Honey from the Lion: A Companion Soundscape

As the holidays approach, so does the time to curl up with beautiful and necessary books like Honey from the Lion, Matthew Neil Null’s debut novel from Lookout Books. The book, about a rebellion at a logging company in the West Virginia Alleghenies, is both lyrical and suspenseful, an elegy to the ecological devastation and human tragedy behind the Gilded Age.

Our solstice gift to you is an annotated soundscape for the book, expertly produced by folklorist, writer, media producer, and Ecotone contributor Emily Hilliard. Listen to the sounds of crows, trains, and fiddles and imagine yourself right into the world of Honey from the Lion.

0:00 Environmental sounds: Crows, great blue herons, steam trains, crosscut saw, axes.

An overture to situate us in place aurally.

1:22 “On Johnny Mitchell’s Train” by Jerry Byrne, recorded by George Gershon Korson at Buck Run, Pennsylvania, 1946. Song from the 1902 Anthracite miner strike. Via the Library of Congress.

The 1902 strike by the United Mine Workers of America in the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania was supported by nearly 80 percent of miners in the area, and it would have been fresh in the minds of the timber companies and loggers represented in Honey from the Lion. The character Judge Randolph is said to have studied the strike, fearing the power of unions: “There’s always a copperhead in the woodpile.”

4:00 “Jesse James” by Ballard “Pappy” Taylor, recorded by John Harrod in Kenton County, Kentucky, 1989. Via the Digital Library of Appalachia.

The protagonist Cur makes reference to Frank and Jesse James to explain a “cowboy book” he’s reading. The notorious duo would have been something akin to pop-culture icons in the days of Cur’s youth.

7:09 “Old Greasy Coat” by Edden Hammons.

Edden Hammons, the fiddler of the famed Hammons family of West Virginia traditional musicians, makes a cameo in Null’s novel. A lyric from the popular fiddle tune “Greasy Coat” (or “Old Greasy Coat”) is also referenced (“Tell the preacher, tell the pulpit, I don’t wear no greasy coat”). It’s a fitting selection for the town of Helena’s Commercial Street with its brothels and taverns; a “greasy coat” was slang for a condom.

8:53 “Ughniyah li al-Atfal (Song for Children)” by Nicholas Debs, recorded in Jacksonville, Florida, 1940. Via the Library of Congress.

A song for Lis Grayab, the Syrian peddler.

11:38 “Nathan Killed the Bell Cow” by Phyllis Marks of Gilmer County, West Virginia. From Phyllis Marks: Old-time Songs of West Virginia, Augusta Heritage Recordings.

Phyllis Marks is, according to folklorist Gerry Milnes, the last active ballad singer left in West Virginia who learned “by heart,” via oral transmission from her family members. Her repertoire includes both English Child ballads and songs of the frontier, such as this one she got from her father-in-law. She says it is a play-party game from the Civil War era.

 13:11 “Puncheon Floor” by Manon Campbell, recorded by John Harrod in Letcher County, Kentucky, 1970s. Via the Digital Library of Appalachia.

A puncheon floor, made of logs split with a broad ax, is one of the domestic elements of early West Virginia that has become embedded in my mind. This is probably attributable to the imagery in the song “Come All You Virginia Gals,” which warns of the rough ways of West Virginia boys and describes their frontier homes, “clapboard roof and an old slab door, sandstone chimney and a puncheon floor.” It turns out that the song appears in numerous regions of the country, always cautioning young women off Arkansas boys or Texas boys or Mormon boys, with the West Virginia iteration appearing in 1928. I chose the “Puncheon Floor” fiddle tune, which originates a little closer to home. This version of the popular West Virginia and Kentucky dance tune comes from Manon Campbell of Letcher County, Kentucky.

14:46 Little Pink by William May of Mingo County, West Virginia, recorded by Gerry Milnes in West Virginia, 1990–1991. From Folksongs & Ballads, Vol. 4, Augusta Heritage Recordings.

“I never will marry no logging man who drives a four-horse team.”

16:59 “Peg ’n Awl” by Melvin Wine of Braxton County, West Virginia, recorded at the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music, 1989. Via the Digital Library of Appalachia.

This is another fiddle tune named after what would have been an everyday term in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in West Virginia. A peg and awl were tools used by a cordwainer, or leatherpunch, to make shoes. The tools appear as names to songs of the era—one with lyrics celebrating the mechanization of shoemaking, and the other being this fiddle tune, here played by legendary Braxton County fiddler Melvin Wine.

“Looking up, Cur waved lightly to a leatherpunch, who sat on a stoop working shoes with a peg and awl. The man was old enough for everyone to call him uncle.”

19:03 “Come and Go to That Land” Congregational song, recorded at the eighteenth anniversary of the Gospel Harmonettes in Demopolis, Alabama, 1992. From Wade in the Water, Volume 2: African-American Congregational Singing, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

A song for the Choirboy.

22:13 “#26BT Social Band,” Harmonia Sacra singing from Elkhart, Indiana, recorded 2006. From Joyfully Onward I Move.

Cur sorts through Grayab’s books—a Bible, Aesop’s fables, Greek myths, a Mennonite hymnal. At that time in West Virginia, that hymnal would likely have been the shape-note Genuine Church Music, published by Joseph Funk in Winchester, Virginia, in 1832. The form was subsequently renamed Harmonia Sacra and is seldom practiced today, save by a few Mennonite communities in Virginia and Indiana. This recording happens to be from a “sing” in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana.

24:19 Environmental sounds: storm, church bell, ax.

25:20 Thurmond drainpipe, recorded by Emily Hilliard in Thurmond, West Virginia, 2016.

I made this recording of a drainpipe in the circa-1920s rail and coal boom town of Thurmond, West Virginia. Much of this New River town is now owned by the National Park Service, and only a few homes are inhabited. The rest of the town—bank and store fronts, one-room schoolhouse, old hotel, and coal tipple—is a preserved shell of what it once was, bearing that certain eerie beauty that all ghost towns seem to share. As it goes, even the drainpipes are uncanny, wind and water echoing against the old brick facades, alluding to what once was.

“Viewed from that peak, the land was a mutilated sea. Naked Mount Spruce in the distance, biting clouds, highest in the state. They saw no deer, no livestock, not even a carrion crow. The horrible tranquility of it all. No birds sang. Nothing but the sound of their own voices, their own thoughts. They had emptied their world like a jug.”

—Emily Hilliard