Barrett Ashley on Life and Sacred Harp, in Conversation with Jerry Enright

On Sunday, July 4, 1993, after the end of the second day of the Henagar-Union Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Henagar, Alabama, Chicago Sacred Harp singer Jerry Enright sat down with Barrett Ashley, a singer from Collinsville, Alabama, and one of the key members and supporters of the Lookout Mountain Sacred Harp singing community. Jerry had started singing Sacred Harp at the beginning of 1989; four and a half years later, he sat in Liberty Baptist Church with his friend Mr. Ashley, a lifelong singer “born into it,” and recorded their conversation about Mr. Ashley’s life, the times he’d lived in, and his lifelong love of Sacred Harp singing.

Barrett Ashley died just over four years after this conversation took place, on July 29, 1997, at the age of eighty-seven, and is buried in New Bethel Cemetery, Cherokee County, Alabama.

—Karen L. Freund
Algonquin, IL
April 13, 2014

An excerpt from this interview was published in Vol. 3, No. 1 of The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter as “A Happy Life: Reflections on Sacred Harp Singing by Barrett Ashley.” The Sacred Harp Museum thanks Karen Freund for permission to make the complete recording of Jerry Enright’s conversation with Barrett Ashley, as well as Jerry and Karen’s transcript, freely accessible here to interested singers. [Note: the audio recording of this conversation will be posted soon.]

—Jesse P. Karlsberg

This conversation was recorded on Sunday, July 4, 1993, at Liberty Church, Henagar, Alabama and transcribed by Karen Freund and Jerry Enright. The recording and transcript are © 2003 Squirrel Hill Recordings.

Jerry: You were born here?

Barrett: I was born in a log house.

Jerry: A log house on Lookout Mt.

Barrett: About a quarter (mile) from the church where we had our convention.

Jerry: Is it where your house is now?

Barrett: No, it’s right there at the church, west of the church. In 1909.

Jerry: Where did you learn to sing Sacred Harp?

Barrett: I was born into it.

Jerry: Your parents sang it?

Barrett: My parents sang it, and my daddy was a teacher in this music. They sang it, and on both sides of the house: my mother’s people and his people, we all sang it.

Jerry: Did your grandparents sing Sacred Harp?

Barrett: One of them did.

Jerry: So they must have been singing it back around the time when the book was published.

Barrett: Well, I had one grandpa – my daddy’s daddy – I went to singing before he did. He took it up then after us kids went to singing.

Jerry: That’s a long time of singing. Did you sing at home?

Barrett: Yes sir, yes sir, we sang at home, and a lot of time, after supper, somebody would start a song and we’d get started to singing – there was four of us kids, and my mother and daddy – and we’d get started to singing, and we had all parts – sometime we’d sing (until) ten, eleven o’clock at night.

Jerry: No kidding.

Barrett: We’d do that two, three times a week, sometimes four.

Jerry: That must have been a lot of fun.

Barrett: A lot of fun, a lot of joy. And I tell everybody I had a happy life because I was born and raised in this old Sacred Harp singing. Now I don’t claim the Sacred Harp singing altogether. I believe in the church. I’m a member of the church and I believe in the church. But if I have a calling, it’s to sing. I go by the calling, I believe in the calling, in my heart. ____________ through God, and my Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what I believe in. And when you leave that, you’ve left me. And this singing is part of that. It’s a part of it that will never, never die.

Jerry: Well, I think we can see that when you lead.

Barrett: (Laughs) Well, I enjoy it, sure do. Sometimes I get so full and get so happy…I just might have to hold the bench to keep from getting up and hollerin’ – seem like you’d hear me four mile, but I’d cut it down to three.

Jerry: (Laughs)

Barrett: Yep, it’s great. It’s a wonderful thing.

Jerry: You were saying yesterday that you had led your first song when you were five?

Barrett: Well, it was done before I was five, in August, before I was five in November.

Jerry: What song was that again?

Barrett: It was “Traveling Pilgrim,” 278, bottom brace, second piece.

Jerry: And you pitched it yourself.

Barrett: I pitched it myself.

Jerry: Have you done much pitching?

Barrett: …right smart of it along. I’ve got out of practice, of course. We had other people, younger people that come on and took it, and I got out of practice. I taught two schools.

Jerry: What year was that?

Barrett: Well, I couldn’t tell you what year, but the first one I was about 16 years old.

Jerry: That was on Lookout Mountain?

Barrett: That was on Lookout Mountain, Shady Grove Church. I taught school there, then I taught one at Pine Grove, and O.D. Oliver helped me.

Jerry: And roughly when would that have been?

Barrett: Well, my children… they were down to here… and the youngest was 5, 6 year old… that would be about… Oh, I’d say around ‘45, ’46, ‘47, I just can’t recall. And we had a great time, we learned a lot of little fellers to sing, get hope a lot of grown people, too.

Jerry: Are there still some of those people out there singing?

Barrett: Yes sir. These people…

Jerry: People we know, maybe?

Barrett: Well you know S.T. and Milton, Bud and them…

Jerry: They went to your singing school…

Barrett: Yeah, and Dallas [Reed] had one boy and several daughters, you know, and some of them, they had children, you know, we learned them to sing songs.

Jerry: A lot of good…

Barrett: Yeah, good singers now.

Jerry: Did you go to any singing schools, when you were coming up?

Barrett: About every summer, up until I was grown – practically grown, I had to work then. I didn’t get to go to singing school, but they had one there at Pine Grove every year. Two weeks in the summertime.

Jerry: But you didn’t get to go to it.

Barrett: Well, I went most of the time until I got sixteen, eighteen year old, well then I had to work, you see. We’s on the farm, we farmed, and we had a sawmill – my daddy owned a sawmill. When I wasn’t in the woods, cutting logs, snaking logs, hauling logs with a pair of mules, I was at the sawmill firing the boiler – we used steam at that time, milled with steam – I was firing the boiler or sawing. That was my job. Well, I off-beared, too, but then my main job was firing the boiler and sawing.

Jerry: Do you remember any of your singing school teachers?

Barrett: Uncle Telly Reed, that’s S.T.’s grand-daddy, and his other grand-daddy’s Uncle Sherman Oliver. You see, Bud, S.T. and Milton, they all got the same grand-daddy. And Mr. Reed and Uncle Sherman was always there, and the most of the time my daddy done the teaching, because he was a good hand explaining it, you know, and Mr. Reed and Uncle Sherman, they were good singers. They had ruther, they just turned it over to him and let him do the teaching, you know.

Jerry: Some people have a knack for explaining…

Barrett: Yeah, well, he did… so he always done the teaching, you know. Now they had schools before ever I got old enough to go, and Mr. Reed and Mr. Oliver, they done the teaching then. ‘Cause my daddy, he was busy and lots of times…. But I been going to a singing school ever since I was just a little old bitty feller. I’d say three or four years old, I can remember going to a singing school. We lived close and if my daddy wasn’t teaching, well, Uncle Sherman Oliver and Uncle Telly Reed, why they’s a-doing the teaching and I’d go out – we lived right close to the church – I’d go out there and go to the singing school, you know. I don’t remember the first song I learned by heart. You know, I didn’t know nothing about music, to read music, and you know I had to get it by heart. I don’t remember, I been singing it ever since I can remember. And there’s other things that happened but, it sounds a little unreasonable, I don’t talk it much, I know I just keep that to myself. It’s things… I believe when you’re telling things or you’re talking about things, being reasonable about things, you know, but there’s a few things that happened a long, long… unreasonable of course…


Barrett: I had three children, two daughters and a son, and I taught them to sing. At that time, our plans was to send them to school. Me and my wife, we had about a eight or ninth-grade education and we knew what education meant to people that was a-trying to build a home, have a family and a place in the world, and we planned to send those children to school, and we did, the Lord blessed us…

Jerry: I’ve met your son, he was at the singing last year at Pine Grove, he teaches in college?

