Cora Hairston is a musician and writer from Logan County, West Virginia. Hairston is the author of two novels, Faces Behind the Dust and Hello World Here Comes Claraby Rose, both fictionalized accounts based on her childhood growing up in a black coal camp.
State folklorist Emily Hilliard interviewed Hairston at Chief Logan State Park on May 3, 2016. Below are excerpts from their interview.
On growing up in a coal camp…
Cora Hairston: My dad was a coal miner and a very proud coal miner. He was a small man, not a big man in stature but he was a mighty man! (laughs) He loved coal mining. In fact when he retired, and we had moved out of the holler that we were in to Omar, where we presently live, my dad would carry two scuttles of coal from across the creek, where there was a slate dump. He’d still mine coal every day. That was his pastime as a retired man from the coal mines.
The memories of my childhood are great. I remember as a little girl running to greet daddy when he’d get off from work, to get that little taste of a sandwich that he may have left—purposefully. And running up and down the camp, doing double dutch and jumping rope and playing jacks… We were outdoors children. And that was a great childhood, running up the camp past the graveyard, running as fast as we could past the graveyard to get up the camp to visit with other children.
As a child, it wasn’t realized that we didn’t have anything per se, you know what I mean? Because I think it was purposeful that our parents that shielded us from the fact that there wasn’t much. But we were never hungry, never clothes-less, you know. I can remember my father– and I never knew this until some years later– but all of us children, we always ate dinner together. And he never bothered to put food on his plate until after we had our food. And then he would put food on his plate. I never knew—I never paid any attention about it, you know, but I found out years later that it was because he wanted to make sure that we were full. And he would do without for us because his child hadn’t been the greatest.
Emily Hilliard: What was the community like there in the coal camp?
CH: Well, I can remember our little house set up on the hill. There were two rows of houses, double family houses down below the hill and there was one little house that set off from the two rows of houses and another house set up on the hill across from us. And there were the outhouses and the clotheslines and the well, and the coal mine up on the hill. And our little church up on the hill above our house. The little red church on the hill was actually true. It set up on the hillside. And I could run across the hill from where I lived… on that hill to my church instead of going down the hill and running up the road up the hill. And right below the hill where the church was a little lady named Mrs. Maxwell. And I don’t know how old she was but golly, she had to be way up there! And got around better than any of us.
But it was a joyous camp. You know it was, everybody was… it was a village. If you got in trouble, they were allowed to discipline you. It was just something that… respect was high. I’d say. Respect was high, which you don’t see very much of anymore. But that’s the way it was. It was a community of sharing, and so therefore I guess that’s why no one ever went without because if someone didn’t have something and someone else did, then they shared it. And it seemed always that there might be an extra person at our table. Which was a friend of a friend or other children that happened to be there, and they were all—no one was sent home. You know? If you were there when dinner time came, you sat down and you ate. So, I just have good memories of my childhood. I wouldn’t trade ‘em for anything. Not for… not for this day and time, though.
On traditional foodways and her mother’s cooking…
CH: My mom was a housewife and she worked domestically down through the years, but she was a housewife and the best cook in the world and her nickname was Baby Doll, and my daddy called her Honey Babe. It was long before people actually knew her real name, which was Louanna. Yeah, she was Baby Doll.
EH: What are some of the things that she would cook?
CH: Oh gosh, there were rolls that you could smell a mile away and her egg custard pies, oh gosh. Pinto beans never tasted like they tasted then. But there was one particular thing that she made that I cannot master, and that was her gravy. Her turkey gravy. I don’t know what she did to it, but I’ve never tasted anyone else’s that tasted like that.
EH: So did you learn from her?
CH: Yes, yes, what I do know I did learn from her, from sitting looking and just watching and eating and seeing her beat a cake with her bare hands with the wooden spoon, with the bowl in her side, on the left side, and beating that cake! And even the sweet potato pies that we now have the joy of a mixer to mix up so it won’t be stringy, she had her own method of stringing the sweet potato to get the strings out. Delicious.
EH: Do you know how she did that?
CH: I think it was through a cloth, a cheese cloth, or something like that. Or whatever it was. But the pies were not stringy. And her rolls were just, I don’t know, her greens… I think it was just everything she’d fix, and if you don’t know what chitlins are, chitlins are the large intestine of the hog, you know. So she was a master at making souse meat from the hog head and all of the feet, and all of that. Seeing her master that craft was unbelievable. It tastes nothing like what’s in the stores now.
And another thing she was the master of was biscuits. I remember as a child grabbing the cold biscuits off the back of the stove, which was a snack. And they were delicious—cold as well as hot. Yeah, she was a good cook.
On music and inspiration…
EH: Was music always a part of your life?
CH: Yes. Music has always been a part of our life, as a little girl I don’t know what age it was, but there was this lady in our church and her name was Dorothy Walker. And she had a beautiful soprano voice and she got several of us girls together to form a little group. And the one song that sticks out is “Tell the Angels.”
