by DOUG JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer
SPRINGFIELD, MO — Max Hunter, a folklorist who collected hillbilly songs, stories and expressions such as “ugly as a mud fence” and “pretty as a speckled pup” has died of emphysema at 78 (in 1999).
Hunter, who died Saturday, was known to run moonshine through the hills, chase chickens, haul hay or perform just about any task he could trade for a song or story.
“He devoted 30 plus years of his life trying to preserve and save what hillbillies stood for: simplicity and an easier way of living,” his son, David Hunter, said Tuesday. “It’s a part of history that would have been lost if it wasn’t for Dad’s tapes.”
Over the years, Hunter became known as one of the nation’s premier collectors of traditional Ozarks songs and stories, most of which are now on file at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Insittituion.
During the 1950s, Hunter was a travelling salesman who spent time in motel rooms playing his guitar and recording songs. He later expanded his hobby by recording folklore from people he met on southwestern Missouri’s dirt roads.
But pulling a story out of a hillbilly could sometimes be more like pulling teeth. To win their trust, Hunter would offer to help with chores or run errands.
“It was very well known that he ran moonshine down into Arkansas on several occasions. Then he would go back and get a song for doing the delivery,” David Hunter said. “I think they respected that.”
Some of the songs he collected came directly from the Ozarks. Others could be traced back hundreds of years.Some, Hunter later discovered, had even been chronicled at Harvard University in the 19th century, in a collection of traditional ballads then thought to be extinct.
Other tidbits Hunter collected included ways to cure warts (start by stealing your neighbor’s dish rag), or suggestions for warding off bad luck after a black cat crosses your path (put your hat on backwards and the cat won’t know if you’re coming or going).
Under lock and key at Springfield’s Greene County Library, Hunter’s collection fills shelves several feet high, with copies also kept at the Unviersity of Missouri at Columbia. There are 14 hours of jokes on tape, more than 1,000 native expressions like “got to get my ears lowered” (haircut) and more than 2,000 folksongs.
“It’s just a total, different lifestyle that’s not out there anymore,” Hunter said in an interview last year. “It was a way of life that was slowly being lost. Words were being lost, actions, thoughts, just a complete lifestyle of some people.”
For Hunter’s work, the state’s Arts Council in 1998 presented him a Missouri Arts Award, its highest honor.
See http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/ to browse his collection.