Dee Hicks’ father, Daniel Hicks, epitomized the unambitious mountaineer, as described in Sir Thomas Hughes’ 1880 writings:
Most, but not all of them, own a log cabin and a minute patch of corn round it, probably also have a few pigs and chickens, but seem to have no desire to make any effort at further clearing, and quite content to live from hand to mouth. The cannot do that without hiring themselves out when they get a chance, but are most uncertain and exasperating laborers… As soon as one of them has earned three or four dollars, he will probably want a hunt, and go off for it then and there, spend a dollar on powder and shot, and these on squirrels and opossums, whose skins may possibly bring him ten cents, as his weekly earnings… An Englishman who came here lately to found some manufactures, left in sheer despair and disgust, saying he had found at last a place where no one seemed to care for their money. I do no say this is true, but they certainly seem to prefer loafing and hunting to dollars, and are often too lazy, or unable, to count, holding out the small change and telling you to take what you want.
-Sir Thomas Hughes, English author, idealist, and founder of the Rugby, Tennessee community for Great Britain’s landless upper class
Daniel and his brothers were raised in the Fentress County wilderness as hunters, rather than farmers, and made little effort in any other endeavor, except for singing and tale telling. Elmer Hurst’s father was often in the crowd that would gang up around the moccasin-shod Hicks men when they made their entry into Jamestown. “They just had an old countrified talk, backwoodsmen talk, you might say. Well, that’s what they were. People would gather around ‘em to hear them talk and tell them big yarns. They’d tell unreasonable tales.” Daniel’s children deeply loved and admired him, and savored the endless stream of beautiful and humorous songs he treated them to every night.
Dee, like his father, became a master ballad singer. He could neither read nor write, yet carried some of America’s most elegant works of folk art. Before his death in 1983 at age 77, approximately 400 songs were documented in his repertoire, possibly the largest collection contributed to the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture by a single traditional artist. Two full albums of Hicks family songs with descriptive notes are available: County 789 and Tennessee Folklore Society 104.
Dee & Delta Hicks
Ballads & Banjo Music from the Tennessee Cumberland Plateau
Music of the Big South Fork Area
-Bob Fulcher, 1980
Dee and Delta Hicks
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
Hicks Family Heritage
Dee Hicks, a man possessing magnificent powers of memory, and a strong sense of family pride, has, strangely enough, very little knowledge of his family history. He and the other surviving family members vaguely recall hearing stories of their family’s exodus from North Carolina four generations ago. There is a great temptation to link the Hicks clan with another North Carolina Hicks family that has also made a monumental contribution to our knowledge of traditional song and story in America. Sam Hicks, the patriarch of this family, came from England through Cheraw, South Carolina, moving into western North Carolina by 1790. His descendants were subsequently recorded by Herbert Halpert, Mellinger Henry, Richard Chase, and other folklorists and collectors in Watauga County, North Carolina and Cades Cove, Tennessee. Cousins Ray and Stanley Hicks, the great storytellers from this line yet living, are well known to folk festival audiences. In fact, Dee met Stanley at the 1978 National Folk Festival and was delighted by the strong resemblance of their complexion, facial features and physique. They shortly proclaimed themselves “third cousins.” If a family tie exists between these two groups, we have a fascinating record of change in repertoire and style, and variance of individual ballad texts and tunes. Such a link, however, remains unproven and somewhat doubtful after a search through early census reports, tax and land records, and manuscripts. The most important account of Dee’s family is found in a volume of local history published in 1916, from an interview with John Hicks, Dee’s uncle:
John Hicks was born in Fentress County, Tennessee in 1843.
He is a son of Joseph Hicks and Nancy (Downs) Hicks.
Joseph was born in 1811 and died in 1898.
Paternal grandparents: John Hicks and Chrissie (Mills) Hicks.
Maternal grandparents: Wylie Downs and Chrissie (Nobles) Downs.
Joseph Hicks was born on Sulphur Creek nine miles east of Burksville, Ky.; came with his family to Fentress County in 1817, and settled in old twelfth district on Clear Fork on what is now known as the Coonrod Pile Place, which had been opened up at that time by Pile. Joseph entered a tract of land adjoining it and lived there until a short time before the war, when he moved into Morgan Co. and died there during the war. Joseph Hicks was a school teacher and was also a Justice of the Peace before the Civil War. The Hicks family have resided on Cumberland Mountain and all have followed farming and hunting for a living. Wylie Downs came from North Carolina, and also settled in old twelfth. The Hicks were originally from the same county. When the Hicks came to this county Marsha Millsaps and her husband lived in the only house in Jamestown.
The Hicks Family, circa 1905.
Left to Right: Press, Belle, Daniel, Joe, MaryAnne, Serah, Raymond, and Lou.
Photo Courtesy of Joe Hicks.
Census records verify that John Hicks and his wife were born in North Carolina. Although a possibility, it seems doubtful that John could be closely related to Sam Hicks, since they were roughly contemporaries and Sam was born in England. Evidence of John Hicks’ birthplace has, however, been elusive. Land records place Wylie Downs and his brother Howell in the midst of the “Great Swamp” of western Pitt County on Coneto Creek between the years of 1816 and 1826. A few miles upstream, just across the Edgecombe County line, a Hicks family was also purchasing cheap swamp land, though the name of John Hicks does not appear. As two Hicks family accounts in early Fentress County histories state that Wylie Downs and John Hicks came from the same county in North Carolina, but no Hicks surnames appear in Pitt County records, one might speculate that, if John was a member of the Edgecombe County family, his close proximity and acquaintance with the Downs obliterated a county line from the oral accounts given three generations earlier. Wylie and Howell left the swamps some fifteen years after John Hicks had arrived in Kentucky, following the Tar River out to Beaufort County on the coast of North Carolina. They met and joined a caravan of ten other families which travelled in “one horse carts” to the Clear Fork region of Fentress, already settled by John Hicks. John’s son Joseph there married Wylie Down’s daughter, and one of the new arrivals, George Tinch, gave his name to the community, Tinchtown.
The 1916 sketch of the Hicks clan leaves us some other valuable information. Great grandfather John was among the regions earliest settlers. His original house is but two miles away from Dee’s present home, and the Hicks were never to live far from the banks of the Clear Fork. Each generation, though, including Dee’s family, moved four or five times in their lifetime within this small area, not unusual for 19th century families who found little profit in farming, but rather “lived off the land.” Hicks men have always been hunters rather than farmers, and this is possibly the most important element of their family identity. Many Plateau families found the harvest of wild game more reliable than agricultural efforts on the infertile, sandy soils of “the mountain,” but the Hicks have been especially prominent in this following. Stories are still told throughout the county of Dee’s uncles attracting great crowds of townspeople and and farmers at the turn of the century when they entered the mountain village of Jamestown. Jamestown had its own reputation as a backwoods community, but even this rural audience found the Hicks delightfully old fashioned in speech, manners, and lifestyle. Their dress was deerskin shirts and breeches, moccasins and coonskin caps, and their interests were hunting, tale telling, singing, and fiddling. They seemed to epitomize the popular community self image, and obtained notable status as skilled woodsmen.
