Piedmont Region. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Or “Carolina Cotton Piedmont,” a region of the American Southeast. Geographically, the
area extends from the central part of North Carolina through South Carolina into Georgia,
and is bordered on the west by the Blue Ridge and to the east by the Sand Hills (remnant
Cenozoic beaches). Physically, culturally, and linguistically blending into central North
Carolina’s tobacco area and central Georgia’s Atlantan megalopolis, the region
historically was the heart of textile production in the Southeast. In the late 20th century,
the “Upstate,” as the region is also called, consists of rolling hills with pastures and small
farms, linked by an expanding Interstate corridor extending from Charlotte, North
Carolina, to Atlanta.
The earliest European setders were Scots-Irish, some Germans, and British migrants
from colonial areas farther north, along with some African American slaves. Their
settlement pattern of small, independent “yeoman” farms contrasted with the English
plantations along the coast, establishing a cultural and dialectical distinction that persists
to this day. Following Reconstruction of the 1870s, the Piedmont sprouted numerous
cotton mills, utilizing the area’s inexpensive water power, White labor, and raw
materials. Consequendy, mill-town residents gradually became a recognized folk group.
Simultaneously, stemming in part from the devastation of the Civil War, a system of
tenant farming and sharecropping evolved, establishing a second category of landless
Black and White farmers. Both of these groups interacted further with a developing
small-town elite, created by old money saved from antebellum times and new capital
generated by the mills and related enterprises. Through time, the traditions of these
groups interwove, creating Carolina Piedmont folklife.
The ongoing social relationship between Anglo American and African American
Upstate residents has been complex. While racism, paternalism, and segregation
guaranteed that Blacks and Whites worshipped, learned, and lived separately, Black
cooks fed their traditions to White households, Black “nurses” or nannies passed oral
traditions on to their White charges, and White and Black tenant farmers often worked
side by side. This social interaction followed unspoken but quite rigid rules, regulating
not only marriage partners and occupational categories, but even forms of greeting and
methods of home entry. For example, Whites would always address a Black (regardless
of class) by first name or “Uncle” or “Aunt”; to retain their dignity indirecdy, African
Americans disclosed their first names to friends, leaving only initials by which Whites
might address them.
Seen acutely in the political economy, segregation prevented African Americans from
working in the textile industry, effectively restricting men to manual labor or some
professions such as preaching, women to domestic duties and other professions such as
teaching, or either gender to tenant farming. Black women, in effect, supported the
stereotypical “Southern hospitality” and gentility of their White employers by washing
and starching clothes, caring for children, and especially by preparing and serving formal
dinners and teas. Desegregation in the area has opened minds and places, but traces of these earlier attitudes may still be felt, as Blacks and Whites maintain informal social
separation within a larger context of formal integration.
Besides African American and Anglo American social groups, others exist in the area
both in reality and in stereotype. From the ubiquitous mill towns developed the mill
workers, disparaged by both town and farm residents as “lint heads”; the latter resented
these perceptions and formulated their own views of farmers and town dwellers. These
groups and their positive and negative stereotypes persist. Some scholars have argued
that the region’s yeoman farmers of the 18th century (with the addition of some former
mill hands) have evolved into “rednecks.” Perceived by outsiders as somewhat coarse
and conservative, rednecks see themselves as a step above the “White trash,” the trailerdwelling lowest class, which everyone recognizes but in which very few acknowledge
membership. As they interact, all of these social groups follow stereotypical, traditional
Attitudes shaped by the past explain and justify contemporary folklife and the groups
that continue these customs. For example, people in the region describe the Upstate value
system as consisting of family togetherness, Southern hospitality, religious conservatism,
individuality, and a stereotypical slower pace of life. Many Anglo Americans (from urban
elites to rural rednecks) also adhere to an idealistic image of the “old South,”
emphasizing gentility and loyalty to the “lost cause” of the War for Southern
Independence (also known facetiously as the War of Northern Aggression). These
qualities in turn guide, influence, and explain Upstate folklife.
Verbal genres of contemporary folklife include what locals themselves describe as a
slower pace of speaking and storytelling, particularly when contrasted with Northerners.
Residents also express a general enjoyment of leisurely conversation, which often seeks
first to elicit one’s family ties, place of origin, and religious background. Distinctive
vocabulary words enliven conversations. Examples include stove “eyes” for burners or
“buggies” for grocery carts; one “mashes” buttons and admits that he or she “might
could” (may be able to) do something. Sentimental verses, copied from written sources or
composed by the author, appear in local newspapers on important anniversaries for
deceased loved ones, demonstrating the persistence of family cohesiveness beyond death.
Stories of ancestral anecdotes preserve family history as well as entertainment at family
reunions, while folktales and rhymes of landowners cheating tenants exemplify the
region’s agricultural past. Ghost stories reflect interweavings of Scots-Irish and African
traditions, while pranks and practical jokes solidify neighborhoods or cotton mill
Additional oral traditions also reflect the centuries-old connections between Black and
White beliefs. For example, some in both groups affirm the power of the moon to
influence human events, such as determining the appropriate times for cutting hair or
extracting teeth. The moon is also said to affect the growth of vegetables, for
underground ones should be planted in the dark (waning) of the moon, while
aboveground vegetables should be planted in the light of the moon. Charms (such as
silver dimes around the neck or ankle) to ward off the “Booger Man” or general evil
influences are acknowledged by a few African Americans, as are “root doctors,” those
with an ability to cure by using supernatural and herbal remedies (such as “yellow root,”
available in area flea markets). Other healers might possess the power to stop blood (relying to some degree on Ezekiel 16:6) or to “talk fire out of burns” by reciting some
other mystical words. A few such healers continue to practice.
