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October 26, 2019

When I was a boy, back in the days before the Grinch stole Halloween, October 31 was one of the most anticipated evenings of the year. My friends and I looked forward to the carnival at the elementary school we attended. Halloween was second only to Christmas Eve when excitement, for kids, permeated the night air. No sooner had the sun gone down, than costumed kids of every age flooded the streets of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and shouting, “Trick-or-treat!”

Parents escorting their children stood a few yards away, guardian angels watching over small gremlins and goblins. The trick-or-treaters carried pillowcases or paper bags to collect their bounty.

My friend Rusty always dressed as a pirate, carrying a large pillowcase in which to stash his booty. He stuffed a second pillowcase into his pocket, just in case the first one reached capacity. Rusty’s Halloween range was far greater than mine. He worked his neighborhood of Ben Avon before dark and then came to my street about the time I walked out of my house dressed as a hobo.

We ventured from one house to the next collecting treats. Rusty carried a spray can of whipping cream as he made his rounds. If the treat he received at a home was particularly generous, Rusty marked the driveway with a whipped cream star. A full-sized candy bar – Hershey, Snickers, Milky Way, or Three Musketeers – merited a star. Those were the houses he returned to later in the evening.

Occasionally, we would have meetings with other trick-or-treaters to discuss which houses gave out the best goodies. Rusty was like a crafty angler, concealing his best fishing hole.

Sometimes Rusty would trade treats with other consultants. He always came out on the better end of the deal. I saw him trade three packs of Juicy Fruit chewing gum for a Hershey Chocolate Almond bar and a pack of Topps Baseball cards. The pack had both a Mickey Mantle and a Willie Mays card inside!

I am not sure when the innocence of the holiday was lost, but, with apologies to Dr. Seuss, the Grinch tried to steal Halloween. Due to the general malice of some people, trick-or-treating turned violent. Vandalism replaced tricks. Some treats even became serious threats. Needles and razor blades were hidden in candy and in apples.

Halloween fireworks took their toll. One of my sisters was burned when someone rolled a cherry bomb beneath her toddler feet. A friend lost sight in one eye following a firecracker accident. The reputation of a playful holiday was sullied.

Movies added to the rising sense of terror. Nightmare on Elm Street and its numerous sequels made Freddy Krueger a frightening legend. Chainsaw horrors and slasher films, including no less than ten Halloween movies, contributed to the hijacking of a kid’s delight.

Long ago on October 31 and November 1, the Celts celebrated the end of the summer with the harvest festival known as Samhain. They believed it was a time when the dead could visit the living by passing through the thin veil separating this world from the next. They believed that during these few days, they could be reunited with loved ones who were deceased. Bonfires were lit to ward off any menacing spirits that might also return.

Pope Gregory III moved the Christian feast known as All Saints’ Day to November 1 to give Samhain a Christian interpretation. The term Halloween is derived from All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Saints’ Day. The Christian church recognized October 31 as the day before a holy day, so Halloween became a holiday of sorts.

Five hundred years ago, in 1517, the leader of what became known as the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, chose All Hallows’ Eve as the day to nail to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, the Ninety-Five Theses or points of disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church. In those days the church door was like the town kiosk, a place to post public notices. Luther chose the day because he knew many people would attend church on All Saints’ Day.

Luther hoped to raise awareness and prompt discussion in order to bring about needed church reforms. Instead, his plan created such a stir that the church eventually suffered a series of divisions. Many Protestants regard Luther as a hero of the faith. To many Catholics he is considered to be an incendiary rabble rouser. Many Protestant Christians celebrate Reformation Day on October 31. Luther triumphal hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” is a part of the event.

In recent years, conservative Christians, alarmed by the vandalism and violence associated with Halloween, have renewed the battle to end its observance. The conflict has produced charges from both sides that are unfair and untrue. While conservative Christians want to eliminate Halloween altogether; others prefer to reinterpret it as a holy day.

The celebration of Halloween is as varied as the opinions about the day and its meaning. Many churches have replaced Halloween festivals with Noah’s Ark parties. A dedicated preschool director said to me last year, “We encourage the children to dress up like animals. We always get a Batman or a Spiderman in the mix. I guess bats and spiders are considered animals even in their superhero form.”