Certainly all Joseph’s boys took to hunting and followed it as their chief occupation. While deer, turkeys, and foxes were the most sought after game, bears, wolves, mountain lions, and eagles were all Fentress County residents that added excitement to 19th century hunting. The cumbersome, but extremely accurate, muzzle loading rifle was their favored weapon, though, when powder and lead were scarce, the Hicks even resorted to the use of bow and arrow in deer hunting. Dee, who inherited an enthusiasm for hunting, spent many hours with his uncles, absorbing their woods wisdom.
Dee: Uncle Jim, Nitch, and John was older than Dad, and in their time they hunted. That was the only way they had to make their livin’. And Uncle Marion, he had a hand in that. They hunted, and whenever winter time would come, it would snow, because deer and turkeys, and things, their tracks would get so many that they couldn’t tell fresh tracks. And they’d want it to snow to ‘put out,’ they called it, the old sign. The they’d watch it of a night when it’d clear up, and when it begin to cloud up they run out an come back in. They’d say, “Now its smooth, bob, and jacob, when it’d get plumb cloudy, you know. They’d set up, and when it’d get to snowin’, they’d watch about that, and they’d run back in and they’d say, “Now it’s a-widdy wad! Now its a-widdy waddin’ out there! Let’s go to bed and in the mornin’ we’ll have new sign!” Oh, they was real hunters. They’d just follow them tracks. They wore old leather britches and what they called old brogan shoes, or something just deer hides laced together with leather strings.
Delta: They’d make leather jackets out of the hides, too. They was soft and pliable when they got it worked down. They’d just wear slick on their outside and you could just go through bresh, thorn brushes, hurry through briars or anything. Just tear right on through there if they was something they wanted to keep up with. They didn’t tear their clothes and have no patchin’ a-goin’ on. They just flew the track!
Daniel Hicks and Family Dee’s father, Daniel, born the youngest child in 1868, was also a “mighty hunter.” At age 19 he married Serah Voiles, and continued to hunt to maintain his family until he was 35. Fur brought cash and goods at the closest stores, and turkeys and deer hams could be sold in the wealthy German community of Allardt and to the struggling English colonialists at Rugby, who, with few survival skills found it necessary to purchase food. The forests of the Cumberland Plateau supported abundant big game and wild fowl. Lush grasses grew in the open oak, chestnut and piney woods, and mast was plentiful. By the turn of the century, however, radical changes were occurring in the local economy. The pressures of subsistence and market hunting had almost completely wiped out the game that had maintained three previous generations. Also, Tennessee law allowed stock to run free, unfenced, and in an increasing number of sheep, hogs and cattle competed on the open range for the chestnuts, acorns and forage that once fed only deer, bears, and turkeys. The deep woods required by these animals were being converted to cultivated fields, and a young lumber industry was further changing the face of the landscape to the detriment of big game populations. Daniel Hicks, with no choice but to adopt a new lifestyle, turned to stock raising and farming.
Nancy: When he farmed he’d make big fields away out in the woods, away from home. Just maybe ten acres at a time he cleared, way off. He’d just get them big field and work ‘em. He was awful bad to do that. A lot of time, see, he’d put up possession lots for people. It was wild land and then if you possessed it and worked it for seven years, you had clear title to it. They’d pay him something for processing the land, then he’d get the crop off of it always. It’d be new ground and good, and make awful crops!
Daniel’s children have sometimes wondered why their father agreed to this mountain version of tenant farming. By holding possession for others, Daniel came out of the bargain with money and food and owed no land taxes. Neither did he climb in economic stature, forfeiting the option of possessing a great amount of land for himself and his family. He seem content to simply live year by year, rather than ambitiously pursuing greater wealth. Following marriage, Daniel and Serah moved three times before April, 1904, when they transported their belongings via oxen team and wagon to a tract between the confluence of the Clear Fork River and Crooked Creek, still known locally as the Daniel Hicks place. With virgin yellow pine he put up a one room log house of unhewn, round timber twenty-eight feet long, sixteen feet wide and eight logs high. It had two small windows, a puncheon floor, no porch, and a large sandstone “chimbley” constructed from rocks gleaned from the new fields. Furnishing included two beds, a trunk for storage, and a homemade table with benches. A fiddle and gunrack hung on the wall near the fireplace, and clothing drooped from pegs to cover the rest of the wall space. The doorway faced south to a half acre garden space. The bluff line, which sheltered the spring from which the family got its water, began just fifteen yards east of the house.
In this first year Daniel cleared a garden space and an additional three acres of “new ground” for corn, beans, and, for bread and buckwheat. He also purchased a few head of stock with his savings and turned them out to increase as they could in the wild woods. In the next six years his own family almost doubled in size, with four new additions, including, in 1905, Clara Dee. Daniel necessarily improved his living arrangements, building a kitchen beside, but separate from his house, sealing the house inside with rough lumber, and placing planking along the rafters to create a loft space. Accessible through a small “scuttle hole,” the two oldest girls claimed this for their sleeping quarters. The other children shared the bed below, or slept on ticks stuffed with corn shucks, or sheep pelts. Daniel also began to take farming seriously. He built a log barn, bought a work horse, planted apple and peach trees beside his house, and began cultivation of fifteen acres of corn.
If Daniel was ever troubled by a lack of any material comforts through these times, he never shared the thought. He is universally remembered as an easy-going tease, always ready with a song or joke, never endangering himself from over-exertion. Neither he nor his brothers had taken to the “public works” that were developing in the area—sawmill or lumbering jobs that were strenuous but guaranteed a paycheck. He preferred to hunt in winter months with the reward of $1.50 a turkey compared to the $1.00 pay for a ten-hour day in the sawmills. Other small game also brought in a small income from the fur buyers who made monthly house calls throughout hunting season.
Dee: It used to be the old settlers wouldn’t let hide waste if they could get a nickel for it. I’ve seen Pap skin possums when I was right little, you know, five cents a hide. But a nickel, you see, would buy a box of soda, or buy a box of matches.
Daniel became quite successful as a stock raiser. His stock soon increased to 100 head of hogs, 100 head of sheep, and between 30 and 40 head of cattle. His location between the large, rushing creeks made a natural hem that prevented the loss of stock through wandering or theft, and, although sowing pasture with grass for hay was an unheard of practice, he did save every corn shuck to help his animals through the winter. For protection from wildcats and foxes he would tie a strand of red yarn around each lambs’ neck, a practice he mimicked, himself, as he was never seen without a red bandana about his shirt collar. He playfully named a great number of his farm animals: Old Folly, Old Mottle Face, Hanny, Fanny, and Fatty were some valued sheep; Old Pink, Old Heart, Queeny, Daisy, and Fill Pail were among his cattle, along with the bulls Ginger Blue and Pepper Too, and their jet black horse named Old Jim Crow. Each responded to his own kind’s call, but only if the holler came from Daniel’s throat. In his calls his voice rose from a shrill pitch to a falsetto: “Sook Calf! Sook Calf!” brought in his cattle for winter feed or milking, “Pig-ow-whee!” gathered his hogs to be ear-marked for identification, and “Coo-Sheee-py!” called in his sheep and lambs for shearing or sale. By whistling three sliding notes and calling “Cope! Cope! Come Jim Crow!” Daniel caught his horse after its Sunday of rest and picking grass.
