Folk Festival Photo Collage
Beverly with Brian DeMarcus
A Conversation with Beverly Cotton
Reprinted from The Folk Life Quarterly, Vol III, #2, Fall 1978.
Interview with Jamie Downs, The Folk Life
BEVERLY COTTON, of the GREEN GRASS CLOGGERS
[This conversation developed over a period of time, as we ran across the Green-grass Cloggers in our travels around the folk festival circuit. In fact, it pre-dated the beginning of The Folk Life magazine, when we saw the Green Grass Cloggers in a wild dance competition in Kutztown, where Jamie went to college, and we went skinny-dipping with them at midnight in a friends pond afterwards. So we became sort of an informal part of the Green Grass Cloggers traveling Ignorance Festival for a while "Temperature check!" our rallying-cry, after the need to keep their old bus cooled down on the highway, with which wed greet one another, coming over a hill to a crowd of cloggers, old and new and when we started the magazine, we knew one day this interview would happen, one way or the other. At one point we even considered a group interview, but the idea soon degenerated into a round-robin grab-the-mike free-for-all an Ignorance Festival and the tapes were basically indecipherable. Fun, though. But one afternoon, around the kitchen table in Dodie and Ron Wagners house, it just clicked, when Jamie and Beverly, one of the original members of the Green Grass Cloggers, were sitting around just talking, and it got too good to let go. They let the tape run, and heres how it turned out:]
Jamie: Tell me about some of the different clogging styles.
Beverly: It all depends on the area youre in. You can be down in the mountains, and just go over the mountain and itll be completely different. There are some areas where flat-footing is interpreted as, you dont move anything except your feet, and they stay close to the ground, dont even move your arms its very much like an Irish step-dance, where the arms are down by the sides. But you can go into another area, and theres a whole lot of arm-movement. Its almost like a language with different dialects. The dance dialect of the mountains is as much a part of their culture as the language is. So weve been in contests where we knew we danced well, but the people of the area who did a different style won the contest.
Jamie: I think that was what happened the first time we saw you, back in Kutztown in 71 or 72. The dancers there were doing more of a modern squares kind of thing. Speaking of Kutztown, theres a group down there, from Fleetwood or Oley, who do clogging in Western squares position, but its very mellow and it is the men who are more forceful. The women are all Pennsylvania Dutch ladies, and they have long, floor-length calico dresses, with no petticoats, just plain dresses, and tap shoes, and the men wear bib overalls and tap shoes.
Beverly: Thats something about the dancing that weve seen in Pennsylvania, how subdued it is, next to the dancing in other parts of Appalachia.
Jamie: Why do you think that is the case?
Beverly: I think it has something to do with religious culture. In the mountains around us youll get religious groups that are really open with their religion, and they involve a lot of emotions. Also there are a lot of moonshiners that adds a lot of flair! But the styles are a part of the culture, and the dances down south, even though they are more subdued than the Green Grass Cloggers, are still more flashy, much more so than the ones weve seen around here in Pennsylvania.
Jamie: Were talking, of course, about the people who do clogging in this area. Im not so sure about the Germans who do Bavarian dancing styles, or the Slavic people in this area. There are a lot of them in the coal regions, and Im not so sure Id call their dancing subdued!
Beverly: Well, the dancers at Kutztown are the only real Pennsylvania dancers weve seen.
Jamie: The Green Grass Cloggers are doing school programs now, down home. Is what you do as new for the kids down in North Carolina as it is for the kids you danced for near Philadelphia yesterday afternoon?
Beverly: Well, its pretty new for most of them. Weve done this for the kids in the Eastern North Carolina schools, where the dance isnt really such a big part of the culture, whereas in Western North Carolina, up in the mountains, it is. In the East there are beginning to be a lot of square dances, and an increasing number of good square dancers and cloggers there. But I think what happened was that that a lot of the settlers who came in kept on going, and came west and settled in the mountains, and developed dance as entertainment. They werent near the coast and a lot of stimulation, and my hypothesis is that they developed dance more for those reasons. Oh, there are a few people in the East, if you seek them out. Theres somebody who used to be a dancer, or a fiddler. Rodneys father plays autoharp and harmonica, and dances. There are a few of them, its just not so widespread as in the Western part of the state.
Jamie: Ive heard you and some of the other Cloggers talk about different old-timers. Did you develop close relationships with them?
Beverly: Oh yeah! Willard Watson Docs cousin? is one of the main people, to me. We became really close friends some years ago, and I visit with him at home, and my family does, and so he started teaching me smooth-style flat-footing. He was one of the first of the old-timers who started coming up to us and saying, "Young uns, thats the way it used to be!"
Jamie: Did he do both smooth-style and the kind of clogging that you Cloggers usually do?
Beverly: No, he just does the smooth-style. He appreciates both, and he grew up with both. But thats just his style. Hes the only one I know doing it, and Ive heard a number of people say hes the only person they know still dancing like that.