The church I served until my retirement celebrated with a Fall Family Festival, one of the happiest events of the entire year. Children and adults dressed up in crazy costumes. The event featured games similar to the ones that were a part of Halloween carnivals when I was a boy. Trunk-or-Treat replaced Trick-or-Treat. Families decorated the trunk of their cars or the bed of their pickup trucks. The vehicles were arranged along both sides of a long parking area. Children and their parents moved car-to-car rather than door-to-door, gathering goodies from friendly adults they knew very well.

Present-day families have numerous options. Some omit Halloween altogether. Others celebrate it as a traditional holiday. Still others try to find some middle ground. Even within extended families, there may not be agreement.

An eleven-year-old boy was looking forward to Halloween. His parents had always allowed him to dress up and go trick-or-treating. That year his mom and dad were out of town, and his aunt was staying with him.

“There will be no celebrating of Halloween while I’m in charge!” his aunt declared. “You can go to the party at church, but if you want to wear a costume, it must be something from the Bible.”

The boy retired to his room to ponder his dilemma. He devised a brilliant solution. He dressed himself in assorted sports equipment. With his Scout hatchet in one hand and a garbage can lid in the other, he reported to his stern aunt.

The sight of her nephew startled the aunt. “Young man, I told you that your costume had to be something from the Bible. Please explain this garb.”

“Look in Ephesians, Chapter 6,” the lad directed. “I have put on the whole armor of God. My karate sash is the belt of truth. My soccer shin guards and cleats mean that I am shod with the gospel of peace. My catcher’s chest protector is the breastplate of righteousness. My football headgear is the helmet of salvation. And the garbage can lid is the shield of faith.”

His aunt knew the Scripture well, but still not convinced, she quizzed, “And what about the Scout hatchet?”

“I didn’t have anything to use as the sword of the Spirit, so this is the ax of the apostles.”

The Grinch was outwitted again!


October 19, 2019

Last week, as I walked into our regular grocery store, I was greeted by a large chalkboard sign that read NOW SERVING PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE. This particular store houses a coffee shop inside the building.

I stepped to the counter and was greeted by a young barista who asked, “Would you like to try our pumpkin spice latte?”

“Just a regular coffee with half-and-half cream,” I responded.

This week, I noticed a marquee in front of an auto parts store that read, PUMPKIN SPICE MOTOR OIL. Go, figure! Read more…


October 14, 2019

I am frequently asked to serve as a reference for people applying for jobs and to write letters of recommendation for applicants to college or seminary. Often these requests come with a comment such as, “Please put in a good word for me.”

Many famous people have opined upon this. Erma Bombeck said, “Some people think that baseball is our national pastime. I say it is gossip.”

Ellen DeGeneres is reported to have said that gossip keeps the entertainment industry going because people love gossip so much.

It was Aesop who first spoke the well-known adage, “If you can’t think of something good to say about a person, say nothing at all.” It is folk wisdom that bears heeding. However, remaining silent when we could say something positive can be condemning. The practice of affirmation, speaking an uplifting word about others, requires deliberate effort.

Scripture gives us this admonition. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) We are so easily tempted to criticize and to yield to gossip. Putting in a good word builds up instead of tearing down another.

Benjamin Franklin put it this way, “I resolve to speak ill of no one, not even if it is the truth, but to speak all the good I know about everybody.”

Eleanor Roosevelt summed the matter up with these words, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss other people.”

Twenty-five years ago, I drove to Tennessee with my eighty-year-old great-uncle, Hugh. Uncle Hugh was my grandfather’s brother. His request was simply put, “Kirk, I’d like to see my cousins one more time before I die.”

Uncle Hugh had three living first cousins, all in their eighties, all older than he. I took a tape recorder on the trip and obtained eight hours of recordings of these four octogenarians, talking about their family and remembering their grandfather who was my great-great-grandfather.

Major Hugh Neely, my great-great-grandfather, was a large man with a full reddish-gray beard. When I was young, I fancied him as a hero of the Confederacy, but I learned that Major was not a military rank. It was his given name. He was actually a schoolteacher in Christiana, Tennessee, and the postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee. He owned a fifty-acre farm along the Shelbyville Pike at the base of Short Mountain.

