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Memories of Alan Jabbour in the Field: Visiting the Hammons Family

This recollection is in memory of the Center’s founding director, Alan Jabbour, who died on January 13, 2017, and whose career and contributions are described in this blog post.  Today’s text and photographs are by Carl Fleischhauer, a retired American Folklife Center staff member and a colleague of Alan’s for 46 years.

Alan Jabbour recording Maggie Hammons Parker at her home in Stillwell, near Marlinton, West Virginia, April 1973.

Alan Jabbour recording Maggie Hammons Parker at her home in Stillwell, near Marlinton, West Virginia, April 1973. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Alan Jabbour and I first met face to face at the Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society in Washington, D.C., in November 1971. At the time, Alan was the Head of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive) at the Library of Congress and I worked at the public television station then licensed to West Virginia University in Morgantown. Although they were not the agents who set up the meeting, we were brought together by the Hammons family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

In 1970, I had joined Dwight Diller, a native West Virginian (and then a student at WVU) to document the rich musical and narrative traditions of Burl Hammons, Maggie Hammons Parker, Sherman Hammons, and other relatives and friends.  [1] Saying it that way makes the matter seem arid and academic. The truth is that visiting the Hammons was an immersive experience for all who came: visitors were enveloped in hospitable friendship and electrified by the endless stories and music, as well as nourished by biscuits, pinto beans, homemade applesauce, and (on occasion) pork chops.

This documentation was not part of my official duties although, on behalf of the television station, I had done a bit of filming of the family a few months earlier.  Meanwhile, in the year before my arrival on the scene, Dwight had made extensive sound recordings of the family, as well as numerous still photographs, and he had passed the word about the family to other Appalachian folk music enthusiasts, including some from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These were friends of Alan’s from his days at Duke, some of whom had been fellow members of the Hollow Rock String Band, which had flourished the in the late 1960s.  They told me about Alan’s separate visits to the family and encouraged me (armed as I was with my Nagra tape recorder and Nikon cameras) to get in touch with Alan to compare notes.  No doubt, we phoned or exchanged letters prior to the AFS meeting.

Memory fails me concerning our initial discussions.  I do not recall developing a fieldwork plan or even that, at first, we foresaw a future publication. Nevertheless, Alan’s prior extended documentation (and friendship) with Henry Reed provided a template for the visits. One obvious goal was the production of well-rounded materials that would enrich the ethnographic collections of the Archive and the Library.  Soon, however, Alan said that the extent of the family’s cultural expression and knowledge warranted publication.  My background in journalism and photojournalism meant that I could contribute documentation of family life and the regional context. Alan’s easygoing and friendly manner, together with Hammonses’ hospitality, ensured that the visits were comfortable and productive.

Playing back a tape recording: Allene Hammons, Sherman's wife, holding granddaughter Kay Hammons, grandson Lee Hammons, Alan Jabbour, and Sherman Hammons, at Allene and Sherman's home near the Williams River, July 1972. The photographer has forgotten the details but the position of the microphone and Lee's smile suggests that the recording included his voice.

Playing back a tape recording: Allene Hammons, Sherman’s wife, holding granddaughter Kay Hammons, grandson Lee Hammons, Alan Jabbour, and Sherman Hammons, at Allene and Sherman’s home near the Williams River, July 1972. Carl has forgotten the details but the position of the microphone and Lee’s smile suggest that the recording included his voice. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Living in different cities, Alan and I tended to visit the family at different times.  He made recordings during his visits, with my help when I could make it, while Dwight and I produced recordings during our visits.  In 1973, Alan and I drew on ten field sessions recorded from 1970 to 1973 in order to assemble a pair of record albums: the Library of Congress double album The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions and Rounder LP 0018 Shaking Down The Acorns, both released in 1973.  Family members received royalty payments from Rounder and a cash honorarium from the Library.  In 1998, since Rounder had become the label for reissuing the AFC’s releases, the content from the two albums was brought together as a single two-CD package, now out of print.

Looking at the layout of the booklet to accompany Rounder LP 0018 _Shaking Down the Acorns_ in the Jabbour kitchen in Washington; DC; April 1973.; Left to right: Elizabeth Weil; the booklet designer; Karen Singer Jabbour; Marian Leighton and Ken Irwin of Rounder Records; and Alan Jabbour.

Looking at the layout of the booklet to accompany Rounder LP 0018 Shaking Down the Acorns in the Jabbour kitchen in Washington; DC; April 1973.; Left to right: Elizabeth Weil; the booklet designer; Karen Singer Jabbour; Marian Leighton and Ken Irwin of Rounder Records; and Alan Jabbour. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

The Hammons family’s stories evoke the American frontier, including a tale of an encounter with Indians, stories of a wilderness still populated by panthers (mountain lions) and wolves, difficulties with foraging Civil War soldiers, a feud on the Kentucky-West Virginia border, and more. Alan encouraged me to arrange selected narratives in more or less chronological order, several of which came from the recordings Dwight had made prior to Alan’s and my visits.  This account, buttressed by supporting documentary evidence, provided the publication with a family history and a picture of the region, the mountainous-to-hilly terrain from eastern West Virginia back to Eastern Kentucky, where family members had lived in the mid-nineteenth century.

