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Posts Tagged ‘hillbilly’

Letter from West Virginia

May 17, 2016 | by


“A newspaper for people who can’t read, edited by an editor who can’t write”

Jim Comstock (1911–96) was the iconoclastic editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly, a “weakly” paper based in Richwood, a former logging boomtown in Nicholas County fallen on hard times. I spent the first years of my life over the mountain from Richwood, where Jim’s stunts were much discussed. The Hillbilly wasn’t just a paper—it was an art project, a platform for historic preservation, a conservative wailing wall, and, above all, an exploration of the West Virginian id. Once, in early spring, Jim famously added “ramp oil” to the ink at the printing press, a tribute to Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson, which celebrates the wild leeks that sprout in the mountains after a hard winter. They give off a terrible stench. Warehouses full of mailmen were made to gag. To his delight, Jim received a stern rebuke from the postmaster general. “Now we’re the only newspaper under orders from the federal government not to smell bad,” Jim told the Associated Press. “That’s an awful thing to do to a striving newspaper.” Read More »


January 3, 2013 | by

Ten years ago I was on the highway from Tennessee to Kentucky—can’t even remember the reason for the trip—but I kept the car radio on the AM band, set to “Scan,” because I’d noticed, over several years’ driving around this part of the world, how almost every small town you pass has at least one little church that’s broadcasting a low-wattage radio show, and you often hear fascinatingly crazy preaching on those transmissions and, less frequently, fine singing. That particular Sunday in January it was raining, and I was somewhere north of Memphis, passing depressing roadside storage buildings, when a remarkable live signal came across. The sound at first was like that of a giant wet towel rhythmically slapping on somebody’s back. After a minute I realized it came from hundreds of rain-soaked shoes stomping in unison on a concrete floor. I tried to imagine the inside of the church. It must have been cavernous. Or maybe—more likely—it was a warehouse, where this Pentecostal group had been forced to convene. Slap … slap … midtempo, it filled the car, as the people chanted a single line, “If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo … If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo,” a three-note melody, simple to the point of crudity, but with a strange elegance. Folks got up and started testifying. A woman thanked God because on Christmas Eve she’d gone to the welfare office to get food stamps, and there’d been something wrong with her forms—a paper she hadn’t known was expired—“but the man give it to me anyway,” she said. “God softened his heart.”

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