Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bascomb Falls: A Family Album

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 Falls

The red clay road divides at Bascomb Falls
   not much there,
   Morrison's General Store,
   Mount Carmel Church,
   the school.
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.
Sometimes -----
   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
   is full.
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
   and everyone
   is just about a mile away.
Sometimes it isn't far enough.
Does 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).

*  *  *

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.

Copyright © by Elizabeth O'Neal

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Bill West said...

Thanks for sharing your Uncle's poetry wih us
and for taking part in the Challenge!


Sandy Nathan said...

Your uncle has been heavy on my mind of late. He was one of my teachers and my mentor while I attended UMKC, and he remained a friend until I left the Midwest in the late 70's and lost touch with him. The news of his death was shocking.
I was recently "found" by one of my old college classmates. She was responsible for getting me into Madrigal Singers - a group that Dr. John organized and directed. I'm sure that both of us would enjoy seeing any old photos you might have from his teaching years - you know he taught us more about life than anyone else in my lifetime, and we love him still.

Ruth said...

Elizabeth, I just came across your blog. I knew your uncle John Swanay. I have an autographed copy of Bascomb Falls. I was a student of his at the Conservatory. He was both fascinating and intimidating. As you said, he was a bit odd. I learned a great deal from him--much beyond the music history he was teaching.

After I completed my coursework, I continued to associate with him, often attending parties at his residence, a converted carriage house near the Art Institute and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

Once, when attending a party there, I learned that his cat had had a litter of kittens and he was seeking homes for them. I adopted one--a little gray tabby. He had already named her, and I kept the name--Bonkers.

Elizabeth O'Neal said...

Sandy and Ruth - Thank you both for contacting me. I'm glad to know that my uncle was a positive influence on your lives.

Uncle John was an interesting character. I didn't know him well, as he lived in MO and I grew up in CA. But I did get to visit his carriage house one time, and I remember it was quite fascinating.

Sandy, I inherited most of John's photo collection, so I'll see what I can find. Before they came to me, they weren't kept very well, and a cat "got to them," if you know what I mean. I'm not quite sure how to remove the smell of cat urine from photographs. I suppose I'll eventually scan and archive them, when I find the time.

Ruth, *I* don't even have an autographed copy of Bascomb Falls,, so you're very lucky!