North Carolina is yet again the setting for this week's song, and for once (as contrasted with "Tom Dooley" and "Poor Ellen Smith" and possibly "You're Gonna Miss Me") the topic is not a murder but rather an interesting paranormal phenomenon, one that has inspired a series of local legends and one often-covered country song, if you can excuse the Gone With The Wind-type attempt to romanticize slavery (a very big if, obviously).
Sightings of the mysterious "Brown Mountain Lights" have been verified back to 1922, though stories surrounding them apparently go back at least sixty years earlier to the Civil War era and maybe before. Brown Mountain is near Linville, NC, and that estimable town provides a fine and comprehensive brief history here:
Perhaps a little background information is in order here for readers who have never heard of the lights. Brown Mountain is a long sloping ridge on the edge of the Blue Ridge lying within U.S.Forest Service land at an elevation of some 2,600 feet.... One of the three main viewing points of the lights is at a roadside pull-off on highway 181. The other two look outs are at Wiseman’s View...and the Lost Cove Cliffs overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 310).
Since their first recorded sighting by the German engineer Gerard de Brahm in 1771 the
lights have attracted scientific scrutiny. Explanations for these mobile spheres of glowing light have ranged from nitrous vapor to ball lightning, from foxfire to a fourth form of energy known as plasma. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted an investigation of the lights in the 1920s, publishing findings that dismissed the lights as man-made...
About the only thing that most experts can agree on, however, is that the lights tend to
appear in late summer and autumn on cool evenings following some rainfall. Those fortunate ones who have seen them speak of the experience as wondrous and unforgettable. Mention the topic ofthe lights in just about any gathering in the Blue Ridge and cries of “Have you seen them?” and vivid anecdotes will swiftly follow.
Without further ado, the star of the show - from a few years back, one of several good videos of the lights on YouTube:
The song was one of the last that was penned by Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame member Scotty Wiseman (1908-1981), who partnered for most of his career from the mid-1930s til 1958 with his wife Myrtle Eleanor Cooper under the name "Lulu Belle and Scotty." (pictured above) They were regulars on The WLS Barn Dance broadcast from Chicago in the 30s and 40s - I've mentioned the program before as the main competition in the vast mid-section of the country for Nashville's Grand Ol' Opry. Wiseman wrote a string of hits that included "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?" (the country number recorded by Jim Reeves, Rick Nelson, Elvis Presley and many more - not the Rod Stewart/Van Morrison song), and Cooper contributed the classic "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?" to the American song bag. The duo retired in '58 when Wiseman completed an M.A. from Northwestern University and went on to a teaching career; Cooper ended up as member of the NC House of Representatives.
"The Brown Mountain Light" song apparently dates to the early 50s. According to the Linville village web page cited above, Wiseman heard the legend of the slave and the lantern from his great uncle Lafayette "Fate" Wiseman, a drover born well before the Civil War and the man for whom Wiseman's View above is named. Great nephew Scotty always liked the story and came up with this:
I'm a bit more inclined to cut Wiseman some slack about the "faithful old slave" bit than I am for Hollywood depictions, both because of his own pre-modern 1908 birth date and because he was re-telling the story as he and others had heard it from Uncle Fate. But I still get more than a little uncomfortable with any attempt to romanticize slavery in the U.S., especially in the century after it was abolished. GWTW is in most respects a great movie, though unfortunately the somewhat dignified and Academy Award-winning portrayal of the house slave Mamie by Hattie McDaniel is counterbalanced by a truly vicious stereotype in the younger girl played by Butterfly McQueen ("I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies"). I treated the subject at greater length when I wrote about the spiritual "My Lord, What A Morning" last October.
Sonny James' #1 country hit version has been removed from YouTube, but shortly after James's rendition Tommy Faile had a rockabilly-tinged hit with the song:
The 1962 date of James' hit suggests that it is the immediate antecedent of the 1962 version by the Kingston Trio:
The KT also seems to have borrowed James' idea for the narrative opening and that guitar lead in. John Stewart is doing a really creditable banjo arrangement here - which gets all but lost in the awful horns- and percussion-littered cut on the '62 Something Special release.
The Country Gentlemen also did "Brown Mountain," though I cannot find a date in their discography. It seems not to predate the KT's version, though the latter group freely borrowed material from the Gentlemen's first few albums, including "Jesse James", "Long Black Veil", and "Poor Ellen Smith". They do a classic bluegrass arrangement here:
Finally, two non-professional but really good folkish versions, first by Ronda Foust of Tennessee doing a clawhammer banjo accompaniment:
That's a fine banjo performance by Ms. Foust, and it shades the country composition toward folk wonderfully. She mentions that she first heard the song from the Kingstons.
And a bluegrass jam session, from Townsend,TN in 2008:
That's Bruce Fox on mandolin and lead vocal. I love to hear folk-styled music this way - being able to join in sessions like this is one of the chief attractions of going to the Trio Fantasy Camp in August each year. We'll have to see how many folkies remember and like this one when we assemble again in Scottsdale this year.
Addendum - July 2012
Just found this gem - bluegrass master of everything Tony Rice from a few years back: