The Stagnant Healing Waters of Heber Springs

Heber Springs, 1915

A wintry day in Heber Springs, 1915

Part One

When we travel, we like to visit places that have special significance to us, and we prefer places off the beaten track as opposed to tourist destinations. On our recent 4,300-mile road trip, which included playing shows in West Virginia, Virginia, and Florida, it was only natural that we decided to take a little detour through Heber Springs, Arkansas. The town is known to The Victor Mourning fans around the globe through our song, “Heber Springs Albino” (on our CD, A Handful of Locusts). Steve knew I would enjoy seeing the place that inspired him to write the song, and we wanted to collect some of the “stagnant healing water.”

Heber Springs (originally named Sugar Loaf) is the county seat of Cleburne County in north central Arkansas. It’s a sleepy town with a population of about 6,000, and it appears to have seen better days. The area has been inhabited by native people for some 10,000 years. The first white settlers arrived in the 1830s, drawn in part by the mineral springs that bubbled up from the ground in what is now the center of town.

It didn’t take long for an entrepreneur to recognize the springs’ commercial potential, and in 1838 the White Sulphur Springs Company was established for the purpose of creating a “healthful, commodious and elegant watering place” that would take its place among the hundreds of mineral spa resorts that sprang up across the country in the 19th century. Visitors flocked to the spas to bathe in and drink the supposedly healthful mineral waters, and to enjoy the wide variety of social and recreational activities that were offered for their entertainment.

Following the formula of countless mineral spas, the springs’ promoters attached their discovery to the miraculous curing of a mythical, ailing “Indian princess.” In 1886, an advertising booklet claimed that the springs offered “a sure cure for dyspepsia, headache, biliousness and hundreds of other ailments.” But Heber Springs was not destined for the success experienced at Eureka Springs or Hot Springs. The land changed hands several times through a series of complex real estate deals, there was no railroad access to bring in potential customers, and the project was never realized. By the time the Missouri & Northern Arkansas Railroad finally arrived in Sugar Loaf in 1908, the healing water craze was declining.

In 1910 the town’s name was changed to Heber Springs. The land and the springs were given to the community and became known as Spring Park. Locals continued the tradition of taking the waters in hope of curing ailments. Steve has childhood memories of seeing people filling jugs of the water at the springs and describing their various medicinal uses. There are today seven remaining springs in Spring Park that provide waters identified as White Sulphur, Red Sulphur, Black Sulphur, Arsenic, Iron, Magnesia, and Eye Water, each reputed to offer specific healing properties.
—Lynne Adele

Black Sulfur, Heber Springs

The Black Sulfur Spring

Part Two

In 1975 I was living with my grandmother in a tiny house in Searcy, Arkansas. One afternoon I was in the living room, probably looking through the TV listings checking to see when the Little Rock station would be showing a Ritz Brothers or Wheeler & Woolsey film, when my grandmother came in. And I swear this is what I heard her say:

“Stevie, go get dressed, we’re going to the funeral home, Elvis Presley died!”
“What?”
“I said, get dressed, we’re going to Elvis Presley’s showing in Heber Springs.”
“Grandma, what are you talking about?”
“Virgie’s uncle ELLIS Presley died and we’re going to Heber to his showing. Get dressed.”

(My grandmother’s sister-in-law Virgie was a Presley and was also, tangentially, the niece of Luther Presley, author of the lyrics to the classic song “When the Saints Go Marching In”.)

So off we went to Heber Springs with my Aunt Viva at the wheel of her big forest green, late 60s Chevy Caprice. The scenery north of Searcy on Highway 16 starts getting pretty mountainous fairly quickly, and by the time we got into Heber Springs we were on the southern fringes of the Ozarks proper. Once parked in front of the funeral home in downtown Heber, I elected to wait in the car instead of going inside. (I was a headstrong adolescent in those days, always finding small ways to assert my independence.) The sun had gone down by this point, and I sat there alone looking at the exotic sight of small town neon signs. This wasn’t the first time I had been to Heber Springs, though.

Collecting the water, Heber Springs

Stephen Lee Canner Collecting the Water

About five years earlier I had come to Spring Park, the area where Heber’s springs are located, with my parents on a summer day trip. I wandered off to explore the park on my own. I was probably disappointed, given that most parks in my experience at that point either had a playground or a patch of woods to explore. This one had neither. My attention was captured, however, by a small concrete pool with scores of tadpoles swimming in it. I had never seen a tadpole before. I found a discarded paper cup and did a bit of “catch and release” tadpole fishing.

I wandered over to one of the springhouses and watched a family filling up jugs with water. The father began to lecture me politely on the different healing properties of each spring. From what I could gather, they seemed to be getting jugs of water from each different spring to have on hand to use as a healing aid should one of them suffer, say, an attack of biliousness or weakened constitution. Somehow, many years later, these memories resurfaced as fragments in the song, “Heber Springs Albino.”
—Stephen Lee Canner

The Victor Mourning Stagnant Healing Water

A Handful of Locusts

Locust, George Shaw, 1805


Steve and I are extremely fond of 19th-century imagery, and we have a collection of early natural history and literary engravings and lithographs in our home in Austin. After deciding that our recent CD would be titled A Handful of Locusts, referencing a line from our song “Grasshoppers,” we worked with graphic designer Jamie Panzer to develop the concept for the cover design.
 
The song “Grasshoppers” tells the tale of an eccentric, religiously obsessed man who talks to Jesus through his car antenna and believes that God wants him to eat only locusts and Campbell’s soup. We recorded the track live in the studio, with the legendary Jad Fair (best known for his role as co-founder of the band Half Japanese) providing guest vocals that “quake with the ultimate rumination of wrack and ruin” (Doug Freeman, Austin Chronicle).
 
We ultimately decided to build the design around a copper plate engraving from a book by the English botanist and zoologist, George Shaw (1751-1813), published in 1805, which we purchased from a dealer in New Zealand.
 
Jamie then went to work, creating a design incorporating the iconic image. The image was reversed, enabling it to wrap around the cover and be viewed in full when the cover is opened. For the inside cover, Jamie’s individual portraits of the band were presented in Victorian-era mourning jewelry settings and a typical Union case, continuing the 19th-century aesthetic.
 
The locust engraving itself is a product of the burgeoning interest in scientific exploration during the 19th century. Western adventurer-scientists were traveling the globe to explore new regions, seek real and imagined treasures, and discover and classify mammals, reptiles, insects, plants, fungi, sea life, and minerals. They returned from their expeditions to find attentive audiences fascinated by lectures about their adventures and discoveries, and wealthy patrons eager to purchase exotic specimens for their collections. Lavishly illustrated studies published as books and portfolios found their places in private libraries. Our locust came from one of these works.
 

A Handful of Locusts disc image


In addition to the literal reference to the song, we were also drawn to the biblical, apocalyptic associations of the locust with plagues and ruination—a thread that runs throughout the album. The disc itself features an image of a swarm of locusts as a visual conclusion to the cover’s ominous warning. Naturally, we were pleased when a British reviewer praised it as “some of the best cover art we’ve seen this year.”
 
—Lynne Adele

A Handful of Locusts CD cover

The Littlefield Home

 

The Victor Mourning at the Littlefield House

 

When faced with the task of choosing a location for The Victor Mourning’s recent photo shoot, we decided on the George W. Littlefield home, on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. We love Victorian architecture, and this elegant (and reportedly haunted) mansion proved to be an ideal setting for our new band photos, taken by Austin photographer, Will Branch.  

The house was built in 1893 at a cost of $50,000 by George W. Littlefield—a Confederate officer, cattle baron, banker, and UT benefactor and Regent—for himself and his wife, Alice. (The couple, married in 1863, had two children who died in infancy.) They lived in the home until Major Littlefield died there on November 10, 1920; Alice continued to reside there until her death fifteen years later, and bequeathed the home to The University. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

The Littlefield mansion is, sadly, the only remaining structure of its era on a street it once shared with other grand Victorian homes. The home’s St. Louis brick exterior, stately marble columns and steps, intricate iron grillwork, eccentric unmatched turrets, wrap-around veranda, mosaic tiles, and stained glass windows provide the opulent and eclectic elements associated with high Victorian “Queen Anne” style. The extravagance continues throughout the interior, with decorative details including a grand staircase, elaborate woodwork, impressive chandeliers suspended from 14-foot ceilings, and multiple fireplaces—including one flanked by a pair of menacing griffins. Today, the house’s rather disheveled appearance only adds to its character.