Barrett: Doyle – he’s a professor at the University of Georgia at Athens.

Jerry: Certainly be proud of that.

Barrett: And the girls, they went over to Jacksonville long enough until they learned how to marry and they quit and married.

Jerry: (Laughs) Do they sing at all?

Barrett: Oh, yes, they were all pretty good singers, yeah, they were good singers. The boy would still sing but he’s tied up there at the school, and the girls, they married men that didn’t like this kind of singing, and of course they don’t participate anymore, haven’t for a long time, and it just broke my heart, but after all, I let them live their lives, I don’t bother their lives, their business, I have nothing to say unless they ask me, if they ask me, they’re gonna get the answer, they’ll get the answer. This thing of people a-going to your children’s home and running things and telling what to do, we didn’t do that, because when they was at home, if there had to be a boss, I was boss. I never bossed my wife, we’ve been together soon be sixty-five years, I never bossed my wife, she’s never bossed me. But the kids, if there had to be a boss, long as they stuck their feet under my table, I was the boss, there had to be one. And I raised my children, and I taught them when I spoke one time, that was it. If they heard me, I never spoke a second time, I never begged them to do nothing, I told them what was what, and if they were all three here they’d tell you they was not afraid of me, but when I spoke, they knowed I meant business. And I taught them to sing, they were good singers, and they’re good religious families, there’s 18 of us in the family now, just two, from me and their mother, and we have a great family. Naturally you’d think I’d say that, but we really do have a nice family. And we’re very very proud of them. We brought them up to fear God, that’s number one, to fear God, God is God of all things, we taught them that. We carried them to church. I was raised a Primitive Baptist. And my daddy and mother, they belonged to the Wills Creek Association, it was Primitive Baptist association. But I belong to the Missionaries now because the church, the Primitive Baptist church closed, and we’re going to be buried at New Bethel, and I belong at New Bethel, a Missionary Baptist…

Jerry: Where is New Bethel?

Barrett: It’s right out on 68 just a little piece from the top of the mountain before you turn down to ___________, just a little piece right there, just off of 60. We’re gonna be buried there, that’s why we joined.

Jerry: But not soon.

Barrett: We hope not.

Jerry: Did you go to school at all at Pine Grove? Was that after your time?

Barrett: That’s all the schooling I got, was right there at Pine Grove. I was borned and raised right there in hollerin’ distance of Pine Grove.

Jerry: It’s a nice place.

Barrett: I got all my schooling and everything, except experience. That’s the greatest teacher.

Jerry: It sure is. Bud was saying that he had gone to school up there.

Barrett: Yes, they consolidated their school there and carried it over to Collinsville, you know, but that was after my time, my children went there, my children went to school there, all but one, the youngest one didn’t go, but the other two did, and they consolidated it, and they all went to Collinsville.

Jerry: Your children went to Collinsville then?

Barrett: They went to Collinsville after they went there to start with and maybe 1st, 2nd, 3rd grade, something like that you know, and maybe a little more, it might have been the 5th grade, I don’t know, but anyway, they went to school there right where I did.

Jerry: And all those people who still live in that same area…

Barrett: Everybody you meet up there went to Pine Grove to school, in other words, that attend, we say the backbone of the Pine Grove community, they all went to school at Pine Grove a while, they went a while.

Jerry: They’re a fine group to sing with.

Barrett: Well, we thank you, we appreciate you feeling that way, we appreciate everybody that comes and everybody that backs us, and back to Mr. Reed and Mr. Oliver, they were the backbone of that singing, they are the backbone of what it is today, they are alive, is living on today, what they done there, before I was ever borned, a long time. That convention was organized in 1904. And they was, Mr. Reed, he was, that’s S.T. and Milton and Bud’s grandpa, Mr. Reed was the chairman, and Mr. Oliver, he was the vice-chairman. As far back as I can remember, it was that way from the time it was organized to many years. I’m not boasting and not bragging, but I’m the first chairman that was elected after Mr. Reed got to where he couldn’t handle it, why, his health got bad and he couldn’t handle it, and I was the first chairman that followed him, and he was chairman of that for I’d say 50 years, at least 50 years.

Jerry: So it would have been in the 1950s somewhere or later that you were elected chairman?

Barrett: Yeah… no, I was elected president in the ‘40s, sometime ’48, ’48, might have been ’46, probably ’45-’46, I was elected chairman, Mr. Reed got to where he couldn’t…

Jerry: I was two or three years old then.

Barrett: Yeah… and I was chairman for many years there. But first, though, I held the secretary’s job many years before Mr. Reed got to where he couldn’t handle it and I was elected president.

Jerry: That’s a lot of work being secretary.

Barrett: I was secretary for many years. It was enjoyable work, although it gets you in a tight being that and on the arranging committee, it gets you in a tight because it’s hard to portion it out to where nobody gets hurt.

Jerry: Right, nobody feels offended.

Barrett: … feels offended, no way, and Lord knows we didn’t want that you know, we sure didn’t.

Jerry: How did you get to singings, the early singings, when you were young?

Barrett: We hooked a pair of mules to a two-horse wagon.

Jerry: And how far were you able to go to a singing?

Barrett: Ten miles, sometimes ten or twelve miles, something like that, we’d get up and leave by sun-up, in a wagon, we’d go, we’d get there, start about ten o’clock.

Jerry: So this is probably too far for the early singings.

Barrett: (Laughs) Yeah, and then if there was four or five miles, why us young people, we’d walk, you know, there’d be a road full of us, you know, going to the singing where it’s four or five miles, you know, if it’s further than that most times we’d go on a wagon.

Jerry: How many people did you used to have at the early singings? It’s hard to remember.

Barrett: Well, we didn’t have… I would say, when I first began to direct and lead, we’d have 35 to 40 maybe.

Jerry: That’s a good number.

Barrett: And I can remember when they call leaders, they didn’t have one song or two songs, they had fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, and some of the older ones would have thirty minutes, I can remember that.

Jerry: And you didn’t call everybody at all either.

Barrett: No, no. And some of them, they want to talk a lot, you know, and some of them just want to sing, take up all their minutes in singing, and some of them would want to sing some and talk some, and that was enjoyable, I remember that part of it. It was quite amusing when they would begin to leave that off, you know, and they begin to call leaders, we used to lead four at a time, on the floor, there’d be four of us on the floor, and we would march. At the end you sing after the first stanza, on the repeat or where the repeat is, and you exchanged places that way, and when you repeated it you changed and you marched, that’s what we used to call marching.

Jerry: Did you march in time to the music?

