Photos by Margaret Volkwein
c 2015 By Margaret Smith Volkwein
I first met Waitman Hicks when he was an old old man. I visited him with a friend - "You have got to hear this" - and we listened to the old man's thready voice singing.
We had to lean close to listen to him over the TV, the only ones listening to him.
Waitman sang long lonesome songs of lost love, brave men and beautiful women, brave princesses and beautiful men, faithless lovers and far-off lands.
"Where did you get those lovely songs?" I asked.
"He made them up," my friend said. Old Waitman shuffled his feet, looked down, grinning, his ears turning red and nodding.
Old Waitman had dozens of songs. Never heard him sing the same one twice. He lived in central West Virginia, where old ballads migrated with the old folks from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland.
He had been to the Carolinas once, which he called the Carlinneys.
When Waitman died of pneumonia at 94 years of age, they had an old timey funeral at Mud Fork Church on Stinson.
There were five singers at the front of the church, none under 90 years old. They sang from the heart, but gave us all well worn shape-note hymnals. if we wanted to join in.
I was too entranced to sing.
They sang in five part harmony that made my neck hairs stand up and salute in the honor of the occasion.
This, to the tongue-tied people of the mountains, was the only way they could express their feelings. They said goodbye to the ballad singer and lifelong friend in the only way they knew how.
Cracked old people voices spiraled up into the air like dust.
I think of you, Waitman Hicks, and every time I sing a ballad, I sing it for you.
"I was borned in West Virginia
To the Carlinneys I did go
There I met the fairest maiden
Her name and age I do not know.
I'd druther be in some dark holler
Where the sun don't never shine
Than to see you with another
And to know you'll not be mine.
- Waitman Hicks