Thursday, February 16, 2012

Still a mystery: The Brown Mountain Lights

When I was growing up down in the flatlands, the mysteries of the natural world thrilled me:
--The Maco Light down in Eastern North Carolina, supposedly the ghostlight of a railroad brakeman who had been decapitated and was still looking for his head.
--The Devil's Tramping Ground, near the center of the state, a circular path in the woods where nothing would grow.
--Lovely Lydia, a ghost said to be waiting once a year by the railroad underpass near Jamestown, still looking for a way home after an auto accident that took her life. I later found that many communities across this nation have a similar story, and a popular country song popularized the girl who never came home.
--And the Brown Mountain Lights of Burke County, still unexplained after all these years.  That's the one I most wanted to see, after hearing the legend of a trusted old slave still looking for his master in the hills of Western North Carolina.

The other day a group of scientists and the curious gathered in Morganton for a symposium on the lights. These lights can be seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway and from the Brown Mountain Overlook on Highway 181.  See Julie Fann's story in the Morganton Herald here.
  You may have heard the song popularized by The Kingston Trio in the 1960s by John Stewart, Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane. You can hear the song here.  The lyrics tell the story:

The Legend of the Brown Mountain light
In the days of the old covered wagons,
where they camped on the flats for the night;
With the moon shining dim on the old highboard rim,
they watched for that Brown Mountain light
High, high on the mountain, and deep in the canyon below
It shines like the crown of an angel, and fades as the mists comes and go.
Way over yonder, night after night until dawn,
A lonely old slave comes back from the grave,
Searching, searching, searching, for his master who's long gone on.

Many years ago a southern planter
Came hunting in this wild world alone
It was then so they say that the planter lost his way
And never returned to his home.
His trusting old slave brought a lantern
And searched day and night but in vain
Now the old slave is gone but his spirit lingers on,
And the lantern still casts its light

Then the other day I discovered that the song originally had been written by Scotty Wiseman, whose Uncle Fate Wiseman (for whom Wiseman's View is named), a pre-Civil War cattle drover,  had told him about the lights. Scotty Wiseman, of the famed country music duo of Lulu Belle and Scotty, had written the song with a first verse I had never heard:

Way out on the old Linville Mountain,
Where the bear and the catamount reign;
There’s a strange ghostly light, can be seen every night,
Which no scientist nor hunter can explain.


Not too long after that song came out, my friends Woody Allen, Fred Birdsong and I formed what would now be called a tribute band, singing folk songs and some blues but mostly focused on The Kingston Trio. In time Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison and Dave Safford also played with us.  When we did Brown Mountain Lights, it was Fred who would hitch up his britches and sing that high lonesome note on "searchinnnnngggg" for the old master. We lost Fred to an auto accident years ago and Jimmy to cancer a couple of years back, and it hasn't been the same since.

Woody, who keeps up with Kingston Trio original Bob Shane, sent him a link to the story on the Brown Mountain Lights the other day, and Bob replied via email, "Woody: Very interesting….there should be a song about it! :-)
Aloha, Bob Shane"
Also interesting is the fact that, more than half a century after Scotty Wiseman wrote that song and predicted as much, it's still a mystery. Maybe it ought to remain that way.

A footnote: Lulu Belle's real name was Myrtle Cooper, and she and Scotty had a number of hits, including "Have I told you lately that I love you" and the comic "Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?"  In 1977 she was serving her second term in the N.C. General Assembly as a Democrat in the state House of Representatives, where I was covering politics for the Greensboro Daily News.

  During debate on the restoration of the death penalty that year, supporters of the bill were trying to write it in a way that would comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had struck down capital punishment in a number of states for being overly broad. Those driving the bill wanted to keep out troublesome provisions, such as the death penalty for arson or rape, that would likely bring about another rejection on constitutional grounds.  Rep. Wiseman silenced the House when she rose to describe how, years before while on tour, she had been raped.  She left the House chamber immediately after that stunning revelation, but the legislature, aware of the difficulty of getting judicial approval of a new death statute that covered more than murder, made the bill apply only to first degree murder.   

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