Bessie Eldreth (1996)

Interview with the filmmaker Patricia Sawin

How did you begin to make the movie with Mrs. Eldreth?

I was taking some photos of Mrs. Eldreth, but because Iím interested in the oral/aural element of it, that was primarily what I thought about. I was thinking about the stories and I was thinking about the songs. I hadnít thought about the visual side of it terribly much. As I remember it, the impulse for this came from Cece, because she knew Mrs. Eldreth from teaching up at Boone [as a professor in the English Department at Appalachian State University], and she and Elva have been friends for a long time. She and Elva have a symbiotic sort of relationship, where interesting possibilities would occur to her and Elva would do some filming.

In 1988, Glenn [Hinson] had invited Bessie and Jean, her granddaughter, to come and sing at the Eno Festival. (Glenn was the one who had invited Bessie and Jean to the Smithsonian Festival in Washington, DC, the summer of 1987, which is where I met them.) Bessie and I stayed with Cece overnight, so Cece set this thing up. She said, ďHereís this thing that might turn into something,Ē and so she arranged it, and we went and did the interview thatís at the beginning of the film on Dottie Holland and Bill Lachicotteís porch on a beautiful July morning. That just sat for a long time. Then Cece and Elva got talking about it, and Iíd finished my dissertation, and Cece said we could write a grant to the North Carolina Arts Council and thatíll be some money for Bessie to be in it, which is always a good thing, and each of us can get a little bit to put this all together.

Elvaís way of working was, you donít have voiceover, and itís just a matter of shooting a bunch of stuff, looking at it, and figuring out what to put in. This is really a portrait of Mrs. Eldreth that hangs together and to some extent gives you a sense of the things that she does. As opposed to my book, which has the theoretical argument about how you use the resources that are available to you to create an image of yourself, and the feminist analysis of her struggles and double binds as a woman who wanted to perform but didnít feel like she could do that in public places. As a woman who wanted to get credit for all the work she had done but felt some culturally induced shame, and didnít feel like she could blame her husband in the way that I am perfectly capable of blaming him. She saw it as a shame on her that she had this shiftless husband.

So Elva shot something like ten hours of footage. We went up to Boone at Thanksgiving time and spent a Sunday going to church and hanging out at their house. At some point I went through all of this and picked some things out. When I think of it in retrospect, there are some aspects of Mrs. Eldreth that arenít in there. When I use it in class, itís very handy that I use the chapter on ghost stories and then have the story of the light in her bedroom, which is the culminating story in my construction of how she told different stories about things that had happened to her in her life, and this the one where the ghost as frightening and the ghost as protective come together. So Iím very glad that story is in there. But there are other parts of her stories, about how hard she worked, about her joking, that arenít in the movie.

For me one of the most important parts of the book is her self-presentation, her childhood stories, her work stories, and then her use of reported speech. And none of those are really well represented in the movie. It happened that it wasnít hard for Elva and Cece and me to go and catch her singing or doing testimony in church, which is really valuable, particularly since I did not write about in the book nearly to the extent that I now think I should have. The portrait of her in the book as an extremely devout person is not as prominent as would be ideal. But the video was able to catch some things, like the singing in church, the testimony.

Thereís a great scene where sheís standing in front of a bookcase in her dining room that is chock full of pint jars of all the different things she has canned, and she says ďThis is my kraut, this is my beans.Ē I mentioned that in the work chapter, that it was clear to me that she had a lot of stories about working in the garden, and the labor and expertise of canning and making. There are ways in which some of that is captured.

We took Mrs. Eldreth to visit on of Ceceís English class at ASU, and we have those pictures of her with the class in this little lounge with a quilt on the floor to make it look more homey. And that was the place where, because Cece was willing to push her a little bit on some of these questions in ways I was hesitant to . . . I was very anxious about being a fly on the wall and not ďcontaminatingĒ my source. But Cece was willing to engage her more on seeing that it was okay to be somewhat critical of her husband, and that we would be supportive of what she had done. The other was that Cece would talk to her about the moonshining, because Mrs. Eldreth was so ashamed of that. Cece tried to explain that it was an economic thing, and her dad wasnít evil. It was about getting more value out of the things you could grow in the mountains in the 1930s when times were so hard.

A part of what I was learning, in the process of working with her and writing the book, was thinking about what Appalachia is, and the balance between the folkloristís desire to cast it as romantic and of the past, with the fact that hereís this woman who was in her 80s when we were filming and grew up in these legendary times, but she still is here in the 1990s. Weíre getting a little bit more of the sense of what her life was like. Weíre not plunged back into the days of Cecil Sharpe. In some ways, weíre not trying to grapple consciously with this, but rather this is just what her life looked life. Thereís part of me that wishes weíd taken the paper orange turkey off the altar in the Thanksgiving scene, but then thereís part of me that thinks yes, they have the paper turkey from the dollar store, and the cross in the church made out of logs and barbed wire. Thereís a mix of things.

And I love the fact that Elva caught what happens at the end of the church service when Mrs. Eldreth sits up in the choir. Because she had made a special effort to sing some solos that day, people came up after the service and hugged her and thanked her. And thatís an important part of the argument I make about her singing, that the singing in church was, for her, about communication with God and performance in the theoretical sense because itís enhancing other peopleís experience, but that isnít necessarily a purely artistic aesthetic experience. Itís helping them in their religious contemplation. The fact that people came up and spoke to her and hugged her is a part of what it means to do that kind of performing for her. I was glad to capture that.

How was the film edited?

We never all sat down together, and that would have been interesting to do. I sat down and went through all of the footage, and picked out things that I thought went well. But Elva had her own process, and she mostly figured out what order to put things in. I havenít gone back since then and looked at whatís in the film that we didnít use, but I donít think that there would be examples of the things I wish weíd captured. The original video tapes are all in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, along with the original audio tapes of my many hours of my previous interviews with Mrs. Eldreth, if somebody wants to go look at them some day.

I enjoy having the film, because Iíll show it in my classes at UNC, and in North Carolina, you can almost guarantee that there will be some students with family in rural areas for whom this rings fairly true, in terms of somebody that they know. And I think it does a nice job of capturing her cheerfulness, you know? She had a really hard life, but most of the time she got up in the morning and did the things she needed to do and made the best of it. There is that great scene of her making biscuits with her grandson and dancing around the kitchen. You could write a whole book about how all the pieces of her personality fit together.