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Book Review 308: The Upland South

February 9, 2014 - Harry Eagar
THE UPLAND SOUTH, by Terry G. Jordan-Bychkov. 121 pages, illustrated. Center for American Places

The Upland South, where I was born and raised, is a strange but lovable place: beautiful, violent, ignorant, musical. Terry Jordan, a well-known cultural geographer, grew up at one remove: Dallas, Texas, with grandparents in Tennessee.

In this little book, written as he knew he was about to die of pancreatic cancer, he poured all his feelings and roamings about a place he loved but knew he was never a part of. One theme, gently but persistently present in”The Upland South,” is that a great deal of nonsense has been written about it, notably claims that it is the American home of “Scotch-Irish” folkways.

Even so eminent a historian as David Hackett Fischer in “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” has shopped this simplistic notion. Jordan-Bychkov notes that once the Census Bureau started asking people about their ancestry, they generally answered either “American” or “English,” at the same time betraying practically no knowledge at all about the geography of the British Isles (or anywhere else, in my experience).

He thinks the regional identity formed around 1790-1815 in Middle Tennessee of elements ultimately deriving from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Finland, Sweden and the indigenes.

He notices -- and this is the kind of thing you have to spend time with people learning -- that a large proportion of these Southerners will claim Indian forebears. Not enough to endanger their status as white people, but staking a claim to have been here “always.”

In fact, though, the Upland South has more Indian in it -- both ancestral and cultural -- than its inhabitants realize. Jordan-Bychkov locates the camp meeting in Indian meeting grounds, which surprised me; and among the five physical cultural markers he selects is one I have never seen myself, although I have traveled many thousands of miles through the Upland South. But then I was seldom stopping in cemeteries.

His marker is the graveshed, a low, peaked, open wooden structure put over an inhumation burial. Jordan-Bychkov says it continues the Creek custom of corpse disposal, which left the body above ground (protected by a roofed palisade) until the bones were collected in a charnel house and finally buried under a mound. Not common in “Dogpatch” and unknown elsewhere, the graveshed is a perfect example of a folk tradition. Almost no one today who puts them up knows why. It is just a thing that is done. (In searching for an image of a graveshed not in Jordan-Bychkov's book, I find the Library of Congress has an example from southern Alabama, well outside the Upland South. No information is given but perhaps this one is directly derived from Creeks, who live and lived there, and not via mediated white folkways.)

His other markers are notched-log carpentry, the dogtrot cabin, the transverse-crib barn and the county courthouse on the square surrounded by business buildings. There could be many others, but “The Upland South” was being written by a man in a hurry, with much to convey and not much time to convey it.

“The Upland South” is the second fine volume I have read from the Center for American Places, which is devoted to “enhancing the public’s understanding of, and appreciation for, the natural and built environment.” These -- or at least this one and “Changing Mines in America” by Goins and Raymond (See “Book Review 269”, March 9, 2013) -- are superior guidebooks, much more deeply informed than even the better commercial guides, but they are published in such tiny editions (1,500) that they can hardly be making much impact. And even those editions are not selling out. Both my copies are new first editions, and “The Upland South” was published more than 10 years ago. (They are also be available in paperback but are not common.)

 
 

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Graveshed in southern Alabama

 
 
 
 

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