Jamie: Is there anyone else in your group learning his style?
Beverly: No, because it would be different from what we are. You see, smooth-style is not a group-participation kind of thing, even though you can do it with another person. It doesnt lend itself to a big routine, because youre just standing in one spot, by yourself or with another person, doing rhythm changes. Its a very smooth thing, you dont move around a lot.
Jamie: Would it interrupt the momentum of the show youve got going?
Beverly: Right. That subtle thing, staying in just one place for a whole routine, you couldnt do square dance moves with those steps for a whole routine. But I do it a lot of times, and I tell people where it came from. Showing them something different in a workshop, Ill tell them about him, and learning it from him. When I do it, I just get a vision of him, right in front of me. I see him, and then I can do it. Its beautiful. Someday Ill achieve what it took him seventy-three years to accomplish!
Jamie: But that sounds like something youd tack on later, for communication purposes.
Beverly: Right. At least that is the way we do it.
Jamie: I hear you calling out things onstage. Is that kind of code, to let you know when youre all together?
Beverly: Right. Other than that its just fun its a party and you gotta interact theres a caller, just like in any other type of square dance although our calls, especially when its Brian DeMarcus, are part of the humor too!
Jamie: Its like those little nuances in your routines every time you do them.
Beverly: Thats right its never identically the same.
Jamie: Is that because you have the dances down pat youve assimilated the technique?
Beverly: It was always like that. Thats what kept it going, thats the momentum behind it. Its always a lot of fun.
Jamie: Nobody ever said, "Now, lets get serious"
Beverly: No! Thats not what the dance is! Its something you share, and its something you do and have fun with. Sure, certain steps are supposed to come in certain formations, and they do but every time you do it, its different, because the people are all different at that time. The audience is different, you feel different, things in your life are different.
Jamie: You know, the career of the Green Grass Cloggers has really taken off. But its not because you sat down and were very business-like about, and planned it all out
Beverly: (Laughs) No way!
Jamie: Or "Heres these people we have to impress" its come out of the attitude you have towards the dance itself?
Beverly: The dance is it. The dance is what brought us together, and has kept together 24 very different people from very different walks of life, with very different ideas, through all the hard timesand there have been hard times! But whenever anything was wrong, whenever we danced it all came together. Its the kind of thing where, if youre in the middle of something, then you work it out, all right, and then you say, "Okay, lets all dance." And in "The Dance," it all melts away. Being on another plane because of it. Its like being in love. And thats what made it begin, and thats what kept it going, and thats why Im here. When it all comes down to it, if the dance wasnt happening, I wouldnt be here. I might be off somewhere else doing it, or I might be back being a shrink again! (Laughs)
Jamie: You said there are names to the soft-shoe things that you do. Are there names to the other things, or have you made up names for them?
Beverly: Yes, there are names, and theyre created all the time, by certain members of the group, who fell into or fell across certain rhythms. And if a person fell into that rhythm first, youd give that step their name. Youve got The Eddie, Karens Kick, The Jerry, The Earl just things that happened. We keep them, partly in memory, because some of those people arent with us any more, and also as a way to communicate that step. And its really neat, when you call out, "Eddie!" and everybody does Eddies step.
Are these steps all in oral tradition, or is it something youd think of writing down?
Beverly: We never have. A lot of us are talking about journals, about our travels. And I think if it ever became an educational venture, it would be appropriate to write it down. We dont need to write it down now, but if someone wanted to study it, as to where it came from, then I think we would write it all down. It would serve some purpose, for sharing it. But other than that we have no need to write it down, and no desire to.
Jamie: I know once I found about half a page of my old tap-dancing book, and there wasnt enough so that I could remember a whole routine. But they had written it down, and given it to my mother I was about three or four then so she would know if I was doing the steps right. And there they were slap-step-step, hop-shuffle-hop-step-step.
Im not sure if the rhythm was marked out, or if there was any way of marking the rhythm, or if you knew that much, the rest would come back to you.
Beverly: A lot of times, when were teaching a routine, theres nothing written down, but we have the routines, the rhythms, in our bodies. If were teaching on the grass, so we cant hear the rhythms, well chant them out badda-bap, badda-bap one of the most important things is hearing the rhythms, because that way of course youve got feedback.
I had a hard time, when I was learning one of the first steps, because I was hearing it all wrong. Once I heard it right, there was no doubt, but first I had to hear it.
Beverly: That varies too. If youve got a whole lot of that going on down close to the ground. That also comes from the single-step. You can pick people out from a crowd, from all different areas. A couple of girls came down to a dance with the Highwoods, down in Louisville, last week, and I was standing on a hotel balcony, up on the 24th floor, and said, "If that doesnt look like Tennessee ." And we got closer, and realized it was these two girls, from Eastern Tennessee. You can really tell where people come from by the way they dance hands down by the side, or theyll lift up their knees, or something. A lot of it is just one step kind of thing. The same rhythm over and over, or a special combination of rhythms.
Jamie: Over the last five years or so, partly because of you, weve seen these new groups starting up all over the place. Are these people who never existed before, or are they all coming back because of what theyve seen you do?
Beverly: Well, a lot of them have always been there. Theyre beginning to be brought out now, because there are a lot more dances being held now, like there used to be. There was a time when the old-time dances stopped being held, but theyre being held again, and a lot of people will come to listen, and youll see them moving, and if you give them any kind of encouragement, then they get up there and do it! You find theres all kinds of people out there who know this stuff. On the other hand, unlike these folks, some of the new people whove picked up on it sometimes its like taking it out of a textbook, imitating it without knowing where it comes from. They just havent gone out there or spent hours at campfires with old-timers, learning it and seeing where it all comes from, and then gone on to create something new out of all that. Wed love to see everyone creating their own things, rather than imitating what weve done. Because thats what we did we saw what we did, and then we created our own interpretations of it. And thats whats now out of us tradition is a continual process, you know. It doesnt just come to a stop in a certain year. Its a by-product of people living, and interacting and expressing themselves. And thats who we are. Theres us, older folks lots of people involved in it.
Jamie: So its not really necessary for someone to get down to see whats in Alabama or Tennessee. There are also things like, oh, TV programs with you people in them, for instance! Its too bad if they just cop a whole routine, but if they would just go and watch it, what you do, and then go home and do it, as you did, picking it up
Beverly: But also get some basics down.
Jamie: And youre not discouraging anybody from just getting into it just getting up there and kicking up your heels.
Beverly: No, thats the thing you share with everyone! But people should see beyond that. Once you get it take off with it! Dont just stick around to see what else is new the next time we come to town take off with it! Get the feel of it. So you come up with new steps you come up with new ones all the time.
Jamie: So youre really up for a whole sharing thing you want to share with other clog-teams all the time.
Beverly: Right and theyll continue to do the same thing
Jamie: I notice when you get together with other clog-teams, youre out in the parking-lot after the show "Show me this one, heres that one" you all seem to enjoy sharing the things youre doing.
Beverly: Some of it has been one-way with some people not all of them, of course. But there are people coming on now, picking up on this step or that one, and thinking thats what its all about. Some of them are missing the point. Theyre not progressing, not sharing. Some of them are just doing it because, "Its the thing to do." Not because its a traditional art which were working on and developing. Which does bother us, sure. Its not the art they care about its just getting your routine so they can all get somewhere with it, commercially. So what matters is not just the fact, but the feelings behind it. Because we love for people to love it, and get into it, and be in love with the dance, like we are. We did it as a team for eight years, doing a lot of benefits and just getting enough to cover the gas sometimes, just so we could get somewhere else to dance. Its been really due to the demand for it, and the love of it, that weve taken it on the road to try to bring it to other people who havent seen it to spread the word about the dance.
Jamie: Its a subtle kind of purism. Not purism in the sense that you cant do anything new, but you have to be in pure love with what youre doing, be dedicated to it, or else its a very different kind of thing. Especially in your teaching, I suppose.
Beverly: Right. There are people bringing it to people, but leaving out something. Some of it is coming off as almost like Hollywood. Theyre doing some of the old-time things which are coming through us, but the feeling is changed. Its a little too country. You know what I mean? Not like what the old-timers did. They came to the culture, but they also added themselves to it. Not just taking something out, but also putting yourself in.
Willards dancing is a lot different than what the other old people did. He can take a step from somewhere but where he fits it in, and where he goes from there thats his. We also give credit to these other people. The folk art is strengthened by that. Its like a singer saying, "I got this old song from so-and-so. It is who I learned it from, and this is what I found there, and this is what I do with it." But thats not what some of the people were talking about are saying. There, its "Here it is this is us." They never once say, "We got a part of this from seeing the Green Grass Cloggers, and they got a part of it from this source."
Jamie: Thats true. Youll often get a singer saying where he got something from,but you dont often get a dancer doing that. Is that because they think its too hard to explain it all?
Beverly: I think its just negligence.
Jamie: Do think its
Beverly: No, I think its just negligence.
Jamie: I think its part of the same thing with the magazine, where we always want to give credit, and if we dont thats a goof, and well try to make up for it later
.Beverly: Well, its part of the process, so its part of the sharing, part of the tree, so people can see ultimately where your roots are. When youre dancing, a lot of the audience just doesnt know, and you have to tell them, I think.
Jamie: So its not just a career ethics thing, but also an educational matter, so people will know whats original with the Green Grass Cloggers and whats done by a lot of people in the state of Tennessee or wherever.