Reports of strange occurrences, no doubt fueled by the structure’s distinctive presence, have resulted in its being labeled among Austin’s haunted places. Tales of hauntings often revolve around Alice Littlefield, who has been characterized as a “melancholic, depressive, agoraphobic woman who slowly and quietly went insane later in life.” Other stories suggest that “Major Littlefield locked Alice up in the attic when he was away so she would not be grabbed by Yankees who might be strolling by and oblivious to the fact that the Civil War was over. . . . [W]hile languishing in the attic she was assaulted by bats, and her shrieks of terror reverberate in the mansion to this day.” Still other accounts stress Alice’s “deep concern for her husband’s welfare and her fears for his safety when he was away. Her ghost is said to restlessly roam the attic, peering out the windows, watching for his return.” It has also been said that Alice’s ghost can sometimes be heard “banging out a chord or two on the old piano on the first floor.”

The Victor Mourning on the porch of the Littlefield House

 

Although we had originally envisioned that the photos would be black and white, we found that the subtle terracotta and verdigris palette of the veranda complemented our monochromatic clothing beautifully. The combination of the exquisite location, soft afternoon light, and Will’s keen eye and talent as a photographer resulted in photos that reflect our visual aesthetic, allude to the band’s name, and evoke the dark, haunting nature of our music. 

—Lynne Adele

The Guitjo

 

guitjo

British Sailors, 1908

“What is that instrument?” is a question we’re used to hearing in reference to my six-string banjo, or guitjo, when The Victor Mourning performs. Although it dates to the mid-nineteenth century, the guitjo (sometimes called a banjitar) remains surprisingly unfamiliar to the general public and musicians alike.

The banjo, of course, traces its history to African slaves in the United States, who adapted African stringed instruments into gourd banjos. Until the 1830s, the banjo was an instrument associated exclusively with African American musicians. The five-string banjo was popularized to white audiences in the U.S. by the early minstrel performer, Joel Sweeney, in the 1830s, and introduced to England by the Virginia Minstrels during the following decade. The banjo quickly became a favorite instrument in English music halls.

The six-string banjo was evidently a British innovation, attributed to William Temlett, one of England’s earliest banjo makers, who opened his shop in London in 1846. Although early examples differ in design, the guitjo soon came to consist of a banjo body with a guitar neck, tuned and played like a guitar. Other hybrid banjo forms include the banjolele (a banjo/ukelele combo), the mandobanjo (mandolin/banjo), bass banjo, and cello banjo.

The six-string banjo joined the four-string banjo as a popular instrument in jazz and swing music of the 1920s and 30s. The six-string banjo was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr (of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven), as well as that of Django Reinhardt, Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes, as well as the blues and gospel singer The Reverend Gary Davis.

Johnny St Cyr

Johnny St Cyr

Neither banjo nor guitar, the guitjo belongs to both the banjo and guitar families. Its distinctly plunky, percussive sound is being rediscovered by musicians today. Artists including Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have used it on tour and in the studio, and it is the primary instrument of Old Crow Medicine Show ‘s Kevin Hayes.

—Lynne Adele

The Curious Aeros of C.A.A. Dellschau

A A C Dellschau

Steve and I share a longtime interest in the work of self-taught visual artists. Among our favorite artists is Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830-1923). Born in Brandenburg, Prussia, Dellschau emigrated to the U.S. through the Port of Galveston at the age of twenty. He applied for U.S. Citizenship, married a widow with a young daughter, and fathered three children. Dellschau worked most of his life as butcher, and later as a clerk in his son-in-law’s saddle and harness shop in Houston.

After retiring in 1900 at the age of seventy, Dellschau began creating a series of scrapbooks in which he affixed mixed-media drawings of primitive flying machines. He called his drawings press blumen, or “press blooms.” Dellschau first drew grids in pencil on paper over which he drew the flying machines, or “aeros,” in ink and watercolor. To these, he added collage of newspaper clippings of the day, many relating to aeronautics and other scientific discoveries.

Aero 1

Each flying machine was given a name, attributed to a designer, pictured from various angles, and accompanied with notes regarding its history written in German and English as well as strange symbols that comprised a secret code. The final drawings are dated 1921, just two years before Dellschau’s death at the age of ninety-three.

