Thursday, August 2, 2012

Goodbye, Hazel

 photo from

She was a singer, a woman raised in the old ways who remembered how things were back then, when singing was just something people did as they went about their daily work. She was a simple woman and yet she was known throughout West Virginia and beyond for her old-time harmony singing. She was also my grandchildren's great-grandmother on their mother's side.

Hazel Westfall passed away quite suddenly this week. At 84, she'd had a good life. She and her husband Bill taught harmony singing for the Augusta Heritage series for years. They made a cassette that was sold in the US and Europe to great reviews. They wrote a book about their life in singing, called Singin' in the Hills, a book that reads like a conversation between Hazel and Bill. They were fixtures at old-time music festivals and everywhere I have been telling stories or listening to music, people all knew Bill and Hazel. Their life was music, and music was their life.

I wish I had gotten to know Hazel better. The few times I sat and chatted with her, she told me ghost stories, legends, folklore, and stories about her life in music. She came from a family that has a long history in West Virginia, a family that was here when it was still Virginia and that still owns the same land as those early ancestors farmed. Indeed, there was a song written about her father's ancestors during the Civil War, an incendiary song called "The Casto Hole." You can read the lyrics below. Some people believe this was the first ballad written in West Virginia.

 photo from

The last time I saw her, she and Bill and a friend came to one of the open mic sessions at the library in town. They sang and talked about songs, and Hazel and I talked about the old methods of stopping blood and taking the fire from a burn. It was an evening I will call back to memory whenever I hear her name.

West Virginia lost a treasure, but even more important, my grandchildren lost their great-grandmother. I am in hopes that her musical legacy has passed down to them; two are now learning to play guitar and one is learning to play the banjo at the same time. If they continue, perhaps somewhere in the future when they play they will hear the echo of Hazel's voice, singing harmony.

The Casto Hole (from Mudcat)

Far in the woods of Upper Tug
We wrap old Union in a rug.
Where Nicholas reads his Union Roll
And Rallies round the Casto Hole.

The Casto Hole is a cavern deep
Where Union men can quiet sleep,
There all their war-like plans unfold
While forted in the Casto Hole.

There you can hail the Union flag,
For such they call a striped rag.
Some two feet square stuck on a pole
In the region of the Casto Hole.

Union, Union is their song,
It's two feet broad and four feet long.
Hold up your heads and sing it "bold"
A hundred feet in the Casto Hole.

A lame-leg miller took afright
For Upper Tug he cut one night.
His fears were far beyond control
So he bolted for the Casto Hole.

Since Wise is gone, they now know fear
Except at night, lest they might hear
Some demon howl, or ghost of old
Prowling around the Casto Hole.

A southern scout - horrors profound,
That name, it shakes the very ground;
That name's a thunderbolt to Joel -
The general of the Casto Hole.

But, oh, the terrors of a scout
To those poor devils crowded out.
In their retreat, headlong they roll
Chock full they fill the Casto Hole.

Go to their houses, give a call,
There reigns a solemn silence, all.
But take their tracks, however cold,
They'll lead you to the Casto Hole.

No danger near - see how they prance?
Like Indians in an Indian dance -
Ignorant as Indians, 'pon my soul,
These warriors of the Casto Hole.

Lord, calm their fears, thy grace is good;
Call these scared devils from the wood,
Call them, like sheep, unto thy fold -
Those heroes of the Casto Hole.

Poor old Joel, he died of late,
And took his flight to Heaven's Gate.
St. Peter knew the poor old soul,
And kicked them back to the Casto Hole.

Down from the pearly gates he flies,
A howling demon of the skies.
A ghastly ghost, black, grim, and cold -
Came sliding back to the Casto Hole.

On terra-firma, safe again,
Young, yelping devils, in this train
To the Old Rogues' March they beat a roll
And escorted him back to the Casto Hole.

Old wizard Nicholas was on hand
In the witches department, holds command
He sped his signs from pole to pole,
For all witches to meet him in the Casto Hole.

That great magician of the North
Nods, earthquakes shock all round the earth;
Conjures the light from his northern pole
To illuminate the Casto Hole.

Witches and wizards and goblins grim,
Assembled there and were sworn in.
Presiding, sat the ghost of Joel -
At a Union meeting in the Casto Hole.

The traitors’ ghosts, they too were there.
Old Hull and Arnold took a share.
All rogues were there, number untold-
All refugees in the Casto Hole.

And wooly heads, they came long
With chalky eyes and odors strong
In that deep den, high place did hold 
  All abolition in the Casto Hole.

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Nance said...

ah, sorry about this. sounds as though she had an abundance of talent. I know she will be missed by so many . . .

6577cdae-6893-11e0-ab55-000bcdcb471e said...

Our precious old timers are going in the ground so quickly, taking their priceless knowledge & wisdom with them. As my husband likes to say-"we can't hold a light to 'em."

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