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Center Preserves Heritage of Mountain Folk

Charles Hillinger's America

October 20, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Ark. — Drive north from Little Rock over 130 miles of narrow, twisting mountain roads and through pungent, piney woods to this tiny hamlet in Stone County and you step back in time. No main highways lead here.

To recapture, preserve and perpetuate the rich heritage of mountain life as it existed here from the early 1800s through World War II, Charles Hillinger's America

Arkansas has established the Ozark Folk Center, a most unusual state park.

Elsie Ward, 75, is one of 50 local people who regularly demonstrates traditional family crafts in the park seven days a week from April through October. She makes lye soap.

"I learned how to make the soap from my mama who learned it from her granddaddy," Ward explains as she melts hog rinds into grease, pours the grease, water and lye into a cast-iron kettle and boils it over an oak fire.

"Now, most folks you talk to nowadays have a bad idea about lye soap. That's wrong. Lye is one of the best soaps ever invented," she says. "It's good to take a bath and get rid of ticks and chiggers with this soap. It's good for poison ivy. I shampoo my hair with it. It takes the grease spots out of clothes and off floors."

As Ward was finishing off her last batch of lye soap for the day, Bill Sky, 45, and his two daughters, Tara, 18, and Laurie, 15, were arriving at the Ozark Folk Center to perform at the evening music show in the park's 1,000-seat auditorium.

The Skys were loaded down with instruments: fiddle, mandolin, autoharp, washboard, Frailin' banjo, guitar and bass fiddle. Laurie also had clog shoes to dance Irish jigs.

A Living Museum

The Ozark Folk Center is a living museum of American folk music, Sky says. "The music you hear at the Folk Center predates country, predates bluegrass. It's the music Americans were singing and playing in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s. Songs still sung and played by families here in the Ozark Mountains as a regular thing until paved roads were pushed through in the 1950s and 1960s, breaking down the barriers of isolation."

Mountain View is called the folk music capital of America. Throughout the year special musical workshops and programs are held at Ozark Folk Center. Next up is the National Fiddlers Convention and Championships on Nov. 1-3.

At Ozark Folk Center state park the clock is turned back to the way it was in simpler times when mountaineers were cut off from the outside world. Folks here were self-sufficient, raising their own crops, fashioning their own tools to take care of their needs, making their own furniture and clothing, providing their own music for entertainment.

The wilderness of the Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas was first settled by Scotch, Irish and English immigrants 175 years ago, hardy pioneers who made their way northward up a river they called Rackensack, now called the Arkansas.

"They were families moving westward from Kentucky and Tennessee, before that from the 13 Colonies, coming here seeking a better life," explains Bill McNeil, 45, music folklorist at the Ozark Folk Center.

The music they brought with them came with their ancestors from the British Isles, some songs like "The Devil's Nine Questions," traced as far back as the 1400s, songs that are still sung by some of the old-time families in the Ozarks.

"But this isolated heritage has been disappearing rapidly ever since the mountain boys went off to war in the 1940s and came back with different ideas, ever since pavement came to Stone County and the surrounding areas in the 1950s," McNeil notes.

So the local musicians for miles around come to Ozark Folk Center night after night to perform the traditional music, playing dulcimers, fiddles, autoharps, guitars, doghouse bass fiddles, Frailin' banjos. There are no electrical instruments, no new songs. McNeil records every performance for the park's archives, which include thousands of songs.

Playing Porch Music

"I love the atmosphere of the Folk Center where we play the old-time back porch, front porch music, trying to preserve the culture," observes 260-pound guitarist Bill Myers, 70, who plays from time to time at the park auditorium with guitarist Ida Copeland, 66, and her toothless, harmonica-playing husband Percy, 72. "Feed the Chickens" was their first number at a recent performance.

Art Platt, 50, sang about the Spanish American War and the assassination of President McKinley: "See what you have done, shot our President with a Johnny 41. . . ."

Bob and Melissa Atchison sang about Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theater: "All the people near him shouting, for God's sake save that man. Poor Lincoln was to say before he went to rest, of all the actors in this town, I loved Booth the best. . . ."

Kermit Taylor, 59, a Stone County school bus driver living in Happy Hollow, said the music played at the state park is the kind of music he grew up with. "My family didn't own a radio until I came out of the Army in 1946. I brought a radio home with me from the war.

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