Mountain Music Tradition: The residents of Mountain View, Ark., pay harmonious tribute to their Ozark roots.

September 08, 1996|By Harry Shattuck | Harry Shattuck,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

One after another, they gather near the Stone County courthouse square in Mountain View, Ark.

An elderly woman dressed in denim. A man whose weathered face is all but hidden beneath a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. A young boy in shorts and T-shirt. Dozens more.

They come from their churches and homes on this early Sunday afternoon, bringing guitars and fiddles and mandolins and banjos and a deep respect for song and tradition.

They sit in a circle surrounded by family and friends. They begin to play. So softly, so gently, the wind provides the only amplification.

"Windshield wipers slappin' time, and Bobby clappin' hands; We sang every song that driver knew."

When the last chorus is ended, the others speak with a nod toward the woman who clutches her guitar as if it were a newborn baby. There is little emotion in her eyes, no smile on her lips. But as she starts to pick her instrument and sing, "Pistol Packin' Mama" seems almost to take on the reverence of an anthem.

As the afternoon wears on, other circles form. Within every cluster, each individual takes his or her turn as a soloist, then all join in sweet harmony. Whenever a man or woman or child needs a break, another removes an instrument from its case and fills the chair.

The music is as familiar as "You Are My Sunshine," as surprising as "The Tennessee Flat-Top Box." Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" is an exception, for most songs were written more than half a century ago, many by the people who play them today. Or by their mamas and daddies and grandfolks.

They play into the night throughout the summer. On Saturday evenings in the autumn chill, they will place wood beneath an old heating stove outside Aunt Minnie's, a house facing the courthouse, and the music will continue. Only on the coldest winter days or when rain falls will they move inside.

Visitors are welcome to join in the music. Some bring folk instruments.

The only admission charge is their time. And an appreciation that when "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" is played and sung, as it inevitably is, the answer rests in the hearts of these Ozark mountaineers.

"Our music is the thread that ties us together," Comer "Moon" Mullins says.

"In the early days, some who came here were outlaws and others came for the timber. The ones who weren't outlaws were hard-working people. Tough people. Strong people. They'd split ties from daylight to dark. Then, when it was too dark to see, they'd go home, light up a lantern and play their music.

"It's been that way for generations," Mullins continues. "When I was growing up, music was a ritual in our home. We'd sit around the fireplace after dinner and play and sing."

Today, barely a mile from the courthouse square, Mullins, banjoist John Taylor and two neighbors are playing and singing inside an auditorium at the Ozark Folk Center, an Arkansas state park that perpetuates this region's musical heritage, its native arts and crafts, its people's way of life.

All about the spacious grounds, area residents demonstrate pottery-making, blacksmithing, spinning and weaving, printing -- more than 20 pioneer skills.

Blanche Richardson meticulously stitches an enormous quilt.

"I was born and raised 12 miles from Mountain View," she says. "I've been quilting since I was a teen-ager. My sister and I are working together on this quilt. It takes time. Patience. Care. But we enjoy it."

Alternate feet

J. D. Livingstone pumps a lathe with his foot, spinning a piece of wood that he will carve with a blade into a toothpick holder or candlestick.

"The secret to operating a foot lathe is in knowing you've got to change feet every once in a while so you don't wear out one foot," he says.

Children and their parents walk along paved pathways, pausing to savor the fragrance of a purple iris and the beauty of a bright yellow butterfly and to learn that the same herbs on display here in a garden -- basil, alkanet, violets -- served pioneers as food, dye and medicine.

If activity at the Folk Center is more structured than on the courthouse square, people are no less sincere in carrying on traditions held dear in this unique slice of Americana situated on the eastern fringe of the Ozark National Forest, about 100 miles north of Little Rock.

The beginnings

"In the late '50s, Stone County was the poorest county in Arkansas, 10th poorest in the United States," says Bill Young, the Folk Center's general manager. "But people identified that there was a great love for crafts and a great love for pickin'. So they put the two together and established the Arkansas Folk Festival here in 1973.

"Up to 100,000 attended the festival [still scheduled each April]. From that success came an idea to establish a vocational school for the teaching of these crafts and music. Right before the scheduled opening, the company that was to operate the facility became bankrupt. So it was opened as a state park."

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