QUEEN OF THE HILLBILLIES: Writings of May Kennedy McCord, edited by Patti McCord and Kristine Sutliff

If you should come down with shingles, kill a black chicken and drain its blood. Then lie down on some newspapers (to soak up the mess) and find someone to pour the blood over your suppurations. Works every time.

That’s nonsense, of course, but here’s some folk wisdom that isn’t: Plant your corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. This piece of Ozarks lore, also Native American lore, is quite correct. For Midwestern farmers, the rule-of-thumb time to plant corn is April 15, but often that’s a mite early. Oaks are about the last trees to bud out in the spring, and the ground and the air will have warmed  by then. So the best time to plant corn truly is whenever oak leaves reveal themselves.

May Kennedy McCord wrote about all kinds of Ozarks superstitions in her long-running columns, mostly in Springfield, Missouri papers, but superstitions were only one of her subjects. The editors ably segment her columns and fugitive pieces into a number of categories: “Crime and the Law;” “Ghost Stories,”  which McCord didn’t put much stock in; “Politics and Religion,”  which, folksy as it is, contains a vivid and penetrating description of Penecostalism; “Death and Burial;” “Music of the Ozarks,”  featuring the lyrics to songs McCord collected and sang; “Critters in the Hills;” “Superstitions and Granny Cures;” and “Time for School,” in which McCord described the fascinating “blab schools.” These were schools where all learning was through recitation. They were also called “loud schools.”

Rather as Harold Bell Wright did, McCord celebrated the Old Ozarks as an Arcadian paradise:

“There are no words to describe my feelings as I go over these still, dark, cool, woodsy little paths—smelling of cedar and moss and the loamy earth.”

She fiercely defended her idea of the true Ozarks of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and disliked it when that heritage was, in her view, corrupted by outside influences. Thomas Hart Benton came from Neosho, Missouri, but his undulating style of painting irritated McCord as a distortion of Ozarkers as they actually were. This muleheaded argument was seconded by many of McCord’s loyal readers—who wrote constantly to McCord on all manner of things, much enriching her columns.

Time and again, the Queen tried to get a handle on the notion of “hillbilly,” a vexed term even in the 1930s. It was all right for an Ozarker to call himself a hillbilly, but watch out if you were an outsider. “We are a peculiar people in the Ozarks,” she wrote. “This storied land which is a Pandora’s box of strange tales, unfathomable superstitions, shouldering hatreds, fierce loyalties, simple religions and unshakable faiths.”

McCord was born in Carthage, Missouri in 1880. Her parents were teachers and not truly hillfolk, nor were they poor. Nonetheless, hardships visited the family; McCord’s father died when she was twelve. Galena became McCord’s hometown, the place where her infinite knowledge of the hills came from. She had a good singing voice and often sang ballads out of the hills, accompanying herself on the guitar. Like Vance Randolph, she collected ballads, seeking out lonely oldtimers to play and sing with them. When visitors came to McCord’s house, they’d be entertained with song—and a lot of good food.

Her husband’s job forced McCord to move from her beloved Galena, on the pristine James River, to the big city of Springfield. However, the move made the Queen’s career. Though she wrote for other publications and had a radio show in St. Louis, her home base was the Springfield NEWS AND LEADER with a column called “Ozarks Heartbeats.” It ran from the 1920s into the war years.

Properly for a good Ozarks raconteur. McCord was often funny. Many times, it was guffaw humor, though even then it was sly, an inescapable part of her style. Sometimes, it was wonderfully wry, as when she recounted the final moments of outlaw Alf Bolin, who, with the co-operation of law enforcement, was done in by his wife:

“After dinner, as he leaned over the fireplace to light his pipe, the other guest knocked him in the head with the poker. She herself dragged him to a lean-to room and cut off his head from his body. Women used to do a lot for ‘their men,’ didn’t they?”

Almost as often as she was funny, McCord was poignant:

“Crazy people were about all we used jails for—poor souls. We had so little in the way of treatment then for mental cases. We did nothing but chain them and take them over hard roads in rough bumpy wagons, and they were wild, poor things, when after about three hard days the sheriff and other men got them to the state institution. These things break my heart yet!”

. Colleagues Otto Rayburn and Vance Randoph, as well as personages far removed from the region such as Pete Seeger and Carl Sandburg, celebrated McCord for her colorful homages to Ozarks culture, being lost even in McCord’s time. However, her writings have been pretty much forgotten. That’s partly because McCord didn’t take herself all that seriously and never wrote a book. Hopefully, Queen of the Hillbillies will go a ways to restore McCord to her proper place in Ozarks history and lore. 


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