Music

Essay

Gore, Va: Roots of My (& Patsy Cline's) Raising

Updated October 13, 2018

An essay on country music singer Patsy Cline If I make it to heaven and get to meet country music legend Patsy Cline, we can have a nice little chat about the paddlin' policy at Sidney Gore Elementary School. And then we could laugh at how we both, generations apart, would tell people that we grew up in Winchester, not Gore. Because very few people ever admit they're from Gore, Virginia.

Due to the iterant nature of my family -- my parents were horse people -- we spent much of 1974 and 1975 living in a trailer home parked halfway up a hill in the woods 11 miles west of the booming metropolis of Winchester Virginia, home of the Apple Blossom Festival and, for us, the Winchester Downs race track. Yup, I'm full-blood country trailer-trash. Each day I'd walk 3 miles down Back Mountain Road to Tom's Market to buy a newspaper, then walk my gangly 9 year-old self back to the trailer. Not much to do there, and I was paid a quarter for the task.

The closest school for my grade level was a small elementary in Gore Virginia, further down the Northwest Turnpike a few miles. Back up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gore is a tiny unincorporated town, mostly a few buildings coalescing around a single turnpike offramp. The school house (now an office building) was a traditional brick structure with the railroad track of the Winchester and Western running along the back field. When I attended, multiple grades were still gathered in a single room.

Gore Elementary School

A pretty depressing place, all in all. I'm fairly sure it had been this desolate for decades. Not much money here, the only industry being a lime quarry at which the railroad terminates. And though it is nestled scenically into the Back Creek Valley, with the first foothold of the mountains creeping up behind, there was a certain hardness to the place.

Just in the year we lived there, I remember: Our landlord throwing his teenage his son Charlie out of his home for some infraction, smashing his windshield for good measure, and Charlie going to live in a cabin way off the road where he couldn't be found by his old man; A girl who cried every single day in the classroom because her father had left home; Northwest Turnpike being shut down one day due to an area teenager flipping his Firebird at some ungodly speed, killing himself and his friend; My friends and I rummaging through the trash in an abandoned house and finding water-stained diaries from a woman who had lived there decades earlier.

I didn't mind living in these parts, but I was relieved when we finally moved to Baltimore.

Still, Gore has its luminaries. One is frontier novelist Willa Cather (I feel that), who grew up there in the early 1900s, and, through much of her childhood years, Patsy Cline and her family. Patsy too attended Gore Elementary, as we called it, in the early 1940s. I'm only now starting to wonder how much of a shared education she and I might have had, even though we grew up more than 30 years apart. Things move slowly in country, and tradition is big in these parts, has a long memory, you'll soon see.

Which is why I am interested now in the paddlin'.

By the mid-1970s, corporal punishment in school had largely been abandoned in all but the most rural areas. But Gore fell into that later category. Hitting a kid was still a form of acceptable discipline, and its threat carried much weight in the classroom. In our class, everyone had the fear of "being paddled," or being hit in the bum repeatedly by the principal, with an actual wooden paddle that hung from the wall in his office. It was the worst punishment, aside from suspension, that a child could receive.

Gore Elementary School

I missed the paddle in my year at Gore, except once. And to this day, I hold the distinct feeling of being framed, for reasons mysterious to me then and now.

In fact turned out, I was so woefully unprepared on all fronts to defend against the crime of which I was accused, that of pulling the hair of the classmate sitting in front of me. That first time I heard about it was when I was hauled into the principal's office with the boy himself along with, for some reason, his parents.

The principal, an older guy, asked me if I could pull this young guy's hair from the back. That would not be possible, I pointed out, because his hair was so short. And because he was sitting right next to me in the office, I demonstrated the impossibility of this by actually trying to yank at the stubs on the back of this kid's head. The principal used this action as proof that I did pull at his hair, and thusly took his wooden punishment paddle down from the wall.

If you are perplexed by this entire exchange, well, you feel me now.

Looking back on it, I'm thinking the principal needed to pin this crime on someone, given this kid's overzealous parents, and I was largely still seen as a newcomer at the school. As such, I was mortified by the thought of being paddled, as we actually called it. I might have actually even cried at the sentencing, but, I don't remember much about administering of the punishment itself, which was executed right then and there in the principal's office by the man himself, in front of my teacher, the boy, his parents (Where the fuck were my peops? Damn horse hippies).

Maybe I don't remember much today because it was so traumatic to me at the time? But I have the distinct feeling it was because it was too anti-climatic. I can't remember if I had to pull down my pants, but I did have to bend over the chair, as per the rules of Frederick County Virginia education system, evidently. And my hind quarters received three swift -- though not overtly painful -- blows. I distinctly remember thinking "That's it?" And then we all returned to the day's activities.

