Field Notes: An Interview with W.I. “Bill” Hairston


W.I. “Bill” Hairston. Photo by Emily Hilliard

W.I. “Bill” Hairston, 71, is a storyteller, old-time musician, and pastor living in Charleston, West Virginia. He was born in Phenix City, Alabama, and his family moved to Saint Albans, West Virginia, in 1960. Through his storytelling, Hairston combines the Appalachian culture that he was exposed to on the Coal River, to the African American culture that he is a part of. For 35 years, he served as music coordinator at the Stonewall Jackson Jubilee, and is the coordinator of the Vandalia Gathering’s West Virginia Liar’s Contest. He is an active member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild, the Kentucky Storytelling Association, and the Ohio Storytelling Network, the National Association of Black Storytellers and serves as the West Virginia liaison to the National Storytelling Network.

In this interview (which has been edited for length and clarity), Hairston speaks about growing up in one of three Black families in the Lick Skillet area of Saint Albans along the Coal River, his interest in and work with rural West Virginia old-time musicians and the 4-H Program, his friendship with Frank and Jane George, experiences with racism in West Virginia, and his work and mission as an Appalachian storyteller.

Bill Hairston as a student at Stonewall Jackson High School, 1963. Photo courtesy Bill Hairston

Emily Hilliard: Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell me your name and when and where you were born.

Bill Hairston: I’m Bill Hairston, I call myself W.I. Bill Hairston. That’s to distinguish me from the other 9 Bill Hairstons that are in this 3-county area. I was born in Phenix City, Alabama. My father was in the Army at Fort Benning. We moved to Saint Albans, West Virginia at age 11, 1960. And I became part of the fabric of the Coal River and the rural part of Saint Albans before homes and all that were built. So I’m one of those country kids from out on Coal River.

EH: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your family background?

BH: My mother was from rural Alabama, a little place called Seale. It’s in Russell County, directly across the Chattahoochee River from the second largest town in Georgia, Columbus. My father was born in McDowell County [West Virginia]. My grandfather had moved there and was working in the coal mines and my father of course was born there and received his education through the 7th grade in McDowell County and then he joined the Army. He was actually 16 and he was supposed to be 17. They met while he was in the Army at Fort Benning and eventually had me and had my little sister. And my mother was a divorcee with already one child. So, there were 3 of us running around.

EH: Tell me about growing up in Saint Albans.

BH: Well when I think about it now it’s wonderful. Wasn’t then! It was a community that was predominantly white. Actually most of West Virginia is predominantly white (laughs)! But this was different from Charleston, or even in town Saint Albans. We were one of maybe 3 families out our way. If you know where Strawberry Road is, when you go down that road on the Coal River, you get to what’s called Fairview Drive. Back then it was called Lick Skillet. And you go into Lick Skillet and that’s the area that I come from.

I went to school and grew up with pretty much your standard West Virginian. You know, we were the folks that played the music, did the storytelling on the porches, tried to take care of our kids. We played all day and slept at night like most—we ate the beans and all the different kinds of things that you talk about. Except ramps, we never had ramps, that came to me later. But it was just a good solid existence where we were part of the community and it just worked.

That was happening ironically in the ’60s when the whole country was sort of stirring up, particularly around black and white issues. And to a large extent, Lick Skillet missed a lot of that. They just did. Now as I left Lick Skillet I started experiencing all kinds of things. But for whatever reason, and I think it was because we were in such a small minority in the community, that we just either didn’t notice it—I’m sure it was there—but we missed a lot of it. But you could see it on TV when we finally got our TV (laughs). By the time I got to high school it was strong—the whole tensions around race and around this country and all the things that were happening.

EH: So were your parents musicians?

BH: My grandfather [Colonel Isaac Hairston], played banjo. My mother was a vocalist in church. My father, no. My grandfather had stopped playing banjo by the time we got there. But we knew he did and they would play for dances and front porch get-togethers, that kind of stuff. But by the time that my father came along, that was just not an interest of his.

In 1967, Hairston participated in a national 4-H conference in Washington, D.C., where he had tea with Lady Bird Johnson and met President Lyndon Johnson. Photo courtesy Bill Hairston

EH: What was your initial interest in traditional music and folklore?