Nancy: He loved ‘em. All of ‘em. His hogs and sheep. His cattle and horses. Everything like that. He had the most sheep and he had every one of them named just about, every old “ewe” as he called ‘em. Oh, if one got sick in the winter time, he’d send us kids to hunt those little green ferns that’ll come out under the laurels, where it grows out on the rivers and back up, sort of, under the bluffs. In the winter, a lot of times, them ferns will be just as green as grass, and just so young and tender. Us kids’d tear out and hunt them little ferns, and it’d be a sight to watch them sheep eat them. And they’d generally get well when you could find them something like that for them to eat. Well he was just a nature lover. He loved anything like that to the ground. Now, he loved nature. He loved animals. He loved to hunt ‘em, but he loved ‘em. He thought they was the beautifullest things—squirrels and foxes and all kinds of wild animals.
Daniel’s love of life was inherited by his children, to whom the dozens of animals became individual personalities that made up a rather large community at their homestead. Each fall stock-buyers came to purchase and drive away those animals Daniel wished to sell, usually leaving the family with a comfortable annual income of six or seven hundred dollars. As Daniel prospered he was able to purchase more materials to construct a second house, much more spacious and comfortable, three hundred yards from their previous home. Sawmills were consuming the virgin timber with a furious hunger and lumber was cheap, so by 1910 the Hicks moved into a new two-story frame house, 18’ by 36’, with a front porch providing a walkway to the kitchen building, built perpendicular to the main house. They soon acquired other symbols of modern affluence: store-bought furniture, a large frame barn, a heating stove, and paling fence surrounding the yard of clean swept, hard packed earth. Daniel also continued his trend toward improving his farm’s production: he purchased a team of mules for plowing, began sowing millet for fodder and sorghum cane for molasses, and his garden and orchard included three times more vegetables and varieties.
Joe: Everybody thought [Daniel] was the wellest off of anybody in the whole country.
As the children grew, they began taking on more responsibilities for work and food gathering. Then the redbirds’ deep, clear notes before daylight were interpreted: “Pretty day! Pretty day! Work! Work! Work!” Eula Hicks, the wife of Daniel’s youngest son, Bessford, recalls: “In the summer when they’d be a-working’ in the field, Daniel would make a jug of lemonade and put one at each end, so that they’d hurry and get to the end of the field so they could get a glass of lemonade. But if it was time to go fishin’ he’d say, “If you get the corn laid by today, we’ll go fishin’.” Everybody just worked like wild to get ready to go fishin’. From what he said and how he told it, those children had a beautiful childhood and growin’ up time with their Dad, because they learned all the things that people nowadays wish they knew.”‘ Daniel was obviously not interested in a life of drudgery for himself or his family. He, in fact, seemed to be the source of most of the family entertainment. He tickled the babies’ toes as he recited the mountain version of “This little piggy…”:
This big mouse says, “I’m a-goin’ to go and get me some wheat.”
And the next mouse says, “Where is any?”
And the middle sized mouse says, “At the massa’s barn’s plenty of it.”
And the other little one says, “I’ll run and tell.”
And the little tiny mouse says, “Whee! Whee! Whee! I can’t get across massa’s barn door sill to get me any wheat!”
He lullabied the small children with this strange verse:
The old sow woke up one morning.
And she found herself and six pigs dead.
Said, “Come my poorest, poorest little pig,
It’s a time for us to move our bed.”
Since death has come among us,
Here no longer we can stay,
So come my poorest, poorest little pig.
Its time for us to move away.
Daniel also knew dozens of riddles and rhyming recitations:
Jonah Marire jumped in the fire.
The fire was so hot he jumped in the pot.
The pot was so black he jumped in the crack.
The crack was so high he jumped in the sky.
The sky was so blue he jumped in the canoe.
The canoe was so shallow he jumped in the tallow.
The tallow was so soft he jumped in the loft.
The loft was so rotten that he fell through the cotton.
The cotton was so white that he stayed all night.
Most exciting to the children were Daniel’s tales, which predominantly were concerned with hunting or the supernatural.
Nancy: I wish you could have heard him tell fox tales. He knowed every little holler and he had every little holler named. Well you could know exactly how the foxes and the dogs would run by knowin’ them places yourself. And you’d hear ‘em come up “maple slash” and he could go just exactly like they’d go, and then he’d say “then they went on down through the chestnut grove,” and you’d hear ‘em go plumb out of hearing. He was a Dad! Old Blue and Old Tick—he knowed every dog by their bark. He’d tell how they chased ‘em. And he’d tell how they’d hunt turkeys, slippin’ up on one, makin’ blinds, and he could go just like a turkey. He’d hear ‘em “gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble,” and he knowed they’s a-coming to him, you know. He’d wait… I’d give anything if we could have recorded his sayin’s.
Tales of witches and their cruelty were common in Fentress County. Daniel’s mother-in-law would not sleep without a pair of scissors under her pillow to ward them off. Almost every kinsman and neighbor, too, had witnessed the puzzling actions of haints, and these frightening lessons always drew a tight circle of children around Daniel.
Dee: I wanted to be standin’ right by him, where I thought I’d be safe. Oh lord, I was awful scarey.
Delta: He wouldn’t go from the kitchen to the front room without getting’ both doors open wide back, and then hollerin’ for some of them to watch, and then he’d go in a run from the kitchen and cut through into the front room.
Daniel’s most impressive talents were musical, gifts that were lovingly shared with his children, and passed on to many of them. In the dim light of kerosene lamps and pine torches his children soaked up the humor of the “dang devil” songs (any comical piece) and the tragedy in the long, haunting “love songs.”
Dee: He’d generally set in a chair. He’s like me, he had one he called “his chair” that he sat in all the time.
Delta: A great big old homemade chair with a big wide bottom in it. Bottomed with hickory bark.
Dee: He’d sort of get racked back. There was a long several years that he’d sing every night after supper. Sometimes he’d have his eyes shut, and sometimes he’d look, maybe at the heatin’ stove.
Delta: He never was bad to look right straight at a person.
Nancy: Yeah, I’ll tell you how Daddy set. He put one finger in his ear and set like that, and he’d sing for hours, and I mean hours, until midnight. He’d always put his finger in his ear that way. There wasn’t no such thing as stoppin’ him. He knowed every one of ‘em.
Any skilled musician in rural Fentress County attracted company, and Daniel’s good nature and generosity guaranteed visitors. Most often overnight guests were of some family relation, but weekend crowds sometimes numbered forty or fifty, forcing the grown men and most of the youngsters to the barn loft for the night, and stepping up biscuit production to twenty-five pounds of flour in a day. The children’s favorite company were those kinfolk who shared in the music making, particularly Daniel’s brother, Marion, and brother-in-law, Whitehead Gentry. Mild-mannered, and the target of many pranks, Marion shared Daniel’s love for the longest and oldest ballads, and the children readily learned from him.