Terrain and topography also figured in the family’s more recent history.  As children in the 1920s, the family members we visited had lived with their parents along the Williams River, an area then in its last days as wilderness; destructive clear-cutting was even then moving through the eastern mountain forests.  In the wake of the logging, family members moved a short distance away: Sherman to an area still in the Williams River watershed and Maggie and Burl to a spot near the Greenbrier River at the edge of the county seat of Marlinton.

Alan Jabbour at the U.S. Forest Service sign for Little Laurel Creek, which flows into the Williams River at the bottom of the hill to the right. In the background of this April 1972 photograph are visiting friend Paul Haggard, Maggie Hammons Parker, and Burl Hammons. Maggie and Burl had accompanied their visitors to this location in order to show them one of the family's former homesites, near the mouth of Little Laurel.

Alan Jabbour at the U.S. Forest Service sign for Little Laurel Creek, which flows into the Williams River at the bottom of the hill to the right. In the background of this April 1972 photograph are visiting friend Paul Haggard, Maggie Hammons Parker, and Burl Hammons. Maggie and Burl had accompanied their visitors to this location in order to show them one of the family’s former home sites, near the mouth of Little Laurel. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

The site of one (and perhaps two) of the old Williams River homesteads is now in the Monongahela National Forest.  Burl and Maggie took Alan and me back to the area in order to give us a sense of the settings for the family’s stories of panthers, the Sasquatch-like yayho, and later friendly encounters with the Italian immigrants who built the logging railways.

On one occasion in April 1972, boisterous household conversation, barking dogs, and passing traffic at the Hammons home made it nearly impossible to capture a clean recording of Burl's fiddle playing. Alan rented a motel room in Marlinton for the day, where he and the photographer made recordings. The photographer's foam sleeping pad is on the floor to help dampen the sound of Burl's foot-tapping.

On one occasion in April 1972, boisterous household conversation, barking dogs, and passing traffic at the Hammons home made it nearly impossible to capture a clean recording of Burl’s fiddle playing. Alan rented a motel room in Marlinton for the day, where he and Carl made recordings. Carl’s foam sleeping pad is on the floor to help dampen the sound of Burl’s foot-tapping. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

The visits were also punctuated with musical exchanges, in which Alan played his fiddle for or with family members. I suppose there was a bit of what ethnographers call participant observation at work; the exchanges helped Alan sharpen his sense of, say, Burl’s fiddle style. In making the recordings, however, we generally drew a line: we were documenting the Hammonses’ art, not the Hammonses-and-Alan’s art.  Some of Burl’s tunes were added to Alan’s fiddle repertory, although my impression is they were fewer in number than what Alan had adopted from Henry Reed and various North Carolina musicians.  Alan tended to be an ensemble player and, as he writes of Burl’s rendition of “Camp Chase,” that performance “is characterized by introduction of additional beats and measures (a widespread trait in the area, fostered by the persistence of solo performance in the region).”

Alan’s musicological insights are presented in his published notes to the musical selections, available at this link.  His analysis of Burl’s playing offers a single-fiddler case study that provides a nice counterpoint to the analyses of multiple fiddlers’ styles in Alan’s 1971 album American Fiddle Tunes (AFS L62), a work that can now be downloaded from the Library’s website at this link.  (Download Alan’s American Fiddle Tunes liner notes here.  )

Pallbearers carry Maggie Hammons Parker's coffin to her grave in the Cochran Cemetery, not far from Edray, West Virginia, July 30, 1987. The Williams River watershed lies one mountain ridge away, to the west. In this photograph, Alan Jabbour stands just to the right of the coffin, wearing a dark suit and necktie.

Pallbearers carry Maggie Hammons Parker’s coffin to her grave in the Cochran Cemetery, not far from Edray, West Virginia, July 30, 1987. The Williams River watershed lies one mountain ridge away, to the west. In this photograph, Alan Jabbour stands just to the right of the coffin, wearing a dark suit and necktie. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

After the albums were published, Alan and I continued to pay intermittent visits to the Hammonses in the 1970s and 1980s.  Some of these visits coincided with the establishment of the American Folklife Center, with Alan as founding director, and its carrying out of a series of field research projects, now being digitized and placed on the Library’s website.  The new staff included me, hired in 1976.  Alan guided the planning of these projects, which featured teams of field researchers with complementary skills, and some ideas and methods from the Hammons family documentation were again in play.  Meanwhile, Alan and I paid our final visits to the Hammonses in 1987, for Maggie’s funeral, and in 1988, for Sherman’s.

At Sherman's home after Maggie's funeral, July 30, 1987. Alan Jabbour plays fiddle for Sherman Hammons, wearing a dark hat, and two music-loving friends of the family, Mike Risch at left and Jake Bing at right. Alan's wife Karen and son Aaron also came to the funeral; in this photograph, Aaron is sitting on the ground behind his father.

At Sherman’s home after Maggie’s funeral, July 30, 1987. Alan Jabbour plays fiddle for Sherman Hammons, wearing a dark hat, and two music-loving friends of the family, Mike Risch at left and Jake Bing at right. Alan’s wife Karen and son Aaron also came to the funeral; in this photograph, Aaron is sitting on the ground behind his father. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Notes

1  For more about Dwight, see Lewis M. Stern’s book Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician. (Here it is in the Library’s Catalog!)

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