BH: I was active in 4-H, being from where I was from, and so I ended up in 4-H camp and every now and then some musician would come around. It seemed as though I just connected to those guys. I wasn’t playing or anything, I just connected. I had a mentor [Jane George], a woman that I had met in 4-H camp of all places, who was very, very interested in all facets of folklore and folklife. She was one of the people initially that started the Mountain State Arts and Craft Fair at Cedar Lakes. Little by little, she started introducing me to this and that and different music, particularly starting with Scottish kind of thing. She believed, and it later on turned out to be right, that there was a Scottish background within the Hairston family. I don’t know where she got that or why she knew that, but she continually told me. And so I literally would be involved in even Scottish dance.

It’s a long story, but in my first year at Glenville State College, I was asked to come to Mountain Heritage Weekend. Now my role there was to do what they call a cèilidh in the evening. That was where all the musicians and the storytellers and the poets—everybody that was there for the weekend, came together and shared something. And I was to be the one that emceed it and coordinated it and put it together. I was an 18-year-old and that was gonna be my role.

So I ended up traveling around the state 9-8 times a year in these Heritage Weekends and doing that same thing. In doing that, I started meeting musicians. If you’ll remember, back in 4-H camp, I was already attracted to these musicians that would show up. Well, all of a sudden, I was spending weekends with some of the most interesting people to me that I could possibly think of. A lot of them are dead now. But that’s where I originally met The Morris Brothers—David had just gotten back from Vietnam and John was doing his thing and they were invited to one of those weekends. So during that period of time I met musician after musician, writer after writer, folk scholars from WVU that would come down and do this or that, singers, etc. And I just simply befriended them. I ended up visiting them on other weekends. I visited everybody all the time. Every weekend I was going somewhere and dragging somebody along with me while I went off to Clay County or wherever. And just that overall experience brought me to an appreciation not only of the music…By the way, I was asked to come and be a part of what was Negro spirituals, to sort of interpret that as a part of that weekend—but also to do those cèilidhs, etc. So I just found myself deeply involved. And then one year, I was probably 22, and they were having a music festival. And this was not Ivydale [The Morris Family Old Time Music Festival], this was on up the road from Ivydale in Clay County. It was before Gandeeville, right in there they had a festival.

But I slept underneath my van. I was pure hippie by then. I mean there was no doubt about it. I was pure hippie. I was the kid that got a job at Dept. of Natural Resources in the summertime, and they would give you a state car so you’d go around and do what you had to do. And there would be all these calls and complaints from, all these different places, Wayne County and Pocahontas County, etc., that there’s this black guy who doesn’t wear shoes who has stolen one of the state cars. And that just kept happening over and over, because people saw this guy with all the hair and the cut-off jeans and no shoes and whatever and he couldn’t possibly really be working for the state of West Virginia. But I was!

But I was gonna tell you about the festival. I was asleep underneath my van—I didn’t have a tent or anything. And this little boy and his father came over and started talking to me, woke me up, and it turned out to be Kenny Parker. Kenny Parker who had a deep interest in traditional music, finally started a group at Stonewall Jackson Jubilee about 45 years ago. And he asked me if I wouldn’t come up and help with that event. And so I started going up and helping to coordinate music at the Stonewall Jackson Jubilee— traditional music, all totally. So over those years, and with all my interest and all my exposure, I doubt seriously if there’s a traditional musician that exists in West Virginia now that I haven’t experienced, know personally, or sang with, or even played with at one point. I ended up on an autoharp and I don’t really do that anymore. But I’ve been a part of weekends where you just run into people that you’ve known for over 45 years, just in music. So that’s essentially who I am.

As a part of all of that, I started reading, I started studying, I started interviewing people and so I have this vast knowledge of folklore and folklife in West Virginia. I’ve experienced like I said, I visited everybody and I’ve been in some places, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, where it might not have been wise for a young Black man to go, but my interest sort of overtook that.

