indiana and recorded with a portable reel-to-reel machine at Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival. 

Coincidentally, my wife’s maternal grandfather was a luthier and picker, and one of Bill’s Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Michelle has such great stories to tell of her grandfather, Frank Beach. I’ll always treasure the memories of our private tour of Bill’s museum on a rainy January day a few years ago.

Music was around me from the time I was born. Though neither of my parents played an instrument then, music was always present. Incidentally, my mother now plays guitar and mandolin and sings beautifully in the Appalachian tradition.

My mother listened to Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith and Dolly Pardon. She had an old Motorola console stereo that was more of a piece of furniture than it was a hi-fi. I wish I still had it today. I’m searching for a used one.

Until the age of 5, I was cared for by my mom’s mom while my parents worked. In that humble house, hand-built by my grandfather and heated by a coal-fired potbellied stove, Old-time and bluegrass played constantly on the AM radio.

My father loved music, too. I learned about bluegrass from him. I have a memory of being at a bluegrass festival with him, but I don’t think it was in Bean Blossom, yet it could have been. Sometimes I think I made that memory up.

He loved singing along with the car radio in his deep baritone voice. I remember singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” many times with him. On one particular fishing trip, while lunching on saltines and sardines, we sang along gleefully to “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” There was much more.

Especially heart-warming to me now is remembering my father enjoying “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’” with a smile on his face. Although, he didn’t exactly hate hippies with the passion of Cartman, I don’t think he realized who the Grateful Dead were, and neither one of us could foresee who they would become. We couldn’t foresee who we would become, either.

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