Throughout contemporary Upstate social activities, hints of traditional values
invigorate and underlie daily life. For example, Sunday afternoons after church remain
the private domain of family gathierings, although the custom in the late 20th century is
tempered by television. Friends continue to exemplify traditional Southern hospitality by
assisting neighbors who are ill or bereaved by donating food to the family. Family
reunions are frequently held during the midsummer slow time of traditional cotton
farming (“lay-by time”), often staged at the “home place” or the country church where
ancestors once lived or now lie. Church homecomings and annual revivals continue longstanding practices as well, tying family and faith with threads of sacred music and tastes
of favorite foods.
The social context of foods enhances their symbolic meaning, further linking the past
and the present with families and faith in an effective association. Whether at family
reunions, political gatherings, or Sunday dinners, various forms of pork (often barbecued
but sometimes rendered into “cracklings”—remnants of fried skin from melted fat) have
been widely consumed by both Anglo Americans and African Americans. Grits, biscuits
and gravy, black-eyed peas, and pinto beans had long been staples of working-class and
tenant families, and many still love these foods, flavored as they are with nostalgia. Most
Upstate families still mark the New Year with black-eyed peas and collard greens for
their continued good fortune; the former represent change and the latter stand for
greenbacks. Collard greens and okra may be purchased in stores, bought at roadside
stands, or grown in home gardens. Peanuts are often boiled in saltwater, which softens
them and alters their taste. Cornbread traditionally might be crumbled into milk or mixed
with cracklings, but mostly today it is just eaten as bread. Piedmont sweets include
scuppernongs and muscadines (wild grapes) as well as molasses. Washing all of this food
down is sweetened iced tea, served with every afternoon and evening meal.
These traditional foods frequently appear at informal types of adult recreation, which
also reflect hints of earlier, more rural times. For example, at country crossroads and at
outdoor malls, merchants sell everything from boiled peanuts to clothes to automobile
parts to farm animals. These ubiquitous flea markets are the direct descendants of
informal swap meets at country stores or county fairs. Flea markets also reflect the
region’s emphasis on individuality—one can sell anything, anywhere, anytime (except
when this conflicts with religious conservatism; hence no Sunday alcohol sales in many
communities). Upstate fairs might feature various “womanless” activities such as “beauty
pageants,” in which local men dress in women’s costumes in mock ceremonies for
charity. Hunting remains a popular and serious pastime; bumper stickers proclaim “when
the tailgate drops the bullshit stops,” meaning that at the release of the dogs, talk ceases
in order to appreciate the music of the hounds’ baying. Auto racing equals other
professional, collegiate, and high-school team sports in popularity. Although illegal,
cockfighting and moonshining occur but are said to take place “across the state line.”
In virtually all Piedmont residents’ backgrounds are ancestors who worked either as
mill hands or tenant farmers. The textile industry remains a significant (but declining)
employer in the Upstate, but paternalistic company control has been replaced by more
impersonal companies. Practical jokes (to socially level new employees) have faded due
to corporate professionalism, and the isolation of mill towns and their residents has been shattered by mass communication, improved transportation, and better education.
Likewise, the snowy fields of ripening cotton have virtually disappeared from the
Upstate, but many middle-age and older residents, whether Anglo American or African
American, male or female, will proudly relate tales of how much cotton each could pick
in a day. Especially in the calculations of debits and credits at the end of the field season,
racism guaranteed the continuation of class distinctions, as exemplified by the traditional
folk rhyme: “Naught’s a naught and a figger is a figger; all for the White man, none for
the Nigger.” No one wishes for those backbreaking, heat-intensive, and low-paying days
to return.
While cotton has disappeared, the landscape still preserves Piedmont traditions, for
vernacular architecture reflects elements of the past. Mill towns dot hillsides all over the
region; landscaping and paint barely disguise the patterned buildings today owned
primarily by retired couples in aging communities. Tenant houses, often overgrown with
kudzu (a perennial creeping vine) but occasionally still occupied, also stand, frequendy
near the larger, ostentatious “big house” of the former (or current) landowner. Most
Upstate residents feel an inexorable tug of nostalgia to the “home place,” either an
original dwelling, a modified improvement, or die traditional but now empty site. There
families schedule annual reunions, linking their ancestral heritage, family unity, and
physical point of “origin” by means of the smells, sights, and tastes of traditional foods.
Elements of material culture, too, continue earlier traditions while simultaneously
representing innovations. In the past, for example, women would gather in the home of a
friend to spend the day talking, eating, and quilting; older women fondly remember the
first times, as young girls, when they were promoted from the yard with the children into
the house with the adults. Responding to both art and necessity, quilters changed designs
and shapes through time, and in the late 20th century their labors represent several
threads to the past: as valuable antiques and as honored heirlooms. In contrast, the art of
making baskets from wooden oak splits, which traditionally produced utilitarian objects
from washtub-size cotton baskets to hand-size sewing baskets, has largely (but not
completely) disappeared. Several regionally known pottery traditions, however, still
produce items, though primarily for tourists and less for home and farm. In tombstone
inscriptions, especially in older, segregated cemeteries, one may see permanently
preserved indications of social inequities. Some markers, for example, were given by the
White employers of faithful servants termed “Aunt” or “Uncle,” reflecting the genuine
care offset by paternalistic racism of the donors. Other old African American stones were
formed of wet concrete, with the names of the deceased stenciled or lettered by hand.
The organization of space, the social groups that interact in it, the activities in which
they engage, and the beliefs and values that explain that interaction and shape that space
constitute the elements of Piedmont folklife that characterize the region today.
John M.Coggeshall