Dee: Now, Uncle Marion, whenever he’d go to sing he’d get racked back in a chair and get his hands locked right around the back of his head, there, and he’d stay that way as long as he sung. He’d do that every time he went to sing. Shut his eyes most of the time.
Whitehead Gentry came for another reason entirely.
Delta: He said he’d “rather be punched with pitchforks anytime, as to hear that old singin’ a-goin’ on. He didn’t want to hear no singin’ at all!
Acknowledged as the premiere fiddler in the area, Whitehead usually managed to swing the evening’s focus to instrumental music, with Daniel playing banjo and Marion just listening.
Such gatherings were sometimes to the distress of Daniel’s wife, Serah, a serious-minded woman who had already helped raise eighteen brothers and sisters as the oldest child in her household.
Dee: She didn’t believe in no foolishness. She didn’t go for no tale-tellin’ nor nothin’ like that. She didn’t like to hear dang devil songs sung, funny ones, Mother didn’t, and Pap enjoyed singin’ ‘em. She said they wasn’t supposed to be sung. Said they didn’t sound good to her. I imagine she thought it wasn’t right accordin’ to religion.
Delta: She wouldn’t ever say anything to [Daniel] about it if he sung ‘em. She’d usually go in the kitchen and work around while he was a-getting’ ‘em sung.
Serah seemed to bear the worldly and spiritual worries that never affected Daniel. Her children’s earliest memories are of her quietly smoking a long cane-stemmed stone pipe, periodically dipping it into the fireplace embers to relight its plug of red ox tobacco. On holidays, Serah did her best to help her children celebrate. On Halloween she carved each child a jack-o’-lantern, which they placed on a fence railing with a lighted pine splinter inside. Christmas and Thanksgiving meant boiled molasses for a taffy pulling, and breaking open the last watermelons for the year, which had been sheltered inside shocks of corn standing in the fields. Easter was also a busy time. As many as fifteen families would meet at the Hicks place for a day of horseshoes, marbles and feasting. As the sky darkened and the spring breezes settled with a chill, Daniel would lead an excited group of children t the middle of a large burnt-over field to play in a “ring of fire.” Daniel walked the circumference of the field, touching off the surrounding woods with a pine torch, while the children played games in the middle by the light of the encircling flames. “Drop the Handerchief,” “Skip to my Lou,” and “Susie Girl” took on a thrilling quality in this wild atmosphere. Tough but cautious bare feet stepped over the few burning coals between the field and home when the fire died away late in the night.
For several of Daniel’s children, school was another great pleasure. With twenty-five neighbor children and three recess periods a day, there was plenty of fun to compensate for the work. Each Christmas Eve the children would present a program of recitations and songs for their parents, and Daniel and Serah were faithfully present with a wagonload of children too young or too obstinate to attend school. Most of the material, of course, had a Christmas message, but Daniel’s Raymond always chose “The Burglar Bold,” an irreverent piece concerning a thief’ encounter with an old maid and her glass eye, wig, and wooden leg.
Dee Hicks’ Childhood
Young Dee Hicks
Photo Courtesy of the Hicks Family
Unlike most of his brothers and sisters, Dee Hicks preferred the routine farm work to the socializing and studying that school required.
Dee: Pap could read and he had a tolerably good education. I never did get none. I wouldn’t go. I was a good chance to a-went. Pap wanted me to go—made me go some, but he never done me no good. I wouldn’t learn. I’d a might nigh’t took a whuppin’ as to a-went. See, I wanted to work with the cattle and horses and tend to them. Just as soon as Pap found out I could plow, I got big enough to and wanted to, I said, “Dad, just let me stay at home and play and not fool with that old school.” “Well,” he said, “if you’re determined not to go, you just go at it here.”
The lack of education seemed to be the only difference between father and son. While Dee was somewhat shy, his great loves became hunting, singing, and playing music.
Dee: I guess I was about ten year old when I begun to play, because I had to put the banjer back over behind me before I could reach up there to note it. After I got started I’d play sometimes two to three hours of a night until they’d get ready for me to go to bed. And then plumb after I got big enough to work, I done most of the old plowin’ with the old mule, why, when I’d come in of a day at noon, after I eat dinner, and while they eat, I’d get that banjer and lay down on the bed and rest and play.
Young Dee received broader musical exposure three days yearly at the Deer Lodge Fair. An extremely exciting experience for children, and the largest annual reunion of neighbors for the adults, it offered all age groups a once a year taste of ice cream, and a first encounter with airplanes, ferris wheels, and Negroes.
Delta: We’d live in hope for the fair to come for us to get to go to. They’d bring in, over there, camels and buffaloes, old lions and bobcats, and these little ol’ tiny bears. All kinds of old things that us kids hadn’t never seen and we wanted to see, so if we ever saw any in the woods we’d know what they was.
One regular visitor to the fair was Blind Dick Burnett, from just across the state line in Monticello, Kentucky. From 1926 through 1928, Burnett teamed with fiddler Leonard Rutherford to perform several classic banjo and fiddle duets for the Columbia and Gennett hillbilly record series. His exploits at the Deer Lodge fair are typical of his earlier years as a professional musician. Burnett attracted attention with crazy antics on the banjo or fiddle. He sang requests of a number of sentimental and topical songs he had written, and sold song ballets—small cards with printed lyrics that went for five to fifteen cents apiece.
Delta: He had a good turn, a good personality. People liked him a lot. He’d have a big crowd there and they’d give him a lot of money. He kept a little cup settin’ on his knee, tied fast, when he’s settin’ down. And the people’d come up and drop their money in there. A lot of days there he’d make fifteen or twenty dollars! I’ve throwed in nickels. I was awful bad to find any music goin’ on. I’d as soon seen that as anything they had going on at the fair.
Burnett would possibly sing his most requested compositions two dozen times and Dee particularly remembers “The Jolly Butchers,” “The Song of the Orphan Boy,” and “Kaiser Bill” as crowd pleasers. Competing for attention was another ballet hawker Dee refers to as “Old Man Embry.” Embry accompanied himself with a guitar, tuned open and chorded with a knife. Many afternoons Dee and his father stood in the gathering to hear “Don’t Marry an Idle Flapper,” “I’m the Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World,” “Bloody War,” and “Woman Was Made After Man.” Daniel, who heartily enjoyed these performances, purchased several song ballets from both Burnett and Embry, but never learned to sing the pieces. His son, Dee, who could not read the ballets, absorbed these and others into his burgeoning repertoire by simply listening attentively.
During his teenage years, Dee was taking more and more notice of a younger second cousin, with hair “as red as any piece of red cloth,” who often accompanied her family on visits to the Hick’s home. Delta Winningham’s grandmother was Daniel’s sister, so that Dee was a first cousin to Delta’s mother. To further bind the families, two sets of Hicks and Winninghams had already married: Herbert, Delta’s half–brother, to Dee’s sister, Nancy, and Delta’s older sister, Ellen, had married Dee’s brother Joe. Whatever the curious attraction, two families were brought together that were very different in lifestyle and family history.