Major Hugh Neely lived through the Civil War and tried, on two occasions, to enlist in the Confederate Army. Early in the war he was not allowed to join because he was a schoolteacher.  As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was cross-eyed and could have never fired a rifle safely. Though he was unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation.

As I listened to his elderly grandchildren share their memories, I also learned that though he would have been a Confederate soldier, Major Hugh Neely opposed slavery. After his father, William, died, his mother, Tabitha, remarried a slaveholder named Moses Swan. In his will, Mr. Swan left a slave woman named Mariah to Hugh Neely. The day the will was probated, my great-great-grandfather freed her. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

As a free woman, Mariah took the last name Neely.

The grandchildren of Major Hugh Neely agreed that he had the reputation for always finding something good to say about everybody. No matter their character flaws, my great-great-grandfather could find something positive about any person.

One night, Joe Foster, the town drunk of Fosterville, was staggering down the railroad track when he was hit and killed by a train.  Two of the young men in town decided to challenge my great-great-grandfather.  One told the other, “Let’s go to the post office and speak to Mr. Neely. We’ll tell him that old Joe was killed by the train.  Then, let’s see what he says.”

They found Major Hugh Neely and posed the question.  They were sure that even he would not be able to say anything good about Joe Foster. “Mr. Neely, I guess you heard that old Joe was killed by the train. He was just a no-good drunk.”

My great-great-grandfather listened and thought before he spoke. “No, I had not heard of his death, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. Old Joe didn’t have much to commend him. Nobody had much good to say about Joe.”

After a pause, Major Hugh Neely added, “Joe could whistle a tune better than anybody I have ever known. Yep, I think he was the best whistler I ever heard.”

Finding something positive about other people makes a difference in our life together. The gift of affirming, building up rather than tearing down, putting in a good word whenever we have the opportunity is the art of being an encourager.

My mother often quoted Edward Wallis Hoch’s brief poem.

There is so much good in the worst of us,

And so much bad in the best of us,

That it hardly behooves any of us

To talk about the rest of us.

The world would be a better place if all of us made a habit of putting in a good word for other folks.


October 8, 2019

The following is copied from the blog Powerline posted by Scott Johnson.

Jews begin the observance of Yom Kippur at sundown tonight with the Kol Nidre prayer service. A few years ago a Christian friend asked to join us at the service we attend. Since then she has joined my family when we break our fast, as she will again tomorrow night. During the service she pointed in our prayer book to an adaptation of the prayer composed by the reformist German Rabbi Leo Baeck for delivery in German synagogues during the Kol Nidre service on October 10, 1935. The prayer remains timely today. I have previously posted the prayer and am taking the liberty of posting it again today, both for its intrinsic interest and its continuing relevance:

“At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. We shall examine our ways before Him. We shall examine what we have done and what we have failed to do; we shall examine where we have gone and where we have failed to go. Wherever we have sinned we will confess it: We will say “we have sinned” and we will pray with the will to repentance before the Lord and we will pray: “Lord forgive us!”

“We stand before our God and with the same courage with which we have acknowledged our sins, the sins of the individual and the sins of the community, shall we express our abhorrence of the lie directed against us, and the slander of our faith and its expressions: this slander is far below us. We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world the secret of the Lord Everlasting, of the Lord Who is One? Who brought the world understanding for a life of purity, for the purity of the family? Who brought the world respect for Man made in the image of God? Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? In all these the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, the Revelation of God to the Jewish People had a part.

“It sprang from our Judaism, and continues to grow in it. All the slander drops away when it is cast against these facts.
We stand before our God: Our strength is in Him. In Him is the truth and the dignity of our history. In Him is the source of our survival through every change, our firm stand in all our trials. Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity.

“We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us. The Lord led our fathers from generation to generation. He will continue to lead us and our children through our days.

“We stand before our God; we draw strength from His Commandments, which we obey. We bow down before Him, and we stand upright before Men. Him we serve, and remain steadfast in all the changes around us. We put our faith in Him in humility and our way ahead is clear, we see our future….”

At the time he wrote and disseminated the prayer, Baeck was president of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, the official representative body of the Jews in Germany. The Gestapo discovered the text of the prayer and arrested Baeck. In Days of Sorrow and Pain, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Baeck, Leonard Baker writes that Gestapo officials showed up at some Yom Kippur services, especially in Berlin: “No count was ever made of how many rabbis read the prayer at the service; many did, so many that it was almost an act of collective defiance on the part of the German rabbinate.”


