When you think of "genealogy," one word that probably does NOT pop into your mind is probably "poetry." At least, it certainly doesn't pop into mine.
However, the always-creative Bill West, author of the "West in New England" blog, has issued "The Great American Local Poem Genealogy Challenge": Find a poem by a local poet, famous or obscure, from the region one of your ancestors lived in. It can be about an historical event, a legend, a person, or even about some place (like a river) or a local animal.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, I offer the following, an excerpt from Part I of Bascomb Falls: A Family Portrait, by my uncle, John Lee Swanay.
Bascomb FallsDoes this poem make me want to research the subject more? You bet, especially since it's about my ancestors (there's much more to Bascomb Falls than just the excerpt above).
The red clay road divides at Bascomb Falls
not much there,
Morrison's General Store,
Mount Carmel Church,
Our farm's a mile on south.
Grandma used to get mad when
we were called hillbillies.
"We own bottom land!" she'd growl empahtically.
Seems like everything is always
just about a mile away.
it isn't far enough.
There's no waterfall,
just a branch that heads on down
towards Sinking Creek.
Lots of Bascombs,
One way or another
most people in the valley are related.
Sunday, Mount Carmel Church
Lichens blur the rotting stone:
"Silas Bascomb, 1699 - 1791."
Some graves are older,
wooden markers are long gone.
County Court House seems to burn every ten years.
Can't check records.
Over the fence lies
the old Indian burial ground.
We're part Cherokee.
Someone way back
must have wanted to keep the family together,
but there is a fence.
Old fence keeps rotting away.
Someone keeps putting it back.
The red clay road divides at Bascomb Falls,
not much there.
Seems like everything
is just about a mile away.
Sometimes it isn't far enough.
* * *
While falling more into the prose category, Bascomb Falls: A Family Portrait is the semi-autobiographical story of my uncle John Swanay's early years in Tennessee. Actually, my grandparents had moved to California before John was born, so the story is really written as if he had lived in Tennessee as a child. He must have spent a good deal of time visiting there, though, because he seemed to know a lot about the place.
Where is Bascomb Falls? I assume that it's a fictional representation of Fall Branch, Tennessee, which is in Greene County. Perhaps it is a play on words that I don't quite understand. The "waterfall" and "branch" references are what lead me to believe he's talking about Fall Branch. Plus, that's where the family members he writes about later were living at the time.
I'm pretty sure that the Mt. Carmel Church he describes is actually a reference to Pleasant Hill Church. Several family members are buried in the cemetery at Pleasant Hill Church, including "Grandma" - who he says later in the story was actually his great-grandmother. There was no fence when I visited the cemetery back in 1994, nor did I find an Indian burial ground.
I've also found no proof that we're part Cherokee, although this has long been a family legend.
I'm not aware that the Greene County Courthouse ever burned, much less burned every ten years. The Washington County Courthouse (the county from which Greene County was formed) was damaged a few times, so perhaps he's referring to that.
As I said, Bascomb Falls is only semi-autobiographical.
* * *
Composer, author, and gourmet chef, Dr. John Swanay was a professor of music at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. He grew up in California, attended UCLA, and was a well-educated world traveler who was stationed in Germany while serving in the U.S. Army. He was also eclectic, eccentric, and a bit odd. At least, I thought so.
I hardly knew my uncle; he lived in Missouri, didn't visit much, and died while I was still in college. To be honest, I never thought he liked me. Ironically, as the "family archivist," I've come into possession of many of his compositions, photographs, and other items. He was married once, but had no children, so there weren't many places for his personal effects to go after his death.
I read Bascomb Falls now with a genealogist's eye. It is interesting to "see" family members come to life, even if some (most?) of the details are fictional.
And yes, it sure makes me want to know more.
Swanay, John Lee. Bascomb Falls: A Family Album (Kansas City, Missouri: Swartz Printing Co., Inc, 1974), pp. 1-2.
Photo above of John Lee Swanay, probably taken in Los Angeles, California, c. 1930. Original is privately held by me.
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Copyright © by Elizabeth O'Neal
Copyright © by Elizabeth O'Neal