From: The News & Observer Raleigh North Carolina July 19, 1998
Ways That Are Dark
Elephant Rock, (888) 685-9665
by: David Menconi
THE WORKS OF HORACE KEPHART
When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history, and in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago
-from "Our Southern Highlanders"
INSPIRED THE SONGS OF DANIEL GORE
Somebody's comin' up the Eagle Creek Branch Some furriner I ain't never seen It's Horace Kephart from the tame old West Comin' down to the wild Southeast.
-from "The Outlander Meets the Native"
Horace Kephart was a man of many footnotes. As a librarian, he amassed the largest collection of Western Americana literature in existence. As a turn-of-the-century transplant to Western North Carolina, he wrote a camping handbook for generations of Boy Scouts. He helped establish the Appalachian Trail's route through the Smoky Mountains, and lobbied to create the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Most important of all, Kephart also wrote a book called "Our Southern Highlanders," a 1913 account of life in the Smokies. Charles Frazier read it and used it as source material for "Cold Mountain," his 1997 best seller. Daniel Gore read it and found inspiration for "Ways That Are Dark" (Elephant Rock Records), an album of songs based on the dialect, tales and events recounted in Kephart's book.
"I identified something very familiar in Kephart," says Gore, 45 a Chapel Hill native who makes his living as an electrical engineer and finds pleasure in bluegrass mandolin, as well as in folklore, outdoor pursuits and book collecting. "When I received the book, it resonated with my own experienced in the Smokies. I'd spent a lot of time up there fishing, hiking, camping. My dad lived in Asheville, so we were always up there exploring somewhere throughout my childhood. 'Our Southern Highlanders' kind of explained things in a way no other book could do."
Though he lives in Spokane, Wash., nowadays, Gore returned to his native Chapel Hill in January to record "Ways That Are Dark." It's a remarkable piece of bluegrass scholarship, an impeccably researched aural primer on turn-of-the-century mountain life.
Gore says he first discovered "Our Southern Highlanders" in 1983, when a banjo-playing buddy gave him a copy. The book, well-known in the decades that followed its publication, had been reissued by the University of Tennessee Press in 1976 with a long biographical introduction by Kephart scholar George Ellison. Based on the number of people he hears from, Ellison says there's been something of a Kephart revival in recent years.
"About 10 to 15 people look me up each year to inquire about Kephart," Ellison says. "They come to him from different angles. Some are interested in his role in the park, some in the outdoor aspects. And some people are attracted by his 'getting away from it all.' There's something romantic about the way Kephart shucked his professional responsibilities and even his family to go live alone in the wilderness."
LIBRARIAN IN THE WILDERNESS
In more ways than one, Horace Kephart was uniquely suited to his calling. A librarian by trade he earned acclaim during his tenure as head librarian at the St. Louis Mercantile Library, where he went to work in 1890. He was renowned as an expert in Western Americana.
"Kephart was a great librarian because he recognized that there was great literature that needed to be collected and promoted," says Gore, whose father was also a prominent librarian. "Librarians like to collect and catalog - that's their thing."
By the turn of the century, however, Kephart was deeply unhappy, yearning for a more primitive existence that was rapidly vanishing. He found one outlet in alcohol, that lasted the rest of his life. He found another in taking prolonged solo excursions along the Mississippi River and into the Ozarks, which dismayed his wife and employers.
Finally, Kephart suffered a breakdown and lost his job, as well as his wife and children. So he fled in 1903, at age 41, looking for what he called "the back of beyond" - a remote place where people still lived in close commune with nature.
Kephart found his refuge in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina, near the Tennessee border (a place Edgar Allen Poe once condescendingly described as "tenanted by fierce and uncouth men"). Once there, Kephart went native, living mostly in the vicinity of Bryson City.
But he did so as a librarian. As he integrated into the mountain culture, Kepart took notes and meticulously documented the fables, language, customs and mores of the locals in his journals.
