Upland Chronicles: Joseph Sargent Hall and the Smokies’ mountain culture

Jan. 20, 2013 @ 11:44 PM

In 1937, in the depths of the Great Depression, a fresh-faced Columbia University grad school student took a train from New York City to the southern town of Knoxville. From there, the young man traveled 45 miles south through the valley of the Tennessee River and the foothills of the Smokies to the small mountain village of Gatlinburg.

This grad student, born in 1906 in Montana but reared in California, was embarking on a job as a seasonal folklorist with the National Park Service in the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Little could this young man know that the folklore work he started in 1937 would continue on for many decades and lead to the finest body of work on the language and customs of the people of the Smokies.

Joseph Sargent Hall is now regarded as the “dean” of cultural studies in the entire Smoky Mountains region.

One can only imagine what Joe Hall’s initial thoughts were as he got his first look at the new national park when he arrived in the Forks of the River and Sugarlands area after his long journey. At that time, there weren’t any of the developments that the visitor sees today. In fact, there was not even any park service housing available for Joe Hall.

Rather, he had to reside at a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, and there he took his meals and bunked down with the young men engaged in the noble work of that Depression era agency.

After settling in, Hall received his assignment from his Park Service supervisor. His task was to interview mountain folk who were still living in the park area at the time. It’s important to note that several thousand residents of the areas that became Great Smoky Mountains National Park were moved off their properties by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina in the late 1920s and ’30s to make room for the new park (these residents received payments for their homes and land by state officials and later by park service assessors, but obviously the sentimental value was never compensated for).

Hall’s job was to go into the field and through personal interviews document the life stories and something of the speech patterns of some of those who had not yet moved out or who had life-leases on their lands.

Some commentators have described the government’s interest in having Hall document the mountaineer’s culture as a token gesture after the removal of so many residents. But Joe Hall, as an energetic young academician, undoubtedly felt it was an intriguing assignment. He later wrote that his time in the Smokies was “one of the most rewarding periods of my life, a period of adventure and great human interest; and of contribution, I hope, to the cause of preserving the oral lore of this region.”

In retrospect, Hall’s work was not merely an intellectual exercise; urgency was added by the fact that most of the mountain residents had been removed by the state and federal governments. So, in essence, his assignment was a “salvage” operation to document insights into the culture of remaining mountaineers before they were moved out of their ancestral mountain homes or died.

Hall’s workdays in the Smokies involved breakfast with the corpsmen of the “Three C’s” at the camp, then hitching a ride on their trucks as they traveled to work sites. As the trucks traveled into the mountains of the new park, Hall would be let off at houses that appeared promising or at locations that some CCC members recommended to him as likely prospects for “good talkers.” Hall would be picked up by the CCC trucks at the end of the work day to be transported back to camp.

In this way, Hall spent his days attempting to engage in conversation residents of the mountains. He later humorously wrote that he talked to people “who lived so fur back in the hills they used ’possums to carry the mail and lightnin’ bugs for lanterns.” Over the course of his seasonal assignment, Hall interviewed families who generally opened up their lives and homes to this “furriner.”

Mountain folk can be reticent about discussing their lives to “rank strangers.” Hall had to learn the art of making his respondents feel relaxed in his presence.

In that regard, Hall later wrote that it had been his design all along in his contacts with local folk “to let the mountain people tell their own stories.” He did not interrupt the respondent with questions about the interpretation, veracity or validity of the information as it was being told.

In the course of that first seasonal assignment, Joe Hall filled four notebooks with information from his contacts. He returned in June 1939 on a joint Columbia University and National Park Service temporary field assignment, in which he introduced the use of recording devices to capture the actual sound of his respondent’s voices, and some of their musics.

These recordings were about “anything the informant wished to talk about. Men talked about their farms, their crops, their cattle, and hunting. Women liked to tell recipes or talk about weaving, quilting and the like.”

Hall heard somber stories about children lost in the mountains and sad tales of murder like the case of Jasper Mellinger. He also heard humorous stories, like the time he talked to Docia Styles of Indian Creek. Mrs. Styles related to Hall what she had told the government land agents when they allowed her to remain on her land through a life lease. She said, “The guvment men said I could stay on my land as long as I lived. I told ’em that’d be as long as I cared to stay!”

After finishing his academic studies at Columbia, Joe Hall took a full time teaching job at a southern California junior college where he taught for many years. But he never forgot the people of the Great Smokies. He came back often during summer breaks over several decades, continuing to record and document Smoky Mountain language and music, along with visiting many of the friends he’d made over the years. (Long-time NPS Park Ranger Glenn Cardwell told me that he saw Hall off and on at Sugarlands Visitor Center up to the late 1980s.)

Over the years, Joe Hall wrote several scholarly articles based on his field work in the Smokies, and also published three general interest books in the 1960s and ’70s [“Smoky Mountain Folk and Their Lore” (1960), “Sayings from Old Smoky” (1972), and “Yarns and Tales from Old Smoky” (1978)].

Before Hall’s death, Montgomery struck up a friendship and working relationship with him. When Montgomery published his Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English in 2004, he graciously added the late Joe Hall as a co-author since much of the material was based on Hall’s work.

Another testimonial to Hall’s documentation of the culture of the Smokies is the fact that his work is available to researchers today in the archives of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and East Tennessee State University’s Archives of Appalachia. Some of Hall’s musical recordings from 1939 have also been produced into a commercially available compact disc.

Joseph Sargent Hall died at 85 on Feb. 14, 1992, in Oceanside, Calif. At the time of his death, he did not know exactly how his profession or history would look on his work in the Smokies.

A lasting assessment of Hall’s work can be found in a quote that Dr. Montgomery succinctly made: “Joseph S. Hall was the pioneer researcher of the speech and culture of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.” That’s quite a legacy for a man who came to the Smokies on a seasonal folklorist assignment 75 years ago, not knowing where it would all lead.

— Arthur “Butch” McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains NP ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service. If you have suggestions for topics or would like to submit a column for The Upland Chronicles, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161, ron@ronraderproperties.com.