Their voices come through like old friends talking by the fire on a cold winter evening: miners, baseball players, moonshiners and thirty more men and women who made their living and their lives in the mountains of West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Garret Mathews tells their stories eloquently and simply on his new 2-CD set, Folks Are Talking: Oral Histories from the 1970's Gathered by Garret Mathews.
Oral history might sound like the stuff of dry academic studies, but Mr. Mathews was a reporter for a small newspaper in Bluefield, West Virginia. and his material was gathered in the old way—traveling the back roads, sitting on porches or hanging out at the post office and talking with folks. The CD title is aptly chosen, because that is just what it is: people talking about their lives and memories. And oh, the tales they tell.
From the story of a man who began working in the coal mines in 1918 at 10 years old to the baby born in the flood of 1977 to a former moonshiner, the stories flow like a conversation between friends. The pieces on the CD were originally columns written by Mathews for The West Virginia Daily Telegraph between 1974 and 1979. Told mostly in the words of the people he interviewed, each segment takes the listener to a different home, a different life, and a different time. Mr. Mathews left Bluefield for a position in Evansville, Indiana but he collected memories of his tenure in Bluefield into two books, Folks 1 and Folks 2. Here he revisits those years in the southern mountains in a collection sure to become a classic of Appalachian oral history.
Mathews' subjects are not people whose names will be found in history books or on monuments. They are everyday folks, the ones who did the logging and not the owners of the logging companies, the ones who dug the coal and not the mine operators. There is a moonshiner, a snake handler, a woman who trades in animal skins and a man who recalled witnessing a hanging. There is an elderly teller of Uncle Remus tales and a collector of old Western movie posters, and a man who raised fighting roosters. There are mine disasters, deaths, and a man who dug graves for a living. Story after story, thirty-three in all, carry the listener back in time to when things were simpler but no less difficult, and remind us that hard times and good people often travel hand in hand.
Mr. Mathews’ voice is perfect as narrator, as are the music selections that provide transition from one story to another. The tunes are as familiar as our hills; even the one original song sounds like it was surely written years ago. Performed by Mathews friends and family, the music is a natural accompaniment to the stories. Well-told, excellently developed, and without pathos or drama, the emotional punch of these tales needs no emoting to get their point across. Folks Are Talking is a fine listening experience.
The two-CD set is $17.00 plus $3.00 shipping and handling. You can hear four of the tracks online and purchase online at www.folksaretalking.com . CDs are also available directly from Mr. Mathews. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.