Barrett: Well, you just, whenever you got out there, why then you just… well, you just take, like 343, “Oh yes my Savior I will trust,” “Though my body’s turned to dust,” when you got there you marched. OK, you stay there til you sing the second part and when you got out to the chorus, when you sang that then, you repeated and you’d march, march back. And that would give you, the one that picked the song was always at the head of the class, you see, and the others had their back to the audience, but the one that selected the song, he faced the congregation. And then whenever these two selected their song, why, they’d swap places and they turn their back to the audience and the other two come up and face the audience. But I never did like it. I always liked to sing by myself, the first time I ever sang a song, we’s talking about me leading. Before I was five year old I sang by myself, I always liked to sing by myself, but I sang with four on the floor, and then we got to where we sang two a lot, you know. There’d be two, one stands his back to the audience, you know, and the other one picked his song, you know, and we’d do the marching, too. And we finally got to running short, we begin to have more company, more singers, we begin to run short of time, and I made the suggestion to use one song, sing one song, and one person, and if we got around, pick the leaders that’s the furthest off, let them sing twice. I made the suggestion to do that and they took it up, and then we went ahead with that, we sang one, we could sing a whole lot more leaders that way than we could singing two or four, a lot more. And it worked out fine, and then the time come up, keeping time. You know, the older people, they taught four beats to the measure. There’s no books, no Sacred Harp books teaches four beats, they went back to Showalter’s and Gaines and all of them you know and the seven shapes, and that’s what they got the four beats, to teach the four beats, if you understand. But I always liked the two beats to the measure. But of course I went along with the crowd, I kept four for a long time.

Jerry: So when you learned to lead they were singing four beats?

Barrett: Singing four beats.

Jerry: Up on Lookout Mountain.

Barrett: On Lookout Mountain, yes sir. And we had one book at that time, and that was the Cooper book. It was the old Cooper book.

Jerry: I would never have guessed that.

Barrett: And I’ve got one of the books used back in those days, still got one of the books. And then the books began to change, you know, they come up White come out, you know.

Jerry: Did you switch to the White book then?

Barrett: No, we used both, we used both, the Cooper and White, we used both books. And then we used them two and James come out with one, then we kind of put the Cooper kind of on the back shelf, and took the James and the White, because James had a few new songs in it, but though we would sing some of the songs in all three of the books, we’d go back and sing some in the Cooper book, you know, but our main song would be in the James book and the White book. And then we used that til Denson’s come out in 1936, and now Denson come out in 1936, then we dropped the James because they had the songs that was in the James, most all of them you know that wasn’t in the Cooper and they put that in the Denson book. The first books that come out in the Denson book was 1936. And I come to this convention, it was held up here at New Hope, and there was some people there that had the book, I bought my first book there, at New Hope, of the Denson book. Give two dollars for it. [Laughs]

Jerry: It’s a few more dollars than that these days, but not that much by comparison.

Barrett: So we still sang some in the Cooper book, some in the White book, but the James book, as I done said, the Densons, they took the most of their songs and it was all about the same to me, so we just dropped the James book altogether and used the Denson and the White, and we still use the Cooper book, the old Cooper book, a little, you know.

Jerry: Right. Well, we sang some White book today.

Barrett: Yeah. That’s right.

Jerry: That’s fun to do that.

Barrett: Yeah. We was speaking about my granddaddy Ashley, my daddy’s daddy, he lived to be 99 and 9 months, when he passed away, he was 99, and like 3 months behind, he had one of the White books, and his 1911 edition. And he stayed with us, my grandmother died and he never did marry no more, and he stayed amongst the children, he stayed with us most, my daddy’s family, and then he stayed with the youngest girl’s, and when he passed away, she kept his book. And I was down there about two or three years ago, stopped by to see her, she’s 95, she was 95 year old the third day of this past April. And she told me, she said, “I’ve got something I want to give you.” And she went and got the songbook.

Jerry: Oh, that’s nice.

Barrett: She says, “Now, you’re the oldest grandchild living.” There’s just one of his grandchildren older than me, but he had passed away. And she said, “I want you to have the book, the White book.” And our grandfather’s White book. And I don’t carry it nowhere, I keep it close. And she also gave me my great-granddaddy’s Bible. And that Bible is close to a hundred and seventy years old. It’s an old-time raised-back Bible. And that was my great-granddaddy’s Bible.

Jerry: That’s wonderful to have those things.

Barrett: And I’ve got his at home, I’m very proud of that. And of course the boy’s done asked for it, my boy’s done asked for it.

And I remember very well the first convention that I visited other than our convention, the Lookout Mountain Convention, that’s all I knowed, about ten, twelve year old, something like that. It was the North Alabama convention.

Jerry: Was it over here on Sand Mountain?

Barrett: No, it was west of Fyffe.

Jerry: It was still on the Mountain?

Barrett: About seven-eight miles west of Fyffe, yeah, it’s still on Sand Mountain, still on Sand Mountain. Down at Pilgrim’s Rest.

Jerry: I’ve heard that name.

Barrett: A convention was held there, that’s the first time I ever visited a convention. We had people that was, by that time I was singing a lot faster than most people, well any of our class sang faster, but not as fast as they do now, but anyway, and they had people there, a few, that they didn’t like fast singing at all.

Jerry: They were four-beat people?

Barrett: They were four-beat people, they didn’t like two beats to the measure. And there was an old gentleman there, he was a wonderful man, he was a foundation of the Sacred Harp music, he was real old at that time.

Jerry: Do you remember his name?

Barrett: It was Uncle Tommy Durham, Uncle Tommy Durham, and I went to that convention, and I was called on to sing.

Jerry: Did you get fifteen minutes?

Barrett: No, I just got one song, whenever we was… and I requested to sing by myself. It was singing two, that was when they began to sing two, but I requested to sing by myself, and did. And I sang 298, and I sang it fast, too. I sang the notes, and Uncle Tommy Durham, settin’ over in the chair, he got up and he told me where I was headed to with that fast singing, he told me I was ruinin’ the singing and so forth and so on. Of course, I was just a kid. I didn’t say a word. I could have, but I didn’t. I respected him, because he was an old gentleman, and he had done so much for the Sacred Harp, but he wanted it done his way, if you understand. He wanted the singing to go, but he wanted to still stay like he wanted it, and he had a perfect right to feel that way if he wanted to, I didn’t fault that with him like that at all, but he was a comical kind of a feller. Us kids, we had to, when he come over to Pine Grove, we’d get him to sing these little old songs that he had by hisself, you know. He had one he called “Raindrops on the Boards,” he could sing that song, and with his mouth he could make it sound like rain dropping on home-made boards, you know, and then he had another one, I forget what he called it, but he’d sing them two songs, we’d go to Mr. Reed, he was the chairman, you know, and asked him to sing, you know, and us kids, we’d get a great kick out of it. A lot of bad happened, during these times, you know. Like it is now, we lost people. We had sadness, and then we had a lot, a lot of happy times. In those singings, I tell you, it was wonderful. You know what it is today.

Jerry: The good ones.

Barrett: It’s great.

Jerry: There are some that really stand out. Liberty’s a good one, and Lookout Mountain is always my favorite place to sing. The people there are such wonderful people, that there’s a spirit there that you don’t, I don’t find at other singings, and I, you know, I know a lot of people and I sing all over the country, and there’s lots of wonderful singings, but there’s nothing that matches Lookout Mountain.

Barrett: We thank you.

Jerry: It’s true. We thank you for it.

Barrett: We appreciate that. We appreciate you all very very much. It’s something that’s, there’s two conventions, this convention here, the Henagar Convention, the Lookout Mountain Convention, we’ve been together so long, singing together so long, we’re just like a family, we’re just like kinfolk, we get along better than kinfolk.

[Tape turned off for a moment]

Jerry: I was afraid they might chase us out, but they won’t do it, they’re too nice.

