Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Ron Short, January 27, 2016

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:01 - Basic family history and biographical information

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Partial Transcript: Okay great, are we recording?

Segment Synopsis: Short tells the story of his birth in Clintwood, Virginia in 1945. He says the nurse who delivered him named him. His father was named Thadys Short and his mother was Mabel Short. His childhood home was very rural in Dickinson County, Virginia. His father's family did mountain farming and his mother's was a coal mining family.

Keywords: Births; Clintwood (Va.); Dickenson County (Va.); Fathers; Mabel Short; Mothers; Names; Nurses; Thadys Short

Subjects: Childhood; Coal miners; Family farms; Fatherhood

00:08:35 - Research and stories about family / Importance of learning and understanding history and humanity

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Partial Transcript: So you've already kind of alluded to this, but my next question was really about how, how far back, um, your family's connection is to this region.

Segment Synopsis: Short talks about the research he has done on the history of his family and the area. He discusses his matrilineal heritage through his great-great-great grandmother and how her story has inspired his current works and outlook on life.

Keywords: Family history; Great-great-great-grandmothers; Immigration; Political consciousness; Sexism; Stories; Truths; Writings; “BETSY!”

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachian Region--History; Genealogy.

00:16:57 - Childhood--Growing up with the outdoors and family

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Partial Transcript: I'm, I'm really curious, though, about--to, to revisit like your upbringing though, and I--and you, you said it was rural.

Segment Synopsis: Short talks about how wonderful his childhood was growing up with a large extended family. He also speaks of his love of the natural world and how it always sparked his imagination. His family home had orchards, gardens, some animals, and a large cellar. He talks about attending a two-room schoolhouse and learning the value of being helpful and having purpose there. He wasn't aware of what the outside world was like until he was older.

Keywords: Animals; Cellars; Clintwood (Va.); Creeks; Education; Family; Food; Imagination; Nature; Outdoors; Rivers; Streams; Values

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Childhood; Rural schools

00:22:28 - Career path of his father from 1930s through 1950s

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Partial Transcript: You know my dad, well, all the time during this time he, he, he, you know, it was true, you had to have some money, but he, he--so he went to work in the coal mines when he was young.

Segment Synopsis: Short gives a brief description of each of his father's jobs from his time as a young man in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Later his father got a job with a lumber company and was not drafted into World War II until the end since the lumber company was working for the war effort. After World War II, his father worked in coal mines until he became sick. Short also explains the life around the coal industry. Then his father worked as a barber. He also talks about his grandfather paying taxes by taking his team of horses and working on road creation, and his mother training as a nurse. In the late 1950s his family had to move to Wise, Virginia to save money. His father opened a barber shop and his mother worked in a hospital.

Keywords: Barbers; Barbershops; Coal mining; Coal production; Grandfathers; Hospitals; Jobs; Lumber companies; Mechanization; Moving; Nurses; Poverty; Public Works; Sickness; Social Security cards; WWII; Wise (Va.); Work; World War 2; World War II

Subjects: Appalachia; Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Appalachian Region--History.; Civilian Conservation Corps (U.S.); Coal miners; Coal miners--Labor unions; Draft; World War, 1939-1945

00:32:10 - Emotional turmoil after moving away from the family farm

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Partial Transcript: And for me, it was the most--I've said this before, uh, outside of Vietnam, uh, that was the most traumatic experience of my life. Cause I left that world I was telling you about, that world where I owned.

Segment Synopsis: Short explains that moving from his childhood home in Clintwood, Virginia to Wise, Virginia was a very emotionally turbulent time for him as a teenager. He mentions he ran away back to Clintwood several times trying to find that joy and sense of belonging but never being able to. He connects this to his writing, saying that his writing is that same search for a sense of place, worth, and truth. He says that search resonates with other people and the emotional connection allows compositions to become art.

Keywords: Belonging; Clintwood (Va.); Emotions; Joy; Runaways; Searching; Sense of place; Sense of worth; Traumatic experiences; Wise (Va.); Writing

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Art

00:36:31 - Experience and importance of music through childhood

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Partial Transcript: And you got to this again through, uh, you know, your own expression, through these questions of your childhood, and that's really, um, powerful.

Segment Synopsis: Short talks about church hymns in the Old Regular Baptist Church and his parents singing as they worked as his earliest experiences with music. When his father was younger, he had had a guitar. There were several pictures of him with the guitar and he tells a story of trading it for a dog. His father admits the dog had to be put down and he never learned to play the guitar anyway (girls just liked it). Short's mother's extended family were gospel singers. Her brothers would come over and play during harvesting work. He also talks about "Memorial Meeting," the third weekend of July when the family would congregate in the family graveyard. His first instrument was a harmonica as a 17 year old. It was a cheap harmonica and he was never good at playing it.

