Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Local history inspires Moore’s ballads

William Rieppe Moore reads poetry during an event at ETSU’s Reece Museum. (Contributed photo by Spenser Brenner)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County’s rich history and stories that have been passed down through generations attract many outsiders to the area – sometimes for good.

William Rieppe Moore, who is originally from Richland County, South Carolina, moved to Unicoi County in 2012 with his wife, Cherith, where they practice homesteading and animal husbandry with their little girl. He is enrolled at East Tennessee State University pursuing a master’s degree in English. His work has been published in Still: The Journal, Vita Brevis, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and Tiny Seed Literary Journal. His work has also received recognition from The Poetry Society of Tennessee.

His current work includes ballads that tell historical stories of Unicoi County and surrounding areas.

“My wife, Cherith and I have lived in Limestone Cove for eight years,”  Moore said. “This past year we had our first child, and we feel privileged to raise her in Unicoi. I spent most of my childhood in a neighborhood called Forest Acres in Columbia, South Carolina, which had formerly been a hunting ground. My family moved to Cedar Creek, an unincorporated community of Blythewood, South Carolina, where I spent much of my high school and college years.

“I earned a B.A. from Columbia International University with a major in humanities and a minor in English. I have worked as a delivery driver, horse farm worker, teacher, and salesman, as well as a hiking and rock climbing guide. When my wife was accepted into the graduate program at Milligan, I began working at Mahoney’s Outfitters, where I worked for six years. When I am not studying or teaching, I like to rock climb, hike, and raise turkey craws and broilers.”

Moore’s recent works are titled the “Ballad for Frankie Silver” and the “Ballad of the Indian Creek Massacre.”

The ballads feature several real life and created legends of the region.

“Frankie Silver is a real person from Morganton, North Carolina, who was arrested and convicted for murdering her husband, Steve,” Moore said. “I first encountered her story when I read the novel, ‘The Ballad of Frankie Silver’ by Sharon McCrumb. The original ‘Ballad of Frankie Silver’ is a poem that was written from her perspective (though she probably wasn’t the author), and is available to read online. The version that I wrote is from the perspective of one of the kind women, whose Christian charity moved her to visit Frankie Silver in jail before she was hung for murder. So, the speaker of the ‘Ballad for Frankie Silver’ is primarily a fictitious character.

“The ‘Ballad of the Indian Creek Massacre’ is based on the real tragedy of the Blankenship family during the Civil War. Presley and Sarah Blankenship had housed Confederate troops from the 64th North Carolina regiment, which was led by Lieutenant Duyck, but Federal troops from the 1st North Carolina Regiment, led by Major Kirk, ambushed and scattered the Confederates. After this, the federal regiment proceeded to punish the Blankenships by killing Presley and his son, Lafayette, by way of execution. Eli Presley was shot in the head but did not die from it. Because the Federal troops plundered the house, Sarah, who was nine months pregnant at the time that her husband and son were killed, struggled but succeeded in providing for her remaining nine children the following bitterly cold winter. The next summer Sarah is reported to have told The Asheville News: ‘We would not know how to appreciate Liberty unless we made sacrifices to obtain it’.”

Unicoi and Unicoi County’s roots are heavily featured in Moore’s ballads.

“In the masters class, advanced creative writing at ETSU, my professor, Jesse Graves, found out that I was interested in writing ballads, and he encouraged me to do so,” Moore said. “Since the objective of the class was to produce 24-36 original poems for the potential publication of a chapbook, I had plenty of opportunity to pursue creative options. A chapbook is a paperback booklet, containing tales, ballads or tracts. So I included six ballads – some historical and some natural – all set in Unicoi, in my final portfolio. This class was part of my masters of arts in English program at ETSU, which I will use to become an educator in secondary and post-secondary schools.”

According to Moore, there have been many knowledgeable, local historians who have guided his research.

“I have really enjoyed hearing my friend and former boss, David Ramsey, tell me a lot of stories about growing up in Unicoi, and he even lent me his copy of ‘Around Home in Unicoi County’,” Moore said. “Furthermore, I’ve always had a penchant for history, so when Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch told me about Pat Alderman’s Wonder of the Unakas and Greasy Cove in Unicoi County, I purchased them and read them as soon as I could.

