Sounds of the southern appalachians

Ella Hennessee jams with her instructor, Susan Ware-Snow.

Locals leading the way in

preserving musical traditions

By Dr. Thomas Cloer, Jr., Special to The Courier

I have a certificate, proudly displayed on my wall, from the Stamps-Baxter Normal Music School, verifying that “Tommy Cloer after having passed a reasonably rigid examination and by good deportment is entitled to this Theory Grade Certificate, June 8th –June 26th, 1953.”

The music school sessions were attended by all ages, children and adults. The teachers informed my parents that I was the youngest ever to pass their exam on the Rudiments of Music. I had just finished the second grade. I also have on my “Books in Use” shelf a 1939 song book titled “Favorite Songs and Hymns: Shape Notes,” compiled by Virgil O. Stamps and J.R. Baxter and published by Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Co., Inc., which had thriving businesses in Dallas, Texas, Pangburn, Ark., and Chattanooga, Tenn. Suffice it to say the company “done real good” in Southern Appalachian churches.

Sacred Appalachian music is central to many of us that as children had those emotional, life-lifting sounds implanted in our minds. I remember vividly when this music began to move out of the churches in Southern Appalachia and began to be used as entertainment, as well as being used for worship. This was, I think, a paradigm shift.

I can also actually remember when musical instruments, of any kind, were banned in some primitive mountain churches.

I remember when one such church first began to have second thoughts. I was in attendance when the very emotional mountain preacher pleaded with his parishioners to donate money for their first instrument. I was seated near the front of the little wooden structure, near the crude offering table, when a convinced progressive near the back of Top of the Mountain Church on Nontootla Creek in Northern Georgia stood and gave what I thought was a most convincing argument for why the church members should move forward and donate to this most worthy cause.

I remember how the man, a spokesman for philanthropy and charity, stepped out on the slatted wooden flooring and began to move forward like Louis XIV in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. When he arrived at the crude little offering table, near where I sat under the equally rough pulpit, he flipped down, to my utter amazement, a single dime. He then returned proudly to his pew.


Homecomings are still held today in the mountains of Southern Appalachia. This is when families who were once members of a certain church return to worship, eat and decorate the graves of loved ones. Homecoming at my mountain church in the 1940s and 1950s began with loud enthusiastic singing from Stamps-Baxter song books with shape notes.

These shape notes had been taught by traveling music schools such as the one I attended in 1953. Shape notes have a particular shape on the note’s head to represent their place on the musical scale. Thus, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la ti, do would have different shapes.

Gospel music was characterized this way for years in Southern Appalachian churches. All-day singings were conducted in shape note music.

The homecomings were always started by the choir director, someone usually unashamed to speak out and solicit choir members from the general audience. The director normally began by selecting someone to play an instrument. The next move was to give an invitation to anyone who wanted to be a part of the choir to come forth, followed by a direct admonition to, “Come forth now; I know you can sang.”

Choir practice was never part of our activities. Why practice if you know shape notes?

When the pews for the choir had been filled, the choir leader would say, “Now, everybody turn to page 88. Let’s hear you sang like you mean it! ‘Everybody Will Be Happy Over There.’ Thank God! Everybody will be happy over there!”

“Amen! Amen!” was heard throughout the building.

The choir leader would say “Now ready with the first verse!

“There’s a happy land of promise over in the great beyond,

“Where the saved of earth shall soon the glory share.

“Where the souls of men shall enter and live on forever more,

“Everybody will be happy over there.”

Following the singing, the evangelist chosen for the day began his sermon. At the conclusion of his sermon, a hand-shaking almost inevitably occurred.

“So many loved ones here today! I wonder if we might have an old-fashioned hand-shaking, and tell how much we love one another. Brother Jim, lead that old favorite, ‘When We All Get To Heaven.’”

The choir began and everyone sang,

“Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,

“Sing his mercy and his grace.

“In the mansions bright and blessed,

“He’ll prepare for us a place.”

The handshaking led to embracing and ultimately to “getting happy.” Getting happy in the Appalachian mountain churches still refers to the outpouring of emotion or “shouting.”

Most of the mountaineer sinners on the outside of the church would rejoice as well when they heard the shouting, because dismissal and the serving of dinner always followed immediately thereafter. The church would empty as people rushed to their automobiles to secure fried chicken, ham, corn on the cob, fried okra, fried squash, fried everything, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, ice tea, lemonade and scores of desserts. The food was served on long wooden tables permanently built under towering hardwoods.

After a feast, the afternoon was devoted to special and group singing. Special singing referred to solos, duets, trios, and quartets. These special singers and the group singing would have one or more instruments to accompany. Group singing usually started the evening after hearing “everybody grab a book” — a Stamps-Baxter book, of course, with shape notes.

“‘I’ll Fly Away!’ Let’s hear you sang now!”

“Some glad morning when this life is o’er,

“I’ll fly away,

“To a home on God’s celestial shore,

“I’ll fly away.”

This homecoming tradition gave rise to all-day singings. These events actually moved out of the mountain churches to venues that could accommodate larger numbers of people. The all-day singings, sometimes called singing conventions, highly resembled the afternoon singings which occurred at Appalachian church homecomings.

Those of us who wax nostalgic yearn for something to remind us of our distant past. We fear to think that different musical traditions that we have known and loved would be lost as we experience more birthdays.