"Kephart had a wonderful ear and really appreciated the mountain people's language, realized its roots were in Elizabethan English," says Ellison, a writer who lives in Bryson City. "His journals are packed with things people said about their lives. He had a librarian's mentality, headings for every possible subject. If he heard somebody say something in 1907 about the weather, he put it down. Then if he heard something else about the weather in 1911 or '12, he had a place to file it away.
"He assembled this mass of information, mainly mountain people expressing themselves, and used it to put together 'Our Southern Highlanders.' That is its great virtue: It allows people to speak for themselves. It's not an academic book at all. It's people talking about daily life and troubles, dealing with things, men talking about women - and vice versa."
In 1906, seven years before "Our Southern Highlanders" was published, Kephart wrote "Camping and Woodcraft," an indispensable guide for generations of Boy Scouts. He also published his share of magazine articles. But his most enduring work was in helping to create the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Kephart like to say that since the Smoky Mountains had saved his life, he wanted to save the Smokies so they would benefit others. To that end, he lobbied Congress to have it protected as a national park. Although Kephart died in a 1931 car wreck, three years before the park was officially created, the process was in motion by then. He did live long enough to become the only living American to have a mountain named after him - Mount Kephart, a peak eight miles northeast of Clingman's Dome.
The "Ways That Are Dark" liner notes include a photograph of Kephart's grave site in the cemetery above Bryson City, which has a stone tablet declaring that Kephart "loved his neighbors and pictured them in 'Our Southern Highlanders.'" Gore closes the album with "Farewell to Civilization," based on an essay of the same name in which Kephart wrote that he was in pursuit of "a dream of youth."
In the explanatory notes accompanying "Farewell to Civilization," Gore writes that when he found Kephart's grave, he adhered to the European saying that "a thirsty spirit appreciated the kindness of a drink spill't into the graveside dirt." He did so by emptying a flask of Kentucky bourbon into the soil at the grave.
Gore started writing songs based on "Our Southern Highlanders" about 10 years ago. The early stages of putting together "Ways That Are Dark" also consisted of conversations with people such as folklorist Daniel Patterson and former Red Clay Ramblers banjo player Tommy Thompson. That helped him in the teaching phase of the project.
"No one's heard of Kephart, so I had to do some educating with the musicians," Gore says. "Usually, that meant sending them a book or excerpt, and talking about it over the phone. Generally, it didn't take long before they had an inkling of what I was trying to say. The thesis was just captivating."
The music on "Ways That Are Dark" is first-rate bluegrass, thanks to a tremendous cast of musicians including Peter Rowan, Tim O'Brien, former Red Clay Rambler Jim Watson and Doc Watson sideman Jack Lawrence.
Rowan, a onetime sideman for bluegrass deity Bill Monroe, was an especially important addition to the cast. Rowan has done thematic song cycles before, such as his 1990 album "Dust Bowl Children." So Gore figured he might find the Kephart project appealing and approached him at a concert in Durham last year.
"The songs we wrote for this collection present a couple of distinct voices," Gore explains. "One voice is that of the native, and we use ol' Scotty Huffman for that. The other is the outsider, the outlander who has moved into the area - that would be Kephart as his eyes open and he awakens to the world he's just entered. Rowan takes on that voice, and he identified with it immediately."
This encounter between outsider and native takes center stage on the album's opening track, "The Outlander Meets the Native": "Somebody's comin' up the Eagle Creek Branch/Some furriner I ain't never seen... It's Horace Kephart from the tame old West/Comin' down to the wild Southeast."
Because many of the lyrics are in achaic mountain dialect of the period, the liner notes include a lexicon of various terms including "furriner" (someone from anywhere else), "cooterin'" (to move lazily, like a box turtle), "hyar" (here), "ol Ned" (slang for fat pork) and so forth. Gore also wrote explanations of the origins of each song, and he includes relevant photographs drawn from the Kephart collection at Western Carolina University. He obviously took great pains to get all the details just right.
"Honestly, it was easier than you might think, having such a great object of research as the book presented," Gore says. "We just collected it all and put it under one roof."