October 4, 2019

Clare and I paid a visit to Strawberry Hill at Cooley Springs in the Upstate of South Carolina. As usual, James Cooley’s place of business was hopping. Pumpkins of every shape, size, and color were on display, along with several varieties of apples, pears, assorted jams and jellies, hot cider, and boiled peanuts.

I had the opportunity to speak to James, and I complimented him on the festive appearance of the peach shed.

“Yeah,” he said, “Our daughter Brandi does a good job decorating. I turned that part over to her.”

I stepped back to admire the view. Dried corn stalks and bales of hay served as the backdrop.  Clusters of Indian corn and groupings of fall mums were mixed among the produce. The roadside stand was a feast for the eyes.

In the midst of the autumn colors were piles of brown sweet potatoes as dirty as the soil from which they were dug. Nearly all the customers, including Clare, grabbed a bag and selected some of the rough tubers. The piles were marked with large cardboard signs with one word written in rustic red letters – TATERS.

Clare picked out a few of the sweet potatoes. Two days later we had five of our grandchildren in our home. We all enjoyed warm sweet potatoes with butter.

In the world of superfoods, sweet potatoes are rising stars. The orange flesh is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, both powerful antioxidants. This starchy vegetable can be enjoyed at any time of year. In the South, sweet potatoes are abundant from September through December. At our house, the versatile vegetable makes the perfect companion to a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham.

Sweet potatoes come in many varieties. The skin color can range from red to purple, yellow, brown, or white. The flesh also ranges in color from white or yellow to dark orange. The peel is thin and edible. It is the orange-fleshed varieties that are most common and most often called yams.

Ask for yams in most any grocery store, and you’re likely to be directed to sweet potatoes. Though yams and sweet potatoes are considered first cousins, they are not related botanically.

True yams are native to Africa and parts of Asia. They may be the size of a small potato or grow to be several feet long. The skin on most varieties of yams is thick, rough, and somewhat like bark. When cooked, they are generally drier, starchier, and less sweet than sweet potatoes. The confusion started in the South. Slaves who had been brought from Africa called sweet potatoes nyami because of their resemblance to the familiar root crop which was a staple in Africa.

At James Cooley’s peach shed last week, I picked up a sweet potato and examined it. This simple vegetable was responsible for my family’s survival.

My grandfather and grandmother, Pappy and Mammy, had eight children when the Great Depression hit.  Pappy was running what he called a one-horse lumberyard on East Henry Street. The family had moved to Spartanburg from Greenville in 1923. My dad was two years old at the time. Pappy started the lumberyard with his life’s savings. Eventually, he was able to build a beautiful brick home out on the Greenville Highway where the pavement ended.

During the Depression “times were hard and things were bad,” to quote Johnny Cash. One of the first areas to suffer at the beginning of an economic downturn is the construction industry.  It is also one of the last to recover.  Building homes and even making home repairs are postponed when the country experiences a depressed economy.

Pappy struggled to make ends meet.  Determined to save the lumberyard, he mortgaged the business and then his home to put more money into the lumberyard.  Politicians kept saying that prosperity was just around the corner.  Finally, Pappy lost both the lumberyard and the family home.

Pappy and Mammy moved to a house that is still standing across the road from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs.  The gray Victorian house features contrasting white gingerbread work around the outside.  Uncle Wesley, their ninth child, was born in that home.

My dad, then eleven years old, raised turkeys. Mammy’s goat and cow provided dairy products for the family. Pappy planted a large garden and farmed the land where Mountainview Nursing Home now stands.

The chain gang mule Pappy bought at an auction near Dutchman’s Fork for fifteen dollars had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. Dick, as the mule was called, had worn a harness so often that trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides. Pappy applied Bluestone Salve to the mule’s wounds. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent plow mule.

Pappy decided to raise sweet potatoes to sell and to serve as a staple food for his large family. He knew the market and knew the tubers could be stored easily. Though he had grown them in a garden, he knew nothing about planting sweet potatoes commercially. As he had always done, Pappy plowed the ground, cut the furrows, and planted the potato slips in the rows.