Barrett: Well, to be fair with you, those boys, I’d treat them just like my own boys, if they was to come in to talking now, just say “Well, we ain’t hardly ready.” Because we love them, we loved them all their lives, sing with them all their lives, you know, so it don’t matter. That’s why I told you, the Henagar bunch and the Lookout Mountain bunch is so close because we been together so long. Well, the Woottens, you know, they’re all up there, you know, around Ider, why, they’re just the same way, yeah, they’re the same way, just plain old country folks, love singing, they’re good Christian people, it’s wonderful. I like to be with people like that, I like to be with people like y’all. Y’all have done a lot for our convention. We’re worried about our convention. You see, I’ve not got much longer here, you know. If I live to be old, it’s gonna be, it’s a short time. And Milton, S.T. and Bud, you know, they…

Jerry: They’re getting along there, too.

Barrett: They’re getting along, too. When something happens to them, I’m uneasy about it. So now I feel all right long as they’re able to carry it on, you know, but I’m uneasy about it. I would love for it just to go on and on and on and on, but I don’t have nobody but one son, and he’s not gonna be close. He raised his family in Athens, Georgia, and that’s their home, and naturally he’s gonna stay with them, because all their friends is there…

Jerry: Milton’s son doesn’t sing, hardly.

Barrett: No, he don’t sing much, he sings some.

Jerry: He used to, I guess, when he was little.

Barrett: Well, he still leads once in a while, but not…

Jerry: Yes, you’re right, there aren’t, I can’t think of any younger people over there at…

Barrett: Although Dallas’s girls, and Clarence Reed, you know, he was brother to S.T.’s daddy, well, he married my mother’s sister, and he’s got four girls, if you remember, the one that said “Will all of our first cousins get up and sing,” well that’s Dallas’s brother’s children.

Jerry: That’s always good to see that.

Barrett: Yeah, that’s all those first cousins, but Dallas, he’s got several girls, but they don’t, they come over there and [crosstalk] sing…

Jerry: They might not be likely to take over the convention.

Barrett: Well, their menfolk, you know, they don’t sing, not interest in it. Now they can sing, all the girls can sing, but their men don’t, and some of them did, you know, they just don’t.

Jerry: Did the old singings sound different from the singings today?

Barrett: Yes.

Jerry: They were probably slower. If they beat them in four.

Barrett: Yeah, it was…

Jerry: Pretty slow.

Barrett: …something like that. I always said they just dragged the bark off of it.

Jerry: (Laughs)

Barrett: And they had a singing in Gadsden every fifth Sunday. And after I got, oh, ten or twelve year old, I’d go down there every fifth Sunday. They used two beats. They shoved, I mean, they shoved it.

Jerry: You liked that.

Barrett: Everybody thought they just running away with it, but they wasn’t, they were just, they don’t, they didn’t sing near as fast as we do, you know, for common here. They sang a lot faster than we did with two beats to the measure, I loved that, and I loved the speed. And I enjoyed that very very much. Uncle Dave McClusky, he was the chairman of that for many years. He died, and Uncle Bob [______], he was the sheriff of Etowah County for twelve years, he took the chairman’s job, and we sang every fifth Sunday, and I helped him, and they finally got to where they, we couldn’t get the fifth Sunday, and they moved us to the third Sunday in June, and we sang there til the courthouse closed and that stopped it and it just went dead. And that was a sad time, because we had a lot of good singings, and good singers, you know, to come there. And they fed the people, they’d go around these cafes, you know, and they’d have tickets, and so on, you know, and then they gave you a ticket and there’d be somewhere and you just looked at the place to go and you was fed free. Oh, they back that, the Gadsden Bank backed that singing, you know, because back in those days, you see, that was, well that was just the main goal of the day, you know. People there in town, they backed… of course, Uncle Dave McClusky, you know, he was official in the city government there, you know, and Uncle Bob was the sheriff, you know, and all that, why, they backed them, you know.

Jerry: That’s pretty nice.

Barrett: All those cafes, they was just… they fed you good.

Jerry: It’s hard to imagine today, that the whole town would be behind the singing like that.

Barrett: Yeah, it is, but it was. But I tell you, there’s people today that loves the singing but they don’t go. They’ll say, “Well, I hadn’t heard none of that singing in so many years, I sure would like to hear some of it,” you know.

Jerry: They should come help us.

Barrett: But they don’t come, you see, they don’t go. Now we used to, we’d have a house full of listeners, you know, some standing at the windows and all, you know, because they loved to listen at it. At Pine Grove we had a class, I mean, the biggest class there was in the country, and we’d go to singing there, where we had a singing right there at the Pine Grove, we’d go singing about 9:30, and we’d sing til 3:30, and a lot of time wouldn’t get around then, and that was the people that lived in the community and adjoining, in the surrounding communities, you see. And my daddy teaching schools every year, he got to where he’d teach them at night, you know. They’d come from all the community.

Jerry: They’d get more and more singers then, every time.

Barrett: They’d get more and more singers, you see.

Jerry: That must have been really something.

Barrett: Oh, it was, it was something, it sure was, it was great. Of course, when he went to teaching at night, Mr. Reed, Mr. Oliver, they were, their age, they couldn’t get out much, at age… but we had a lot of good singers there. But they’re all gone. They’re just about all gone.

Jerry: I’m glad there’s as much left as there is.

Barrett: Yeah.

Jerry: Someday we might fill it up again. We come pretty close to it.

Barrett: Yeah, well… there’s one thing that hurts our convention. Well, there’s two things that hurts our convention, about having people to come. The room, the house is too small, and the parking, the parking’s bad, that’s the two things, it hinders our singing a lot. A way back in… people, they come there in two-horse wagons, mules and two-horse wagons, buggies and all that, you know, and they come there so long, when they turn out for lunch, why you couldn’t hardly hear your ears for the mules braying, they knowed it was dinnertime, they’d bring a bundle of fodder and corn to feed them mules right there on the ground, they had to have their dinner just like we did.

Jerry: Did you have more room on the grounds than you do now?

Barrett: Well, no, it’s about the same.

Jerry: Pretty much the same.

Barrett: About the same. But there’s a lot of it growed up. The banks of those roads were just as clean, you know, and the bank wasn’t very high, either. They built the road, they begin to use the graders on the road, why they went down and they made the bank higher, that’s why we’re in the shape we’re in about the banks. So it was… it was great. I remember we had one old fellow there by the name of Johnny Mitchell. And he drove his mules and a buggy down there at Pine Grove, and he hitched it to a little old hickory sapling. And there was a yellowjackets’ nest there. And it got on that mule, them yellowjackets got stirred up and they got on that mule, they stung that mule all over.

Jerry: No kidding.

Barrett: And he tried to break loose, but everybody had what they called a hitch-rein, you know, it was made out of grass rope – it couldn’t get loose, you know. That’d hold him, it’d just hang a mule there, you know. And he didn’t know it til dinner, and it just stung that mule all over. He lived over it, though. It didn’t kill the mule.

Jerry: Not very happy, though.

Barrett: [Laughs] No… I tell you, that stings. Sure was bad. And we used to, you know, when we’d turn out for… had dinner… people talk about “dinner on the ground,” you know? It was on the ground.

Jerry: It was right on the ground.

Barrett: Right down… the womenfolk’d bring a sheet or tablecloth or whatever, most people had sheets, bedsheets. They spread that right down on the ground, and there’s where the dinner was put, down on the ground. And then we got to where that we’d move the benches, out, you know, and put it on the benches, and then we finally built a table, a stationary table, so that was a dinner on the ground. We didn’t have anything but well water, we had a well there.

Jerry: It’s good water.

