The Hills Are Alive

An obscure old folk album reveals a place where stories--both spoken and sung--are priceless heirlooms

I was kneeling over a stack of 10-cent records in the Salvation Army thrift store on South Central Avenue a few months ago, thumbing through the usual dog-eared copies of Herb Alpert albums that every American seems to have owned at one point and then given away--the scratched Christmas LPs, a few things by the Cars, Eddie Money, Billy Joel, Whitesnake; neglected artifacts from a different era.

And then there was something I'd not seen before.
A light blue record, water-damaged along the bottom, titled In an Arizona Town. On the front cover was a photograph of an A-frame building bearing a sign that said "U.S. Post Office Clay Springs Arizona 85923," and the names of the artists recorded within: Van Holyoak, Bunk Pettyjohn, Lois "Granny" Thomas, Tim Kizzar, Ralph Rogers, Don Goodman. Beneath each name were the song titles--"Way Back in the Hills," "Boil Them Cabbage Down," "Kickin' Mule," "Cowboy's Shirttail" and "Rubber Dolly," among others. In the lower corner, it said that this was a limited edition, copy number 377 of 500.

On the back cover there was absolutely nothing, apart from more water damage.

I stood up, removed a dime from my pocket, and gave it to the man.
When my phonograph needle met the vinyl, the mysterious populous of this Arizona town emerged from the stereo speakers.

They sang and they recited simple tales of life and horses and Dodge transmissions and government claims and minding your own business and grieving cowboys who quarrel with sweethearts who are taken by the Lord before their time, all in twangy voices accented with a variety of lisps and rasps and nasal honks. They played mandolins and guitars and sawed away at fiddles. They huffed harmonicas that sounded like harmonicas and picked banjos that sounded like sitars.

It was as if someone had turned on a tape recorder 100 years ago and captured the raw lyrical spirit of this unknown place.

I can't tell you the route Record No. 377 of In an Arizona Town took to a thrift store in an Arizona city, but I can tell you the route to Clay Springs. There are freeways and highways and two-lane roads that will lead you to the north and to the east, to where you turn at Spear's store and drive until the pavement runs out, and arrive at a place where a few years ago is still, in many ways, right now.

If you call the Clay Springs post office--the one in the picture on the record cover--a woman named Kathy Dejarnatt will answer the phone. She is the postmaster for this 315-person town where mail is not delivered, but picked up. She has been here for four years, and when she's not sorting mail and handing it over the counter, she's "fiddling with things" or simply "painting things."

Kathy knows everybody, and when I called her out of the blue asking about Van and Bunk and Granny and this water-damaged record, she did not act bewildered and hang up.

She started telling me about Van Holyoak, what a character he was, what a great storyteller he was. From what she was saying, I figured Van had just left the post office, mail in hand. No, she said, Van had died. Seventeen years ago, hit by the town school bus as he was out on the road, driving a sweeper for the highway department.

In fact, the only place to find the performers on the album is the Clay Springs cemetery. Don Goodman, he of "Turkey in the Straw" and "Walkin' John," was the last of the six; he passed away just two months ago.

But this is a town where ghosts linger on through the people who don't leave; children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren live in the same houses on the same land their parents called home. The local 196-page phone book (covering 31 towns from Alpine to Whiteriver) lists inches of nearly all of the same names that adorn the cover of In an Arizona Town. Of course, marriage has altered a few; almost everybody here is related in one way or another.

Finding Holyoaks and Kizzars and Thomases in this place is easy.
Finding the songs and stories that the elder Holyoaks, Kizzars and Thomases knew as entertainment, the stuff that became "folk heritage" on a limited-edition album recorded in the early '70s, is a whole different ball of wax.

"I'm afraid there may be some truth in that," says Keith Cunningham, an English professor and folklore expert at Northern Arizona University. He's the man responsible for producing In an Arizona Town and four other recordings of Clay Springs locals. All were distributed in editions of 300 to 500 to small pockets of folklorists around the country.

"In our culture in general--I think maybe because of the competition from television--musical traditions are perhaps not being carried on. There was some great music . . . they were just wonderful people and wonderful musicians."

And it takes more than a phone book to find what they've left.

Here are a few constants in the world of Clay Springs:
Nobody lives at a specific address. Ask someone where his house is, and it'll be around the corner from the firehouse (volunteer), after the road turns to dirt, and look for the light-green Ford pickup. House numbers are meaningless; even identifying intersections is a stretch. Often, directions begin with, "Well, you know where Maxine's place is?"

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