Winningham Family and Delta Hicks’ Upbringing
Delta’s earliest knowledge of her family is of her great grandfather, Henry Anderson Winningham. A Union soldier in the Second Tennessee, he died in a prison camp on Belle Isle, Virginia, within sight of the Confederate capitol at Richmond. Grandfather Sol Winningham grew up to become an important figure in Fentress County, holding office as Justice of the Peace six years, Town Marshall of Jamestown, “in the days of saloons,” Deputy Sheriff four years, Sheriff four years, and Superintendent of Schools for several terms. His letters to the editor of the Allardt Gazette reveal him as extremely articulate, highly opinionated, and fiery tempered. Sol’s successful business concerns were stock-raising and store-keeping. He could have been considered to be close to the top of the barely stratified rural society. However, his son Lynn Winningham, Delta’s father, did not develop an interest in education.
Delta: Dad didn’t have no education at all. He never would go to school. Grandpa tried to get him to, but he wouldn’t learn. He just worked.
When Lynn’s mother died and his father remarried to Daniel’s niece, Polly Hicks, Lynn moved away from home to work on a neighbor’s farm. After several years of hauling timber for a living, he began, in 1920, cutting timber and hewing railroad crossties. In doing so, Lynn brought his family into the unsettled lifestyle of the Daniel Hicks’ family. Although few farmers cared if the timber was cut on their property and required no compensation for it, crossties brought in a little income to the family of six children and a wife that Lynn had to support. At the age of ten, Delta, the oldest of the children then living with the family, decided she needed to help her father, and began pulling a cross-cut saw opposite him. In the next nine years of tie making, they moved a dozen times.
Delta: My dad was a tie maker and he followed the timber. He cut one tract, you know, and then he’d move onto another one. And he was pretty bad to take the whole family. Just threw up any kind of a house. He didn’t aim to stay very long in one place. And so we’d get caught in the winter time in a house that was real open. But us kids was out in the cold so much that it didn’t bother us. We didn’t get cold. We could go and play in the snow, the ice around the bluffs or anything. We didn’t pay attention to the cold.
Him and Mom had a bed they slept in. They didn’t have much furniture because we had no way of movin’ it, takin’ it from place to place. So us kids slept on the floor in front of the fire. Unless we got us a tow sack. We could once in a while find us a tow sack and we’d lay on that and use a stick of wood for a headin.’
Dad built a fireplace for the house most of the time, if we was goin’ to be there durin’ the winter. He’d just stack up rock, and they’d just be holey and everything. When the wind would blow a certain way, you know, it’d just smoke the life out of a person. We’d get us an old big box and get over in it, and pull an old big quilt over the top of the box and be settin’ squatted down in there out of the smoke. It’d just smoke us to death! It just come right back downout of the chimbley instead of a-goin’ where it ought to go.
Mother, she’d get cardboard boxes of whatever she could and put over the cracks, where he’d just notched the logs down. There’s big holes through, big ends and little ends around. So she’d fix up the logs best she could, to keep the cold out, with old rags or socks or whatever she could stretch up there to keep the wind out.
But us kids’d lay there in front of the fire and we’d talk. Where we was gonna get to do when we got grown, or how many ties we was goin’ to try to make the next day, or where we’d be a-workin’ at, and who would skid and who would make, and we’d have it all planned out. The morning come, we’d all know our job, what we was gonna do.
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
In spite of her early maturity, Delta led a sheltered youth typical of girls here age—she was not allowed to be in the presence of drinking or dancing, and singing was not permitted by her father. When he left on an errand, however, the whole household was led in song by their mother, Dora, who, after all, had Hicks blood and to whom singing was a birthright. Delta also frequently visited her brother and sister who had married into the Hicks family, and the prospect of singing with them was a great incentive for an overnight stay.
Marriage and Adult Life
At the age of 14 Delta began to hire out to families that needed help with housekeeping or farming chores. In 1924 she hired to the Daniel Hicks family, for $1.50 a week, when Serah became ill. Although their conversation was severely limited by Serah, Dee found Delta to be quite fetching, and “kept on track of her pretty close” when she left the household to work for other families. Delta was helping her sister-in-law, Nancy Winningham, through pregnancy, when she ad Dee began seriously “talking.” Within a year they decided to marry.
Their marriage was typical of the times. Dee picked up his bride-to-be and her father on Saturday afternoon, October 26, 1929, in his 1924 five-passenger Model T. Delta, bareheaded, wore her strawberry red hair cut short, in complement to her newest dress, a pink gingham with white trim. With not a mile behind them, they ran out of gas. Finally arriving at the home of a Jamestown Justice of the Peace, the couple sat in the car while pronounced husband and wife. That evening Dee’s sister Nancy prepared their wedding supper on the open fireplace. After quiet conversation, the newlyweds waded Crooked Creek and walked to Daniel’s home, where they would live for the next four months.
Three days after the wedding the United States was jolted by havoc on Wall Street. Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, was an explosion of economic insecurity and instability that soon reached the remote timber and coal country of Fentress County. As the sawmills shut down and case became scarce, Dee and his nineteen-year-old bride slipped back into a hunting-gathering lifestyle not unlike that of earlier Hicks’ generations. Possums, skunks, raccoons, and foxes had proliferated as the old virgin forest was replaced by fields and mixed-age forest habitats. Their hides brought from 5 cents to $1.50 from the fur-buyers that still frequented the countryside. Through the cool months, Dee fox-hunted daily and night-hunted for other “varmints” at least three times a week, killing fifteen animals in a good week. The struggle to survive the Depression years brought Dee and Delta close together, as they worked as a team to manage through the hard times.
Dee: Me and her married in 1929, right after what they called the Hoover Panic. And we had a tough, bad time. And we dug star grass, and peeled china haw root, and witch hazelnut, and indigo root, and lady’s slippers. And we’d carry it on our shoulders about eight mile to the store and never couldn’t get no money. We had to take it in an order to the store. We’d take that order and get our groceries and carry it back.
Delta: We just got three cents a pound for all that scrapin’ and peelin’.
Dee: Just two-and-a-half cents for the lot of it. We enjoyed it. Seems to me we enjoyed it better than people does not with their livin’.
Delta: Me and him used to night-hunt after we got married. Wasn’t no oil, the times was hard. You couldn’t buy coal oil, we didn’t have no lantern. We’d get us a lot of long rich pine and get us some long pine splinters fixed. We’d start out of a night and we’d light them, we’d go all up and down the hollers and over the ridges.
Dee: I’ve burnt my fingers on that rosum lots of times.
Delta: That tar a-drippin; down. But we’d hunt. Catch us quite a bit of fur.
Dee: Yeah, Mam went with me might night’t every night, till the children come.
Delta: We’d hunt to get up squirrels and rabbits to eat, and it was such hard times you couldn’t get a shell to have to shoot in your guy, you know. And we’d go down to Dee’s dad’s, and we had an awful good squirrel dog and he’d tree squirrels and Dee’d knock them out with rocks.