Neighbors just laughed at Pappy, advising, “You’ll never make any taters planting them in the valleys like that. You’ll have nothing but vines. Taters have to be planted on the hills.”

A long, hot dry summer followed. Most farmers who had planted sweet potatoes had a poor harvest. That fall, however, Pappy turned the furrows where he had planted the potato slips. The valleys had gotten enough water: the hills did not. Pappy and his children harvested a bumper crop. Mammy, who had prayed earnestly for the effort, gave credit to the Lord for the bounty.

Pappy walked across Highway 56 to the School for the Deaf and Blind and struck an agreement with the superintendent, Dr. W. L. Walker. For a set price Pappy would provide all of the sweet potatoes and turkeys the school needed for the coming year. With the annual renewal of the contract, the income helped to sustain the family throughout the Depression.

A Neely family legend holds that Mammy, of necessity, often prepared sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal. Sweet potato soufflé, candied yams, and baked sweet potatoes were standard fare. Sweet potato biscuits, bread, and rolls were Mammy’s specialties. Sweet potato pie was a common dessert. When the children came home from school and needed a snack, they usually ate a cold, leftover sweet potato. Mammy just didn’t have much else to serve her family.

Even after the Depression, sweet potatoes were usually on Mammy’s table. Uncle Buzz called them Depression taters. He said he had eaten enough to do him a lifetime. He steadfastly declared that he would never eat another sweet potato.

For the rest of his life, Uncle Buzz remained true to his word!


September 29, 2019

Life is full of surprises. I will always remember a trip I took when I was seventeen years old. In 1962, I traveled to the African country of Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. I spent two months there visiting my Uncle Herbert and Aunt Jackie. I had many exciting adventures in what was then known as the Dark Continent. Africa was a beautiful land. The people were welcoming and friendly.

I had the opportunity to visit many areas of the country. Among those was a wildlife reserve where I saw up close, from the passenger seat of a Volkswagen bus, animals as diverse as elephants and rhinos, giraffe and zebra, lions and baboons. I visited Victoria Falls and traveled by boat up the Zambezi River.

In those days, Rhodesia was a British Commonwealth nation. Many English customs were embedded in the culture. Among those was the tradition of tea time. At four o’clock in the afternoon, in the remote jungle bordering the Zambezi, our boat docked at a picnic shelter with a thatched roof. There we were served high tea. I asked the middle-aged couple sitting across the table from me to please pass the sugar. They gave me the strangest look.

“Where are you from?” the man asked.

“South Carolina,” I replied.

“Where in South Carolina?” the woman askled.

“Spartanburg.” I said.

They laughed. “We’re from Anderson!”

On the other side of the world, I made new friends whose home was sixty miles from my home. It was a moment of serendipity.

The word serendipity was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole in a letter to a friend living in Italy. The British statesman wrote that he created the word after reading a fairytale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Serendip is the Persian name for an island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka. Walpole explained that as the princes traveled they made surprising and unexpected discoveries that brought them great delight.

I recently learned that the shelves of almost any grocery store are stocked with several examples of serendipitous products.

On the soft drink aisle, I saw the accidental invention of pharmacist John Pemberton, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. He intended to make a patent medicine—a brain and nerve tonic—to cure fatigue and headaches. Pemberton’s liquid concoction, brewed in a three-legged brass kettle in his backyard, included coca leaves, which left a small amount of cocaine in the elixir. Added to the mix was caffeine, also a stimulant. When combined with carbonated water the syrupy formula became Coca-Cola.

On the cereal aisle, I found Will Kellogg’s surprise. He was helping his brother cook meals for patients at a tuberculosis sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, when he mistakenly left bread dough sitting out for several hours. Upon discovering the flaky mess he decided to avoid waste by baking it anyway. The resulting flakes provided a tasty treat for the patients. The surprising spin-off was corn flakes.

In 1853 George Crum, a chef in New York, became frustrated with an irritable patron in his restaurant. The customer repeatedly returned French fries to the kitchen, complaining that they were too soggy. In an attempt to satisfy the disagreeable fellow, Crum sliced the potatoes extra thin, fried them to a crisp, and covered them in salt. The difficult customer was delighted with what became known as potato chips. Many brands and varieties of chips are available on the snack aisle.

