Wiregrass Country

Wiregrass Country

Jerrilyn McGregory
Jerry DeVine
Delma E. Presley
Henry Willett
William Lynwood Montell General Editor
Copyright Date: 1997
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv77k
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  • Book Info
    Wiregrass Country
    Book Description:

    Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) refers to a genus of flora that depends on fire ecology for germination. Although its growth is widespread from the Chesapeake Bay to the western brim of Texas, only one region has acquired the word for vernacular recognition. Ranging over parts of three states, Wiregrass Country extends from north of Savannah, sweeps across rolling meadows into the southwest Georgia coastal plain, fans over into the southeastern corner of Alabama, and dips into the northwestern panhandle of Florida.

    This book is the first comprehensive study of the folklife of this unique region and its people. Historically underpopulated, economically poor, and predominantly white until the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, Wiregrass Country is a rare stretch of the American South whose economic and cultural development has been shaped more by yeomen farming and frontier attitudes than by King Cotton, plantations, slave-holders, and slaves.

    Eventually, Wiregrass Country experienced a more diverse influx or residents-tenant farmers, African Americans, and northern industrialists. In many ways, however, it has remained characteristically rural. Few malls have invaded it, and high watertowers are more prevalent than stately court houses and city halls.

    This study typifies the population within the tristate region as communal-minded, frugal, and hardworking. Its values gain full expression in characteristic musical and verbal arts, such as Sacred Harp singing and personal narratives about the supernatural.

    Although virtually neglected by historians and folklorists, the region is a trove of cultural history preserved in folktales, music, festivals, yardscapes, hunting, and fishing.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-888-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xv-xx)

    Wiregrass Country, a historic region of the South, begins above Savannah and sweeps across rolling meadows into the southwest Georgia coastal plain, fanning over into the southeastern corner of Alabama and dipping down into the northwestern panhandle of Florida. Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) depends on fire ecology to germinate. Its fire ecosystem created a unique set of circumstances, tied closely to the development of a way of life. Wiregrass originally covered an area stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the eastern brim of Texas. All locations, except for the so-called Wiregrass region, acquired subregional names unrelated to the vegetation.

    Wiregrass varies...

  7. PART ONE: The Land and Its People

    • CHAPTER 1 Origins
      (pp. 3-10)

      The South has been said to contain more subregions than any other geographical locale in the United States. Many of these subregions have gained wide recognition: the Black Belt, Appalachia, and the Kentucky Bluegrass. In contrast, Wiregrass Country remains essentially obscure. Today, the Piney Woods, the Coastal Plain, and the Pine Barrens have subsumed it. The term “wiregrass” has declined in popular usage. Yet some distinctive characteristics persist and reflect the area’s folk cultural inheritance, belying the stereotype of a single southern culture. A folklife study of Wiregrass Country offers a means of reconsidering notions about regionalization.

      Wiregrass residents of...

    • CHAPTER 2 Indians, Settlers, and Slaves
      (pp. 11-21)

      The residents of Wiregrass Country included American Indians, Europeans, and Africans. Alliances developed among them for self-preservation and to protect their interests. Individual lives intersected economically, politically, and culturally in ways peculiar to the region, especially in relation to slavery, trade, and acculturation.

      From ancient times, Wiregrass Country offered a home to many diverse groups. The area’s first population came in successive waves from the Northwest, pursuing large animals such as mastodons and the ground sloth. Few specific ancestral links can be shown to have existed between these Paleo-Indians and the aboriginal population that first encountered Europeans in the region....

    • CHAPTER 3 Agriculture, Industry, and Labor
      (pp. 22-38)

      From the last decade of the eighteenth century until the end of the Civil War, society slowly matured in the economic backwater of the Wiregrass region. The practices of the frontier in the pine belt became the rituals of settled life. Out of the remote wilderness the settlers cleared small subsistence farms for their families. Herds of cattle and hogs and flocks of sheep ranged freely to forage for themselves. People made the goods they needed and exchanged their handiwork for things they could not make. An annual or semiannual trading expedition to river or coastal ports secured necessary items...