Barrett: Everywhere we went, everybody… there’s a well at the church, you know, everywhere we went, and that’s what water we had, we didn’t have no lemonade, we didn’t have no coffee, nothing like that. They had no electricity, nothing like that ____… natural resources is all we had.

Jerry: Now, how old is the church up there that we sing in?

Barrett: The first Pine Grove, you know, right… in other words, the road runs this way but the church, the church sets this way and the road runs this way. You know, there’s a hill there. Well, right straight across there, you know there’s a bridge right below the church going towards my house. Well that bridge goes up that way, and the old Pine Grove was across the holler over there on the other ridge above my house.

Jerry: OK, so the original church was in another spot.

Barrett: The original church was there. My wife’s granddaddy, he built that church hisself, and he was a Primitive Baptist preacher, he preached there. And he passed away, and they had school there, my mother went to school there, at Old Pine Grove’s what we called it. Then they moved it over where it’s at now.

Jerry: They built a new building, right?

Barrett: They tore the old building down over there and they moved it over there above the road.

Jerry: They moved the building.

Barrett: Above the road from where it is now. They built a building there. And the old building was above the road, and it just went to the bad. And they… first, though, in 1903 [“nineteen-three”] Mr. Reed and Mr. Oliver went to Birmingham and bought two acres of land there from the Alabama State Land Company, we called it “railroad land.” The government bought it for the railroads, not to build a railroad on Lookout Mountain, but they could get their crossties and things off of there to build it, you see. And our land was all what they call “railroad land.” They bought these two acres, giving a dollar an acre for it, and they made them a deed. The state, the county had nothing in it, privately owned, the community, with the old building above the road, got to where we couldn’t house school, that was before my day. Then the community went together, one man had a sawmill there, right there in the community, he said “I’ll saw the lumber if y’all’ll furnish the logs, I’ll saw the lumber, free of charge.” Well of course they covered him up, with logs, he sawed that lumber, and the people in the community would go in and off-bear, help at the mill ,___and sawin’, and sawed the lumber, and people, the community, built the house, [_______], the nails, nobody but the community had nothing in it, the state, the county still didn’t have anything in it. But they taught school in there, they had school there, they built it for a school. But the Primitive Baptist church across the holler over there, the old Pine Grove, they helped them to have church there, you see. Primitive Baptists helped them…

Jerry: In the same building.

Barrett: …in the same building, yeah, and it all went together, the school and the church, so long as the church did not interfere with the school, it was all right, and it’s privately owned today.

Jerry: That’s what Bud was saying, that it belongs to the Primitive Baptist church and the Pine Grove singers, that that’s the way the deed is…

Barrett: Yeah, that’s what it’s called, but the deed…

Jerry: The Lookout Mountain singers.

Barrett: Yeah, the Lookout Mountain Singing Convention, that’s what it’s made to. And the Primitive Baptist church, and the Lookout Mountain singing. We had that put on it.

Jerry: Are you one of the trustees?

Barrett: The deed is made to me, I’m the first one on the deed. Made to me, and Milton, S.T., Bud, Scot, that’s Milton’s boy, and S.T.’s boy, and I believe that’s all, it’s the best of my recollection, I believe it’s made to all of us. And we had the lines run, we know where land is, and we’ve got the deed and everything. It belongs to the people. And of course, we hain’t a-gonna do it, but we can stop anything that we want to, all we got to do is just to go and lock the door, say, “Well, this is it, you don’t do this, you don’t do that,” you know, because it’s privately owned. The deed is made to us, privately.

Jerry: Well, it’s in good hands.

Barrett: Well, it’s gonna be when I’m gone, it’ll be in real good hands [laughs]. Yeah, we had a little trouble about that, but we got that settled. It cost us, I don’t know, around two thousand dollars just to get it straightened out. They wanted to take the house and the land and [__] it away from us why, they wanted to, they said if they got it, they wanted to sell the house…

Jerry: Who was this?

Barrett: Well…

Jerry: It’s best not to say?

Barrett: I prefer…

Jerry: That’s fine.

Barrett: But they were neighbors born and raised right there, they went to school there.

Jerry: Probably not singers.

Barrett: No, they didn’t even have anything to do with the singing, didn’t even go. But… we got it done and done right, just… that’s all we wanted, we didn’t want nothing [_______].

Jerry: That’s wonderful, I’m glad you did it.

Barrett: And it’s safe now.

Jerry: Looks like it.

Barrett: Because ‘the time these boys got on, if they live a normal life like me, why, then that’ll hit the age, the time, we’ll seal it forever. Y’see. That was a great community.

Jerry: I’ll bet it was.

Barrett: S.T. and Milton and Bud’s grandma, that was Mr. Reed’s wife, she was depended on by the community in sickness, she was a good nurse, experienced nurse. She didn’t go to school; she had a lot of experience, she was a fine lady. She went all over the country to nurse people that was sick, they had no medicine much in those days. And she’d go, and a lot of people had typhoid fever, a lot of people had pneumonia fever, there wasn’t a thing in the world they could do for it, you know, starve you to death and that’s about all. Pneumonia, they’d put turpentine and a large cloth on your breast and that’s about all you could take, they didn’t even have aspirin. No, out there we didn’t know what aspirin was, at that time. Of course, later years, naturally, by the time I got up, I used to take, doctor used to give us, for fever, a little medicine, you know, we’d drop it, two drops in a teaspoon of water, didn’t have no aspirins, that was back now when I was just a little old kid, and they didn’t have, anyone, just about everybody that took pneumonia, they didn’t over it, they died. And there was very few people that got over typhoid fever. That was two of the dangerousest things we had, because people drank water, you know, and they’d get this germ in it, mosquitoes, some, you know, some of the wells wasn’t deep enough, the water stagnating anyways, you know, but people done the best they could, you know, in those days. But… then all of that, you know, began to pass away, the vaccinations come up, you know… and World War Two come along, we had a-got all these antibiotics, you know, all these, and they keep improving. Now pneumonia don’t amount to much no more.

Jerry: No, people have it and don’t even go to the hospital.

Barrett: Don’t have typhoid anymore, because they’s taken care of the mosquitoes [“mosquiters”] and the water’s pure and all that, you know. I’ve had what they call malaria [“mal-eh-ruh”].

Jerry: No kidding, yeah.

Barrett: I’ve had that from drinking…

Jerry: Really?

Barrett: They have such high fevers, you’re fevered just to go outside, how chilled, you’re just sick, you take that… do that every day, every day. And they finally got to where they give us what they call chocolate quinine, regular old white quinine, that’s what we was doctored with to start with, for malaria. And it was a white powder, bitter. You heard folks say bitter? It was bitter. But they got to where they could, they’d make this, they’d call it “chocolate,” and that sweetened it up we hoped some. But that’s all we had to treat that with them days. I’ve took a many a dose of it.

Jerry: I’ll bet.

Barrett: I know there was six of us in the family, every one of us would have malaria at one time.

Jerry: No kidding. That must have been a horror on your parents.

Barrett: It was, and you see we’d have that in the spring and in summer and have to work too, you know, crop you know and all that and…

Jerry: Did this happen more than once?

Barrett: Why, every year til they got…

Jerry: Really!? No kidding!

Barrett: Yeah, every year til we got to where we could get water, you know, and people would keep their springs clean and they dug wells, you know, and up until that time, they’d just go out, you know, and they’d dig a hole, and if there’s water in it they’d use it, you know, they didn’t…

Jerry: They did the best they knew how to do.