I discovered that the frozen foods display contains two serendipitous desserts. In 1905 eleven-year-old Frank Epperson wanted to save money by making his own soda pop. The mixture of flavored powder and sugar water was too sweet. He mistakenly left his concoction outside on the porch when temperatures dropped below freezing. The next morning young Frank found his frozen experiment with the stirring stick still in it. Popsicles were born.

An ice cream vendor at the 1904 World’s Fair ran out of serving dishes. In the neighboring booth the sale of Persian waffles was slow. The two proprietors rolled up the waffles, plopped ice cream on top, and created the ice cream cone.

In the housewares section, you will find a product developed by a company that manufactures firearms.  While working on a rust-resistant gun barrel, a metallurgist realized that stainless steel would be perfect for cooking utensils.

If you’ve ever cooked an omelet you can thank a chemist with the DuPont Corporation who accidentally stumbled upon Teflon while experimenting with refrigerants.

Looking for an alternative to shellac, a chemist came up with a material that could be heated to extremely high temperatures and molded into various shapes for multiple purposes. Plastic was inadvertently invented.

The research department at Kodak Laboratories made an accidental development. Super Glue, first rejected as being too sticky, was later successfully marketed.

Post-it Notes were an inadvertent discovery of the 3M Corporation.

During a hunting trip, a Swiss engineer noticed how burrs clung to his dog’s fur. He replicated the effect in his laboratory. The National Air and Space Administration, NASA, adopted the technology, and Velcro was popularized.

NASA has given us many other serendipitous products. Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite and Charles Goodyear’s process for the vulcanization of rubber are exceptional examples.

Even in the world of toys, the Slinky and Play-Doh were developed quite by accident.

The field of medicine has offered many surprises.

Before leaving for a vacation Alexander Fleming failed to disinfect some petri dishes containing active bacteria. When he returned to his lab, mold had killed the bacteria cultures. His forgetfulness aided in the discovery of penicillin.

X-rays, anesthesia, and the pacemaker were all unintended discoveries.

A medicine developed to treat hypertension proved an unsatisfactory remedy for high blood pressure. However, researchers found during the clinical trials that the formula was good for something else. The discovery of Viagra—the details of which I’ll leave to your imagination—was also serendipitous.

In my garden, early on a September Sunday morning, I found a Dutch iris in full bloom. They usually bloom in the early spring. I had yet another moment of serendipity.

Life is full of joyful surprises. Serendipity is reason to celebrate.


September 23, 2019

On a late summer evening several years ago, Freddie Vanderford, David Ezell, and I enjoyed supper together at a Mexican restaurant in Union, South Carolina. David and I have known each other for years. Since our boyhood days, we have coaxed tunes from our acoustic guitars. Back in the dim ages we each had the privilege of making music with Walter Hyatt. As a teenager, I strummed hillbilly chords with Walt on Monday nights at a small Presbyterian Church after Boy Scout meetings. David and Uncle Walt continued to practice and play, becoming professional certified guitar players.  I went off on a different tangent to become God knows what.

David and Freddie are members of the inner circle of Piedmont Blues musicians in the Upstate. They play gigs together with other artists like Fayssoux McLean, who is a Southern songbird, and Brandon Turner, who can coax a mournful twang from any guitar – acoustic, electric, or steel.

In recent years I have developed a particular interest in the blues, a musical genre with a Southern heritage.

“I want you to meet Freddie,” David had said. “He plays the blues harp like you have never heard. He learned from Peg Leg Sam.”

The meeting over Mexican cuisine in Union was my first encounter with Freddie. We chose the location because David and I call Spartanburg home while Freddie hails from Buffalo, South Carolina. David was right. The man from Buffalo can make a harmonica sing.

We enjoyed our supper and talked about the music indigenous to the South and to the Upstate.

As nearly as I can tell the blues all started at a railroad crossing in the upper Mississippi Delta where “the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog.”  The junction of the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo Delta Railroad was established in 1897. For decades it was the central Delta’s major rail link making Moorhead, Mississippi, the region’s most active freight connections. In 1914 the railroad crossing gained national fame with W.C. Handy’s blues song “The Yellow Dog Rag.”

