Folklore Project: A Collection of Personal Essays from the American South
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By Sarah Broussard Weaver
In an effort to bring her Cajun roots into her marriage via food (even though she’d never been much of a cook), Sarah Weaver went in search of the right way to make gumbo, from the roux up. But when she sat down to learn the family gumbo from her mom, what came out was a family secret.
By Yves Jeffcoat
We came across this story when its writer, Yves Jeffcoat, read it at Write Club Atlanta, a monthly series of “bouts” between writers performing stories they’ve written. Write Club bouts always pit two opposing ideas, each brought to life by a different writer. With this piece, Jeffcoat took the “Peace” side of a “War vs. Peace” bout. That night, peace won. Jeffcoat won. Read this to learn why.
By Holly Gleason
Holly Gleason has been writing about music — with a particular fondness for the country sort — for more years than she’d care to admit. She’s written a few tunes herself (including a chart-topper for Kenny Chesney), and she’s known many of the music’s greatest writers and performers. When the bad news came on Tuesday — that songwriting great Guy Clark had passed away — we got an email from Holly. She was in a truck stop, trying to write through the loss of her good friend Guy. She asked if The Bitter Southerner would be interested in publishing what she wrote. We were. So today, we offer this tribute to one of the finest songwriters who ever walked, by someone who knew him well.
By Nicholas Harrelson
Last year, we got a letter from a young man, a veteran, looking to find work as an intern before he began law school in the fall of 2016. He told us he was drawn to our publication because the BS did not ignore the “discussion of topics and situations that make us feel uncomfortable.” Since then, Nick Harrelson — working remotely from Virginia — has been an essential part of The Bitter Southerner crew, even though we’ve still never met him in the flesh. Today, we are overjoyed to publish his essay about the difficulties faced by American soldiers returning from the Middle East — and how, at least in Nick’s case, the pull of his home region dragged him out of the black, depressed places that relentlessly beckon too many of our veterans.
What happens when real-estate development forever warps your memories of a small, special place — a formative place where bonds with family and the earth were originally formed? What looks like opportunity to one person feels like desecration to another. Today, Nick Stephens takes us to a little lake south of Atlanta to tell us just such a story.
In the South, grandmothers wield their flyswatters as ninjas wield their swords. Robie Sullins Jr., who grew up Erwin, a little town in the East Tennessee mountains, tells us about the bee stings he got in places where one should avoid getting stung, and about the grandmother who was his protector.
Marie Park is a Bitter Southerner reader who has been “living temporarily” in Texas for 36 years. South Carolinian by birth, Marie has noticed — quite accurately, we think — that common conversational dynamics change the deeper one gets into the Deep South. Southern speech is known for many things, but dealing directly with difficult issues — or even trivial ones — is not one of our strong suits. To see what we mean, read “Talking South.”
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sara McAdory-Kim is a Mississippian now living in Michigan, by way of Seoul, South Korea and London, England. As she’s traveled the world, she’s had her share of battles over The Accent Thing. You know, how we talk. When she sent us this piece, she recommended the subtitle, “Why I Started Saying Y’all Again (and Ain’t Never Gonna Stop.)” Y’all are going to enjoy this one.
In the middle of a national debate over immigration policy, one of our readers, Nashville attorney Tom Lee, recalls a time, just barely pre-9/11, when things were different — when our resistance to outsiders was lower. Because of the way we were, back then, Tom and his wife have a daughter, a smart and motivated young woman who’ll be of age to vote in Nashville’s next mayoral election. Tom’s reflections on our nation’s tug-of-war with immigration, a fight that’s been ongoing since the birth of our nation, are a great addition to The Bitter Southerner’s Folklore Project.
When you’re a little kid, facing a life-threatening condition, and the nurse threatens to “cut your tallywhacker off,” that’s just bound to stick in your memory. But sometimes, you learn about the love behind the toughness. That’s the territory David Roberts covers in his story, “The Meanest Woman I Ever Knew."
The grumble of the four wheeler motors and the swishing of the tall grass as we made our way to the abandoned, dilapidated structure alerted any present wildlife of a foreign approach. I hopped off my ATV, shielding my eyes from the bright sun overhead as I questioned the saggy house with my eyes.“This is the old Ramsey place,” my dad said, dismounting his own vehicle...
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Emily Crudup Cameron — the writer of this wonderful piece about the connections between crawfish, coffee and memory — dedicates it to the memory of her mother, Mary Redmon Catchings Crudup, who passed away a year ago November after spending her life as a published poet, an artist, and a lover of language. “She encouraged me to write and to submit for publication,” Emily tells us. “I've kept at it in earnest over the last year to honor her memory. It's just a shout-out to all the moms who inspire us, encourage us to stick with what we love and not give up.” Amen to that.
Los Angeles, Calif.
To a Southerner living away, a single person (with the right qualities) can come to embody the entire region for us. A person who, to us, is the South. Colby Pines, a Leesburg, Georgia, native now living out in L.A., introduces us to the lady who was the South for him — and tells us what it was like to have her and what it's like to have lost her.
