musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lois Short -- 2. Harlan County Home


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Lois was born in 1919, in Kilke, Virginia, a mining community just south of the Kentucky border, to Nanny and Willy Flannary. She was one of ten children, six girls and four boys. They grew a garden, hunted in the woods; her father tended a general store.

It was a musical family. “I bet all of her brothers and sisters had done a little singing,” Lois’ son Don supposed. He recalled that most of them played instruments, growing up, around the house. Lois played the banjo. “She always told about how [her father] used to sit her up on the counter [of his store], and she would play… she loved that,” remembered  Candie Carawan. Lois’ parents, Nanny and Willy, both played music: he the fiddle, she the banjo. They sang songs and ballads, which Lois learned, and sung throughout her life. “They just played, didn’t they,” said Lois’ daughter-in-law, Kathleen, “to satisfy themselves.”
Later in the same video that showed her singing (in the archive at the Highlander Center), Lois told the following story about her childhood:

“Let me tell you this and it’s all I’ll say. I went to a corn shucking, I was just ten years old, just a young girl, this big pile of corn in there, and they always put a red ear of corn in there, and the boy that found that red ear of corn got to kiss his girl, in front of everybody. And I was always bashful, still am. My boyfriend kept saying, ‘Lois, I’m going to get that ear of corn,’ and I said, ‘No you’re not.’ We argued [and he eventually got the red ear.]… He kissed me in front of all them people. Show you what a bad sport I was, I quit that boy and never dated him again.”

A young woman, Lois went on to marry Sheridan Short; the two had two sons, Larry and Don. They moved to Harlan County, Kentucky, where Sheridan had grown up. “Its real name was Klondike,” said Larry of his childhood community, “but some people called it Rutherford… some called it Closplint.”

It was a small community, a short group of houses in between the curve of the mountains. There was, Larry said, seeing it in his mind, “a straight piece of road, right there, and there was a big curve coming into it, and then it [the road where folks lived] was pretty straight until you went around a big curve at the other end.” It wasn’t a mining camp, “but ‘bout everybody that lived there worked the mines,” said Larry. Mines above and below the little community.

 “Where we grew up,” Larry said, “everybody knew everybody.” Their dad “knew how everybody lived,” as the proprietor of a general merchandise store, in the area, neighbors buying what they needed, on credit. “He knew what everybody needed,” Larry continued, remembering how there were times that his dad’s store would carry goods that even the stores in Harlan didn’t have, a source of pride, it seems. The family lived first in a house Sheridan had built; later, they moved into an apartment attached to thestore building, so they could keep an eye on it. “Mom would take care of the store of the day,” Larry remembered, while their dad worked odd jobs, trucking coal to neighbors and picking up their garbage.

He was a “quiet person,” said Larry of his father, a man who didn’t finish eighth grade but was a shrewd businessmen. “He was business, strictly business like. And, he was serious… he could sell a bucket of rocks.” He was a “proud man. He wanted you to stand tall, he wanted you to hold your shoulders back, and be presentable. I know, I was kindly hump shouldered a little bit… growing up. We’d be down[town] in Harlan, walking around… he’d hit me on the shoulders, say, ‘Hold them shoulders back,’” Larry remembered. Sheridan was a man who always wore a hat, “kindly sideways on his head.”

Lois, who had an eighth grade education, was also a serious person, in her children’s remembrances. “She wasn’t a joke telling person,” said Larry. “She’s pretty much a straight shooter. She was a pretty serious person… she didn’t go for any fun and games.” She never smoke nor drank. And, as Larry’s wife Kathleen recalled, “she never would wear pants. She always wore dresses.”

Her sons remembered a mother who was a good cook; “I just remember her fixing breakfast every morning,” said Larry, when I asked the first thing he remembered about his mother. “We always had a good meal to eat on the table,” he continued. They remembered her biscuits and gravy, her chicken and dumplings. “Course she could make awful good canned beans,” Larry’s wife Kathleen added. “She could make the best pickle beans that ever there was.” She liked to garden, Larry said. “She liked to grow green beans, corn and potatoes, and tomatoes, and she would can ’em.”

“Her and dad used to go pick blackberries, and they’d always leave us in a clearing, while they went in the vines to pick the berries… they didn’t want us to get snake bit. And I remember, one time we went berry picking and they had a couple big buckets full, picked. And they left them with us in the clearing, while they went up the side of the bank to pick some more. And, I think… me and Don got in them buckets with our feet,” Larry remembered.

“Surely not,” said Don, with a grin.

“You don’t remember that, Don?” Larry said. They both began to laugh. “They wasn’t too happy when they come off the hill.”

“There’s no body in the world that could yell at the kids to come home for suppertime, like she could,” Larry said. “If you didn’t hear her and you didn’t answer, or you wasn’t home shortly, you got a real good warming,” he continued, with a chuckle.

The two chuckled, too, remembering the attempt she made, at driving: “She never did drive,” Larry said. But, one Sunday, “Mom, she said she wanted to drive. She got 100 feet, she shot the gas to it, went across the road, hit a cliff, and totaled the car.”