Cratis Williams, Ballad Collector

Cratis Dearl Williams (April 5, 1911-May 11, 1985), considered the Father of Appalachian Studies, was a native of Caines Creek in Lawrence County, Kentucky. Williams graduated from Louisa High School in 1928 and attended Cumberland College from 1928-1929. He taught in one-room schools on Caines Creek from 1929-1933 while working towards his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Kentucky, which he completed in 1933. In 1937, Williams earned his Master of Arts in English from the University of Kentucky, writing a thesis focused on traditional music from eastern Kentucky entitled "Ballads and Songs." Williams earned his Ph.D. at New York University in 1961, where he completed his dissertation "The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction," a work widely recognized as the first scholarly examination of Appalachian literature.

Williams first began collecting ballads in his teenage years after noticing that the verson of "Barbara Allen" sung by his grandmother differed from the one he found in his textbook. Cratis remembered that, after singing his grandmother's version, his teacher asked him to "record all the songs that all of my people knew and try to remember the tunes because they were disappearing and they should be preserved for posterity." While studying at the University of Kentucky in the early 1930s, Williams met Professor L. L. Dantzler who encouraged Cratis to continue his work of collecting ballads and songs from his family and neighbors. "I saw for the first time," Cratis later recalled, "that the ballad is really great literature, that is lends itself to all sorts of humanistic approaches and interpretations." The study of Kentucky balladry culminated with Williams' 1937 "Ballads and Songs" thesis.

Arriving in Boone in 1942, Williams partnered with Dr. W. Amos Abrams in documenting ballads in the western North Carolina area. Throughout his professional career at Appalachian State University, Williams continued to collect and perform ballads from across the southern Appalachian region.

Image from AC.102: Cratis Williams Papers, 1783-1986.

"A Cabin Industry"

Alnwick Bedspreads was one of many companies who profited from a resurgence of interest in Colonial era household items in the early 20th Century. The brand, based in Poughkeepsie, New York, specialized in producing top quality tufted and knotted bedspreads made by women in the southern Appalachian mountains. In a 1962 letter Mrs. Annette Fry, who inherited "Alnwick Industries" in the 1960s, recalled:

"During the 1920's my mother [Mrs. Woodbridge Riley of Philidelphia, PA] had hundreds of these women filling orders for her. . . Well, the business dwindled in the 30's and 40's, then, a few years ago, my mother's stock was turned over to me, and I decided I'd revive it. But, after months of letter-writing and seeing samples of work, I found that I could get only about five or six workers to fill my orders. Most of the women who worked for my mother were dead or too old to work."

Alnwick was a "cabin industry"- as Fry termed it- and the bedspreads sold by the company proved popular with elites during the company's heyday. The coverlets, canopies, and bespreads produced by Alnwick found there way into collections at the White House and several historic homes, including Mount Vernon. Much of AC.488: Alnwick Bedspreads Collection, 1893-1978, undated comes from the personal correspondence and records of Mrs. Annette Fry, who, while trying to revive the company, researched the history of Alnwick as well as the origins of knotted and tufted bedspreads in the United States.    


Snapshot: Doc Abrams and Music Box

"Doc" Abrams had a lifelong fascination with musical machines and instruments. Abrams collected musical oddities [one of which-- dubbed "Musical Casket No. 2"-- is included in his papers] and frequently gave lectures on his hobby of repairing old music boxes.

Image from AC.114: W. Amos Abrams Papers, 1884-1984, undated.

"Precious Jewel"

On July 4, 1941, Dr. W. Amos Abrams brought his recording equipment to the Boone Fiddlers Convention to capture the performances of local musicians. Among those attending the event was a teenage singer and guitar player identified by Abrams on his recording as "Mr. Watson," a "Blind Boy." Abrams later recalled meeting Doc Watson at a Duke University concert and offering the noted musician a copy of what is now believed to be his first recording, a gospel song entitled "Precious Jewel."  

You can listen to this piece of Appalachian musical history, including Doc Abram's story and commentary on the record, in the digitized W. Amos Abrams Field Recordings Collection by clicking here. You can also access other field recordings and manuscripts produced by Doc Abrams on ballad collecting excursions and at local events, such as the Boone Fiddlers Convention, by clicking here. The Field Recordings section contains streaming audio of early recordings made by Abrams of such performers as Horton Barker, Carl Story, Otis Mote, the Church Family of North Wilkesboro, and Frank Proffitt.

Image from AC.114: W. Amos Abrams Papers, 1884-1984, undated.

"A Few Words of Explanation"


"A Few Words of Explanation

One year, during my senior-graduate course in the History of English Drama, Folklorist Richard Chase came to our campus for lectures and demonstrations. He suggested that we do an authentic English Sword Dance. Since these dances were a part of the development of the drama, I was happy to work with Mr. Chase. These photographs, properly labled and in order, tell the story of the dance.

Eleven characters are necessary-- a piper, six dancers, a clown, an old man, a horse, and a doctor. The comic effect is obvious and was proper for such capers on the village green.

I cannot recall the identity of all the dancers but they may have been identified in the school paper of the DEMOCRAT [Watauga Democrat]. I do know that Talmadge Houck was the clown and was later Lieutenant Commander (I think) in the navy. Eugene Byrd was the old man and Lawrence Atchley (?) the doctor. The horse was either Edward Hamric or Neil Hartley.

Anyway here are the photographs of what proved to be an innovative and very popular performance.

W. Amos Abrams" 

Frame from a series of photographs of an English Sword Dance performed on the campus of Appalachian State Teachers College. From AC.114: W. Amos Abrams Papers, 1884-1984, undated.

Reverend Doctor Goodridge Wilson Papers

Above is a find from within AC.668: Reverend Doctor Goodridge Wilson Papers, the paystub of S. A. Roark from the Hassinger Lumber Company in Konnarock, Virginia dated August 1922. Hassinger Lumber Company, founded in 1905 by Luther Hassinger, constituted a mountain empire which owned around 30,000 acres and employed some 400 workers in the vicinity of White Top Mountain. Konnarock, Virginia, where Roark's mail was postmarked, was the company town with a store [see deductions on Roark's stub], a school, and a lodge. In 1928, six years after Roark received his paystub, the company halted operations and sold its extensive acreage. You can find out more information related to the Hassinger Lumber Company as well as other pieces of southwest Virginia history by visiting the Dougherty Reading Room and requesting AC.668: Reverend Doctor Goodridge Wilson Papers [expected to be completely processed early next week].

Robert Calvin Proffit Papers


For those interested in western North Carolina genealogy AC.198: Robert Calvin Proffit Papers provides many trails to follow in tracing the stories of families linked to the history of the region. According to the collection's biographical information:

Robert Calvin Proffit (1927-1989) was born to Laura Grace Proffit and Walter Clinton Lewis in Watauga County, North Carolina. He does not have a birth certificate. His maternal grandparents were James Franklin Lafayette and Eliza Ann Miller Proffit. Proffit never married. He owned Upper Meat Camp Grocery Store and was an Army veteran of the Korean War. As a genealogist, he was interested in the following families: Proffit, Blackburn, Greer, Miller, and Winebarger. Proffit was a founding member, the clerk and an ordained minister of Liberty Baptist Church. He was interested in Greek, probably for religious study.

Proffit's scholarship attracted the attention of more than just his neighbors in the northwestern portion of the Tar Heel State, as evidenced by letters from locales such as Modesto, California and Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Image: "Reverend Noah Johnson baptizing new church member in Meat Camp Creek" from AC.198: Robert Calvin Proffit Papers.