The Hills Are Alive

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

Also, every living room I entered had toys strewn about, and the walls were decorated with photographs of children, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, etc., from stern, turn-of-the-century, black-and-white images in antique oval frames to three-dollar Sears portraits of grinning tots against backdrops of blue sky.

And there is always at least one picture of Jesus.
Family is an important thing here in this Mormon enclave, and the ones I met were warm, friendly and open, even to flatlanders such as myself. As opposed to the ridge runners that they all are, those that populate the dots of towns on the Mogollon Rim.

I learned this distinction from Clyde Holyoak, son of Van. He didn't even bother with directions to his 150-acre ranch, but met me one night at Spear's, wife Kris and two young kids in tow. I followed the taillights of his massive white pickup down the road to his front gate, from there through the pitch country black, up to the house that apparently was about 200 feet below every star in the sky.

Clyde, 37, is a Clay Springs boy. He can remember the town before it got electricity. He helped install indoor plumbing in a lot of the houses when he was a kid.

We all went into the place, where a dog whose name I didn't catch rolled over on his back so I could scratch his belly, and a cat named Pepe--"like Pepe Le Pew"--looked at me and ran off.

Clyde didn't have a copy of the record I'd found, though he had other albums his father had done. Of all the performers, Van Holyoak had achieved the most renown, ultimately traveling to folk festivals around the country just before his death. Clyde popped open a soda, Kris leaned against a wall, the kids downed Pixie Stix, and the son began his father's story with his father's father.

"My granddad was just an old cowboy, and they didn't have electricity. The electric company come in and they put telephone poles up and ran guide wires down. And he was on a long run on his horse to catch a cow and the guide wire went between him and the horse and jerked his leg out of the socket. Put him in a wheelchair.

"So Dad, he was in his late 30s, just started doing these old songs and stories that he knew as a kid, just to entertain him. Stuff that you'd think about from back in the horse-and-wagon days when they'd sit around the campfires. That kinda stuff. It all started then, and he wouldn't perform for nobody, he just done it for him. He used to say he never charged anyone for shoeing horses, he charged them for his poetry. We was shoeing on the average of 50 to 100 horses a week. We'd go to these riding stables, and these flatlanders would come in to ride these horses, and they'd start listening to his poems."

Here's how Van got a lot of his material.
"If he knew somebody had a poem he liked, he'd ask 'em," says Clyde. "Don Jackson [we'll meet him later] had a poem that Dad loved. We went over to his house one day, it was in the wintertime, we was talking about cows, and Dad says, 'Don, I want to hear that poem.' Ol' Don just recited it to him. We went on talking, and a little bit later, he says, 'Don, I need to hear that one more time.' So Don recited the poem to him again, and Dad says, 'Okay, I'm going to recite it back to you. Tell me if it's right.' So he recited it back to him and it was perfect. That's how he did it. He had a photographic memory. He could go on for days and you'd never hear the same one twice."

Clyde admits to having written "probably 60 to 100 poems. Ripped 'em up one day and threw 'em in the trash."

"I put a mental block up, to tell the truth," he admits. "What'd happened, Dad was pretty popular. Like when he got killed, it was on national news, it was a big deal. And people have a tendency of jumpin' on a bandwagon."

As Clyde speaks, I could swear he's getting a little choked up. Later he says he got congested when he had to go to Phoenix a couple days ago, and it's still with him.

"All of a sudden, he had millions of friends, people saying, 'I taught him this song, I taught him that one, he learned that from me,' and on and on. I was up in Nevada when it happened, and by the time I got moved back up here, everybody wanted us [Clyde and his brother Joe], no matter what was going on, we had to go do some of Dad's poetry. Then it just got to be, 'Well, why don't you wear your dad's clothes? Go put on one of his hats. You got the same mustache.' They started wanting me to be him, and I didn't want to take away from what he had done."

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