Joseph S. Hall: Smoky Mountain Song Catcher


Joseph S. Hall

Joseph S. Hall: Smoky Mountain Song Catcher by Michael Montgomery (from notes to CD “Old Time Smoky Mountain Music“)
Joseph Sargent Hall, who recorded all the music on this CD in 1939, collected Appalachian cultural materials for four decades and was one of the most devoted students of the region’s lore. Yet oddly, almost no one outside the Smoky Moun- tains ever met this modest Californian who spent nearly his entire career teaching at a junior college in Los Angeles. His passion for documenting and recording speech, music, tales, medicinal cures, beliefs, and recollections was sparked by a chance sum- mer job in 1937 at the newly opened Great Smoky Mountains National Park, taken to pay for his education.

Those three months in the mountains changed his life. In that first stint he had little but his ears, his notepads, and his love for the outdoors. He met a breed of people who adopted him, establishing friendships that Hall nurtured until he died in 1992 in Oceanside, Cali- fornia, at the age of eighty-five.
Commissioned by the National Park Ser- vice to document the speech of a people being dispersed, Hall found a vigorous tradi- tional culture that was changing, but by no means disappearing. Because it defied his expectations in many ways and because its people so attracted him, he became some- thing of a missionary.

Dismayed by negative images of mountain people found so often in the writings of others and by accounts of mountain society as “deprived,” he decided to show these people as they were, idiosyncrasies and all, in the best, most respectful way: by having them present themselves. He com- piled Smoky Mountain Folks and Their Lore (1960) and Yarns and Tales from Old Smoky (1978), two books of photographs and anec- dotes by mountain natives, especially about hunting, woven together by an account of Hall’s fieldwork.

A third volume, Sayings from Old Smoky (1972), was an extensive glossary of words, phrases, and proverbs excerpted from his recordings and notebooks. These three small books were based on research in the Smokies he published through the Cat- aloochee Press in Asheville, North Carolina, which he set up to take advantage of local printers and distributors. Mountaineers could vindicate themselves quite well, Hall thought, to those who had never known them as he had.

Generations to follow are now appreciating what Hall collected and recorded. In recent years people surround- ing the Smokies have discovered that he had made a detailed, permanent record of many parents and grandparents, often long- departed family members whose voices and music they could never have anticipated to hear. These recordings can now be heard at the Archives of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and at the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State Univer- sity (to which Hall’s papers and library were donated).

Excerpts of 15 speakers can be found at the Appalachian Speech website ( His record- ings, notes, and papers were used extensive- ly in Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English (University of Tennessee Press, 2004), a his- torical work compiled and coedited with the present writer.
To understand the man and his collecting, we need to examine Hall’s early work in the Smokies more closely. After a year at the Sor- bonne in Paris in the mid-1930s, he began the formal study of linguistics at Columbia Univer- sity in New York City. Around the same time, officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park were completing land purchases for the park that had been inaugurated in 1934. They were debating what kind of record should be
made of the culture of several thousand people being removed from their homesteads (a few older residents were given leases permitting them to stay until death). Some officials advo- cated maintaining a few homesteads and their inhabitants, perhaps in a living history setting. They knew that an uninhabited landscape would falsely picture that the Smokies had a frontier society, denying that communities had thrived and progressed in the mountains for well over a century. Others thought that nat- ural history should be the priority and sought to erase all but a few traces of human habitation. They wanted to convert the Smokies primarily into a nature pre- serve like national parks in the West. Local business leaders hoped the park would fea- ture highways, hotels, and other commercial developments. Advocates of each camp could hardly agree among themselves, much less with one another.
As one effort to document the culture being displaced, the Park Service decided to hire someone to do a little collecting. Thus it happened that in the spring of 1937, Roy Appleman, a historian with the National Park Service in Washington, contacted his friend Joseph Hall in New York, offering a summer assignment to study the language of older residents.

For the graduate student who had been planning a doctoral study of Oklahoma speech, this opportunity was to present a dramatic fork in his life’s road and, with regard to music, a profound twist that the young Californian could never have anticipated. Arriving in the Smokies in June, Hall soon found himself at home. A hiker and outdoorsman, he reveled in this new environment. But it was the people—open-hearted and unpretentious, dignified and indepen- dent, articulate though often unschooled—who most captured his interest. That first summer saw him meeting and visiting, filling four note- books with observations on expressions, pronunciations, and other details of speech, but making no recordings. Quickly he realized that a larger, more systematic study was called for utilizing the portable technology becoming avail- able, so in June 1939 he returned for nine months with equipment in hand and began recording in earnest.
That equipment, as well as Hall’s transportation and an assistant, were fur- nished by the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the late 1930s, 22 CCC camps employed Bob Wilson with banjo, 1917.
4,000 men to clear land and build the roads, hiking trails, campgrounds, fire tow- ers, and other infrastructure that converted half a million acres into what has become the country’s most popular national park. With these camps as bases, Hall called on local people and recorded conversations, stories, music, and square dances. Local men in the CCC identified “good talkers” in the area. He used a Garwick machine that produced aluminum discs and was operated by cables hooked to a pick-up truck battery and an Allied machine that made acetate discs and ran on a portable battery pack.