The drawings remained unknown for more than forty years after Dellschau’s death, stored in the attic of the family home. In 1967, twelve of the scrapbooks were placed on the street for trash pickup, where they were rescued, and ended up in a junk store where they sat unnoticed for two more years. Found there in 1969 by a local college student, four of the books were eventually purchased for Houston’s Menil Collection. Four additional books are now shared between the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Witte Museum, and four more eventually came on to the market via a New York gallery. It is estimated that he may have created as many as 2000 drawings.

Until the late 1990s, Dellschau’s drawings spent most of their time in museum storage due to their fragile condition. They remained unknown outside of Texas—except to a small group of folk art scholars, amateur scientists, inventors, and individuals with interests ranging from physics to paranormal and extra-terrestrial phenomena. The drawings were at the center of a mystery involving a secret society and reported UFO sightings in the 19th century.

They became the passion of Pete Navarro, a Houston UFOlogist who deciphered Dellschau’s code, translated the texts from German to English, and uncovered a fascinating tale. He found that Dellschau claimed to be a member of a secret aero club comprised of some sixty individuals who gathered in the 1850s in Sonora, California. The drawings were said to represent airships that had actually been built and flown by the Sonora Aero Club before being dismantled. Navarro found that the books held designs for more than 100 distinct aircraft.

Aero 2

It is difficult to imagine any of Dellschau’s eccentric contraptions having aerodynamic capability. But supposedly, the aeros did not rely on conventional gases such as helium or hydrogen commonly used in dirigibles and balloons of the day. A member of Dellschau’s society had discovered a secret substance made from green crystals distilled from coal, which, when added to water, created a hot gas that had the ability to negate weight. With this antigravity substance, known as the “supe,” the airships were lifted and propelled in flight. The supe recipe was lost forever when its inventor died, and soon the group disbanded.

There are numerous newspaper accounts of mysterious airship sightings throughout the U.S. toward the end of the 19th century. But whether Dellschau’s drawings were designs for actual aircraft, or the fanciful creations of the artist’s imagination, one thing is certain: they represent an artistic achievement of great vision and importance, and serve as valuable documentation of man’s obsession with flight.

—Lynne Adele

Poor Omie Wise

Lately I’ve been researching American event songs recorded by hillbilly bands prior to WWII. The tunes I’m speaking of are those that are based on events that can actually be historically documented, unlike a song like “Knoxville Girl” which was arguably based on a real murder once upon a time but has morphed and changed so much over the centuries that the original event becomes so clouded that there’s no agreement on which historical event it’s actually based on. This means, of course, that we’re dealing with more recent events and more recent songs (although in some cases older tunes were used for the new songs.)

The oldest event that ends up in a song recorded by a pre-war hillbilly band that I’ve found is the murder of Naomi “Omie” Wise in Randolph County, North Carolina, in 1808 (some sources say 1807.) The traditional story, in brief, is that virtuous, innocent orphan Naomi is seduced by “John Lewis’ lies” and ultimately she is murdered and thrown in a river.

The ballad inspired by this murder first shows up (as far as I can tell) as “Poor Naomi” in an article by Braxton Craven (who wrote the earliest account of the murder, published as a pamphlet many years after it happened) in the Greensboro, NC, Patriot on April 29, 1874. Whether the tune started as a folk lyric or as a composed piece isn’t known, nor when the tune first entered the repertoire of local musicians. The tune, or a variation on it, first saw wax with Morgan Denmon’s 1927 version issued on the Okeh label. In subsequent years Omie’s story was put to disc by Ruben Burns (1927, Gennett, unissued), G.B. Grayson (1928, Victor), Clarence Ashley (1930, Columbia), and Aunt Idy Harper & the Coon Creek Girls (1938, Vocalion).

Now, the story of Omie’s undoing in the recorded versions of this song follows the classic murder ballad arc: innocence undone by treachery. But in a notebook in a library archive at UCLA there exists another version of the ballad, and indeed, another version of the story. The notebook was owned by one Mary Woody who would’ve been a little girl during the time of the murder (according to her reported birth date of 1801.) Her version of the ballad, which appears in the notebook as A true account of Nayomy Wise, tells of a Naomi who was far from innocent. In Woody’s version:

And by Some person was defild
And So brought forth a basturd Child
She Told her name neomy Wise
Her Carnal Conduct Some did despise

And then:

The Second Child neomy bore think She
Into a neighbors man Ben Sanders Swore

In this version, by the time she’s pregnant by John Lewis she’s now about to bear her third illegitimate child and is very proud of the fact. As “She So Sensless was of Shame”. Lewis asks her to keep it quiet, she doesn’t, so he kills her.

