As we are closing in on Election Day in the US, it has become de rigueur in the enlightened circles to criticize and look down on Donald Trump’s voters. In Virginia, where I live, the 13 Electoral College votes are quite likely to go in Hillary Clinton’s column. The Commonwealth – whose capital, Richmond was the capital of the Confederation- used to be a reliable « red state ». But since 2008 and Barack Obama’s victory, Virginia turned blue.
This transition is mainly due to the demographic expansion in the Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia where an educated and wealthy middle class lives. Far from Floyd County, in the south-western part of the State, at the bottom of the Blue Ridge Mountains where I stopped for the night after having dropped my son on his college campus at the end of the summer. Floyd County voted republican in 2012 and is likely to do the same this year.
Getting inside Floyd Country Store to attend the Friday Night Jamboree, I was at first taken aback when I saw that one of the guitarists was wearing a Trump t-shirt. But I soon forgot my surprise and let me be taken by the atmosphere: one hour of gospel after which the Blue Grass band led young and old, locals and visitors, tapping and dancing. Couples formed and moved on, heels were tapping on the wooden floor, and one girl came twirling to invite her grand-mother to join her in the dance. Outside on the main street, passersby gathered and kids danced around small amateur bands: a few chairs, a pair of fiddles and a bass.
The next morning, after a stop at the local produce market, Floyd’s streets welcomed a tractor ride: John Deeres and Masey-Fergusons, often carrying American flags, sometimes the Confederate one, were hauling trailers and waving to the applauding crowds.
I decided to drive North on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the peak drive built in the 30s in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina. Hours of peaceful driving, discovering at each turn or overlook a new horizon of valleys undulating in the distance, covered in their appeasing blue colors, coming out of the morning mist or in the clouds shade. Many stops to enjoy the views, visit an old water mill or walk towards the locks along the James River. And a two hours climb to take on the sunset from Sharp Top before a close encounter with a deer on the way down.
The Blue Ridge Mountains also serve as Ithaca in the wonderful « Cold Mountain » by Charles Frazier, a writer born in Ashville, NC who told the story of his great-grand-uncle. Inman, drafted in the Confederate army to fight a war in which he doesn’t believe, lies wounded in a war hospital. After his recovery, he deserts to walk back to his native mountains. A long road full of pitfalls in a country already haunted by the impending defeat and in which Home Guard militias are plundering are hunting deserters.
Inman’s walk, however, is guided by the hope to find back, Ada, Pastor Monroe’s daughter, who accompanied his father to the mountains to help him improve his health. Inman and Ada only met a few times, briefly, before the war started. The pastor is now dead and Ada is alone to manage the farm, a city girl, more at ease on the piano than in the stables. She nevertheless decides to stay, attracted by the place’s charm and maybe also to wait for Inman.
Like in a dance that would start slowly, the novel alternates the chapters. It describes Inman’s Odyssey as he painfully walks up towards the mountains of his youth, marching at night and hiding during the day to avoid the militias and get over the obstacles. It then switches to the more interior journey traveled by Ada in order to be in charge of her farm and her fate, a journey she accomplishes helped by Ruby a farm girl who offered her services.
Ada and Inman end up finding each other in the snow covered mountains, but their love will only last for a very brief moment, before Inman’s death, shot by the militias. This superb novel has been adapted as a movie with Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger casted as Inman, Ada and Ruby.
One of the most interesting side characters in the novel is Stobrod, Ruby’s alcoholic and abusive father. Also a deserter, he wanders in the mountains and steal corn from the farm in which his daughter is working. Ruby and Ada decide however to help him, exchanging food against evenings around the fire during which Stobrod and his acolytes play the fiddle and the banjo and gradually refine their playing and invent their own style.
This brings us back to Floyd and the Blue Grass, the music from the Southern Appalachians, a region which suffers economically and whose soul still bears the mark of the South’s defeat more than 150 years ago, but a region proud of its history, its heritage and its mountains and which warmly welcomes the visitor and invites him to dance to the fiddle’s tune.