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Willie Nelson: An Epic Life| Chapter 3

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Joe Nick PatoskiEast of Western Grove on Pindall Ridge, 1925

Willie Nelson: An Epic Life
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 2008

 

Music was in the Nelson blood long before Texas, back into the rugged hills of north central Arkansas where the isolated communities of settlers could hardly be described settlements.

The rickety wooden shack on cedar blocks that passed for a one-room schoolhouse was hardly fit to be occupied. The floor sagged and creaked with every step taken. And yet, the room was packed to the rafters. Structural shortcomings were the last thing on the minds of those present, with smiling faces. They were just happy to be there.

Singing school was in session. Singing school was the social event of the year for many folks living in the hills, hollows, and backwoods of Searcy, Newton, Boone, and Marion counties in north central Arkansas. Sometimes singing school was the only social event of the year outside of church, a funeral or a barn-raising unless a wayward medicine show happened to pass through. Singing school brought out the whole community from babies to elders and everyone in between. For a week or two, the singing school students would learn music theory, how to sight read by recognizing music notations, how to write lyrics, and how to write multiple parts to a song for harmonizing. Mostly, they would sing exotic harmonies.

They were humble students dressed in sackcloth dresses and shirts, overalls if they were fortunate. Many went barefoot. They used frayed songbooks in which notes were represented by distinctive shapes: a triangle for Fa, an oval for Sol, a square for La, and a diamond for Mi. The major scale was sung in syllables- Fa Sol La Fa Sol La Mi Fa. Shapes made it easy for people who couldn't read words to follow the music. The songbooks featured spiritual hymns well-known to Baptist and Methodist congregations, the faiths of the God-fearing white folks attending the schools. Singers warmed up for each song by singing the words of the notes on the scale. Their voices were robust. No instrumental accompaniment was needed. When a particular song roused the gathering, they clapped hands and stomped feet, about as loose as Protestants got around Pindall, and sang with such power the whole building would shake.

At times like that Alfred and Nancy Nelson knew they were doing their job.

They were traveling singing school masters - teachers - and making a joyful noise was their mission. Teaching singing school was another means of putting beans in the larder and an opportunity to spread the gospel of music. Alfred was a blacksmith by trade, but . music was his pleasure. Nancy embraced music formally, earning a degree through mail correspondence from the Chicago School of Music. She gave lessons to children around Pindall Ridge throughout the year, and they both taught singing school in surrounding communities with names as lyrical as the music they taught: Western Grove, Union Y, Everton, Snowball, Gilbert, Morning Star, Lone Pine, Evening Star, Harriet, Canaan, Hasty, Erby, Valley Springs, Zinc, Canaan, and Eros.

Their love of teaching music came from Nancy's father, William Marion Smothers, a farmer born in Barren Creek, Marion County Arkansas whose people had emigrated from Carroll County, Tennessee. William had married twice, fathering 18 children, and learned music from his parents well enough to teach it himself.

For the first one hundred and fifty years of the United States, William Smothers, Nancy and Alfred Nelson and other singing school masters were the most influential music educators in America. Few folks in the hills and hollows and backwoods in and around Searcy, Newton, Marion and Boone counties could read, but shapes were familiar, easy to follow when cued by the teacher or in the songbooks. Shapes kept music alive.

The roots of singing schools and Shape Note singing, also known as Sacred Harp - white, rural choral music sung in unison - went back to congregational singing in reformist churches in the American colonies of New England (Alfred's people extended back to John Nelson, a major in the Revolutionary War) and to England and Scotland, and to Reformation psalmody and Renaissance polyphony. The term Sacred Harp refers to the tune book of 550 hymns and anthems sung in four-part harmony that was published in Philadelphia in 1844.

When pioneers fanned out across the southern United States, Shape Note evolved into a popular form of social recreation in Anglo Protestant communities into the early 20th Century. The sound endured into the 21st century in small pockets all over the United States; modern Shape Note singing conventions were held in churches, school houses, and campgrounds with singing sessions extending from hours into days with voices the sole musical instrument and the participants the audience. The singing was vigorous, sometimes bordering on shouts. Subtlety was no virtue.

Subtlety was not part of the curriculum in Arkansas singing schools. Alfred Nelson led the singing in his rich bass voice complemented by Nancy's alto. If there was a pump organ or piano where they gathered, Nancy played it while Alfred led the singing. If not, their voices led together. Either way, they made beautiful music.