  8. PART TWO: Words, Music, and the Oral Tradition

    • CHAPTER 4 Rafthands of the Altamaha River
      (pp. 41-52)

      The river called Altamaha winds through 140 miles of south Georgia’s wiregrass and piney woods. It is surely one of America’s most overlooked natural resources, neglected by historians, folklorists, and even naturalists. And it is a lot of river. Draining a watershed of 14,530 square miles, the Altamaha accounts for the largest outflow of water in the Southeast. On the Atlantic coast, only the Chesapeake Bay empties more fresh water into the ocean.

      One reason for the Altamaha’s relative obscurity may be its rural location. The river begins, meanders, and ends hundreds of miles from Georgia’s population center. Residents of...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Sacred Harp and Southern Gospel Music
      (pp. 53-69)

      The weekend (from Friday through Sunday) is a time for sacred music. Although much of it is heard in churches, secular spaces are also used for performances. High school auditoriums, city and state parks, county farm centers, fishing and hunting lodges—all serve as arenas for the gospel sound in Wiregrass Country today. Certainly other secular musical forms coexist, but gospel sings, singing conventions, and anniversary concerts represent the more diverse and enduring community-based forms of expression. People can sometimes be heard to say, “That other junk, I never cared for that. I wasn’t raised with it…. These frolics, juke...

    • CHAPTER 6 Storytellers and Their Tales
      (pp. 70-80)

      Wiregrass storytellers eagerly recite historical legends, supernatural tales, Bible-based stories, and personal experience narratives, as illustrated by the life history interviews conducted throughout the region. Recurrent motifs reflect a core of shared social, economic, and cultural experiences.

      The everyday narratives of Wiregrass Country exhibit distinctive beliefs, customs, and practices. Despite the significant changes of the past century, from new technologies to racial integration, people retain knowledge that reflects their historical and cultural past. As a part of their subliminal regional identity, area residents also learn to appreciate the supernatural. Both aspects surface in narratives on everything from the art of...

  9. PART THREE: Recreation and Leisure

    • CHAPTER 7 Games, Gatherings, and Special Occasions
      (pp. 83-100)

      Wiregrass families historically worked hard and played hard. Story teller Allie Ben Prince said that his secret for continued good health was “hard work and frolicking.” The nature of the hard work, and the time available for leisure, in the Wiregrass as in most agrarian societies depended on the season. When there was too much work to do, farmers satisfied the need for recreation by making work into play. Play, of course, is not only relief from work but also a form of artistic communication. People when they play are simultaneously interpreting their lives socially, politically, and economically.

      During the...

    • CHAPTER 8 Festivals and Other Public Events
      (pp. 101-114)

      All societies take time out during the year for celebrations. Throughout the United States local festivals help communities to recenter by forcing them to focus on their common values and customs. These events, typically scheduled in the Wiregrass and elsewhere at predictable intervals, often attract masses of people.

      Rural communities sometimes choose a theme for their festivals. Examples include the Honey Festival in Valdosta, Georgia; the Tomato Festival in Slocomb, Alabama; and the Panhandle Watermelon Festival in Chipley, Florida. In Wiregrass communities, as in other American towns, festivals fulfill a social function and also serve as fund raisers for the...

    • CHAPTER 9 Outdoor Activities
      (pp. 115-130)

      The typical Wiregrass resident values outdoor life almost as strongly as religious life. With its many creeks and streams and pristine forests. Wiregrass Country is ideal for both hunting and fishing, activities that people pursue for pleasure alone or in small groups. According to Dave Mathis, “The best time to go fishing is when you have a pole, the hooks, the bait, and the gasoline in your car to get you there”—in short, almost anytime you feel like it.

      Many ancestors relied on hunting and fishing as subsistence activities. As historian William Rogers has noted, “Expeditions combining the two...

  10. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 131-132)

    Residents of Wiregrass Country today share experiences with roots deep in the historical past. This is not the “land that time forgot.” It participates in and responds to the surrounding world, at the same time forming part of that world and remaining separate from it. Being mainly rural, it continues to be agricultural and also faces some of the conflicts associated with modern urban life.

    People of different race, class, and culture interact in Wiregrass Country. They possess, as shown by the present volume, a sense of regional identity, of communal spirit. This cultural consciousness consists in part of a...

  11. APPENDIX: LIST OF INDIVIDUALS INTERVIEWED
    (pp. 133-134)
  12. BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTES
    (pp. 135-168)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 169-171)