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Posted by jack_beuthin on Monday, February 5, 2018

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I spent the summer of 1974 living in the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Asheville, North Carolina on a mission to learn the old mountain music with which I had become deeply enamored.  It was supposed to be a permanent move, as much as anything is permanent for a restless 22 year old.  I intended to stay in the southern Appalachians, find a way to make a go of it, soak up old time music, and embrace mountain culture.


The end of the summer, however, brought a turn of events.  I received a letter informing me that a close friend in Salt Lake City died of a drug overdose.  I felt compelled to travel there and to join my group of companions to mourn in the tragic loss.  So I lit out on one of those Great American road journeys with my then girlfriend.


Not far along, we picked up a hitchhiker—a young woman who was a student at Guilford College in Greensboro.  She was on her way to a property in the east Tennessee mountains that was owned by Guilford College and was being used to teach mountain living/homesteading skills.  We agreed to take her there in exchange for a place to spend the night.


Once off the interstate, we traveled several miles on local paved roads, and then climbed a long and steep dirt road up to the property.  We ultimately arrived to what was very much a “Mother Earth News” homestead.  Two other people resided there--one a general caretaker and "mountain skills" instructor, and the other an elderly, but grandly poised, woman who simply called herself Barnicle.


Barnicle was suffering from dementia, and this was my first encounter with someone who in all probability had Alzheimer's.  She would drift in an out of the present but her memory of the distant past was crystal clear.  As it turned out, Barnicle was formerly a folklorist/ethnomusicologist and worked with John Lomax.  Through the night she regaled us with stories of the Seegers, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie and their ilk, all from when she lived in New York City.  We listened with jaws agape.  Finally, she told a story of a collecting trip through the South in the early 1930s.  Barnicle met a black man in prison that was a great singer and bluesman.  Awestruck by his music and presence, she aimed to get him out of prison so that she could get him properly recorded and recognized.  His name was Huddie Ledbetter. Yes, Barnicle said, everyone thinks that the Lomaxes discovered Leadbelly, but accordingly she discovered, and they recorded.  She spoke wistfully, but without  animus, as if the only thing that mattered was that we listened to her story.  At that point, we were pretty much picking up our jaws from the floor.  Barnicle then announced that she was exhausted and needed to retire for the evening.  She exited the room, leaving us huddled around the dying embers in the fireplace, astonished beyond belief by the entire day.


Despite several casual inquires over the years, I never met anyone who knew of Barnicle, until recently.  Steven Wade put on a show a couple of years ago at CU-Boulder.  After the show, when he was signing his new book, I asked if he knew a folklorist named Barnicle.  He looked at me with that smile of his, and said yes, that Barnicle was a known character but mostly within inner circles. 


That encounter with Barnicle in 1974, set far back in the Tennessee hills, was almost surreal.  Over the years, I even began to question if it really happened and if there was such a person.  Bringing this up with Steven cured that creeping doubt, enshrined that magical evening as a cherished memory, and kept it from slipping away into the mists of illusion.  I do not know whether her story about Leadbelly is accurate or not, but that is hardly the point.  The point is more about consciousness--that if we open ourselves to the possibilities in this world, to the side journeys, and to places unfamiliar, that our lives will be enriched beyond our most fanciful imagination and that we will carry those riches into the days when the present moment fades into oblivion.  We will live on through the stories we tell, not only to our friends and family, but to the receptive people who enter our lives in unexpected and fleeting ways.  Our stories become barnacles attached to the ships and moorings of the firmament that transcends us all.


My graduate advisor, who was from West Virginia and had a good wit, used to say, "Geology is made up of a few rocks, a lot of people, and some interesting restaurants along the way."  More and more, I come to appreciate his insight and wisdom.  I borrow and adapt his words to say, 'Old Time music is made up of a few tunes, a lot of people, and some interesting stories along the way.'


Jack Beuthin, 24 January 2018, Golden, Colorado


Post Script:  Another side journey brought Barnicle’s Leadbelly story back into re-examination after I wrote this essay. Through some internet research, Lew Stern located an online bio of Barnicle and a listing of her collected works at Harvard University (  Barnicle’s full name was Mary Elizabeth Barnicle Cadle.  More significantly, if you scroll down to Container List Item 102 on the Barnicle webpage, you will find a bibliographic reference to a letter written to John Lomax about Leadbelly’s prison term and a certificate of his prison conduct.  The letter from Barnicle dates to 1930. The Lomaxes “discovered” Leadbelly in 1933.

1 comment on “Barnicle”

Paul Roberts Says:
Friday, January 21, 2022 @9:03:11 AM

Very interesting story and really fine writing.

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