Pickens CountY

Thanks to our Pickens County POSAM (Preserving Our Southern Appalachian Music) and YAM (Young Appalachian Musicians), Pickens County is at the forefront of maintaining ties to our mountain musical traditions. Pickens County is alive with activities to recruit, train and energize young musicians interested in learning to play music in the same manner their great-great-grandfathers learned — by ear.

I get close to getting happy myself when I hear our young Appalachian musicians at a religious venue burst forth with a banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar playing and singing ” I’ll Fly Away.” We can thank people like Ed and Betty McDaniel for help in preserving our Southern Appalachian music. Betty is the director of POSAM.

POSAM’s mission is to create meaningful opportunity for people of all ages to participate in the music and dance traditions of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The different toes (activities) of POSAM receive funding from tuition, grants, sponsorships, fundraisers and donations. If you get happy when you hear our YAM of Pickens County in a religious venue, or if your preferences are more secular, the program needs your help in promoting our mountain heritage and preserving our traditional Southern Appalachian music. You can help by going to

Betty McDaniel is the visionary that put POSAM in motion down the road with YAM in 2008 at Holly Springs Elementary School. Then, 32 students were receiving instruction. This past school year, more than 300 students received after-school lessons in banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar, all learning in the traditional Southern Appalachian method. These students from six Pickens County elementary schools, two middle schools and Pickens High School are truly astonishing their audiences with the adept adoption of their heritage, and the ease with which they learn the traditional instruments of our region.

If you want to be entertained, simply attend a performance of the Sweet Potato Pie Kids. This is a performing band of YAM, and they are nothing short of phenomenal. There is now a junior and a senior group. Each time I hear them perform, I am in awe. They truly make us proud to be in Pickens County. Now, if you want to be entertained by an older group, you might attend a venue where our Pickens High Blue Flame Bluegrass Band performs. Don Noonan’s Pickens High bluegrass class has produced performers who are simply spectacular. We can be proud of the fact that we have the only high school in the state of South Carolina with a class focusing on Southern Appalachian music. I have heard them and was impressed and inspired. I heard them last in a religious venue, and they were wonderful! I almost got happy.

Evening programs for third graders through adults (separate from the after-school classes) ensure that everyone who wants to participate can join in the celebration of our heritage. Evening programs are currently held in six Upstate locations in Pickens, Easley, Greenville, Clemson, Travelers Rest and Walhalla. Instruments are available to rent for $25 for six weeks. POSAM leaves no roadway untraveled.

From July 21-25, the widely acclaimed Traditional Arts and Music Day Camp for Young Appalachian Musicians (TAM-YAM) will be held at the Pickens County Recreation Center. The camp exposes students from grades 3-8 to traditional arts, crafts and music of our Southern Appalachian Mountains.

The campers and camp counselors will then showcase their music in a talent show on July 26 in the Pickens Amphitheater. Prior to camp, the Sweet Potato Pie Kids are scheduled to perform June 21 and June 28 at the Pickens Amphitheater.


Eating, and Jamming

I was transformed back in time recently as people met, ate, and jammed at the Appalachian prototype home of Ed and Betty McDaniel. Betty, a longtime Pickens County educator, is a person of rare talents with a personality that is indefatigable and also unflappable. Ed obtained a psychology degree from Furman University as a lad, which enabled him to better understand this beautifully complex and talented lady. Their marriage has been a long and most successful one.

As the fiddles, banjos, guitars, and autoharps sounded off under the centuries-old oak in Ed and Betty’s yard, bright young stars came forth to showcase their talents. There were many old instructors, confident and proficient, who were jamming. But I couldn’t help but notice youngsters such as Danielle Yother and Ella Hennessee.

Ella is such a delight as she plays her guitar and sings from her heart. She is capable, poised and eager to entertain. One can ascertain immediately that some good instructor of YAM has helped Ella join in the celebration of her existence as a musician.

Danielle is the daughter of Mike and Diane Gravely Yother. I was watching Danielle and thinking of the many hours, the many rainy and snowy nights that Danielle’s grandfather — the late legendary mountain man, Franklin Gravely — my late dad and I had spent coon hunting together in the scenic Jocassee Gorges. Franklin would be so proud that his granddaughter might soon make a CD of her beautiful, melodic music. Danielle is such a natural, delightful entertainer; I can just see Franklin flashing that big smile and clapping.

Ed and Betty’s home is a museum of Appalachia, with every room’s architecture an adventure into the past. Most people would be stressed to the limit with little groups of people in every room of their home eating, singing and/or playing on a fiddle, picking a banjo, mandolin, autoharp or guitar. But not Betty and Ed; they thrive on it. Outside the house, a jamming circle begins informally, a big base fiddle is heard, and before one knows it, we are transformed from modern, middle-class, high-tech people into former generations from Appalachia, and proudly carrying on a very old tradition.

I’m glad I live in Pickens County, “where the mountains begin.”

Dr. Thomas Cloer Jr. is Professor Emeritus, Furman University. He was awarded the Outstanding Alumni Award from his alma mater, Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Ky. He has received The Medal of Honor and has been inducted into The Hall of Honor at Cumberland. Dr. Cloer has served as a member of the Editorial Board, and different terms as a member of the Board of Directors, and as an officer for The American Reading Forum.