Dee: Oh, I used to throw a rock just as straight. At one time, I could hit a squirrel’s head if it was in fair view of me and it’d come out, just like shootin’ it with a bullet
Delta: He’d be a-throwin’ and I’d be a-huntin’ up the rocks. Gatherin’ them up and layin’ them down. Have ‘em in little piles, you know. I told the kids, you could go to any of them old good hickory nut trees and there’d be a little pile of rocks that I’d carried up for him to knock the squirrels out with.
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
Three girls were born to Delta before Dee was drafted into the army, late in World War II. Dee would only remain in the service for four months, due to an early discharge after suffering a back injury at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. On his return, he found his family had handled their affairs well—Delta and the young girls had plowed, sowed, and cultivated a four-acre crop of corn and potatoes that was just reaching maturity. With her mustering-out pay of $200, Dee purchased a milk cow and a mule, the first shock in his ownership. Before the war, when the Hicks borrowed a neighbor’s mule, they had to first plow that neighbor’s ground before their own. Now, with his own mule, Dee obtained relative prosperity, farming up to thirty acres in a manner identical to his father, and acquiring a small herd of sheep, cattle and hogs. Like his father, he plowed his ground six inches deep and planted by the signs, and, like his father, he mostly held possession lots for other people rather than for himself. The family was housed in a three-room log home, that Dee and Delta had constructed of round logs of yellow pine. Dee continued to help his elderly father with farming. Serah passed away just before the war, and Daniel’s pleasures in his last days were listening to the radio, singing church songs, and sitting under a shade tree to watch his bees work. When Daniel was buried in 1948, the family lovingly tired around his neck a red bandana, as he had never been seen without one in life.
Daniel Hicks’ Obituary
Courtesy of Daniel Hicks, Jr.
Better times did not last long for the Hicks. In 1948 the “No Fence” law went into effect, ending the open range practice throughout the state, requiring all stock to be fenced. With such small land holdings, Dee found it no longer feasible to keep his animals. Devastation, emotional and financial, overwhelmed the family when fire destroyed their small home in 1955, while they worked in some nearby fields. They slept in the barn for over a month while Delta picked beans for pay, and Dee worked in a sawmill, as well as working out their corn crop. With tar paper and scrap lumber and tin, Dee was able to construct a new house before winter. The new house had electricity, though no running water until 1977. It was dark inside, eventually crowded with beds, other furniture, and foodstuffs, and the walls were adorned with prints of Jesus, and Christmas decoration. They continued to depend on farming for their income, along with Dee’s small army pension, fox hunting and sawmill work. Although Dee developed a disabling palsy from his army injury, he continued to brighten their home for any visitor with a banjo tune, as a neighbor had bequeathed him a Japanese made 5-string in 1968, the first banjo Dee ever owned in his life.
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
Attitudes and Opinions In these later years Dee and Delta have repeatedly expressed attitudes and values that might be considered characteristic of this region among people with a similar social and economic background. First, they highly regard “the mountain,” the Cumberland Plateau, as a place to life. Compared to those who live “under the mountain,” they have colder springs with better water, the air is cooler and healthier, and although they have a shorter growing season and poorer soil, they are not threatened by floods, as are the bottomland farmers.
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
While they are gracious and giving to all visitors, strangers or friends, they have little faith in the work of organizations or institutions, such as the federal and state government and the church. In their opinion, the state laws against open range and burning the woods in late winter, and controlling hunting seasons have conspired, with the lumber industry, to alter the forest and wildlife populations to the disadvantage of the people who depend on them.
Delta: Back in the olden times, I guess back when Dee was a baby and back before we was born, I imagine the same thing was goin’ on. Mostly forest. They wan’t too many mills and too much timber cut. There was a lot of pretty timber and pretty woods and waterfalls. And a lot of wildflowers—the laurel and the ivy and the poplar and the lynn trees, the redbuds. And that stuff you’d see in the spring would be bloomed up and down the rivers. It was real pretty to get out and hunt around the bluffs and things. But when the sawmills come in, it made way with a lot of mast, acorns and stuff.
Dee: Yeah, and the beauty of the country, a lot, that timber bein’ gone.
Delta: And then whenever they passed the law for the woods not be burnt, see, that made way with all the wild grapes. Used to be in the woods in the fall you could just go and pick you a sack of wild grapes. And wild gooseberries, red ones and yellow ones a-hangin’ the bushes full. And huckleberries…
Used to be in olden times people burnt the woods in February. And they’d had stock that run out. Their cattle, horses, and hogs, and their sheep and everything. They burnt the woods and it’d burn off the old grass and the leaves, and then the young grass’d come up and it’d be open—you could see across from one ridge to the other.
And the timber had a chance to grow—it got the water. And now there’s so much grass and leaves on the ground that the tree never gets wet. Never get enough [rain] to soak in to the ground.
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
The quality the Hicks seem to value above all else is that of being “old-fashioned.” They always use the term with a positive connotation: the most effective breed of hunting dog is an “old-fashioned dog”; the sweetest maple sap comes from an “old-fashioned maple” tree. They strongly identify with that trait and their neighbors characterize the Hicks family as such.
Delta: I think [Daniel] wanted to be old-fashioned like his forefathers and them that growed up. He never got on the act of this new falingo life. It was just old-fashioned work, and old-fashioned times, and old-fashioned singing, old-fashioned music playing. He never did get into the new stuff that was a-going’on.
Dee: In his last days he said the old-fashioned ways was away the best with everything. He said, “it will finally wind up.” “But,” he said, “these new things is a-gonna come on,” and he said, “in a lot of ways,” he said, “it’ll be a drawback to the world.”
Delta: Well, Dee is old-fashioned in his eatin’ and old-fashioned in the kind of clothes he wears and old-fashioned at his work. If he was able to work, he’d want to work with mules. And have cattle and stuff like that. Be where he could get out and do his own plowin’ with a turnin’ plow. Disk his own ground and stuff. Now a lot of people wants to get tractors and do their work fast, and go on this high, fast livin’. But it would be his idea to go with it slow with a horse or mule or something.
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
The very deep conservatism ingrained in Dee’s life, and his desire to emulate his father, led him to develop the wonderful repertoire of love songs and “dang devil” songs that were not current favorites among his peers. Although he has learned a considerable number of popular songs from radio, 78 rpm records, television, and neighbors, he carefully differentiates between those ‘new’ songs and the songs he learned from his father. Dee’s brother Joe, a fine singer, does not so clearly distinguish between these categories. Dee’s love of these older songs may stem from his adulation of his father—at any rate he considers them superior in most respects. Delta shares this feeling to an extent.
Dee: I liked the old ones the best. Always have. Because, now, they was really just more touchin’. What I would call more perfect, some way or another.
Now, their love songs that they write and sing has not got the meanin’ that the old ones got.
Delta: They’ve somehow got more get up and go, they’re not downhearted, not sad.
Dee: There are some of ‘em pretty. I love to hear some of ‘em.
Delta: I do too, but they’re not low and sad like the love songs back, several years back. These one’s come on anymore are of a livelier music or song.
Now there was some of the new songs I really liked and learned a whole heap of ‘em. But, Dee, back in his time, course, he listened to the others, and he’s set in his ways, Daddy is.
Dee perceived his father as having the same bias.