The other thing I distinctly remember, and not feeling at all good about, was learning that there are people who will bend your own words and actions to their own ends, and not give a whit about your protests. The way I figure it now, I was pretty much paddled just for living in that desolate stretch of countryside. Thanks for the life lesson, Gore, Va!

And now I'm wondering if it were also a lesson that Patsy learned decades earlier. I mean this practice couldn't have been introduced AFTER the 1940s, right? Was she threatened by the paddle. Was she paddled? Her family, like mine, moved around lot in her early days. Was Patsy an outsider to this school, like the crying girl in my class? Or, gregarious as she turned out to be, did she make friends with everyone there? And skirted the discipline? (Also what are the lifetimes of school-issued paddles? Could I have actually been paddled by the principal with the very same paddle that previously paddled Patsy?)

Gore Elementary School

So it was the Winchester and Western that was the track Patsy Cline was on the wrong side of, or just too close to, anyway. In her teenage years, her family moved to Winchester. And when she got famous, that's where she said she was from, even if the people from Winchester weren't too happy to admit it.

"She was an outspoken, brazen woman who sang country music, which was unheard of at the time," the Winchester director of tourism bureau told a regional newspaper in 1995. "Winchester is a conservative place now and was even more so back then."

"I think a lot of the ill feelings had to do with envy and jealousy," she said when asked decades earlier. Mind you these ill feelings persisted at least as late as in the 1990s -- more than 30 years after Patsy's death.

I got a chance to visit the official "Patsy Cline House" in downtown Winchester, where she and her family lived between 1948-57. Don't be fooled by the street address. The house is pure country. It is a log cabin gussied up as a regular woodboard home. Pillow cases were made from feedsacks; wallpaper covered the ceiling. Patsy's family lived there before it has running water and electricity. She made black almond cake using almonds from the tree next door. After she became famous, Patsy ended up buying the home for her mother.

That the "official" Patsy Cline house is in Winchester, and not in Gore, is a fact that some folks have taken to point out. In fact, if you visit the house, there is nary a mention of Gore.

"They think Gore is nothing," said then-63 year old truck repairman and lifelong Gore resident, Lyndell Anderson to the Washington Post in 1995. "We feel left out."

And Winchester didn't care much for Patsy's family at the time. Patsy's father went from job to job with ultimately left her mother, Hilda, to take over the household. She took in wash, watched the neighbor's children, raised chickens in the basement. Even after Patsy rose to fame, in the mid-1950s, members of the Winchester society folk would drop their laundry with Hilda, but wouldn't acknowledge her if they saw her downtown, the guide at the house told me. After all, many of Winchester's well-to-do were more into the symphony, or opera. They fancied themselves too sophisticated for the country music.

But there's pretension all up in here. To this very day there is a prevalent snobbery in the U.S. about country music, not unlike Winchester's stubborn reluctance to embrace Patsy, many Americans. When pressed about the matter even today, many will say they don't like country music. "Two steps up from a sausage salesman," was how my father, who grew up in the 1950s, once described Hank Williams. Even country music has always been somewhat defensive about itself, vacillating between a defiant "back-to-the-roots" stance and giving in to the desire to pretty itself up, go pop, court a larger audience.

And if country music was only slightly regarded by the populace in the 1950s, female country singers were even less so. This was a time when record execs weren't even sure if Kitty Wells, now considered the Queen of Country Music, merited the expense of recording a whole album under her name. Even compared to today, female country music had but a paper-thin margin of legitimacy then.

So part of the genius that Patsy Cline possessed is how easily she transcended these boundaries. Naturally. Patsy lived large. From the tour guide's account, Patsy was not ashamed of her poverty. She held her own with company of men, swore and drank with the best of them. And her voice, and her personality, filled the room. In today's parlance, Patsy gave Zero Fucks.

She outgrew Winchester quick. After singing for an outfit called The Melody Makers around the VFW Halls and Moose Lodges in these parts, she caught her break on the Arthur Godfrey Show. She appeared at the behest of Jimmy Dean (who turned out to be a true sausage salesman). Despite her western cowgirl outfit (designed by her mother, who would design most of Patsy's stage outfits), Patsy sang total orchestral pop mode, with nary a Back Creek Valley twang in her voice:

It wasn't so much that Patsy turned her back on country music as much as she expanded beyond it, while still keeping its essence in the core of her songs.

Country music took her as its own anyway, with Nashville becoming more of a home to her than Winchester ever was. When she died, her body was brought home to Winchester for burial. Miles of cars followed her hearse to the graveyard, but most of them were limos from Nashville.

As I said, traditions die hard in these parts. Crazy innit?

This post is part of a series of ruminations I'm writing about female country music singers. See also, "The Surprisingly Short History of Women Singers in Country Music: Kitty Wells," and "The Night Tanya Tucker Came to Hopewell."

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