With this holiday entry in The Bitter Southerner’s Folklore Project, full disclosure is necessary. Its writer, Melinda Holloway Hadden, and I were classmates at Gilmer High in Ellijay, Georgia. We graduated 36 years ago, in 1979. I remember us sitting in class, waiting for the next lesson in whatever, trying to figure out what the heck Bob Dylan was singing about on “Blood on the Tracks.” But when we saw this piece Melinda had written originally for the Ellijay Times-Courier, it felt precisely right for this final Folklore Project entry before Christmas. “The Address Book” is about the value of the analog vs. the value of the digital. It’s about the suddenness of aging. It’s about the power of memory. And it’s about Christmas. We wish The Bitter Southerner Family a merry one.
For many years, George Lancaster has lived in Australia, but he grew up in Decatur, Georgia. One night 35 years ago, he and two friends hiked the southern end of the Appalachian Trail up to Blood Mountain. There, they encountered a through-hiker from Maine, four good ol’ boys and gals from Ellijay, Georgia — and one of them almost died of hypothermia. It was a night of lessons for a young Georgia boy.
Todd Sentell was in Milledgeville, Ga., on that day eight years ago when the Georgia Historical Society unveiled an official historical marker at Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm. It was, as you will learn in this account, evidently the first time holy water was ever applied to a Georgia history plaque.
Jeannie Alexander was once a chaplain in a maximum-security prison, and today she directs the efforts of Nashville’s No Exceptions Prison Collective, which works to reduce sentences, reform Tennessee’s parole system and improve conditions inside the state’s prisons. In this marvelous essay, she remembers the role her grandfather played in helping her make sense of life — and in helping her learn that Home dwells inside her.
Missy Wilkinson is a young adult novelist, journalist and proud New Orleanian. However, the events that take place in this piece happened prior to her settling in the Big Easy. The backstory is that it wasn't until she was in high school that Missy suspected she had even the slightest literary talent. Then, she won two essay contests. The prize for one of those contests was a large pizza. Yes, a large pizza. And that brings us to the subject at hand. Missy's story is about neighborhoods and crime and class and race. It's also about delivering pizza. We're proud to add "One of the Lucky Ones" to The Bitter Southerner Folklore Project.
Since we began the Folklore Project and asked our readers to contribute their personal stories, we’ve had a ball reading the submissions — and maybe even more fun is reading the cover letters y’all write. When we got this story from Sean Dietrich of Santa Rosa, Fla., we figured we might have a winner when we read the first line of his cover letter: “My eccentric mother went bankrupt.” But what we love about the story is the way it helps The Bitter Southerner portray the whole South, not just the pretty parts. Because here in the real world, every now and then the money runs out. That’s when you need family who will do what it takes, even if that’s going to see a three-toothed man about a trailer.
We built The Bitter Southerner Folklore Project because, since our beginning, people have wanted to tell their stories through our little publishing venture. Some might argue that today’s essay, from John Hawbaker, really has nothing to do with the South. They’d be right. But they’d miss the fact that in the act of telling our stories, we help others. Hawbaker’s essay, “The Autoject Accord,” is about his family’s slow adjustment when one member is diagnosed with a chronic, incurable disease. He reminds us that even when the work of life is hard, we can share the story — and know we are not alone.
When Betsy Sanders sent us her short essay, “Decoration Day,” she admitted it had started its life as a comment on The Bitter Southerner Facebook page when we published our Rise & Shine story about dinner on the ground. She said it got a bit too long for a Facebook post, so she gave it a little more attention. We thank her for sending it to us, because we think it gets to heart of the duality of the Southern thing: the conflict between cherished childhood memories and the truths we learn in later life.
“Do you like Jason & the Scorchers?” That question would have caught my attention coming from anyone in 1987 – but coming from an attractive guy in Sweden, it was the ultimate pickup line. I was an 18-year-old native of Nashville on my first big trip out of the country, and the alt-country band Jason & the Scorchers was the hottest thing my hometown had ever seen. We were both smitten.
The weirdest thing happened about a year ago. We got a call from a gentleman in the Boston, Massachusetts, suburbs, a man who identified himself as a regular reader of The Bitter Southerner, although he had never lived in the South and had visited it less than a half-dozen times. He told us he wanted to write something for us about how a particular song made him “feel Southern.” We had it hand it to him, not only for his gumption but also because he’d picked a song we already loved. So we said, “Give it a whirl.” What we got back is a strange but wonderful piece that explores everything from the commonalities between Northern Jews and Southern everybodies to the infighting among members of one of the greatest musical acts in the history of North America, The Band.
Johnson City, Tenn.
Meenakshi Krishnan’s parents came to the United States from India (via London) when she was only 2 years old, so she grew up a Tennessee mountain girl. Sometimes, mountain kids feel they have to get out of Appalachia, out of the South, to find their fortunes. But it was only when Meenakshi lived in another South — the Andalusian region in the south of Spain — that she came to appreciate the foundation that her Tennessee upbringing had built for her life.