Barrett: Well, yes, and the best they could, the main thing they didn’t have no money to do nothing with. You see, there wasn’t no money much back then. I can remember when money was just, there just wasn’t no money hardly. I worked myself fifty cents a day, many a day fifty cents a day, yes sir. I’m talking about sun-up and sundown, walk six-seven mile sometime.

Jerry: What did you do?

Barrett: Cut logs, snake logs, saw, saw at the mill, sawmill, anything that come to hand, anything we could make a dollar at or fifty cents at, we done it. We needed it, had to have it to get by. Of course we raised about everything we had to eat, you know. Flour, we raised that, I remember when we raised that, flour, we’d have our wheat crop, you know, and they had a mill to grind it, you know, wheat, had a thrasher, you know, thrash the wheat. We’d take that straw from the wheat, way back when I was little, and they’d put it in their bed and we’d sleep on that straw.

Jerry: Make the mattress out of that.

Barrett: They’d make the tick, they called it a tick. And that tick was sewed solid, all except there’s a place right in the middle, in the middle of the bed, in the middle of the tick, there’s where you put your straw, in there, and every morning you made your bed after you’d go in there in that place and you’d stir all that straw up where it’d be soft, lay on it when you’d go to bed at night. So then they quit the wheat. And then we used, I pulled many a tick of crabgrass, dry it, get it real dry, cut the heads off, you know – the bloom, meaning the seed – and cut that off, you know, and use that crabgrass to put in your bed to sleep on.

Jerry: Is that a comfortable bed or…?

Barrett: Well, yes, it’s all right. And you had slats, you know. Time it’d get thin enough that you could feel the slats, you know, laying in the bed you could feel them slats…

Jerry: Put some more crabgrass in.

Barrett: After all, when you’d work so hard you could sleep, you’re tired you could sleep.

Jerry: I’ll bet you could.

Barrett: And then we… in time of all of that, we’d take time out to sing. Say at night, you know.

Jerry: And love to sing.

Barrett: ____________________. We done the most of it at home, lot of time we’d go, we would go to the neighbors’, round to the Olivers’ and the Reeds’ once in a while and sing, you know, like that, but we done the most of our singing at home, you know, that’s me, I’m talking about my individual family. And we used to, the community there, well, let’s say the Sacred Harp singers, during the bad weather we didn’t go, we didn’t have singings in the wintertime, because we didn’t have no way of going in a two-horse wagon in bad weather, you couldn’t do that, you know, and ride in real cold weather and snowy weather and all that, you know, to a singing. But we’d meet at somebody’s house, they’d give a dinner, you know, and they’d fix dinner for all of us in the whole bunch, we’d go there and eat dinner…

Jerry: About how many people?

Barrett: Oh, Lord, I don’t know, there’d be forty or fifty. Yeah, everybody’s family, well, take your family, you know, everybody.

Jerry: They’d all get together for a big singing at somebody’s house.

Barrett: _________… singers mostly, mostly singers.

Jerry: How long would you sing then?

Barrett: Oh, well, we’d go and talk til dinner you know, enjoy all that, you know, howdy to everyone and everything, and we always had something to talk about, you know. We’d eat dinner, we’d sing a while, and then sometimes we’d change that. We’d talk [in the morning?], my daddy was a fiddler and I was a banjo-picker, and after dinner, I’d get the banjo and he’d get the fiddle, we’d have music that evening, and we’d have buck-dancing, yuh, buck-dancing. Mr. Reed, he was a good buck-dancer. I learned to dance from him, buck-dance from him. I remember his boy, a brother to Dallas, Mr. Reed’s boy, a brother to Dallas, he was a banjo-picker. And him and my daddy would play the fiddle, and he’d pick the banjo, Clarence Reed, he’d pick the banjo. Mr. Reed’d go dancing, they kept on at me, they’d get me up there and I’d face Mr. Reed, you know. Of course, he was… I was just a little old fellow, like that, you know. But that’s where I learned how to dance.

Jerry: Really.

Barrett: Buck-dance. And then we had what we called square dances. And I went to many, many of them. And it was a little aggravating, after I got to be a young man, why, I loved to dance, you know…

Jerry: They’d make you play the banjo.

Barrett: …music would be short and I’d have to [laughs] pick music, you know. I didn’t like that much, but anyway, it was a great, we had a great time.

Jerry: I’d think so.

Barrett: Yuh. And we invited who we wanted, the people that done things that we didn’t do, we didn’t invite, and they didn’t come, they didn’t bother us. And we had a real nice time. The first set I ever went through, I went through with my mother. She was a square-dancer, and she carried me through my first set. And of course then I took up from that and I went ahead, I used to go dance til one or two o’clock, you know, every morning.

Jerry: And get up and work.

Barrett: And, yeah, get up and work, that’s right, yeah, yeah, it was… but we had a great time, everybody loved one another, everybody had a good time, and they, the people back then, you know, the Primitive Baptists, if you danced, they might turn you out, if you…

Jerry: Yeah, I was wondering about that.

Barrett: They might turn you out, you know.

Jerry: So how’d you get to do all this square dancing?

Barrett: Well, they got to where they slacked up on it, you know. Now this dancing they do now, you know, just two, you know, and all of them on the floor and everything, we didn’t know nothing about that. All we knew was square dancing.

Jerry: Square dancing and buck dancing.

Barrett: Chase the squirrel, right hands across, left back and all that, you know. Yeah, I used to pick the banjo and call, just keep the time to the music, I couldn’t pick a tune, you know, but I’d keep the time to make the racket, you know, and call too, I’ve done that a lot there. We had a great time. I went, and there’d be so many couples, they couldn’t stand in a big room, you know, round the wall, there’d be so many couples, you know, dancing. You know, there’s two… there’d be two, pairs of two, each couple…

Jerry: Where did you have the dances?

Barrett: Well, at the neighbors’. They’d take the bed down, you know, move ‘em out on the porch, and so forth and so on, use that big, everybody had big bedrooms, you know, and we’d dance…

Jerry: Right in the bedroom.

Barrett: … in that room, and music you’d get in one corner. Most of the time it’s cold weather, that’s when we had the biggest part of the dances in cold weather. The music’d get up a little closer to the fireplace. There was a log fire, closest the fireplace, to make the music, because you’d get cold back in the corner, you know. But you could go dancing, you’d stay warm, you know, while you was dancing.

Jerry: So they’d mostly dance in the winter and you’d do…

Barrett: Mostly, yeah.

Jerry: …your singing in the warmer weather.

Barrett: …in the summer, well, we sang in the wintertime too, yeah ______ why, my family, we’d sing winter and summer _________. Sang more in the winter ‘cause sometimes bad days, when we couldn’t get out, why we’d just set in just sing maybe…

Jerry: A whole day.

Barrett: A whole half a day, yeah, just us family. And we sang songs that they didn’t use in the class, you know _____

Jerry: I’ll bet. It must have been wonderful.

Barrett: We’d use, we’d sing them, we’d take… I can remember when “Easter Anthem,” you know that, you’d just see that, and that’s all, you know, and there ain’t nobody every sing it, didn’t practice it at all. And we practiced it…

Jerry: You learned how to sing that.

Barrett: Occasionally we’d have a visitor from way over yonder somewhere’d come and maybe want to sing “Easter Anthem,” you know.

Jerry: And you’d know how to do it.

Barrett: And we’d know how, we’d know how to sing it. Well, if we knowed how to sing it, then others could follow us, do a pretty good job…

Jerry: That’s wonderful.

Barrett: And then we got to where we could just, we sang anything, you know, and we’d, the class would come in with us, you know. Every time we’d learn something somebody’d sing it. Sometimes we’d sing it ourselves, you know.