Among the topics covered in "Ways That Are Dark" are feuds, Wild pigs, bear hunts and the majesty of the French Broad River. Gore says his personal favorite is "A Dream of Bear," which is based on the old superstition that dreams are a harbinger of an upcoming hunt. The song is set in a cabin the night before the hunt, with moonshine-fueled revelry in progress.
"I just put myself in that cabin, and I've been in little huts like that before," Gore says. "The whole night is kinda swirling around with the wind and the description of events translated into a song that worked really well. Scott Huffman moved into a different voice on that one line - 'Did you ever see the devil/With his old gourd head and shovel' - and you can just about see the ol' cooter dancing around with a banjo and a jug of moonshine with these crazy wild bear hunters."
Inevitably, moonshine figures into numerous songs. Because its production was both illegal and an important part of the mountain region's economy, clashes between moonshiners and "G-men" federal agents were a fact of life.
So "Ways That Are Dark" introduces "The Snakestick Man," an unscrupulous federal agent, and follows him on "A Sugarland Raid." One of the men he arrests escapes in "Buck's Exit." Another federal agent meets his untimely demise during a moonshine raid in "The Killing of Hol Rose"; and the roots of a clan feud are planted in "Courting a Feud," in which Rose's daughter Ima takes up with the son of her father's killer.
No doubt about it, moonshining was a perilous occupation for people on both sides. Kephart wrote about the hazards of the profession as well as liquor itself in chapter "Ways That Are Dark," which Gore used as inspiration for his album's title track..
"Kephart was very fond of the local water, as they say," Gore says. "He liked to drink it. But the history and culture of the moonshiner captivated him, too.
The process was a lifestyle for these people, their bread and butter. They could grow corn, but couldn't ship it to market because it was too difficult in the mountains. But they could make it into liquor, which was available in all cities - Asheville, Knoxville, Atlanta. Exporting liquor from the mountains was their income.
"So it wasn't just a preoccupation with drunkenness; it was their culture and lifestyle. It's like if you go to Alaska, seal-spearing is part of the culture and nature of the place. Kephart made a point of saying that in the mountains, there was a fine line between G-man and moonshiner. People could easily move from one side to the other."
'COLD MOUNTAIN' CONNECTION
Alas even though "Ways That Are Dark' is an outstanding album, Gore was unable to interest any record companies in the project. That isn't too surprising, given the economics of the modern-day music industry. Gore has a full-time job, so touring to promote an album is not feasible.
Undeterred, Gore has released "Ways That Are Dark" on his own. The album is for sale in a limited number of stores (Harry's Guitar Shop in Raleigh is the local outlet), and through mail order.
One possible boost to the album's commercial fate may be the "Cold Mountain" connection. In much the same way that Bob Dylan incorporates old folk and blues lyrics into his songs, "Cold Mountain" author Charles Frazier drew upon sources including "Our Southern Highlanders," James Mooney's "Myths of the Cherokee" and Robert Cantwell's "Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound."
"Ways That Are Dark" is just one musical aspect ot "Cold Mountain," and others will reach the public soon. Former Hot Rize frontman Tim O'Brien, one of the players on "Ways That Are Dark," has recorded an album of songs based on the book; it's tentatively due out this fall, subject to approval from the studio that bought the movie rights to "Cold Mountain." The N.C. Museum of Art is hosting a "Cold Mountain Old-Time Music Gathering" on Sept. 11 in its amphitheater.
"If you read 'Cold Mountain,' you probably enjoyed it on one level," says Gore. "Blue grass musicians enjoyed it on a whole other level because they could detect Frazier's quoting and citations of bluegrass lyrics throughout the book. He extensively quoted Bill Monroe and gospel tunes common in the bluegrass genre, as part of the phrasing and dialogue. He would take a lyric and expand it into a sentence or paragraph.
"So it didn't surprise me that Kephart is referenced at the end, since Frazier is from the area and would've read Kephart. I would say our CD sounds a lot like 'Cold Mountain' Feels. There are many deep threads tying all this together."