At the end of his life Hall reminisced about his experiences more than 50 years earlier:
I stayed at the CCC camps, which provid- ed good food and lodging and were sources of information as to the people roundabout to interview and record. Each camp had a super- intendent in charge of the work of the CCC boys, an NPS ranger, and a fireguard. Most of these personnel were formerly logging indus- try employees who knew their terrain well and the most likely informants. They usually had some unusual character in mind for me like Zilphie Sutton of Walnut Bottoms, Mrs. Clem Enloe of Tight Run Branch, and Jake Welch of Hazel Creek, beside all the other local folk. At each camp I would walk or hike to the homes of people or ride on a CCC truck going in that direction. Later the NPS gave me a pick-up truck for this purpose and to carry the record- ing equipment…
They also assigned a CCC enrollee named Clyde Bell to help with the driving, the equip- ment, and at times take part in the interview. As to lodging, I also lived for two or three weeks at the homes of several residents, like the Shultses of Emerts Cove, the Ramseys of Cos- by, and the Leatherwood and Messer family at the White Oak (near Cataloochee). These good-hearted people were of course of enor- mous assistance as to the speech of the area and suggested important things to talk about.
In addition to the interviews with people, there were my constant associations with friends I made along the way… I lived in their homes, went to church with them (most- ly Baptist, with one Primitive Baptist ser- vice). I worked in the fields at haying time, helped “wrap” tobacco, gathered and chopped wood for kitchen stoves, went hunting and fishing (with the Messer and Williams fami- lies of White Oak), attended special events like the Hall family reunion at Halls Top, North Carolina, enjoyed the festive fare amid formidable quantities of food, whole hams, pots of “roastin’ ears,” watermelons on ice in tubs, and so on. I attended a funeral of a close family kin [and] large reunions where whole communities had been displaced by the Park, always with dinner on the ground with loads of tempting food and with wonderful friends and kin to talk to.
The topics of the recordings were anything the informant wished to talk about. Men talked about their farm, their crops, their cat- tle, and hunting. Women liked to tell recipes or talk about their interest in weaving and quilting and the like. Sometimes a CCC fore- man or ranger would suggest something like “Have Grady tell you how he trapped a groundhog in the Park nursery, how he had to trap twelve to catch the particular one that was eating the plants.” There was general fun at such an incident. Or “have Mrs. Enloe tell about her fishing rights.” When I met her at her house on Tight Run Branch, North Car- olina, she asked, “Are you a little Park man or a big Park man?” Without an answer from me, she said, “big Park man or little Park man, you son of a bitch, I fish when I please, winter or summer. See that can of worms?” (They were then verboten in the park.) She showered me with praise when I gave her a peace offering, a box of snuff, and let me take her picture. She then told how her brother fought in the war (the Civil War): “He was on the Rebel side, and I’m a Rebel yit!” I could usually get a rise out of people if I asked them how they liked the national park. Usual answers were like “It’s the worst thing that ever ruint this country.”

One man of Hartford, Tennessee, said, “Before the park come in, I could shoot a rabbit or a possum whenever I wanted to. Now I don’t stand no more show than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking!” But these crudities were not typical. Most people were polite and cooperative and could see that the recordings were made for study and preservation as a historical record of aspects of Smokies life.
But what about the music that Hall recorded in 1939, which was as extensive as the speech of old-timers that fascinated him so? Was that an afterthought? Actu- ally, at first it was. Outside the traditional ballads he sought out, Hall recorded music mainly to be sociable. Learning that he lived near Hollywood, many young musicians, including CCC chums, made their way to his door, prevailing upon him to record their talents and share these with agents in California. Hall had no such contacts, but he will- ingly obliged to make recordings, even if it meant they would probably lie fallow and ignored. Seventy years later, they are presented on this CD as an unanticipated gift of Hall and Depression Era Smokies people to the musical world. Had Hall been from Oregon or Colorado, he might well have recorded few of the selections featured here.


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