Poontang Little

4133A2ZEYBL._SL500_AA300_Let’s get this out of the way. I’m as white as a bleached bath towel. Yes, I went to a predominantly black high school; and I worked in black led communities for years; and I have lifelong black friends; and I’m pretty sure that I have black cousins (though it’s tough to confirm a 150 year old extramarital affair), but I’m no fool. I can’t represent the black experience, not in Appalachia or anywhere else.

This series is about black people, but it will be framed by a white man’s perspective. There’s no getting around that. While I write “white,” I hope that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t write.

In my view, black Appalachians are overlooked in the annals of our culture, their contributions upstaged by the Scots-Irish, the Germans and even the Cherokee. The historic exceptions — Booker T. Washington or the slaves who rebelled in Harper’s Ferry — receive mainstream notice, but the rest of black mountain culture is as obscure as the Smokies on a foggy day.

Like other groups, black Appalachians have their soundtrack. Today, it’s probably similar to black music elsewhere – maybe with a touch more gospel or twang. At one point, though, it was a distinct mesh of mountain tones and early black dialects. The folks at Rounder Records have assembled a collection of these songs – Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia.

Some, like “Cripple Creek,” are common old-time tunes done in a signature style; others seem to be unique to black mountain people. “Poontang Little, Poontang Small” is a great example. I can find just one recording of this song. It appears on this album and also a collection of Virginia field songs, perhaps suggesting something about its origin.

Jimmie Smothers, the artist performing it, either natively has a deep, old accent, or he beautifully replicates one. It makes the song’s lyrics nearly incomprehensible to my ear. Still, I cant resist humming along. It’s a spirited, infectious tune and a shining example of black heritage in our mountain region.

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