The Jackson family as a folk group was insightful to study. I thought I knew them well prior to this experience, but over time and a lot of one on one conversations, I began to pick up on nuances I had previously missed. I noticed how certain sayings had a specific meaning within the family and the reasons for rehashing stories my family would have considered too sad for discussion. The family folklore, passed down orally and actively from generation to generation, was strong and interesting.
Artistry in skill
There's an art to what the Jacksons do. As Rob says, turkey hunting is patience, you learn by mistake, and you have to have a knowledge of the land. Calling a turkey in requires skill gained through hours of practice and listening to live turkeys to mimic the calls they make and know how a gobbler will react to certain hen calls, much like a musician hones their craft, so does a turkey caller. When digging ginseng, it means seeking out places most people wouldn't be able to reach, using your body as your instrument to climb down rough and rocky slopes to reach the North and East facing slopes, which tend to be the damp side of the mountain. With his brother and father, over the years they've learned that the rockier the soil, the odder the root, making it more desirable to buyers for a much higher price. When Clara taught me how to can hot pepper mustard, she explained that her mother-in-law, Mary Katherine taught her by using certain types of peppers you can improve the color to make the jars more visually appealing, while using others to provide a fuller flavor profile. These are skills and an understanding only earned through years of practice and love of the folkcraft.
The Folk Side of the Lore
When James tells stories about hunting as a young boy in the hills of Kanawha County, he tells of the people who made him who he is today. He chuckles as tells of his father, Jonah, and how he adored Rob, but could never quite get his name right, always calling him Walter Dale - after his employer - rather than Robert Dale. He talks of a teenager in the neighborhood nicknamed Baby Bear, both for his dark complexion and his burly physique, who good-naturedly teased Bud about wearing his James' hunting clothes when he was only about 7 years old. He always speaks fondly of the Reverend Frank Brown, who even in his 80s is a fixture on the mountainside, can often be found hunting and fishing with the family as often as his preaching schedule at the local Pentecostal church will allow. But perhaps my favorite story from James about growing up in Morris Drive, the one where he finds a dead man on the mountain...I'll just let him tell it himself.
Why Does It Matter?
The kind of skills honed by the Jacksons are simultaneously experiencing a decline in public use and a marked increase in interest among Appalachian cultural heritage aficionados and cultural tourists. While the general public is moving away from hunting, fishing, and gardening for subsistence; seeing canning as a form of food preservation, instead using canning jars as decor; and foraging as something done only by a select few with connections to high end restaurateurs to supply cities with "delicacies" we've grown up eating as necessity - there are pockets of people who view these things as artistry that must be saved. Davis and Elkins College hosts the annual Augusta Heritage Festival and workshops to teach these dying arts to anyone willing to attend the sessions and pay the fee. The Hindman Settlement, Appalshop, Pine Mountain Settlement School, and Berea College in Kentucky both seek to share this knowledge with as many people as possible through in-person education and social media, both private and public, to provide a means of subsistence for people in a deeply impoverished part of the country. In Georgia, the Foxfire Museum promotes these skills through educational offerings and a popular series of books as survival methods important to anyone who may be scared by our technologically dependent world. By documenting the Jackson family folklore, I hope to join these groups working to preserve important skills to meet the needs of my own family and many others who prefer a more simple way of life.
What I learned
I thought I knew the Jacksons well - their stories, their likes and dislikes, their family background. It turns out, I was only scratching the surface. Over the course of this semester, I interviewed my in-laws, often without my husband present, asking questions about them and their lives in a way I hadn't done before. It was very interesting to me that they were always willing to answer my questions, even if I asked a question they didn't really know the answer to, like where the family came from prior to West Virginia. Over the years, this information has been lost to the collective memory, but the ties that bind the family together are as strong as ever and pride in the family name remains.