The discussion topic was "Starving on the Family Farm," and Van Holyoak wasn't sparing any details to the hundred or so suburbanites who crowded around him. "The land was so poor," he said, describing the Arizona ranch he grew up on, "you had to fertilize it to raise hell."
And Delta Hicks, who left school at 10 to help her father cut railroad ties in the Tennessee woods, warned that "hard work never killed anybody - if it did I'd have been dead long ago. She added, "I hope none of you have to work as hard as I did."
Work seemed the furthest thing from the collective mind of nearly 20,000 people who jammed Wolf Trap over the weekend for the 40th National Folk Festival. And at the slightest mention of it - in Holyoak's double-edged humor or Hick's honest reminisences they shifted uneasily, reminded of unmowed lawns and unwashed station wagons. There was little to remind them of chores since the sponsoring National Council for the Traditional Arts had elected to omit from this year's festival folk arts like potting and weaving.
What was left was a chance to hear a little about the country side of life from those who had lived it, and to listen to a wonderful diversity of folk music. At one point on Saturday afternoon, you could stand in the middle of the Wolf Trap grounds and hear an Armenian fiddler, the soft rattle of a Yaqui Indian religious ceremony, and the brash fingerpicking of country blues guitarist John Jackson all mixed together.
Jackson unpacked a battered Gibson from an old case and began playing requests that ranged from "Stagerlee" to "Let the Circle Be Unbroken." But he showed the crowd where his heart was when he said, "I'd like to do a song I heard Big Mama Thornton do before Elvis Presley made it famous," and started into "That's Alright, Mama."
As sharp as Jackson's guitar-playing was, it didn't hold a candle to his tale-telling. Jackson and other experts had gathered Friday for a workshop in "Tales, Stories and Bald - Faced Lies" that proved one of the most popular of the entire festival, and Jackson related the story of his most successful hunting trip.
"I went out the first day of hunting season one year with my old rusty gun," he said in his soft Blue Ridge drawl, "and I came out on a wonderful lot of game. Birds and squirrels, and an old deer, and a rattlesnake down at my feet. I pulled one barrel on my old rusty gun, hopin' to get the birds, and both went off. Well, the one barrel went over and got the 40 birds, and the other barrel went over and got six ducks in the creek.
"The stock flew off and went up in the tree and killed the squirrel, and knocked a branch off and it came down and killed the deer, and the barrel came off and split the rattlesnake. I fell over in the creek and came out with both boots full of fish!
"I said, man, if that aint hunting, then I don't know what is!"
When Jackson ran out of hunting stories, Stanley Hicks took over with Jack tales. A Jack tale is an endless story in which the character - Jack - overcomes with native guile and born laziness the hard-working grasshoppers of the world, usually his relatives. "I must know 25 or 30," said the 77-year-old Hicks, "but my Daddy was the one that knew 'em. You get him started and he could go on all night - the trouble was getting him started."
Hicks quit farming in Beech Mountain, Tenn., three years ago "when the asthma got to me," he said. Now he travels around to festivals where he sells the dulcimers and banjos he makes himself, even down to the drums on the banjos, made out of cured groundhog hide.
"Them groundhogs ain't good for nothing else," sniffed Hicks, thumbs tucked securely in the band of his starched Pointer-brand overalls. He shoved his straw hat back on his head. "You might as well shoot 'em and put 'em down a hole."
Hicks was scheduled to tell ghost stories next - "haunt tales," he called them - and wasn't looking forward to it. "I never listened when my Daddy told haunt tales," he said, "they scared me. I believed in haunts. Course, a lot of your haunts are just spunk, or what you'd call foxfire. Once me and Daddy thought we had us a bunch a haunts and Daddy threw a rock over at'em, and it was a big flock of the neighbor's geese. The person who believe in haunts was my uncle - he was building a fire once, starting it with black powder, and he didn't cap the horn."
"Well, he swung the old horn around, and bent down to light that fire, and what he didn't realize was that black powder was running out and making a fuse. He lit the fire and lit a fuse right back to himself and like to blowed him out of the house." Hicks chuckled, showing his few yellow teeth. "He always sweared the haunts did it. I could tell 'em that, but I think I'll tell 'em another Jack tale - even if they heard it before. There's nary a bunch tells 'em exactly alike."
If Hicks was an example of those festival participants who had lived the folk tradition. Ron Williams of Chattanooga, Tenn, was an expample of those who were trying to recapture it. A young man in his early 30s, Williams teaches social studies at Pine Breeze Center outside Chattanooga, a school for emotionally disturbed children. Tapping his feet as Eldia and Oscar Barbee played traditional Tennessee fiddle and banjo, Williams explained his involvement with the music and the culture.
"I was the son of a preacher and grew up around this kind of music," Williams explained, "then I went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and found other people who were interested in it. About three or four years ago I decided to get my students involved in it. We found Eldia and Oscar, and made a record that paid for more research. It's a good thing, because this kind of culture is almost gone.
"This is a great festival - Oscar's still trying to figure out the Yaquis from the Mexicans and if any of them speak English." Then Williams' face turned rueful, and he pointed to a record jacket. "That man is Blaine Smith, the finest fiddle player you'll ever hear. But he got religion 15 years ago - before that he was the biggest moonshiner around - and he won't come off the mountain."
Their set over, the Barbee brothers stepped off the stage and wiped sweat off their faces. Eldia had been to Washington before - "I had a boy blowed up in Vietnam," he said, and was silent. But Oscar had never been out of Tennessee, and wanted to do a little sightseeing before playing more music. The largely young crowd had liked him, he said, but "I can play better - I like pretty hot music," Oscar Barbee said and grinned.
(The Barbee brothers weren't too impressed with Washington, Williams said. "I took them over to the National Air and Space Museum to see that movie about flying and Eldia got seasick and Oscar went to sleep.")
Finally on Sunday the intermittent clouds produced a steady drizzle that drove picnickers under the trees and the listeners to the edges of the performers tents.
But the rain didn't dampen spirits. Dorothy Rorick, a white-haired banjo player from Husville, Va., said a little worriedly, "I'm glad I don't have to play something that plugs in," but smiled as she moved under a nearby tent. And Bill Kornick, who grew up in Connecticut and worked in Boston before discovering the virtues of rural living in Tennessee three years ago, just watched the rain and worried about his bean crop.
Kornick likes Tennessee so much he is a candidate for county commissioner in Hawkins County, and he just remembered some country advice to get him through the rainstorm.
"When I first moved in down there, the old tin roof on my house leaked, and I asked neighbors what to do about it," he said. "They said, 'Well, when it rains there's nothing you can do about it - and when it doesn't, it doesn't leak. So why worry?'" He smiled and prepared to wait it out: