The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Take It Up Clean As Ye Go

By Rodger Goodson © 1985

Issue: June, 1985

I have to say that when I finally figured out what was happening to my Granddaddy's way of talking, I got kind of mad. In some ways I'm still mad. You get a hillbilly good and riled up, he's liable to stay that way. And then again he might not - depending.

Of course, my father was a lawyer in Galax [Virginia] and he had to talk so that everybody he had business with could understand him - judge, jury, rich, poor, white, black, town, country. But Granddaddy came straight down off the mountain from Fishers Peak and never changed his way of talking a lick. It was his "dialect" I liked best of all, and I lernt to speak it as a child, and I lernt it right.

I like to think I already knew how to speak two languages even then. When I was at Chapel Hill, I hitch-hiked back to Galax on the weekends, and if I talked to Granddaddy the way I was supposed to talk at some too-fancy college, he wouldn't have understood a blessed word I said. You'd have to be completely crazy not to talk to a man like Troy Goodson in his own language when you already knowed how to do it.

Where was it along the way that school teachers and such like started trying to make me think there was something "wrong" about Blue Ridge or "country" talking? People who lived in town and wanted to be somebody just didn't talk like that, don't you know! Blue Ridge country talking was "ignorant." It was "backward.” Now, I look back kind of surprised that I really didn't get outright fighting mad.

I wasn't at Chapel Hill for long before I found out that there may be something wrong with some forms of Southern American English, all right - but it ain't the Blue Ridge dialect. I had a teacher who was an expert in the late-medieval English of the London area and could teach me how to pronounce it as close as possible to the way modern scholars think it was spoken at the time. Whole sentences out of The Canterbury Tales started sounding just like Granddaddy! When Granddaddy said, "He holped him build his house," he was using Geoffrey Chaucer's verb for to help, and Chaucer died in 1400.

In other words, like everybody who has looked into the matter at all, I found out that Blue Ridge English is a good deal older than "correct" English, and that it comes from an ancient, noble and poetic tradition of Scottish and Irish pronunciation. Let's take a couple of the more obvious examples (I am hardly an expert on the subject). The double negative: "I ain't got nairy" (Or "I haint got nairy.”) "I never seen no feller git so fer above his fetchin's!" The double negative appears frequently in Shakespeare's plays and is far older than standard negative forms (“I don't have any"). Among other ways, the double negative probably comes into English from French even earlier than the Norman Invasion in 1066.

Clearly there's something the matter, but it ain't Blue Ridge English - the real kind, I mean, not the kind they put over on television, from New York and L. A. What I found out mainly is that there aren't any good words or bad words. Like so many other things in life, it depends on how (and where) they're used. When you have supper with the president of the company, you don't usually wear your gym clothes. And when you play a game of basketball, you don't usually put on a three-piece suit. Language is about the same. When I visited the Goodsons last summer in Fairview, Virginia, I sure didn't talk no fancy uptown school teacher, English - even though I used to be a college professor before I reformed. When I visit my writer friend who also happens to be a professor at Oxford University, I don't talk no Blue Ridge at him, because he wouldn't understand half of it, though he's far too intelligent to consider me in some way "inferior" just because I know how to talk country. The fact is, as a writer he'd approve of me, for knowing language, and knowing how to use it.

Like everybody else, I've also heard my share of the real bad words, even, alsa, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Words about people's race, religion, color or social class. Words about poor folks, and folks so dumb they went out and got born on the wrong side of the tracks and ended up in jail. Traveling around the world, I hear a whole lot of really bad words about how one bunch of people's way of government, or economics, or way of life, is so much better than everybody else's. Or about how one bunch of people are so downright "superior" they have the "right" to move in on some other people and eat 'um up alive. I also have a very fine Blue Ridge word, that also begins with b and ends with t, to summarize my opinion of all these fancy bad words around the world, but there's no need for me to write it down here, so I'll save it for the right occasion (there's bound to be one!)

Near the end of my too-fancy education, I was staying at Granddaddy's house out at Fairview (there was always a bed ready for me) when one evenin' Troy 'llowed as how the fire in the fireplace could use a mite of coal on it. I was 20 years old and I immediately got up to fetch it. That's how it was with Troy Goodson: whenever he 'llowed as how somethin' needed doin', one of us younguns got up and went and did it.

To the day I die I will never forget bending over the coal pile in the basement while Troy stood at the head of the stairs and told me: "Take it up clean as ye go!"

He might just as well have spoken to me in Gaelic, Turkish or Chinese. When he realized that, with my too-fancy education in English literature, I hadn't the slightest idea of what he was trying to tell me, a broad smile spread across his rounded, solid Goodson face, and he explained in the kindest possible way that instead of ramming around in the middle of the coal pile, I ought to work from the edges, taking the coal up cleanly in the scuttle, not making a mess of coal dust all over the place, and leaving the coal pile generally in peace.

"Take it up clean as ye go." As in so many other ways, Granddaddy was right, and he knowed how to say it right too. I've always figured that "take it up clean as ye go" is a pretty good approach to life in general. The only trouble is, twenty-five years later, and living out here in the world a long long way from the Blue Ridge Mountains, I wish that life was still that simple: there just seems to be so much more coal dust and pollution - and really bad words - then they used to be.