Students paid their traveling teachers with shelter, food, other necessities and sometimes money—just enough for them to do it again when the opportunity arose, and when Alfred wasn't pounding hot steel into horseshoes, wagons, barrel staves, and fencing. The Nelsons lived in a hollow tucked back in the hills of the Boston Mountains, a vast woodlands of sharp ridge lines and steep valleys in the southwestern part of a highlands known as the Ozark Mountains, a vague western extension of the Appalachian Mountains rising out of the eastern landmass of the United States.

The sparsely-populated ridges were Caddo Indian territory until the 1600s when the Osage Nation moved in. In 1808, the Osage ceded the territory to the United States by signing a treaty with the white man [was the treaty with the gov't? YES]. For the next twenty years the land was a throughway of the Trail of Tears, the forced march by thousands of Cherokee people from their native lands in what became known as the American South. Most Cherokee eventually wound up in Oklahoma, but many just peeled away into the same woods that were the final destination for immigrants from Ireland, England, and Scotland, attempting to settle the same land from which the Indians were being removed.

The forebears of the Nelsons stopped in the Buffalo Mountains by the Buffalo River in the mid 19th century, along with a few thousand others -sufficient numbers to push the Cherokee Nation into Oklahoma "beyond the Permanent Indian Frontier" where many settlers eventually moved too. The ones who stayed were called Arkies or, more generically, hillbillies. Many of them had Cherokee blood.

Arkies were a curious mixture of self-reliance and self-denial. The caves on the bluffs above the Buffalo River were believed to shelter bears, Indians, and "carpet baggers and men of unknown character," or so folks said. Most settlers were religious. Even after prohibition ended, the counties around north central Arkansas continued to ban the sale of alcohol. At the time, moonshine stills proliferated in back hollows for those who took a nip of liquid corn or enjoyed gargling "White Mule." Few African-Americans lived among them; the farms were so small and farmers so poor that owning slaves was a luxury.

The one thing Pindall Ridge and most of north central Arkansas had going for it was water. The area's springs, caves, and sinkholes spawned grist mills, water mills, and stave mills through the valley. If you were near water, you could survive.

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In 1882, Franklin C. Nelson paused at a spring in an area designated Prairie Township, between the settlements of Western Grove, Pindall, and Everton, where Newton, Searcy and Boone counties meet. He liked what he saw. He and his wife Prilly settled the land and fifteen years later, on June 11, 1887, made it official with a homestead declaration: Eighty acres, located at 1,320 feet above sea level near Boat Mountain in the Boston Mountains, half of Section 29 of Township 17N/ 18W of the Fifth Principal meridian. Enough for a man to make something out of himself and raise a family.

The Nelson homestead contained a grove of hardwoods shading a trickling stream that emerged from the pile of rocks marking the headwaters of Clear Creek, a stream that drained into the mighty Buffalo River a few miles away. A log house would be raised a few hundred paces east of the spring along with a barn and a smokehouse. Chickens, hogs, cows and mules were kept nearby. Franklin came to be called Uncle Peck, and his wife, Aprilla Ann, or "Prilly" Marshall, kept a sizeable garden and cultivated hollyhocks and other ornamental flowers around the home.

A small clearing was made near the path to Western Grove and Pindall by an old stagecoach stop under a towering walnut tree by the creek, 100 yards from the spring for Uncle Peck's blacksmith shop. Notorious for his persistent bad gas, neighbors swore you could taste his farts in the corn meal he ground for them with the one-lunger, the noisy, popping one cylinder engine he fired his forge with.

Uncle Peck mentored his son, William Alfred - Daddy Nelson - in making horseshoes, wagon wheels, staves for barrels, wheels, gates, plows, gigging poles, tools, whatever was needed to keep the whole grand enterprise of an agrarian and industrial society going in the hills and hollows.

William Alfred, one of Uncle Peck and Prilly's seven children, married an Arkansas girl with Tennessee roots named Nancy Elizabeth Smothers in 1900. They built their own log house over a rise on the other side of the creek on a gentle slope in a hardwood grove of walnut and red oak.

The Nelson family went back a ways in the Ozarks, around Boone, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties, and before then, to Tennessee, North Carolina, Rhode Island, England, and Ireland. They and all their relations had pretty much the same story: Anglo blood, Cherokee blood mixed in, everyone moving west, Arkies through and through.

Nancy gave birth to five children in Arkansas - Clara May, born in 1902, Rose Lusetta, born 1903, a stillborn child in 1904, a stillborn daughter 1909, and Ira Doyle, born July 9, 1913.

