The Ashes of Americana

jesco

You know I love you, Baby, but don’t you think that maybe the way you talk down to me, it sends a chill right through me – ‘White trash’.  Ooh, don’t call me that.  – Southern Culture on the Skids 

Boone County, West Virginia is a poverty-stricken area whose population of former coal miners is largely out of work due to a moratorium on mining enacted after two fatal accidents in 2006.   It is also home to several minor celebrities that are relatively unknown outside of Appalachia, namely Hasil (pronounced “hassle”) Adkins, the late D. Ray White, and his son, Jesco White.

Hasil was Boone County’s answer to the rockabilly craze of the 1950s although, listening to his unhinged take on the genre, one can easily see why he is still cited as an influence by many of today’s “psychobilly” acts like The Reverend Horton Heat and The Cramps.  A young Hasil became obsessed with early rock and roll radio but failed to understand that when the D.J. announced that a record was by Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, that didn’t mean those individuals were responsible for every single sound on the track.  Due to this amusing misunderstanding, Hasil set out to learn every instrument he heard in these songs, eventually becoming a one-man band handling the drums, guitar, harmonica, and the most disturbing backwoods yowling ever pressed to wax.  While other crooners of the 1950s sang about sock hops and puppy love, Hasil stuck to subjects he knew about: namely fried chicken, hot dogs, decapitation and revenge killings.  In 2005, Hasil was struck and killed by an ATV outside of his West Virginia home – one last revenge killing he’d never have a chance to sing about.

In 2010, Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame released a documentary called “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”.  The film centers around the day to day lives of the extended (and extensive) White clan whose patriarch D. Ray invented an original form of hillbilly clog dancing.  After D. Ray’s passing, his son Jesco took over the family tradition of redneck hoofing, billing himself as “The Dancing Outlaw”.  The modern day White family, including Jesco, essentially keep the Boone County Sheriff’s Department in business.  Ravaged by poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, illiteracy and ignorance, the Whites (including their ADD-riddled children) form a chaotic collective of criminality keeping their neighbors perpetually on edge.  The film itself is a spectacle, complete with subtitles so that the viewer can make some sense out of the dialogue delivered in the Whites’ toothless, barely literate dialect.  It is unintentionally voyeuristic, but it also serves as an important document of the suffering underlying such nihilistic backwoods lifestyles.

All implied cosmopolitan superiority aside, the demographic that people like Hasil and the Whites represent is one that I, despite my very liberal leanings, tend to coldly ignore and sometimes deride.  Like many “progressive” city dwellers, I stereotype these people by frequently lumping them all into one bigoted, racist, gun-toting, gay-bashing slag heap.  Therein lies my own ignorance.  Areas like Boone County are indeed home to many people you and I would certainly consider ignorant, but ignorance isn’t necessarily something for which a person can be blamed.  A lack of exposure to people of different races, classes and beliefs is sometimes created by a lack of educational opportunities coupled with geographical barriers like mountain ranges that make commerce and travel more difficult.  If someone had been in a coma for the past several years, could you really blame that person for being ignorant of the social climate he or she encounters upon awakening?

It is true that isolated rural areas like Boone County, WV are often the incubators for hate groups of the white supremacist variety.  If a rural resident has access to the modern-day technology needed to communicate with others harboring similar racist views, then this person cannot be excused as simply a product of his or her environment.  On the other hand, if someone from a similar area still gets all of their information from a black and white TV set with rabbit ears and the drunken gossip of neighbors, how can they be reasonably expected to understand the importance of diversity and equality?

That being said, I feel the need to apologize to my non-urban, non-minority fellow Americans for all too frequently assuming and alleging that you are an embarrassment to the nation.  I can understand why so many people in this demographic voted enthusiastically for Trump, who lied to them through his teeth about being sympathetic to their plight of poverty, poor education, and lack of employment opportunities.  From now on, when habitually (and ignorantly) allowing myself to divide the U.S. population into “us” and “them”, hopefully I’ll remember to embrace these long cast-aside suffering people as part of my imagined “us”, otherwise my constant litany of support for marginalized groups of minorities will be nothing more than PC posturing.  People are people and suffering is suffering, whether you drive a Mercedes or a 1978 Chevy truck with a gun rack.  And no matter how crass and questionable its expression may be to our eyes and ears, the Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia love and worry about their children, too.

In the immortal words of Jesco’s sister Mamie, “Come into this world with nothin’, guess I’ll die with nothin’.  But at least the world knows who the fuck we are.”  Here’s hoping that it never forgets, Mamie.

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Ashes of Americana

  1. Thank you for the perspective, Paul. Wow. Of course I never thought of it this way AT ALL! You learn from exposure and when you aren’t exposed to anything outside the four walls you live in, well, how the hell are you supposed to know anything or see things like others do?! Thanks for making me see things just a little differently this morning! And Trump is such a dick for lying to these people. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s little doubt that I need to internalize my own message just as much as anyone else. I was feeling a genuine empathy for people like I described while I was writing this, but I still find myself judging the southwestern variety that comes in the form of grown men dressed like cowboys with NRA stickers on their bumpers. On a lighter note, if you get a chance to listen to Hasil Adkins, it’s really quite an experience! The Cramps even had a minor hit with their cover of his incomprehensible “song” called She Said.

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      1. It is so hard not to judge, especially now that everyone is paying the price because of the decision they made to elect a monster for President. AHHHHH! I am going to check out Hasil Adkins today and pretend that the world is not ending.

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      2. It’s very hard and I fail at unconditional empathy far more frequently than I succeed. Sometimes, just to keep my sanity, I have to view humanity as a closed-ended failed experiment on the part of Mother Nature. But I can’t stay in that mindset for too long, either, otherwise I’ll just be another complicit asshole. But it is very comforting to know that people who strike me as being as good-hearted as you experience the same conflicting emotions. That’s why I always appreciate your honesty, Tanya.

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      3. Aww, thanks, Paul. I am not going to lie, I do struggle with it, especially when I see them hurling hate from their mouths and wearing shirts and hats supporting a man who to me, is so obviously a fraud. I wonder to myself, ‘How can they not see it?’ But, your post reminded me that we are products of our environment, and represent what we were taught. These people are the forgotten members of society and so often are overlooked because to the ‘elite white folks’ they simply don’t matter – except on election day of course. They don’t have access to knowledge and education, and this is what I always have to remember before I quickly label them as just dumb fucking idiots. I feel angry that Trump manipulated these people for votes and is now working to take health care away from them. They are now going to pay a huge price for their ignorance, and it makes me sad because they shouldn’t pay for their ignorance with their lives. You, Paul, also have a big heart, and I very much appreciate your view on these topics and the perspective it gives me.

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