The Delta Blues developed from African roots cultivated in the cotton rows of the South. During their backbreaking work in the fields of the Southern plantations, slaves developed a call and response way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their day. These field calls served as a basis of all blues music.

Following the Civil War, the traditional slave music was influenced by ballads, spirituals, and rhythmic dance tunes known as jump-ups. The music adopted call and response patterns also common in African-American churches. A blues singer carried on a musical dialogue with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer. This is a persistent pattern in the blues. The famous artist B.B. King named his guitar Lucille, and the two have been singing together ever since.

Blues songs are usually sung in the first person. This style of music has an unvarnished honesty conveyed through powerful, rhythm. The lyrics are soulful and melancholy, reflecting themes of daily life. Nothing is off-limits. Love, marriage, and unfaithfulness all find a voice. Drinking, gambling, stealing, and murder are grist for the mill. Jail time, hard labor, and poverty find expression in the good blues songs, as do mules, railroads, and trucks.

Some of the best known Delta Blues singers were discovered in prison.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was an iconic blues musician. He played several instruments but was best known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. A propensity for a violent temper and knife fights led to his incarceration in prisons from Texas, to Louisiana, to New York on at least four occasions. Fellow prisoners gave him the name Lead Belly after another inmate shot Ledbetter in the stomach with a shotgun. Alan Lomax discovered and recorded Ledbetter in 1930 during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana.

Freddie Vanderford sings “The Parchman Farm Blues,” named for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a hard-time prison. Several musicians were imprisoned there, including Bukka White who wrote the song.

During the Great Depression, many Southern blacks migrated north along the route of the Illinois Central Railroad. The earthy music became firmly established in Memphis and St. Louis and then in Chicago and Detroit.

The blues filled rowdy urban nightclubs. The loud crowds and bigger venues led some of the more inventive performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to switch to electric guitars and to add drums to their bands.

Muddy Waters was born at Jug’s Corner, Mississippi, in 1913. He is considered the father of modern Chicago blues. This new electric Chicago music was more powerful than its predecessor and became a major inspiration for the British blues explosion in the 1960s. Eric Clapton was major contributor.

Here in the Upstate, blues also found a home in the hilly area between the Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia to Virginia. Piedmont Blues is characterized by a syncopated guitar technique that is comparable in sound to ragtime piano. The style features a fingerpicking method in which an alternating-thumb-bass pattern supports a melody on treble strings.  Generally, Piedmont Blues is a little more light-hearted than its Delta cousins. Doc Watson is a prime example.

Freddie Vanderford explained that Piedmont blues musicians discovered that more upbeat music garnered larger tips than mournful songs.

In the early twentieth century, influential artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, and Blind Willie McTell made Piedmont blues popular. Freddie said that the blind musicians had made a significant contribution in shaping the style. Women were also masters of Piedmont guitar style, including Etta Baker from Morganton, North Carolina, and Elizabeth Cotton, whose “Freight Train” is one of the best-recognized fingerpicking blues tunes.

A good-natured fingerpicking guitarist, Pink Anderson was born in Laurens but raised in Greenville and Spartanburg. He played for thirty years as part of a medicine show, Dr. Kerr’s Indian Remedy Company. Pink entertained crowds with an old Gibson J-50 guitar and a harmonica while Kerr tried to sell a concoction purported to have medicinal qualities. Pink Anderson is buried in the Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Spartanburg.

Pink also played with Peg Leg Sam, a blues harmonica player from the West Springs area of Union County. Peg Leg Sam got his nickname, following an accident while traveling as a hobo in 1930. He mentored Freddie Vanderford, who played a few gigs with Pink Anderson’s son, Little Pink.

The Piedmont Blues influenced other popular musicians such as Ray Charles and Paul Simon. Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt also adopted the style as their own.

Meeting Freddie Vanderford opened a door into a part of the rich musical heritage of our part of the country. He recalled stories about Reverend Gary Davis from Grey Court, Baby Tate who lived behind the Varsity Drive-in, and Josh White from Greenville.  Freddie told me that Brownie McGhee got his start playing at tobacco barn auctions and that Sonny Terry played the harmonica upside down.

I often listen to my copy of Freddie’s album entitled “Greasy Greens.” My greater gift is that now I know Freddie. He is one more reason to love the Upstate.