The youngest, Ira, the only boy to survive birth, was a free-spirit who enjoyed playing guitar and banjo and working with his father around his blacksmith forge. He had a striking presence and rode a jenny mule to school. "He was tall and handsome and would make music," recalled Irene Young who attended Pindall School with him through grade 8 - anyone seeking a higher education had to go somewhere else. Irene was one of dozens of children who took music lessons from Nancy Nelson. "She had a big ol' pump organ. She'd go all around teaching lessons at country schools. She taught at Glencoe school, Union Y school. Nobody had no money so sometimes she took chickens for teaching." Young admitted she didn't take to the lessons. "I was married, had a family, and worked at a grocery," she said. But she knew Miz Nelson was special. "She and the rest of the family was talented. They could sing. All the Nelsons and Smothers played guitars and French harp. All them Nelsons was musicians."

But (perhaps for the last time in their lives), music was not enough to sustain them in this tough place, and in the fading heat of the summer of 1929, a few weeks before Black Friday, the October day when the stock market would crash and send the economy of the United States tumbling into the Great Depression (not that the Nelsons would have noticed), Alfred, his wife, his son, and Mildred Turney, the niece they were raising, decided to go to Texas.

Alfred had lost his mother earlier in the year and he missed his daughter Rosa Lusetta badly. After Rosa married, she and her husband Ernest Nichols had moved to Hill County, Texas, a place where cotton grew tall and plentiful on the blackland prairie. The living was good down there, she informed her father and mother in letters. After their Ira came back from visiting his Texas kinfolks and declared he was ready to move, his parents were persuaded to go with him. The family needed to be closer together, Alfred reasoned. He left little behind except blacksmith customers, the land, and his parents; his father Frank - Uncle Peck - was determined to die on the homestead.

Before they left, Ira, the youngest of Alfred and Nancy's children, married his girlfriend, Myrle Greenhaw, on September 6, 1929 in Newton County and took her along.

Myrle's family, the Greenhaws, came from Western Grove a few miles west of Pindall Ridge and from all around Searcy and Newton counties. Some Greenhaws were store owners and business people in Marshall. Talmage Greenhaw started the Newton County Times at Mount Judea in 1908. Ephraim Greenhaw was a postmaster and social leader in the Big Creek Valley. His son Frank - who married Margaret Baker of Marcella Falls, Tennessee in 1868 - worked on improving schools and churches in and around Jasper, a rough and tumble cattle town in Newton County.

Like the Nelsons and just about everybody in this part of the Ozarks, a fair amount of Greenhaws were music people. Myrle's daddy, William, a noted moonshiner in the area, was an expert banjo player. Myrle's brother Carl played piano, and Myrle played guitar. The whole family sang. Myrle was a well-known flirt around Pindall with a wild streak attributed to her being three-quarters Cherokee. But if Ira was game for settling down, she was game, too.

The family left the rocky outcroppings and impenetrable thickets and headed south four hundred miles where the farm fields were like fertile river bottom. And just like that, the Nelsons were GTT. Gone To Texas.

Like tens of thousands of pioneer families before them who had been moving south and west since the first boat landed at Plymouth, the Nelsons had moved on. To some folks, GTT was a kiss-off pejorative, as in "Gone to Texas, catch me if you can," To others, GTT was merely a declaration of relocation to what was hoped to be a better place.

The Nelsons were gone to the part of Texas where the Great Plains descended into the Brazos River Valley. Gone to Hill County, more than 1,000 square miles of Blackland Prairie, Grand Prairie and Eastern Cross Timbers - a sprawling plain that opened up to the heavens in a way not seen back in Arkansas. The sky dominated the Texas landscape, there. Although the county was relatively flat, the white rock rise where Abbott was established at 712 feet above sea level was the highest point between Denison on the Oklahoma border and the Gulf of Mexico. The Brazos, the longest river in Texas, marked the county's western border on its 840 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The county was lush with native grasses including buffalo grass, big bluestem, and switchgrass. Post oak, live oak, pecan, and hackberry were the most common trees. An average of 35 inches of rain fell on the prairie every year, enough to make one or two crops, although one quickly learned that in Texas, "average" was merely an arbitrary number halfway between drought and flood.

By 1929, 300 folks had settled Abbott around a railroad stop surrounded by open fields of corn, wheat, sorghum and especially cotton. Woodlands were limited to tree lines for windbreaks and small motts and thickets of pecan, elm, oak and hackberry. It was pretty country in the spring, when the fields turned electric with bluebonnets, Indian blankets, and a passel of wildflowers, but by the end of summer the land had typically been baked a harsh brown by the relentless sun, just in time for the cotton to come in.