And I was the one that was leading and the other girls were the background. And there was no music—no musical instruments. So the name of the song was, “tell the angels, I’m on my way. Tell the angels I’m coming home to stay.” And I just loved to hear her sing and how she presented, you know, us to, how to do it. And then later on I met my husband’s brother who was a friend going to school and that’s how I met him, and he was all music and so was his brother. In high school, as a matter of fact when I was a senior, I was voted best female vocalist of the school. And oh I could sing then! Now I’m croaking, but I could sing then and I sang all the time, it was just something that was in me.
And my husband and I had bands. Singing groups and I sang with him down through the years and then I think we closed down every night club in Logan! (laughs) I think we lost the guitar player or something and so Fred [Cora’s husband, Fred Hairston] is very talented on quite a few instruments, so he took over the guitar and he put me on the organ. I knew nothing about playing organ. He told me, put my hands on middle C, and said stay there! I’m like okay, see here I am going wah wah wah, you know?
But from that teaching, I’ve gone on to really stick my teeth into it and I ventured a little out to the piano and I love it. I thank God every day for the gift of having the talent that I do have. Can’t play like, I don’t read music… can’t play like anybody else, but I play like God wants me to. That’s my way! And I just love it! Music is just in my bones and I’ve been blessed to write… I was naming them, in fact I wrote them down just to make sure that I wasn’t deceiving myself! That I have written 20 or more songs… and I have. And to me they’re beautiful. I mean, I get joy out of singing them. And I try to do them every day, some of them. So I have been blessed to write those songs.
And they’re songs that I need to do something with because I feel that being a blessing to me, they may be a blessing to someone else. I’ve just never taken the time to have them copywritten and put in safety. But if I ever hear anybody singing, and I know it’s my song, I’m gonna have to deal with me!
I have sang some of them out in public before. In fact, just this last week, I was given a poem. And when I say given, I always feel there’s been a gift that’s been passed down through me, so last night sitting there, I happened to be going through my bill stack getting this month’s bills ready, and I came across the poem that I had started but hadn’t finished! And I thought, “Huh! Maybe I should finish this poem,” so while I was watching “Dancing with the Stars” and when a commercial would come on then something would come through the mind that would go along with the poem, and I finished it, oh about 1:30 last night.
EH: Oh wow.
CH: It was completed. And so that is… my love of music carries me, I think is… carries me. And I think music is just something that is universal and it gives me much joy. And I’m told that it gives others joy. Like I said, I can’t sing like I used to but I still try. And I always will as long as I can.
EH: So what do you write songs about and when you write, do you write them down, do you go to the piano–what’s your writing process like?
CH: Sometimes, in fact it has happened in the middle of the night while I was sleeping. I wake up with a song. I have gotten up out of my bed and gone to the piano and tried it out. And if I don’t put it down right then or tape it right then, they I lose it. And I’ve lost some during that time. So some songs are inspired like 2 songs I wrote for my sister during the time that she was going through her cancer and during her last days. You know when you’re going through sickness, all your family can be around you but you feel you’re all, you’re in this by yourself. So those songs, some are inspired.
I wrote one song just recently, revolved around Trayvon and Michael Brown. And it’s entitled “Come On in the House Little Tired Boy.” “Come on in now so that you can rest. You’ve played and played, stayed and stayed now, come on in the house little tired boy.” And this is mom calling her little boy in from play. “Come on in now, you’ve been out all day.”
And some songs, like I said, the one that… we were on our way, as a matter of fact, to Charlotte. My oldest son was sitting in the back and dad was driving and I was asleep! And I woke up startled, sort of like. I was reaching in my pocket book to get pen and paper, and Gerald my oldest son said (he’s named Fitzgerald so we call him Gerald), he said, “what is it mom?” I said, “I’ve got to jot this down!” This song was just coming to me. Well this was November and September the 11th was a year, had been a year. And so I was trying to write what was in my mind and try to hum along with it as it was coming. And so this song has been written for what, 10, however long years, it was 9, 10 years? 2001 I think was when it was, so it was a year later, a year and a couple of months later that I wrote this… the song was given to me. And it was titled “These are the Days.” But now I’ve got to retitle it! Because it’s “These are the Years” after the day the tower walls came down. And it’s beautiful, I think. It’s a litany of what’s happened.
So some of my songs come through inspiration, some come through joy and I wake up and I think about the goodness of God and I look out I see the trees and the snow or the blanket, how he covers the ugliness up with the snow, and the trees are, you know, I’m like God, you know you are awesome! So then there came “Almighty God, father of the universe, the maker of everything. Almighty God.” And… ah! That gives me a thrill just even thinking about it. But it’s just, you know, I don’t know, I wrote a song that is, has a little“Lean on Me” tingle to it. Now when I do that one, I am off in la-la land! I am high on praise then! And I get that joy out of me and God.
And that’s just how they come, just like this poem. I never know when they’re coming. I never sit down and say “I’m gonna write me a song.” I could be singing just an old hymn from a hymn book and finish that and something will come that will flow and a song will come from that. So…however he gives them to me.