Beverly: Right. Exactly. See, a lot of people in lets say Pennsylvania dont know this or that came from North Carolina, so theyre missing something in the process. And then there are people who learnt something from us, and theyre beginning to get recognition, and theyre saying, "I learnt this from my Mom and Daddy." People who didnt know a thing about it, and had never in their lives seen it.
Jamie: Thats one of the problems, when something goes through the stages of becoming popular, and then becoming commercially successful, then becoming a craze, its got to fight against these unethical problems. Or maybe people who think youd bore the audience with education. Do you think that some people might think so and that might be why they hesitate to take the time to fill in the audience on where it comes from? Do you think clogging might be in some kind of danger where it might become commercially popular, and national, and have that happen to it?
Beverly: Yes, I do. But I do think the only way to deal with that is to just keep on doing what youre doing and get through to people that way. We know where we came from, we know who we are, we know what we feel. You just have to keep on knowing youre right, and do it.
Jamie: I guess its just some kind of conflict in your own heads. Clogging is just so attractive, and it just wows people, and there are so many groups just starting to get into it, that I imagine one side of your heads says, "Wow great!" And the other side says, "There are too many groups, all over the place, booked every weekend, its just too commercial."
Beverly: Yes, thats where I think personal ethics has to come in. I think before anyone participates in it they should be a part of the art and the culture. Its so easy to jump up there, and the people ask them, "Where did clogging come from?" and they dont know, and they just make up things! They distort it a lot, so people are getting misinformed. They should just dance, rather than pass along a lot of misinformation if they dont know it.
A lot of people are so hungry to findout
all about clogging in five minutes. A lady just called us to ask about
the origins of clogging she works for a local newspaper and she
was doing a story on clogging Cub Hill was coming to the area,
and they wanted a historical study on "What is this clogging that
everybodys talking about."
And she wanted me to help her out, and I just couldnt. Wed done some things on you, but I didnt have any information on the history of the art, beyond what John had condensed into those paragraphs for those whore not "in the field." So she went ahead and did a piece on it for the Sunday paper, you know, its Indian, some people say its Irish-American .
Beverly: Well, its a melting pot, like the United States itself!
Jamie: Dont you have a step called "The Indian," thats from the American Indians?
Beverly: Well, thats what we thought too, but its debatable. A friend of mine, a Peruvian, was getting married in my living-room, and his wifes father was a square-dance caller, and he called and we clogged, and his family went crazy when we did "The Indian." And they shouted out this Peruvian name, and started doing it, and it was a Peruvian step. Eileen had added some things to it, too its not like its the traditional "Indian" that we do, but that was the one the Peruvians jumped up and said, "Thats it!"
Incredible. Flipped me right out.
Jamie: What traditions are melted together in the clogging?
Beverly: Irish, English, Swedish, Scottish everyone who came over from Europe. Then American Indian, and African .
Jamie: Whats the Swedish? I can visualize the other ones, but I guess its my ignorance.
Beverly: Well, Ive seen a bit of Swedish folk-dancing, and some of the rhythms, the arm movements, are the same. So its a melting pot. And if a lot of people from these different areas get together, a new dance is going to evolve that will have a part of those different people in it. The Green Grass Cloggers style, for instance we merged from a lot of really very different old-timers, and also a lot of us came from different areas too.
Jamie: Wheres Hunt from? His style is very different from the rest of you.
Beverly: Hes from Western North Carolina, from the mountains. But a lot of what he does doesnt have much to do with the region its just that hes a very progressive, interpretive dancer.
Jamie: I notice he does a lot of subtle little "foot things" maybe I noticed because of those big boots he wears!
Beverly: I think its since he joined the Green Grass Cloggers that he picked up those subtle little tsh-tsh-tsh things he does. Up in the mountains, theyre very hard and clean and precise especially for the young men. Its really very nice so clean and strong. The rhythm with the legs is very strong. Where the Green Grass Cloggers are not so accented, and they have a lot of extra strokes in there too. A lot of it is doing fiddle notes, which we picked up from the people around the Piedmont section of the state. Also, there was one elderly man, I never did get his name, but one night in Tommy Jarrells kitchen, he just walked out and did the most incredible double-shuffle Ive ever seen. Just blew me away. Thats the kind of dancers weve got down in North Carolina.
Jamie: I guess! Well, before we close, is there anything else youd like to add?
Beverly: Well, its just like Cass Wallen says. He came off the stage one night after singing the old hymns, and he looked at me, and said, "Young un, you cant sing it unless you feel it." And its just the same thing with dancing. Youve got to really feel it. Youve got to love it, you know.
Jamie: Do you think we should end on that note?
[And thank you, Beverly, wherever you are. Weve gone down different paths since 1978, the Green Grass Cloggers have continued to evolve, as I guess we have too. But if you see this, give us a call. Wed love to hear from you Jamie and John.]