Except for the cultivated crops, the small communities, the railroads and highways, the land had been little altered since the time when wooly mammoths and later buffalos rumbled through on seasonal migrations, eventually followed by native people who set up seasonal campgrounds to take advantage of the abundant wildlife before moving on. Indians knew better than to establish permanent settlements in a location subject to tornadoes and seasonal drought. The pioneers, who began arriving from the east in the 1830s, thought otherwise.

Human occupation of the Hill County region had been traced back to AD 1300. The Waco and Tawakoni groups of the Wichita tribe established hunting camps in and around Hill County through the early 1700s, followed by Spanish and French explorers. The first Anglo, Phillip Nolan, arrived in 1801, only to be killed by the Spanish the same year. Stephen F. Austin, the Father of Texas, made a survey map in 1822 that included the county, but in 1830, the Mexican government ruled the land belonging to Sterling Clack Robertson, another Anglo colonizer who laid claim to the land and who formed Robertson's Colony there six years before Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836.

Comanche and Towash Indians had migrated into the area in the early 1820s, followed by Hasini and Anadarko Indians from East Texas. Although Indian raids on Anglo settlements were common outside the county, none were recorded within, affirming the land's status as a "council-spot" where treaties were made and safe passage guaranteed.

The county's Anglo settlers considered themselves Southerners. At the beginning of the Civil War of 1861-1865, voters in Hill County overwhelmingly approved secession from the United States by a vote of 376-63. But despite allegiance to the Confederacy and the county's future as farming country, Hill County was western in outlook too. The outlaw John Wesley Hardin arrived in 1869 to barter cotton and hides and murdered a citizen. Other outlaws, led by Kinch West and the Cox brothers, created more serious problems especially along The Chisholm Trail, the storied cattle route up the middle of Texas to the Kansas railheads that crossed the county's northwest corner in the early 1870s.

Abbott's destiny ultimately became intertwined with the rest of the world's with the arrival of the railroad in 1881. The need for a watering stop inspired a town site, named for Jo Abbott, a lawyer, banker, civic leader, judge and U.S. Congressman from Hill County. The 15 block plat of streets and alleys—ten blocks east of the railroad, five blocks west of the railroad-- was formally dedicated in April, 1891, nine years after the first building in town, Winston Treadwell's general store, managed by L.C. Barrett, opened. A hotel and a drugstore followed.

On September 15, 1896, in the middle of the cotton harvest, many locals dropped everything to join 40,000 spectators a few miles south of West to watch the Crash at Crush, a publicity stunt that was the world's first planned train wreck, in which two steam locomotives were intentionally crashed into each other near the Katy line. Two men and one woman were killed by flying debris while six others were seriously injured. Everyone who attended had a firsthand tutorial how to promote an event, draw a crowd, and put on a show.

The original town of Abbott burned the next year. Seed and steel were no match for the kind of fire that occasionally swept over the plain. The town was rebuilt, only to burn again in 1903.

#

In 1910, Hill County produced more cotton than any county or parish in the nation except Ellis County, the next county north. Sixty per cent of the cropland in the county was in cotton. Railroads followed. By 1913 two hundred miles of rail crisscrossed Hill County representing the Cotton Belt, the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, the Trinity and Brazos Valley, and the Texas Electric lines. With the train came Germans and Eastern European farmers—Czech immigrants in particular—who would have a major impact on the development of towns in southeastern Hill County such as Mertens, Penelope, and Abbott, and on the local culture including the night life.

Seed and steel were also no match for the boll weevil. The infestation of the pernicious insect that feasted on cotton sapped Hill County's upward spiral. What the weevil didn't waste, the Great Depression destroyed. As good as the town with three cotton gins looked to a newly-arrived Arkie, three-quarters of the farmers in the county were working land they did not own, and with the economic downturn, the train didn't stop in Abbott anymore. Riders had to flag it down.

By 1929, Abbott was in fact little more than a scattering of houses and barns, churches for Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples of Christ (the Catholic Church for the Czechs moving into town would come later), a Baptist church for the colored folks, a tabernacle for singing conventions and revivals, three cotton gins, and the three transportation routes bisecting town--Highway 81/77, the north-south border-to-border routes connecting Canada and Mexico, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad which also ran north-south and the Interurban trolley which ran from Waco, 24 miles south, to Fort Worth and Dallas, 63 and 73 miles north, respectively. A traveler passing through might not give the town a second glance. For those who lived there, though, Abbott was something to be proud of. As native son Leo Ruzicka pointed [out in 19xx], "Abbott is the first town in Texas, alphabetically."

Copyright © 2008 Joe Nick Patoski

Chapter 1, 2, 3

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Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression.

Those seeking all things Willie should visit willienelson.com and stillisstillmoving.com.

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