Winston Salem, N.C.
Susan Harlan is a professor of English at Wake Forest University. She spent this summer in New York City, doing research for an upcoming book, but driving home, she took a circuitous, wanderer’s route. A few nights ago at a motel in Townsend, Tennessee, near Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains, she wrote this piece, which we think perfectly captures the melancholy feel of summertime coming to a close in the South. For more of Harlan’s writing, you can check out a lovely piece she did for The Bitter Southerner a while back, “Notes Concerning the Objects That Are on My Front Porch.”
Joshua Sharpe grew up in Waycross, Georgia, to a mother who grew up worshiping at the Church of Elvis, in a family with an uncle named Hound Dog after his ability to imitate the King. But Josh’s mom had never made the pilgrimage to the Church of Elvis’ mecca, Graceland. So they hit the road to Memphis together in 2012. A month later, his mother was gone. This is a story about how important it is to take that road trip you’ve always talked about, before the opportunity is gone forever.
When this tale arrived at the Folklore Project, we wondered if it was too funny to be true. So we called its writer, JL Strickland of Valley, Alabama, and asked, did this really happen? “One-hundred percent true,” JL said. “Ever’ word.” Truth is, JL had us from the start with his cover letter, in which he declared himself a “linthead emeritus” and informed us, “I spent my working life, almost half a century, in an Alabama cotton mill. In fact, I would probably still be there if a patriotic American hadn't bought the mill and shipped my job — and 401K — to Pakistan. God bless him!” JL is now 75 years old. He may have lost his job a while back, but we’d bet $10 to a doughnut that he’ll never lose his sense of humor.
Words matter. They matter because they develop deeper meanings for us over time, as life progresses. Terry Barr, a Bessemer, Alabama, native who now teaches at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, sent us this essay and said simply, “My essay looks at my father, a Jewish Southerner who helped me see the power of certain words.” You’ll see the power of those words in his son’s writing.
East Point, Ga.
When she sent us this essay, Debra Cole explained herself this way. “I am a southern feminist mother that started doing stand-up comedy in 2006,” she wrote to us. “My mother was a literature teacher and my father a redneck. In other words, we listened to NPR while watching my father fix his car on blocks.” There is certainly some humor in her story, “Her Holiness,” but it deals with a pretty serious question that seems to nag nearly everyone in the South: How do you deal with the kinfolks who can’t quite fall face-first into the family’s chosen religion?
“Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go.” The late Mr. Rogers (Fred Rogers, more properly) said that. To extend his metaphor, as we move through life, one could say we begin to weave our own threads into the tapestry our parents began for us. And sometimes, we must visit a familiar place together to commence the weaving. We’re proud to present an essay about exactly that, from one of our readers, Michel Phillips.
Errin Whack began her career as a journalist at the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s historic African-American newspaper. Since then she’s covered politics and culture all over the South. Today, she brings us an essay about what it means to be a proud Southerner — and being one doesn’t mean clinging to an ugly past.
Sometimes, it helps to listen to the younger ones. One of our summer interns, Carly Berlin, joined us two weeks, then left this week for her annual family vacation in Charleston. The news about the massacre at Mother Emanuel broke while her family was driving from Atlanta to South Carolina. Carly, her mother and her aunt, visited the vigil outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Saturday. Nineteen-year-olds are not supposed to be this wise. But this one is. We’re proud to have her on The Bitter Southerner team.
Baton Rouge, La.
Herpreet Singh married into a Louisiana family. On the morning of the wedding, her father-in-law-to-be said the following: “All those people better not show up at our house with dots on their heads.” What exactly does one do when one marries into a Southern family made up of basically nice, good people who haven’t quite figured out multiculturalism? This story is modern Southern folklore at its finest.
Good parents try to be understanding and accepting of their children’s choices. That’s exactly what Scott Gould did when his daughter decided to take a job as a “shot girl” at a sports bar — a job that involves dressing “sexy not slutty” and selling alcoholic gutbombs with names like the Leg Spreader, the Dry Hump and the One-Night Stand. This is a hilarious story about navigating the obstacles of parenting while getting bad advice from a next-door neighbor with a pet raccoon named Buckshot.
Julianne Hill is a born-and-bred Clevelander who now lives in Chicago. But in 1985, she married into a Georgia family. Her essay is a deep and beautiful account of how the pines and rivers of Georgia helped her put things back in place as the family's heart was broken — and then broken again.
Elizabeth Sims got a call a few weeks ago that she didn’t expect: Could you come to Indianola, Miss., to help with B.B. King’s funeral? Sims is a marketing and media-relations pro in Asheville — and a lifelong B.B. King fan. Her personal account of the final laying to rest of Riley “Blues Boy” King is a great addition to our Folklore Project.
A growing collection of stories and other items we hope will tell a bigger story about what Southerners are really like in the 21st century. The Folklore Project will grow only if you share your stories, family memories, recipes and photographs. Just click here to submit.