At Broad Branch, we found that Bill Duty’s old one-story log house was completely gone. We wanted to go to the family cemetery just across the creek and up the hill but didn’t because it was overran with giant weeds.
We were all just kinda hanging out there, crammed in the car, when Doska said, “Milt Ferrell could play a fiddle. He was a first cousin to my daddy.”
Wait a minute — another fiddler? I’d spent quite a bit of time trying to track down the names of the old fiddlers around Harts. All of a sudden, they were falling from the woodwork.
Milt Ferrell — a man related to the Dutys and with the first name of Ed’s father. I said, “Now who was he?”
“Mayme’s daddy,” Eunice said, as if that helped. “Mayme lives down there.”
“She’s bad off,” Doska added. “One of her lungs has collapsed.”
I just had to see this Mayme Ferrell, although I didn’t want to impose on her if she was in poor health.
Doska and Eunice said she would love the company…and she just lived down the road.
On the way to Mayme’s someone mentioned that she lived at the old Rector Post Office, a settlement from earlier in the century. We soon turned over a little bridge and pulled up to the only structure left in “Rector proper”: Mayme’s incredible two-story log cabin. It was ancient and leaning, with an old cemetery just behind it on the hill. The whole scene was like something from a dream.
We got out of the car and walked up to a small back porch where Eunice pecked at the screen door and hollered, “Mayme? It’s Eunice.”
In no time at all, Mayme Ferrell was peeking back out at us. She was frail, half-blind and hooked to a breathing machine — and very surprised to see us all on her porch with fiddles, cameras, and notebooks.
Mayme invited us on inside where we sat down in the living room and started talking like old friends. She was well acquainted with Eunice and Doska and knew a lot about Billy and Brandon’s families. It was clear after a few minutes of interchange that her life had went beyond school teaching — she was an educated woman of the modern world, who’d spent twelve years in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She got me to play her a few tunes and the next thing I knew she was singing lyrics that she remembered from her childhood, like “Nigger looky here and nigger looky yander. The old gray goose is flirting with the gander.” Or things like: “I had a piece of pie and I had a piece of puddin’. I give it all away for to sleep with Sally Goodin.” Or this: “Old Aunt Sal, if you don’t care I’ll leave my liquor jug sitting right here. If it ain’t here when I come back we’ll raise hell in the Cumberland Gap.”
Eunice remembered “Cluck old hen, cluck and sing. Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring.” Doska said her father Jeff Duty used to play the tune.
I said to Mayme, “So your father was a fiddler? Tell me about him.”
She was immediately nostalgic.
“Daddy was named for a poet, but I don’t think his parents knew it,” she said. “John Milton Ferrell. He was a great guy. He was a wonderful person. My daddy’s people were just easy going. Most of them were musicians. My daddy, he would lead the songs in church. He was a board member for three terms and the last term he was the president of the board. They would meet over at Harts and those Brumfields — I’ll tell you what — most people were afraid to go through there. Charley Brumfield shot his daddy and killed him. His daddy was beating his mother and he made him leave, so I understand, and then when he came back — I guess he was drunk…”
Mayme looked at Brandon and said, “Those Brumfields were rough then, son. Good people. If they liked you they liked you, and if they didn’t you better leave them alone. They were ambitious people. They just got to feuding among themselves, but it wore out after a while. But my daddy was a good friend to all of them. Charley Brumfield would’ve done anything for daddy. They’d get in a poker game after they had their meeting and they’d all drink. Well daddy would come home with a pocket full of money. One time he came home drunk and he couldn’t hang his hat up. Of course, the older children laughed and I cried, but he sang, ‘Hey hey rushin’ the rabbit. Into the brush and then you’ll habit.’ Didn’t say ‘have it.’ I don’t know what they were getting in that brush. He was a very, very humble person and he was witty.”
Milt Ferrell, Mayme said, played the fiddle around election time, at weddings, at schools or on Friday at all-night dances.
“We’d have barn-raisings,” she said. “After they got the roof over the barn and put the second floor in — the floor where you put your fodder and hay — they’d have a barn dancing. They’d dance all night.”
Milt played with the fiddle under his chin, as did Jeff Duty.
Mayme cried when I played one of her father’s tunes, “Over the Waves”.
She said her father’s older brothers Clinton Ferrell and Fulton Ferrell were also fiddlers. Clint was the smoothest fiddler in the family but would only occasionally pick up Milt’s fiddle and play “Mississippi Sawyer”. Their cousin Jim Lucas was also good.
“Uncle Jim was an excellent fiddler,” she said. “He didn’t jiggle. A real smooth player.”
She didn’t recall any banjos or mandolins on Big Ugly in the old days, although her brother-in-law Clarence Lambert was a great guitarist (“as good as Chet Atkins”) who played Hawaiian music and tunes like “Guitar Rag”.