Dee: But now, nearly all the new songs made since his time, when he used to sing so much, I never did hear him talk about tryin’ to learn ‘em. He said they was new songs and he didn’t care too much about ‘em. He said they wasn’t composed right.
It is evident that Dee’s criterion for labeling songs as old or new is their presence in his father’s repertoire. Daniel, according to Dee, learned most of his songs before he married in 1887. Reconstructing his repertoire from Dee’s memory, he apparently did heavily favor the songs that an older generation could have also known, but several popular pieces of the 1870s and 1880s are also included. “Molly Darling,” “Short Life of Trouble,” “Ella Belle,” and “The Fatal Wedding” are examples of these. Surely there were hundreds more he had access to, but did not learn, and the greater portion of his songs were those of English and Irish descent, or early American broadsides, like “Tom Bolynn,” “The Turkish Factor,” “Finnigan’s Wake,” and “Get Up and Shut the Door.” Daniel, being mischievous, also composed songs to commemorate any occasion embarrassing to his neighbors and relatives. Of the six such songs that Dee can remember, three use identifiable traditional melodies and one slightly alters some traditional verses to fit the situation. For example, verses concerning a jealous argument between two girls competing for Bessford’s attention, ending with a dunking in the molasses trough, are set to “Black Snake.” While his sons Bessford and Joe also composed teasing verses about their kin, Dee’s only composition is a banjo instrumental he calls “The Deep Snow Blues.” Although Daniel could read well, his children insist he learned almost all his songs by oral transmission.
Nancy: That’s the way Daddy used to learn them. He’d hear one and go home and sleep and get up and sing it. It’s ding it generally of a night in his sleep. Moma’d hear him sing it. He’d just go over it, then the next morning he’d know every word. Even “The Vulture” as long as that is. You know what a song that is. Oh, Daddy was just gifted with songs.
The children that sing claim to learn songs in a like manner.
Delta: [Speaking to Dee]: You could her one played, like today, if you really wanted to learn it, and it was on your mind, then you dreamed it all over and the next morning you’d say, “Mam, I know that song this morning,” and I’d say, “get to singin’ it,” and you could sing it for me.
The only secular printed verses Daniel was known to own were the song ballets he bought from Dick Burnett and “Old Man Embry” at the Deer Lodge Fair. He did not learn any of the songs, though his son Joe did. Daniel and Dee first heard sound recordings when a neighbor brought a portable cylinder machine by their home with a group of Uncle Josh monologues. Daniel was delighted by these, though he took no interest in the phonograph Joe later purchased. After his first encounter with the “Grand Ole Opry” radio broadcast, he was a fan for life, always looking forward to Uncle Dave Macon’s segment of the program, and enjoying Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, and the Carter family, but he never attempted to learn a song from the radio. For Dee, on the other hand, the radio and recordings were an important source of material. In the mid-20s, Dee dropped the banjo in favor of the guitar, a much better instrument for accompanying the songs that were popular among his neighbors. Although he did not own a record player until 1948, he was around them enough in his twenties and thirties to keep current with the country and hillbilly recordings of that time.
Dee: At one time I knew a lot. They was hardly ever come out a record but what I learnt it.
In documenting Dee’s repertoire it is noticeable that these newer songs are more often remembered as fragments than those learned from Daniel. Dee claims to have learned most of his songs in his teenage years. He has definitely retained more from that period than from his adult years.
Dee: When I wasn’t out to myself, a lot of times I had somethin’ else to study about—I couldn’t learn ‘em like I could before I married. Then my mind wasn’t on… I didn’t have no responsibility, and I could learn anything I wanted to learn in the song business.
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
Of the 400 songs documented in Dee’s repertoire, over 200 were learned from Daniel. At least 35 were learned directly from 78 rpm recordings, and the remainder from aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, children, neighbors, radio, and television. For an idea of the diversity of Dee’s repertoire, his songs can be broken into these rough categories: 98 pieces from the English/Irish ballad, folksong, and broadside tradition; 94 pieces usually considered American traditional songs, though possibly originated or perpetuated by the 19th century popular media; 15 topical songs not included in the latter category; 11 “coon” songs not included in the American traditional category; 54 sentimental or parlor songs not included in the American traditional category; 50 traditional banjo and fiddle tunes, only 8 of which are not accompanied with lyrics; 26 sacred songs; 8 original songs composed by Daniel or neighbors, and one tune composed by Dee; and 43 more recent popular songs (after 1930). Of these many songs he considers “Jimmy and Nancy” and “The Young Sea Captain” to be his showpieces, because of their length. “They’re both sixteen verses long,” according to Dee’s proud description. By separating the verses into standard quatrains, however, “Jimmy and Nancy” has forty-four verses and takes almost twenty minutes to sing, and “The Young Sea Captain” has twenty-four verses. Both have been collected only twice in the United States.
Photo Courtesy of the Hicks Family
Dee’s singing brothers and sisters, particularly Bessford and Joe, have contributed additional songs and ballads from Daniel’s repertoire. Bessford, in fact, may have known as many as Dee, but his unexpected death in 1976 at age 66 left only a short cassette recordings as a sample of his skills.
Delta’s repertoire is echoic of Dee’s. She knows a verse of most songs Dee sings, but few complete versions of the older love songs. She favors the rambling, gambling, roving songs and cowboy ballads, generally appreciative of their greater “get up and go.”
Because Dee is functionally illiterate he has had to develop tremendous powers of memory to retain his impressive store of song. Since his father quit singing the love songs in favor of religious pieces in the early 1940s, Delta has provided the only reinforcement to remind Dee of songs and verses, with the exception of occasional visits from his brothers and sisters. Delta can prompt Dee on most every song when his memory fails, although she cannot sing the entire piece herself. As is characteristic of traditional ballad singers, Dee’s versions are not entirely stable in text, nor have they been adopted from their source with perfect replication. Each time a song is repeated, minor changes in wording occur. Dee’s tirelessly worked interjection, “oh,” is most often found at the beginning of a line. It is used as a means of altering the length of a stanza, arbitrarily adding a full additional measure, two beats, or no additional beats. Dee remembers his father using the device, though his brothers and sisters who have been recorded do not use it.
In learning a song, Dee sometimes changes words or phrases, “The Vulture,” for instance, as sung by Dee’s older sister, Lou Cromwell, suggests Dee is responsible for many of the “corrupted words” sprinkled throughout his version, though he claims to perfectly remember his father’s wording of the song. The phrase “overwhelmed with fright” becomes “all with hellum with fright” in Dee’s version, and “around their cottage firesides,” becomes “around financher cottage homes.” Lou, a former school teacher, is probably more accurate here in the memory of her father’s wording. Dee, illiterate, is unfamiliar with the meaning of many words he sings. He once explained that when the protagonist of “Billy the Sailor” “rattled his chains as if bedlam to tear down,” Billy was chained to his bed and attempting to destroy it in his fury. There seems to be a tradeoff between vocabulary and memory, however, as Dee remembers “The Vulture” in its entirety, while Lou recalls only fragments without her written ballet.