Jerry: Sure, and teach them how to do the new songs.

Barrett: Teach ‘em, yeah. And they’d take right ____ you know. And that’s the way we got to singing more songs, you know, newer songs, __________ songs. In came books and then that’d help us, you know. Everybody wanted to sing in the new book, naturally, you know. It was great.

Jerry: Do you think that the sound of the singing was different, you know, you said the speed was different, they used to sing it a lot slower, but do you think it sounded any different than it does today, or…?

Barrett: Oh, yes. It sounded different.

Jerry: Can you… I know it’s hard to talk about how things sound different, but…

Barrett: It’s improved. You see, when I was first started singing we didn’t have no altos.

Jerry: I never thought of that but you’re right.

Barrett: Never had no altos. And that’s… ladies fine for a singing. And you know I can remember the first alto we had at Pine Grove at our convention. Now me and my mother, there’s a song or two or three that we’d sing alto to before my voice changed. But that was all alto we had, we didn’t have any other alto. Do you know the Scoggins twins?

Jerry: The name is familiar, I can’t place them at all.

Barrett: Did you see this picture that was took out here in the Huntsville Times?

Jerry: No.

Barrett: A year ago the first Sunday in this past June? They sang…

Jerry: I may have…

Barrett: They’re twins…

Jerry: I may have seen it over at Coy and Marie’s.

Barrett: If you remember there’s two ladies a-settin’…

Jerry: There’s a Memorial Day…

Barrett: There’s a Decoration Day.

Jerry: Yeah, the Decoration Day. Okay.

Barrett: That was a year ago this past June. And you’ve seen the picture in the paper?

Jerry: Yeah.

Barrett: The Huntsville paper. If you, do you remember seeing two ladies as it was kind of leant back, setting over on a tomb?

Jerry: I don’t remember. I haven’t seen it for a long time.

Barrett: You hadn’t got it?

Jerry: No.

Barrett: I’ve got one…

Jerry: They probably have one…

Barrett: Well, that’s them. Now, they were just little old girls, and they come down there and they sang alto…

Jerry: The Scoggins twins were the first ones to sing alto at Pine Grove.

Barrett: And they sang on a high key. Altos sing on a low key now, you know. But they sang it on a high key.

Jerry: They sang an octave a…

Barrett: You know 137?

Jerry: Yeah, yeah, the one Virgil does.

Barrett: That high voice, that’s the way the Scoggins girls sang it, it was all high like that. You know, whenever he tell them, sing it like it is in the Cooper book, well, you know, they learnt to sing it in the Cooper book. And they were the best, and they were just alike, I couldn’t tell ‘em apart. You know, I was, I don’t know, I was, I’m older than they are, some, and I thought they was the cutest things.

Jerry: I’ll bet.

Barrett: But I mentioned that to them here a year or two ago. I believe it was when they took the picture there, I mentioned that to them. I asked them how long ago had that been, and they said it was, had to be seventy years, and they were just little girls. Now the Wilks, you know… do you know Miss Ruby Wilks?

Jerry: No I don’t.

Barrett: Well, you see the Wilks’s tombs out there.

Jerry: I know of Uncle Bonnard. I never met him but I’ve heard a tape that he sings on.

Barrett: Well, Ruby, Miss Ruby, she, that’s Bonnard’s, that’s her husband, Bonnard is, yeah, that’s her. But Leonard’s a brother to Bonnard, and he would help them sing alto, sometimes, and then Uncle Lige, that’s Leonard’s daddy, he had the wonderfulest voice that you ever heard. It didn’t get too high for him, just as clear as a bell, he’d go with them girls, he was their uncle. And he’d get them girls to sing alto, he’d sing it all day with them girls, and that’s on the high pitch.

Jerry: Did he, he sung at that high octave where they were?

Barrett: High pitch, yes sir, right up there with them. I tell you we had some great singers. Voices, my Lord… give you just a little idea [EYE-dee]: Terry Wootten’s got one of the greatest voices. We had some even better’n he is. You know he’s good.

Jerry: He sure is.

Barrett: He’s good. And I don’t care if him a-knowing it.

Jerry: No, he wouldn’t be embarrassed either.

Barrett: No, it wouldn’t have no effect on him either. But we had some that was…

Jerry: …even better.

Barrett: …better than he is. Yes sir. I don’t know… you know, they claim the pollution or something, you know, I don’t know whether it’s pollution or not, I just, I don’t know about that. We had smoky times back before there was ever anything like this, so I don’t know. But anyway, I guess they are, but anyway, we didn’t have nothing much like that, only coal smoke, that’s about all we had. And of course fire was, you know, it just ___you with smoke from it. But over there in Collinsville, everybody burnt coal in the town there. And the trains, you know, they burnt coal. And we had some smoke, but I don’t know whether it was from that or not, now, but it’d get so smoky you couldn’t see very far anywhere.

Jerry: Up on the mountain.

Barrett: On the mountain. But anyway, I think that we didn’t have much to bother our voices back in those days.

Jerry: Did people do more grace notes and stuff? You’ve heard Bonnard Wilks sing, right?

Barrett: Oh, yeah.

Jerry: Well, he… I’ve never heard anybody who sounds like him. He used to do all sorts of things with his voice that nobody…

Barrett: Oh, yes, he’s a wonderful treble singer.

Jerry: Were there more people like that back then or was he pretty unusual?

Barrett: No, he was exceptional, he was unusual. But that’s Uncle Elijah’s boy, now, the one that had this great voice, you know, to sing alto. That was Uncle Elijah’s boy. And of course Leonard, he, his voice broke down, and…

Jerry: Now is he a Wilks?

Barrett: He was a brother to Bonnard, he’s Uncle Elijah’s boy. And Uncle Elijah, he’s got two boys lives right down here, just a little piece down here on the right, in a nice home down there, but they never did sing. And I can remember Uncle Elijah’s daddy, Uncle Dick Wilks, I sang with him, and I sang with him when I was a kid, he come over there, you know, to the Lookout Mountain convention. He come over there, you know, the boys from here, you know. He was old at that time, and I sang with him. I sang with nearly everybody in that graveyard out there, and I knowed nearly, well, I know everybody that’s out there. They’re listeners, singers, you know. Yeah, sure do. ‘Cause we either was here or they was over there. This bunch here and the Lookout Mountain bunch, like I told you, is a family. Counting you in.

Jerry: Thank you.

Barrett: Counting you in, too.

Jerry: Thank you. It’s an honor. Do you, are there any other favorite Sacred Harp singers that you used to sing with? You’ve already named a good number of them.

Barrett: Harm Oliver, that’s…

Jerry: How is he related?

Barrett: Harm Oliver was Uncle Sherman Oliver’s boy, and Milton’s daddy was Uncle Sherman’s boy. Harm and [El…?], Milton’s daddy, were brothers. Harm, he knowed music from one end to the other. He could set down with somebody with a piano [pee-yan-er], you could pick any pitch that you wanted, give him the letters, lines and spaces, and the note, he could pitch anything, and when the piano, when he got his pitch made, that piano, it’d be exactly…

Jerry: Exactly the same…

Barrett: … with that piano.

Jerry: He had perfect pitch, then.

Barrett: He was good. He was the best. He was smart in every way. He was really smart, and he, in his later days, he went to the New Book, sang…

Jerry: Too bad.

Barrett: But he come back, he come back home…

Jerry: Did he? Did he do that? Good.