(Left-right) Frank George, Bill Hairston, Norman Fagan, and Jane George pose backstage at the Vandalia Gathering, 2011. Photo by Kim Johnson

We went into one area and when I say we, I mean Jane George and Frank George—I not only visited them, I stayed with them every chance I got. I spent tremendous hours with them. I’d just hop in the car and go with them wherever they went. Again, picking up on the music, picking up on the people, picking up on the culture.

And it’s a culture that—I didn’t get to West Virginia until I was 11 years old. So I had a real strong understanding of being a young Black kid in Alabama. All of a sudden I lost it immediately when we got to West Virginia. It was gone! I mean in Alabama even though I was less than 11, I went all day not really talking to anybody white—you might see them on the street, see them in a car—but my doctor, the stores I was in, the pastor, everybody in my life and all the people I knew were Black! They were! And all of a sudden here I was introduced to rural West Virginia and there were just very few Blacks.

I’ll give you one example. That summer we got here in June of 1960, my little sister and I were playing with the kids that were in our neighborhood. All the kids. We’d go places, do things. We had a great summer our first summer in West Virginia. And it was school time. In Alabama, we didn’t have a bus that we had to ride—we just walked to the school. Here, my mother had taken a lot of time teaching us where to go, walking us to the bus stop, etc., so we were prepared that morning. And we started out to the bus stop. The white kids were also walking with us to the bus stop, and we said, well maybe they catch the bus in the same place! So we got to the bus stop and we had the number of the bus, and when the bus came, the white kids were getting on the bus! We thought, well maybe we all use the same bus to get to our schools. And guess what? When we got to school, they got off and it was the same stop. Nobody had told us that we were gonna be in an integrated school. We never experienced an integrated school and here we were standing on the bus, or sitting, and really the last kids off trying to get that in our minds what was about to happen. And we made it. But that’s one experience I’m talking about of how we had to learn as we went along. We were sort of upset with our mother but I don’t know that she knew that.

EH: You were talking about how there just wasn’t really a Black community here but you had a real strong sense of Black community in Alabama.

BH: Yeah. I had that and that left here. And I think because of that, that was my struggle. I was trying my best to identify with my Hairston family which at that time I really didn’t have a good understanding of. I just knew that they were from McDowell County. But I remembered the banjo was at my grandfather’s house and so there was that connection. So I think a lot of what happened to me and a lot of my interests and understanding and zest to learn came out of a desire to just identify. Of course I’m way of age now. I identify with everything. I know what’s going on, but that was my struggle back in my 20s in particular. To end up at Glenville State College, to go back that summer to the place where I went to school and see the West Virginia Folk Festival and all of these people and all these musicians, none of which back then were Black, but still, fascinating! And so I just hooked on to that.

At the same time, I was hooking on to Black traditions. Still to this day, I can be at the Glenville State Folk Festival one day and then back here in Charleston singing with Martin Luther King Jr. Male Chorus in a little African American church just enjoying that.

uncle homer walker
Banjo player Uncle Homer Walker, 1980. Photo by Steve Payne

EH: What about meeting Uncle Homer Walker? Did you really latch on to him?

BH: Yes, we did! Again, I followed Jane and Frank George almost to whatever they were doing. I had taken a week off my work and I had gone down to Princeton where they were doing a day camp for children in that community. It was a mostly African American community in the Princeton area. So one day Frank pulled out his banjo and was doing a demonstration for these kids, teaching them about the banjo, and one little African-American girl said, “Uncle Homer has one of those.” And we looked at her: “Uncle Homer?” Well there was sort of a starvation to find Black musicians, particularly banjo players. And this little girl was saying “Uncle Homer.” And I looked at Frank, Frank looked at me and we both looked at Jane and we said “Oh my goodness.” We talked to that little girl, found out that her Uncle Homer lived in a little town on the edge of the state called Glen Lyn, Virginia. That was all we knew.

