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Wellman, Lunsford, Pow-Wows

To: alt.lucky.w,alt.magick.tyagi,alt.paranormal.spells.hexes.magic,alt.magick.folk,alt.magick
From: catherine yronwode 
Subject: Wellman, Lunsford, Pow-Wows
Date: Wed, 23 May 2001 20:54:04 GMT

Teddy wrote: 

> I wish I'd listened to the 'old folks' more. But things like this
> group help. I recognize some of the things as part of my background,
> although not always. I don't even know what to call what the old 
> people did and believed wasn't like Wicca, wasn't the 
> African-Caribbean kind of religions, a lot like the things I read in > some books with a character called 'Silver John', can't remember the > author. Don't even know if it has a name, what they did.

The author of the Silver John stories was Manley Wade Wellman. These
stories were serialized in "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction"
("F&SF" to fans) from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. They were
then collected into a book called "Who Fears the Devil?" You can find a
paperback copy through any of the online used book services fairly
cheaply. I know that from experience :-)

I first ran across the Silver John stories in the late 1950s and i
collected all of the old F&SF issues that had them in. They were my very
favourite series and were loved by many of ny friends. In 1964, my
boyfriend Tom Hall, who was from Alabama and played guitar, entered the
Worldcon science fiction masquerade contest as Silver John. He didn't
have to dress up much -- he just wore some old clothes, carried his
Martin guitar onstage and sang a few verses of "The Downbound Train." 

Manley Wade Wellman is primarily known as a science fiction author, but
he was quite a folklorist and a Southerner, and he knew a LOT about
magic. He was a descendent of the Confederate General Wade Hampton. In
addition to his own published works, he also ghost-wrote a comic book
series called "The Spirit" for a few years while the series' originator,
Will Eisner, was serving in World War Two. In the late 1970s i became
the reprint editor for "The Spirit Magazine," so i interviewed Wellman
about his work. I had already figured out which of the "Spirit" stories
he wrote, even though they were uncredited, because they all either took
place in the South and involved folk-magic themes or they dealt with
exotic, ancient, cursed artifacts (kinda like the later Indiana Jones

Mr. Wellman was very generous with his time, and we spoke by phone quite
often after that, i of course admiring his Silver John stories, and
asking more about how he came to write them. He said that he had been a
friend of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a country lawyer by trade but a
folklorist and folk singer by avocation, and that Lunsford had gotten
him interested in the possible "occult" history of certain Appalachian
songs about the Devil, and so forth. They travelled around together for
a time, hiking through the Smokies and collecting folk songs from local
singers. "Who Fears the Devil?" is dedicated to Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

Lunsford was an unusual man, too. I met him many times during the early
1960s because he toured the country as an aged folk singer and banjo
player during the folk music craze. Few of us admiring folkies knew he
was a lawyer or that he had organized the first folk music festivals as
early as the 1920s, or that he was a noted hobby folklorist along the
lines of Harry M. Hyatt. We just thought of him as a "primitive"
banjoist as old as dirt who had first been recorded in the 1920s and
whose songs were collected the celebrated "Harry Smith Anthology of
American Folk-Music." He never boasted about his past, but kept his
light hidden under a bushel. I grin with embarrassment when i realize
how little i knew about him and his life at the time when i first
approached him. My favourite song of his was always "I Wish I Was a Mole
in the Ground." ("If i's a mole in the ground i would root this mountain
down; oh, i wish i was a mole in the ground...") 

In Manley Wade Wellman's Silver John stories -- and other tales set in
the South -- Wellman described with amazing accuracy a type of
Appalachian folk-magic, practiced mostly among whites, that derives from
German and British sources, and is best exemplified in the book "Pow
Wows or the Long-Lost Friend" by John George Hohman. (In fact,
"Pow-Wows" is mentioned by name in Wellman's "Who Fears the Devil?") 

This tradition, sometimes called "Pow-Wow magic" or "herb doctoring," is
an amalgam of practices and beliefs that also entered hoodoo, as
African-Americans mingled socially and economically with
European-Americans. By the time that Harry M. Hyatt collected his 1,6000
interviews with African-Americans during the 1930s, a great deal of
European folklore had already become canonized within hoodoo -- and
conversely, many white country folk-magicians had acquired elements of
African belief and practice. 

An excellent movie that deals factually with a celebrated criminal case
of the 1920s that involved Pow-Wow magic is "Apprentice to Murder,"
starring Donald Sutherland and Chad Lowe. I recommend it highly -- and
note with disgust that the copy we got from the local video store has a
faked-up cover depicting a "Satanic Mass" scene -- which never occurs in
the film. 

I hope this little memoir may stimulate interest in Manley Wade Wellman
and Bascom Lamar Lunsford as folklorists. Both men were very kind to me
and directed me to the sources from which they drew their inspiration,
and both were, in a manner of speaking, role models for me. That i
happen to have met them through the unexpected venues of folk song and
comic book editing -- and that they knew each other -- is one of those
it's-a-small-world-after-all reminders that make my life the complex
adventure it still is. They have both passed and i am well on the way to
becoming an old eccentric, much as they were when i knew them. Such is
life on Planet Earth.  
cat yronwode 

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     Copyright (c) 2001 catherine yronwode. All rights reserved.

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