Keywords: Church; Clintwood (Va.); Dogs; Fathers; Guitars; Harmonicas; Hymns; Instruments; Lonnie McLaughlin; Mothers; Old Regular Baptists; Outmigration; Shape note singing; Singing; Working

Subjects: Baptists; Childhood; Music; Rural churches

00:45:00 - Father and grandfather as great storytellers

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Partial Transcript: Well, I wanna pick up on two more things about your childhood before we move on--

Segment Synopsis: Short attributes his influences in storytelling to his father and grandfather. He tells a story of taking his father to the doctor and his father saying he had a headache and explaining about all the headaches he'd ever had. Short believes he's the same as his father in that regard. His paternal grandfather, John Henry Short, was a well-known storyteller as well.

Keywords: Carrie Swindle Short; Doctors; Family; Grandfathers; Headaches; John Henry Short; Stories; Storytelling

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Social life and customs

00:49:08 - Importance of church and faith in a rural community

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Partial Transcript: Well, you're actually getting to my next question because you've talked about gospel, and you've talked about the Sabbath, and you've talked about all these things, so I'm curious about the role of church in your life.

Segment Synopsis: Short explains the Old Regular Baptist Church was a cornerstone for the community. To him, the preachers did more storytelling than preaching making the characters from the gospel sound like a real person from town. He also talks a lot about what he sees as "the spirit of life" that refers to the worth of life and how people should protect it. He sees a personal understanding of this and conversation with God is more important than being baptized.

Keywords: Baptisms; Communities; Faith; John Calvin Swindle; Life; Memorial Meetings; Old Regular Baptist Church; Spirits

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Church history; Baptists; Religion; Rural churches

01:00:02 - Public perception versus private reality of Appalachia

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Partial Transcript: On that note we'll, um--I wanna talk to you about the--the--the '60s for a bit because you were just saying you were around 15 so that would have been about 1960.

Segment Synopsis: Short talks about seeing the CBS special "Christmas in Appalachia" in the early 1960s and not understanding why his people were represented in such a narrow way as poverty-stricken, helpless, and unintelligent. He said he realized then how powerful that image was because everyone who didn't know the truth were going to assume those stereotypes. He ties this back into the old Appalachian music versus the new, relevant Appalachian music. In his late 20s he began writing songs and performing songs on his accordion to give a public voice to the real Appalachia. He also talks about getting a job in the army as a medic and serving through the Vietnam War in order to earn enough money to go to college.

Keywords: "Christmas in Appalachia"; Accordions; CBS; Colleges; Jobs; Media; Medics; Muddy Waters; Public images; Ralph Stanley; Songs; Stereotypes; We Sell Millions (WSM)

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Folk music--Appalachian Region; Poverty--Appalachian Region; United States. Army; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

01:08:18 - Being politicized by the Vietnam War / Importance of having a public voice

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Partial Transcript: Do--are you comfortable talking about some of that, or--

Segment Synopsis: Short talks about going to college partially on the GI Bill from 1969 through 1971. He was the first to vote Democrat in his family after coming back from Vietnam and this caused a big fight with his family being Lincoln Republicans. He states the war politicized him after seeing the results and carnage of Vietnam, pointing out it was mostly guys of a lower tax bracket being drafted. He believes the reporting done during the war didn't show the real thing, and after college he thought about doing something in the state in order to have a public voice. He worked in early education for the state, but then realized the funding guided the work and he felt the same way about that. He explains he was not in a good state during those years spending so much time mad and confused. Then, he met Joan and got a job at Highlander.

Keywords: Colleges; Family; Highlander Folk School (New Market, Tenn.); Political awareness; Public voices; Reporting; Wars

Subjects: Democratic Party (U.S.); Draft; Economic conditions; Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- ); Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Voting

01:16:14 - Learning about political systems and status quo in college

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Partial Transcript: Before we get to Mike Clark and Hi, Highlander, I just wanna ask a clarifying question.

Segment Synopsis: Short says he got his degree at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, Virginia. He mentions meeting Jack Wright there in a class taught by Helen Lewis. She taught them how political systems worked--specifically Appalachian politics. Wright, while in Lewis's class, started the Dock Boggs Festival. He talks about his favorite act being Guy Carawan because he told the stories behind the songs. He also talks about finally understanding how unchangeable the status quo could be at times and realizing if you want things changed you have to do the work yourself.