So that very Saturday, we drove down to Glen Lyn and started asking around. “Do you know an Uncle Homer?” We weren’t having much luck at first. Then finally a guy at a bait and tackle place said, “Yeah, Uncle Homer lives up that hill.” So we went up that hill and there was Uncle Homer, sitting on his porch—not playing banjo—that would have been too much (laughs). But he was just sitting on his porch just enjoying the afternoon. And we introduced ourselves and talked to him for a while and eventually he pulled out his banjo, Frank pulled out his banjo, and they started playing and immediately we brought him to the next festival. ‘Cause he was ready to go, was bored sitting on that porch. From there he became this person…he was so popular that other people invited him to things. All of a sudden I was reading that Uncle Homer had been here or there.

He remembered a time when lots of Black people played those instruments. I’ve discovered—and I’ve been challenged at this—but when radio became really popular and banjo in particular was picked up by this whole new group of musicians—Black folks were either overshadowed or just didn’t want to play. They didn’t want to identify. So little by little, like my grandfather, which I finally decided, that’s why he stopped. They just didn’t want to identify and so that whole thing left.

EH: Do you think some of that was because the image being put forward by the industry and the way that they separated race records and hillbilly music…

BH: Exactly!

EH: …so it became affiliated with whiteness?

BH: Right. And once it was affiliated with white “hillbillies” it wasn’t attractive, I don’t believe, to some Blacks. They didn’t want to play—they were embarrassed to play it some of them, and to be very honest with you, I think they were discouraged by, you know, you didn’t want this Black guy at your dance playing…I mean I really believe that was part of it. Not a huge part, but part of it. So little by little, guys like my granddaddy just sort of put it aside and went on to something else. That’s a sad thing, but it happened.

Bill Hairston playing his autoharp, 1972. Photo courtesy Bill Hairston

EH: Was there any reaction to you as this “hippie” Black kid from some of the people you were going to visit?

BH: Actually, let me see how I can put this. Simplistic. People are very simplistic. Let me just say that I would go to visit a person and they could very well see that I was a Black kid. And because I think because of their inner nature of just being good people, they immediately put up with this Black kid that they didn’t know. They might have even been uncomfortable, I’m not sure. But I used to get phrases like, “You’re really a good kid even though you ARE negro or colored.” And so what they were doing was getting to know me, and even though they had their own prejudices and misunderstandings of people—’cause some of these people just never left their homes—they were accepting me because I was a good person even though I was “colored.” I guess that’s the attitude that will sum it up. They thought I was a good person. Or “a good kid” in a lot of cases, or whatever.

There were incidences that I experienced where people would react to this Black person by either, believe it or not, getting up and leaving, being bold and calling me the N-word—that happened over the years a few times. And one of my stories is of an incident that happened to me simply because I was in fact Black. And what people forget is, that’s not something that happened in big cities or whatever. It happened here.

In my early years in my twenties, I wouldn’t even drive in the city of South Charleston because I was pulled over for no reason. And here I was a state employee working for Natural Resources—a college student. A good kid! And I was being pulled over, so to go to Saint Albans, I would go the other way down through Institute and Dunbar and across the Nitro Bridge just to get away from the hassle of being pulled over.

I’ve heard people say this, “we don’t have prejudices here,” etc. That’s all a bunch of hogwash. What I can tell you is that people in West Virginia, particularly rural West Virginians will size you up before they make their final decision. And just because they make a decision that you are okay, doesn’t change who they are and how they see in general pictures.

Hairston emcees a jazz festival at the Culture Center. Photo courtesy Bill Hairston

EH: Why don’t you talk about your development as a storyteller?

BH: Back in Alabama the old men would get together on one little section that was named after my mother’s family now, Boddie Avenue (that was her name). They would get together and just start sharing with each other and tell a lot of good stories! As a kid, that’s not something you could participate in, but you were welcome to sit there as they passed the bottle and told their stories. So that was always there and I always just had fun just sitting there. Low and behold, when I get to Saint Albans, the same thing was happening on porches, under trees, wherever they were. Back then it was mostly men who were just telling stories, I mean these were tall tales. That’s when it really fascinated me. So in high school, every now and then I’d get an opportunity and I would try to tell a story. That wasn’t something that would work for the talent show at high school. Nobody was interested in anybody telling a story, but you know, I would do it in other places. Then I got an opportunity in church and the MYF, I was a good Methodist kid and there I could get up and tell stories, and just little by little, by the time I got to be the personality of the Stonewall Jackson Jubilee, 44-45 years ago, I was telling stories while this person was getting ready to play, or this band was getting ready to come up or whatever. I was telling little short stories of things that came into my head. And it just built from that.