“I am inspired by qualities of self-sufficiency, strong family ties, and affection for God’s creation that I often encounter when I read about Unicoi. The more I heard about the history of Unicoi, the more I could appreciate the similarities between people from this region and my family, many of whom were from Charleston and Hendersonville, South Carolina. I also grew to appreciate aspects of Unicoi that make it culturally and historically distinct. I am so glad to live in a place where people cherish their history, which helps to contextualize the rugged landscape and the salubrious beauty of the mountains.”

Moore believes that it is vital to keep local historical stories relevant for future generations.

“Robert Morgan, poet and novelist of Gap Creek, who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina notes, ‘poems based on memory are often much more successful than poems based on recent experiences … the muses are the daughters of memory … One of the functions of poetry is to remember and to make alive things in the past’,” Moore said. “Since muses are associated with inspiration, preserving stories through poetry allows you to gain a sense of healthy pride, to appreciate your place even more, and to gain a unique understanding about it. Preserving Unicoi’s history is fulfilling and engaging work and can help people make meaningful connections and friendships; it’s the kind of work that can also promote connections with people in other Appalachian regions as well.

“In one of my favorite scenes from Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men,’ Sheriff Bell visits his cousin Ellis, who was shot in the line of duty. When Bell tells Ellis he might retire, Ellis tells him a few stories from that place and then concludes, ‘What you got ain’t nothin’ new.’ Identifying with stories and other peoples’ experiences in our area helps us to deal with hardships, disappointments, and the daily grind. The stories from Unicoi passed down can act as a reminder that you are not alone.”

When it came to researching local history, Moore didn’t have to travel far.

“My primary references for the ‘Ballad of the Indian Creek Massacre’ were two books written and published by Grace Bowen, who is a Blankenship descendant: ‘Dedication & Unveiling Ceremony of The Indian Creek Massacre Monument’ and ‘Three Others Known Only to God Now Revealed.’ Mrs. Bowen, a faithful historian herself, was very generous with her time to share stories with me as I was preparing to write these ballads,” Moore said. “I also regularly utilize the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU’s Sherrod Library to research underrepresented aspects of the southern mountains. I also like to visit Juaquetta Edwards’ Unicoi Historical Society booth at the Apple Festival to purchase new books about Unicoi history, culture, and lore. Some of the other books that I frequently reference for my work are poetry books that have a big influence on my poetic style: ‘From the Mountain, from the Valley’ by James Still, ‘Bucolics’ by Maurice Manning, and ‘Tellico Blue’ by George Scarbrough.”

According to Moore, passing on these stories and story forms to the youth is a way to preserve them for future generations.

“I have always thought of my poetry, in many ways, as geared towards young people,” Moore said. “Well, I have learned over the years to enjoy listening to other people. As I’ve become a better listener, I have been able to discover new and significant things about my family and myself. I just found out from my folks (something they probably told me countless times) that many of my dad’s ancestors are from the southern mountains, so it makes sense that I feel at home here.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that listening can help you make meaningful connections. Bud Lane, an Athabascan speaker and linguist began visiting with the older people of his community to hear them tell their stories. He notes, ‘I made it my business to apprentice’ with them, and in doing so he gained a better understanding of himself and his cultural heritage.

“Poet and literary critic, Robert Hass claims that the classic meter of the ballad has its ‘roots in song, narrative, and plain English diction’ which allows for playfulness and freedom in poetry,” Moore continued. “This conversational nature of ballads reveals that there’s a fine line between speech and song, so aspects of our speech may already contain poetic and illustrative qualities. Loyal Jones, western North Carolina author, says of Appalachian people, ‘We have preserved some of the great ballads of English literature and passed on old old tales, with great attention to dramatic effect,’ so, it seems, even our speech has poetic DNA. Discovering examples of this can be a true pleasure.”

These days it is not too hard to find Moore, who is keeping himself busy by performing his original poetry.

“I have been attending and reading original poems at the Poetry Hoot hosted by the Johnson City Poets Collective at The Down Home for several years (which is open to the public,)” Moore said. “And though we have shifted our meeting strategy by just meeting via Zoom due to COVID-19 concerns, it has been an instrumental event that has encouraged me to produce original poems on a regular basis.

“The writing tips that I recently discovered from the Irish poet, Paul Kingsnorth, could also be advice for life: ‘don’t give up … the muse is real … you have a star to follow … [and] stay hungry’.”