Keywords: Changes; Clinch Valley College; Dock Boggs Festival; Guy Carawan; Helen Lewis; Jack Wright; Status quos; University of Virginia's College at Wise; Wise County (Va.)

Subjects: Appalachia; Music; Politics and government; State universities and colleges

01:23:34 - Working for state education and Highlander Research Education Center

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Partial Transcript: And just to get, uh, back to the timeline for a second and understand these, these, these roles, you graduated and spent a year working for the state and then you went to Highlander?

Segment Synopsis: Short explains he graduated college then went to work at the state for a few years in two different education programs. He was a cog in the machine in the first one, but was able to be in charge of programming in the second. However, he still ran into pushback and came to understand how hard the status quo was to change. He says he then took a job with Highlander which was seen as radical. Newspapers slammed them and locals burned crosses in front of the office. He says he would confront people about it all, but founder Myles Horton told him not to waste his breath--that it took away from the work. He laments it took him so long to learn that lesson.

Keywords: Burning crosses; Confrontation; Donald Trump; Highlander Folk School (New Market, Tenn.); Highlander Research and Education Center; Hope; Myles Horton; Pushback; Status quos

Subjects: Education; Politics and government

01:32:00 - Remembering the importance of individuals in movements

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Partial Transcript: And this is what's so fascinating to hear your story, I mean, it's--it's, um, as you--as you--as you said earlier before, I think, the cameras weren't on, just how exciting and unlikely your path has been.

Segment Synopsis: Short talks about the different mentors and icons he's had. He mentions meeting Rosa Parks, and how important these individuals who have helped him are. However, he also warns against making them icons. He states that we must remember that they were people who did hard work. He says groups are made up of individuals, and if a few break away the group begins to dissolve.

Keywords: Groups; Highlander Folk School (New Market, Tenn.); Icons; Individuals; Rosa Parks

Subjects: Tennessee

01:36:32 - Working at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee

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Partial Transcript: In the timeline of, of your, your life we're getting really close to when you were involved with Roadside.

Segment Synopsis: Short explains that his work at Highlander was highly administrative from watching over the farm, cooking food for workshops, etc. He talks about occasionally performing songs at parties at Highlander. He talks about helping to start the Southern Musicians Cooperative which led to June Appal Records, and starting Alternative Roots, a collection of regional acting companies. He says that was his first introduction to Roadside Theater Company. He wrote a review of their work and they offered him a job. He said no, claiming he had enough problems at Highlander, and he didn't need the stress of a new group like Appalshop and Roadside.

Keywords: Alternative Roots; Appalshop (Inc.); Bernice Johnson Reagon; Cultural workers; David Holt; Dudley Cocke; Highlander Folk School (New Market, Tenn.); Jeanette Carter; Jobs; John McCutcheon; June Appal Recordings; Katherine Pearson; Reviews; Roadside Theater Company; Southern Musicians Cooperative

Subjects: Tennessee

01:47:04 - Moving back to Virginia with a serious illness / Working at Roadside Theater Company

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Partial Transcript: But then things happened, and they happen for a reason.

Segment Synopsis: Short talks about getting really sick, spending a good amount of time in and out of the hospital. He says he couldn't work and thought he was going to die. He wanted to go home. He explains Joan was willing to move and got a job with Mountain Empire, and they moved. He finally started going back to work and ended up part-time at Roadside Theater Company writing and acting for them. He mentions not being very good at fundraising for them and how he then stuck to his writing because that was what he was good at. He also mentions that Roadside now has an effective political voice that delivers the truth in a story without being combative.

Keywords: Don Baker; Dudley Cocke; Fundraising; JCPenney Foundation; Joan; Junebug/Jack; Leaving Egypt; Mountain Empire; Mountain Tales & Music; Moving; Pretty Polly; Promise of a Love Song; Roadside Theater Company; Sickness; South of the Mountain; Truths; Writing

Subjects: Tennessee; Virginia

01:58:57 - Importance of oral history projects

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Partial Transcript: And I think that, that, that's a great summary point, um, for us to at least stop for now.

Segment Synopsis: Keith explains he would like to pick back up interview in the '70s after his move to Roadside. Short thanks Keith and explains how important projects like this are. He mentions if Roadside had started today, they would have had to incorporate the one-on-one style favored today and also use the technology. He says it will become an invaluable resource for future generations.

Keywords: Future generations; Highlander Folk School (New Market, Tenn.); Jeff Keith; Resources; Roadside Theater Company; Stories

Subjects: Mass media and technology.