Barrett: And we depended on him to do the keying, in our bunch of course, we could depend on him, and he was a wonderful singer. Well, be fair with you, they was all pretty good singers, pretty good, not, they didn’t all know music, you see. I don’t, I didn’t…

Jerry: I don’t know that knowing music helps you any.

Barrett: I didn’t, I never did try to learn music, because I had dad there, you see, I had dad there, he could key anything I wanted or help me sing anything I wanted to sing, so…

Jerry: He probably knew more music than a lot of people.

Barrett: [Laughs] He could sing anything that was in the book, and he didn’t have to… four-note, he could, tell ya, he could pick up a seven-shape note and just sing a song he never seen before. Yeah, he was just gifted that way.

Jerry: Nice to have somebody like that in your family.

Barrett: Well, he’s my daddy, but he was well-read. He went to school twenty-one days in his life.

Jerry: No kidding.

Barrett: And, but he, they wasn’t nobody’d set him down not knowing on any subject he wanted to raise, because everything that he heared, everything that he studied, everything that people told him, his memory was so great that he didn’t forget it. And he was one of the best Bible students I’ve heard of. He could quote you the Bible just about from lid to lid. Anything you wanted to know, if you just give him the hint…

Jerry: And he’d know where it was.

Barrett: … he’d know right where it was at and he, he didn’t have to go the Bible either. He could tell you by heart. He had a wonderful memory. Never used a book on the floor, he wouldn’t use the book, he’s like me…

Jerry: [Laughs] Doesn’t need the book, yeah.

Barrett: No, he didn’t use no book.

Jerry: Did you used to use the book much, or have you always been able to…?

Barrett: I used it a little…

Jerry: I mean, when you were younger I’m sure you did.

Barrett: That was…

Jerry: Long ago.

Barrett: …a habit.

Jerry: But you pretty much don’t need the book.

Barrett: No, no, I couldn’t think any use for the book… I’ll sing … Occasionally, I’ll use the book, because there’ll be some verses or some part of it that I hadn’t got by heart, or maybe I forgot or something like that, you know. But I remember a lot of ’em. Now I’m not bragging, I don’t mean it that way at all. Lord knows I don’t. I used to go to the all-day singing, never look at a book, sang all day. But now I can’t remember, so… I used to hear a song sang one time…

Jerry: And you’d remember it?

Barrett: I could sing it. That was before I ever learned to read music, you see.

Jerry: That’s wonderful.

Barrett: Well, I could sing it. If I heared somebody play a tune on the fiddle one time, I could pick it up and play it.

Jerry: Boy, I wish I could do that!

Barrett: … play that tune. Hear it picked on the banjo one time, I could pick it on the banjo. But I can’t do that no more. I’m sorry, but I’m thankful I ain’t no worse than I am. It comes and goes.

Jerry: Well, at least you had it at one time, to be able to do that.

Barrett: I had a wonderful life, I had a happy life, yes sure did. It was wonderful. Raised in a wonderful community, great community. Everybody loved one another. Somebody gets sick, crop time why, there’d be so many mules and plows to go work his crop out, why, they couldn’t even plow hardly, they’d be in one another’s way. That’s true. They’d have what they call workings, you know, somebody building a barn, a house, have working, why, the place’d be covered up, they’d do it, raise a house in a day, you know, or a barn, yeah. We had a barn, we had a fire, and we had mules, and cows, everything like that we had was in the barn, the barn caught fire and burned up. Fire burned up everything, went, mules, everything, cows…

Jerry: This happened to you?

Barrett: Yuh. That happened to us. And the people made up money, and back in those days money was money, didn’t nobody have much money. But they made up enough money to buy us a pair of mules, ___ and paid for our mules, we got and bought the mules with the gear and everything on ’em, you know, harness. Neighbors give timber, they sawed the timber free, they hauled the lumber back for us, stacked it on the ground. Give a working, we put the top on the barn in one day in that Pine Grove community.

Jerry: You don’t find many people like that.

Barrett: Not only the Pine Grove community, but they come from miles around. People in that community is well known. You can go long ways on Lookout Mountain and mention Pine Grove community, the old time Pine Grove community, and everybody knows that Pine Grove community.

Jerry: I believe it.

Barrett: Yes sir. And not only that, we have people miles over yonder somewhere that have bad luck we go _____ , have a storm or something we go help.

Jerry: You go help them.

Barrett: Yeah, go help them.

Jerry: Well, it’s certainly a wonderful place.

Barrett: Well, it’s, I don’t, it’s like I said a while ago, I don’t mean to brag, it’s something I’m proud of, something that I’ll treasure as long as I know anything or as long as I live, whichever, I’ll treasure because I was brought up in a great community. Great people. The Reeds and the Olivers, the Meadowses, all of them, they was fine people. I married a Meadows, but I ain’t saying it because I married a Meadows. Her mother was Oliver. Me and Milton’s, all of us’s kinfolks. Milton’s grandpa and my wife’s mother were brother and sister. The preachers that built the church over across the holler I was telling you about? Uncle Bill Oliver…

Jerry: The old church.

Barrett: Uncle Bill Oliver, when the War Between the States, the Civil War, was on, when they got into it, why, my wife’s granddaddy, he didn’t believe in buying and selling human beings to the highest bidder, on the block, to the highest bidder, he didn’t believe in it. And he wouldn’t go, he hid out. And her grandma, on the west top of the mountain there at Pine Grove, on the west he lived, she lived there, and he was a-hiding out on the east side of the mountain. She’d cook his meal, and carry, and walk over there, east side of the mountain, carry it to him, and he’d slip in once in a while and get a meal. So he come by one day, they got so hot after him he knowed he’s gonna have to do something, but he come by to see his wife, come by to see her, because he didn’t know what’s gonna happen. Well they like to closed in on him, and he run. It was in the summertime, and there was a cornfield up from the house, and he went right through that cornfield, and they was after him and they shot corn all around him. But he got away, he got away from them and he got right on the tip-top of the highest place on the mountain. He hollered to let his wife know that they didn’t get him. And he made his way then to the Tennessee River, he swum the Tennessee River and joined the Yankees.

Jerry: Wow. That’s an incredible story.

Barrett: Now he was an old-time old Sacred Harp singer, but he used the old hymnbook more because, you know, the Primitives used to do that, they some of them still do. See that started way back then, you know, the singing did, you know, before Lookout Mountain, this preacher here, Uncle Bill Oliver, everybody called him, he could sing these songs, he loved these songs. There’s Uncle Sherman, was his boy, you see, started there, and it’s just still going.

Jerry: That’s incredible.

Barrett: Yeah, it is.

Jerry: It’s marvelous to be part of that. It’s a real privilege.

Barrett: And there’s… I don’t know where… there’s three things I don’t care about folk about knowing about me, that’s my religion, my age and my politics. I don’t bother nobody with their politics, but I’ve got mine. And I’m deeply rooted in ‘em, certainly am. I believe in ‘em, from the bottom of my heart. I believe I’m right. But I don’t, I don’t care to talk about politics with anybody, but I don’t try to convince nobody. And there no use nobody trying to convince me. Because they’re wasting their time. And when you cut that off I’ll tell you what my politics is.

Jerry: I’ll do that.

One Response to Barrett Ashley on Life and Sacred Harp, in Conversation with Jerry Enright

  1. Vella Baswell Dailey says:

    He was a dear man. He aptly describes the life of what is sometimes called “hillbilly.” I am proud to have been born into the heritage he describes with Sacred Harp forming an important part of what held us together.

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