Dee’s performance style is more reserved than that of many singers from the southern mountains. His hands are still and he prefers to sing while seated. While singing a humorous song, Dee’s facial expressions are gleeful, sometimes comically exaggerated, and he cuts his eyes towards his listeners to check their reaction to key lines. Otherwise, he maintains a distant state, absorbed in the story to the point of becoming tearful during those songs especially beautiful and tragic. These powerful, emotional performances spring from a conviction that the love songs are reports of real events. Daniel Hicks shared that belief, and had sometimes been seen singing with tears in his eyes. Delta’s approach is quite different. Accustomed to singing while working, she often chooses to stand when she sings. In certain songs, such as “Lily of the West” or “House Carpenter” she embellishes the melody line with a vocal technique called “feathering” (a sharp upward inflection on a given note at the end of a line), as is characteristic of Appalachian ballad singers. Dee uses this embellishment only when feeling especially good, or loosened up with a few beers. Delta sings at a fast and an even pace compared to Dee, a quality he does not approve of.
Dee: See, don’t let it dwell. Knowin’ just where to let it dwell, see, it makes the song heap prettier.
In their home setting Dee and Delta infrequently exercise their knowledge of traditional song. They are how to numerous crowded gatherings, mostly on weekends, of neighbors, children, and grandchildren, and Dee is predictably called upon to provide a tune for buck dancing. When spirits are high, and the scene approaches a confusion of drinking and conversation, Delta often bursts into a penetrating “In the Pines” or “I’ve Always Been a Rambler.” So provoked, her daughters and granddaughters might begin a bout of more familiar modern country songs, with Delta singing along when possible. Otherwise, Delta sings song fragments aloud while cleaning and cooking, and Dee silently goes over the old songs in his mind, while sitting alone by his apple trees or lying in bed.
The songs included on this album do not represent the full spectrum of Dee and Delta’s repertoire. Rather, this group presents the humor and beauty of certain type of songs that make up the larger portions of their respective repertoires. See the back liner for brief notes to the songs.
Dee and Delta Hicks and the Hicks Family Legacy
I first met Dee and Delta Hicks in early July of 1976. I had been working as a naturalist in a nearby state park and had an interest in meeting some of the older musicians in the area. Cotton Tipton, a middle-aged fiddler from Buffalo Cove recalled hearing an older man from Tinchtown several years earlier playing a banjo tune about “the woods burnin’ down.” This led me to Dee’s house, not far from the main road. An impressive array of dogs and chickens were scattered across a sandy yard, completely denuded of grass. Dee was sitting on his porch swing, much friendlier than his young dogs.
The banjo tune turned out to be an interesting version of “Fire on the Mountain,” one of several fine instrumentals he offered. As I was leaving, Delta volunteered a song she called “Banatia.” Her rendition was a very complete version of the 19th century cowboy ballad concerning a cowboy and his beloved horse Palatino—the “pride of the plains.” Dee mentioned that he had learned one or two old love songs from his father.
On the next visit, Dee began with “Roger the Miller,” a early 19th century broadside, and in dozens of visits since he has not yet expended his memory. Any song that he has once committed to memory is within his reach, and Dee has spent many mornings under his apple trees scanning his mind for songs he has not yet recorded.
In the spring of 1978, Joe Wilson, the executive director for the National Council for the Traditional Arts offered Dee and Delta an opportunity to perform at the National Folk Festival in Wolf Trap, Virginia. Prior to this invitation they had only performed once outside of Fentress County. Delta wrote back declining, as she was understandably frightened of air travel and concerned about leaving their home unprotected. Since their home had burned years ago, either Dee or Delta always stayed with the house when the other left. The urgings of family and friends convinced her to undertake the adventure, and the Hicks went on to enjoy an entirely pleasing experience. They were amazed at the friendliness of the hundreds of strangers they met, and were surprised by the quality of timber they saw growing on the Wolf Trap Festival site and in Washington Square between the Library of Congress and the Capitol building.
They were thoroughly excited on the return trip. Dee actually laughed till he cried at the running commentary of Virgil Anderson, a Kentucky banjo player who had also performed. When we parked in their driveway at 2:30 a.m., there was no porch light shining, and, with no moon, it was impossible to see ahead. Delta recalled, as she walked forward, she first saw a twisted piece of tin from the roof and thought, “Oh, Lordy, a great windstorm has come through here.” Then, a breeze blew and a huge bed of coals lit up in front of her.
They had lost their home, their clothing, several years’ supply of canned foods, and their farming tools. For the second time in twenty-three years, fire had left them entirely without worldly possessions, except the contents of one small suitcase they had taken to Wolf Trap. Delta expressed doubt that they would have the strength in their old age to build back, but Dee resolved that they would not leave the ten-acre tract they had worked for almost fifty years.
In the morning, their close neighbors gathered their pickup trucks together and hauled away the debris and ashes. By that afternoon, Dee and Delta were well situated with a borrowed double bed set underneath a tarpaulin pitched in their scorched apple trees. A daughter loaned Delta a small wood stove and she began canning beans from her garden. A stream of visitors came to sympathize with the family, but Dee and Delta were far beyond self-pity. Delta laughed and joked, and assured everyone they were fine, and, in fact, enjoying themselves: “This is like camping out, it’s healthy to be out here in the good fresh air.” They refused a dozen offers to move in temporarily with neighbors or relatives. Within three days, Joe Wilson, an East Tennessean himself, arrived in Jamestown with two of his NCTA board members: Michael Holmes, publisher of Mugwumps and financial mastermind, and Jim Griffith, Arizona state folklorist, whose six-foot eight-inch frame lent credibility in all their dealings with the locals. They immediately established an emergency building fund for the Hicks, and began searching for means to permanently house them. Nashville and Knoxville television crews and newspapers focused on the tragedy, and the Hicks were featured on a world-wide broadcast of the ABC evening news.
The media could elicit a sorrowful plea for help from Dee and Delta. They only commented on the wonderful experience they had just enjoyed at Wolf Trap and the many new friends they made there. The National Council for the Traditional Arts, Barry Bergey and the Missouri Friends for the Folk Arts, the Grand Ole Opry, and individuals all over Tennessee and the Washington D.C. area volunteered contributions to help the Hicks back to the simple living situation they had known before their trip. A bluegrass festival outside Nashville was promoted as a benefit for Dee and Delta, and Roy Acuff paid them a special visit at the show. They were resettled, just as fall temperatures were dropping, in a used mobile home, set exactly on the site of the house they had lost. Thanks to the generosity of those named and unnamed, their lives and health suffered little from disruption.
This instance is significant in many ways. I am not aware of another instance in which such widespread support has been granted a traditional artist in an emergency situation. The Hicks were briefly held up to a national audience as an example of the dignity, pride, and resilience of Appalachian people. They were presented to Tennesseans as a symbol of the state’s great wealth of tradition and the fragile status of its older forms. The fire destroyed their old life and they began a new life, not so much different, but with a reinforced sense of their worthy role as tradition bearers. They have since performed many times away from Fentress County without any fear, as though they feel quite safe travelling across a nation that has shown them so much concern.
Dee and Delta Hicks
Photo by Bobby Fulcher
Design by Rachel Boillot