Whether this is a version that came from a different point of view, like someone close to the Lewis family, trying to cast Naomi’s virtue in doubt for posterity, or whether this is an echo of what truly may have occurred is open to debate without further research. If Naomi was the local slattern then she wasn’t very suited as the subject of a murder ballad in the classic sense as given the morality of the day she would’ve shared some of the guilt in that era’s worldview just by being who she was. But perhaps the very callousness of the act itself was seen as so great that the circumstances were modified to fit the classic “innocence wronged” model. Or maybe time and oral tradition simply erased the unpleasant details about Naomi’s character and shaped the ballad into the one we know today.

In many fields of research writers mention that someday we may have technology or tools to be able to improve what we know about a certain subject. Unfortunately, the very nature of history is that it tends to hide and disappear very easily. I wonder what kind of technology they could possibly develop in the future to help us find it?

-Stephen Lee Canner

The Moenkhaus Gang

When I lived in Bloomington around 1984-85 I lived downtown in a large (now locally famous) apartment building called the Allen Building. Given the extremely cheap rent (bathroom down the hall, $135 a month) the vast majority of my neighbors were musicians, artists or just scenesters. But there were a couple of pensioners that I would occasionally see in the hall. I knew their names and would nod hello to them on the stairs, but nothing much more than that. One of these folks was Carl Moenkhaus, a thin balding man who never said much. I knew that there was a dorm building on the Indiana University campus called Moenkhaus but that was as far as the familiarity went.

Recently on the Indiana MFT site a discussion of Hoagy Carmichael’s early days in Bloomington came up. In the 1920s Carmichael famously hung out in the Book Nook, a soda shop/bookstore directly across the street from the gates to the university. By the time I lived in Bloomington the Book Nook was just a place to stop in and grab a Coke on the go, more a convenience store than a hangout. If memory serves they did still sell a few Cliff Notes and other minor books, though. In Hoagy’s day the Book Nook was evidently the hip place for the jazz kids to get together. One of these kids was William “Monk” Moenkhaus. Monk was great pals with Hoagy and evidently something of a Hoosier Dadaist. One source says that he was actually going to school in Zurich in 1914 (although according to what I’ve found he would’ve been 12 at the time, not sure how long he stayed there) and “apparently exposed to the Dadaist movement then taking shape in Zurich – or at least its intellectual fallout – and brought its principles back with him when he returned to study music in Bloomington.” If Monk stayed in Europe until he was 18, this would’ve been around 1920, then he was definitely old enough to have had meaningful contact with the Dada crowd.

If this is true we’ve found a direct connection between the Book Nook/Carmichael crowd and first wave Dada. In the early 80s when a friend of mine named his dorm room “The Cabaret Voltaire” and made Dada inspired flyers for our band Your Real Dad we had no idea that there could be any sort of connection between Zurich in the teens and the small southern Midwestern town we lived in.

I wasn’t sure exactly how old Carl Moenkhaus was but he seemed pretty frail in the mid-80s and did indeed die while I lived in the building. A bit more research turned up the fact that there was a zoology professor at Indiana named William Moenkhaus. As most professors at IU came from elsewhere, not the local community, and the last name not being a common one, I figured it was a good chance that Carl was closely related to Monk.

Then I came across this entry in the 1930 census. It appears that William “Monk” and Carl were both sons of William, Sr, 12 years apart. And given the fact that census takers in those days went from house to house and the next entry is for Alfred Kinsey (yes, THAT Kinsey) it appears that they were adjacent neighbors.

If only I’d known some of this at the time. What amazing stories could I have learned from Carl? The lesson from this is that history, amazing history, is all around us, all the time, no matter where we are. Don’t hesitate to reach out and gather as much of it as you can, before it’s too late.

–Stephen Lee Canner

The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar

A nice little piece from This American Life about a pre-WWI, southern mystery:

The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar

– Stephen Lee Canner

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