I’m what you call a regional storyteller. I’m not the Bil Lepp that’s all over the country doing his thing. Bil Lepp is probably my hero, along with others, but I’m the regional person. I’m the person that you’ll find at the festival in North Carolina or the festival in Kentucky, West Virginia. I’m a member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild, the Kentucky Storytelling Association, and the Ohio Storytelling Network.

I’m at a point now that the stories are becoming extremely personal. I mean I can do the funny stuff and I do it, I have several of those. But what you have to do is look at your audience and look at the reaction of your audience and then chose what you’re gonna do based on the feedback you’re getting or the look you’re getting or whatever.

I’m one of these guys that just all of his life, liked the music, but more the stories. It’s something that people did, I enjoyed and I picked up on it. I am now able to actually make money (laughs) doing it! And it’s great to be able to do what you like. I was doing it before retirement, but now, hey, I can take off on any day of the week and go anywhere. I’m scheduled for the next few months with everything from libraries to organizations. I’ll be a part of the National 4-H agents’ meeting down at the Greenbrier in November. People are coming in from all over the country and they’re trying to showcase some of their talent and I guess they consider me one of their talents.

EH: What are your stories about?

BH: It depends on the audience. Over all of these years, I have developed what I call the personal funny life stories. I have developed the personal stories. I have developed Jack Tales. I have developed what you can call running comedy things. I do some folklore. I’ve got a really great John Henry story that’s about 20 minutes long. Now I’m calling up on incidents in my life that I think are prophetic or I think deserve to be shared. I’m starting to go more there. But if I’m with a children’s group, particularly an elementary school, then the stories are gonna be African tales and they’re gonna be tales about genies and just things that keep them involved and keep them making noises and participating.

EH: Do you have any goals or missions as a storyteller? Like with bringing African stories to kids, introducing them to more cultural diversity? Or are there stories you want to remain in circulation?

BH: If you see my promotions, it says that “Bill Hairston combines the Appalachian culture that he was exposed to on the Coal River, to the African American culture that he is a part of.” So one of the things that I’m always doing particularly with children and also with adults, without saying it, is putting together a storyline where it then makes the person understand that the Appalachian culture that you’re sitting in down in Monroe County or up in Gilmer County or wherever, isn’t that different from the African American culture as far as the expectations, as far as the people, as far as the food, etc. And I try to do that. Over the years I’ve been in a lot of situations where I was the only Black person in a 100-mile radius. I don’t care if I’m in California at the National Storyteller’s Conference. I advertise myself as an Appalachian storyteller. And I am an Appalachian storyteller. And so what I try to do is to bring that bridge between African Americans and Appalachians. Of which, there are a lot of Black Appalachians.

I worked for CORA, Commission on Religion in Appalachia for a while. And our job was to fund grassroots organizations within the Appalachian region that were about community development. A lot of those groups were groups that I found fascinating because they had within them some of the African Americans in the community. Others, there weren’t African-Americans anywhere near and here I was, again, the only African-American person probably within like I said 100 square miles. But I learned through stories, the people will listen. And when people listen then they start understanding you. When they can laugh with you, when they can cry with you, when they can be shocked with you, they tend to start identifying and it works in such a way that I leave, but the next guy that drives through town to pick up gas is treated and looked at differently. That’s my goal. And I think it happens. I really think it happens. Not all the time, but I know of a couple of times that it has happened. I’m not gonna take credit, but at the same time, if you can introduce people to a new way of looking at something, particularly race, particularly when they’re not saddled with the—I’m trying to think of a word for it—the arrogance, the hate that people bring with it, or that people share. People then start looking at people for who they are.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Bob Heyer says:

    Thanks for the interview with Bill. In addition to being a fine storyteller and singer, he is one of the finest human beings I have ever had the privilege to know. His contributions to the state of West Virginia and its culture need to be recognized.


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