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Guest Last Call for the Appalachians

By Katie Laur · May 3rd, 2006 · Editorial
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Cincinnati has had a lot of "eccentrics," but I always had a soft spot for an old woman named May Stidham. You could usually find her perched on a naughahyde bar stool at a now-defunct joint called Dixie's Bar up on Short Vine back in the mid-1970s.

Dixie's was the last of the working class bars in that old blue-collar Corryville neighborhood, and like such places it was its own world. "Daisy May," as she was called by the other bar patrons, came from eastern Kentucky, and she liked the Bluegrass music my band played.

"Fiddle me that 'Sally Goodin,' " she'd rasp, and she'd get up and do a grotesque little dance, her body stiff and fragile like one of the wooden dancing dolls you see for sale at the Appalachian Festival.

She was tiny, a crone really, with hair the color of coal dust and a face patchy with rouge. But if the map of eastern Kentucky "was written on her face," she kept herself well-groomed. I can see her there now, sipping her highball slowly, her soft hands carefully manicured, the fingernails painted bright red.

She said she was 68, but Julian the bartender said, "I've tended bar here 30 years, and she was here when I came -- I swear that old dame's 105."

Julian, no spring chicken himself, was slender and white-haired and wore his white bar apron tucked in his belt. He was speaking softly so that Daisy couldn't hear him. "And she ain't aged a day. She's a survivor."

Dixie's, where Daisy May spent most of her time, was one of those "fern" bars so prevalent back in the '70s. When I first started playing there on Thursday nights, it had a low ceiling and cheap signs advertising J.T.S. Brown and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer -- but when the city began to spruce up the parking on Short Vine, a new owner took out the dropped ceiling to reveal a pressed tin one (an acoustic nightmare). Then he hung a lot of potted plants around the room and put in a menu heavy on avocado and sprouts.

The old regulars bore all this change with a minimum of complaint and continued to gather in the dark, womb-like belly of Dixie's for their afternoon libations, ignoring the UC students who had overtaken the neighborhood.

Corryville was on the cutting edge, with hippies selling incense and hand-made sandals and probably marijuana. "Paraphernalia" stores sprang up, and a used record store displayed albums by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Daisy May didn't like their looks.

"That boy needs a haircut," she'd say.

Daisy May took it all in stride until Ronald Reagan became president. "That durned Ronald Rayburn is a-cuttin' folks's checks back. Did you ever hear of sich a thing? I'ma fixin' to write him a letter."

Her voice was pitched low in her chest from years of smoking.

The man on the corner bar stool had been slumped there for some time, invisible, but he came to life now. It was hard to tell his age, but he was from the old neighborhood.

"Aw Daisy, save your breath," he said roughly. "President Reagan won't never get no letter that you write."

"He might," said another man sitting near the pool table.

"I'm goin' to mail it tomorrow," she said emphatically, pointing her sharp chin at her husband. "When Harold takes me to the doctor."

The man at the end of the bar stirred suddenly and said, "That's all women ever does is go to the durn doctor. I'll tell you what doctors wanta see. Doctors wanta see the green stuff." He rubbed the fingertips of one hand together in a "gimme, gimme" fashion.

"That Ronald Rayburn is worse than the durn doctors," Daisy said, having the last word, fumbling for a cigarette while sipping on a 7 and 7.

I miss the Appalachian population in Cincinnati. They laughed and danced and sang mournful songs. They migrated to Cincinnati in the late 1940s and '50s because it was easy to get here; they stayed because it wasn't as bad as most cities.

Appalachians -- or "hillbillies" as they're still called by comedians on late-night television -- have never really assimilated themselves into the mainstream. Like Daisy May, they were able to keep their identities intact through their music and their storytelling.

When Over-the-Rhine was taken over by social service agencies, they packed up their rich culture and moved to Norwood and started opening "country cooking" establishments that featured pinto beans, cornbread, biscuits and sawmill gravy.

I hope folks let them alone out there. I know they're having a big time.



CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)

Cincinnati has had a lot of "eccentrics," but I always had a soft spot for an old woman named May Stidham. You could usually find her perched on a naughahyde bar stool at a now-defunct joint called Dixie's Bar up on Short Vine back in the mid-1970s.

Dixie's was the last of the working class bars in that old blue-collar Corryville neighborhood, and like such places it was its own world. "Daisy May," as she was called by the other bar patrons, came from eastern Kentucky, and she liked the Bluegrass music my band played.

"Fiddle me that 'Sally Goodin,' " she'd rasp, and she'd get up and do a grotesque little dance, her body stiff and fragile like one of the wooden dancing dolls you see for sale at the Appalachian Festival.

She was tiny, a crone really, with hair the color of coal dust and a face patchy with rouge. But if the map of eastern Kentucky "was written on her face," she kept herself well-groomed. I can see her there now, sipping her highball slowly, her soft hands carefully manicured, the fingernails painted bright red.

She said she was 68, but Julian the bartender said, "I've tended bar here 30 years, and she was here when I came -- I swear that old dame's 105."

Julian, no spring chicken himself, was slender and white-haired and wore his white bar apron tucked in his belt. He was speaking softly so that Daisy couldn't hear him. "And she ain't aged a day. She's a survivor."

Dixie's, where Daisy May spent most of her time, was one of those "fern" bars so prevalent back in the '70s. When I first started playing there on Thursday nights, it had a low ceiling and cheap signs advertising J.T.S. Brown and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer -- but when the city began to spruce up the parking on Short Vine, a new owner took out the dropped ceiling to reveal a pressed tin one (an acoustic nightmare). Then he hung a lot of potted plants around the room and put in a menu heavy on avocado and sprouts.

The old regulars bore all this change with a minimum of complaint and continued to gather in the dark, womb-like belly of Dixie's for their afternoon libations, ignoring the UC students who had overtaken the neighborhood.

Corryville was on the cutting edge, with hippies selling incense and hand-made sandals and probably marijuana. "Paraphernalia" stores sprang up, and a used record store displayed albums by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Daisy May didn't like their looks.

"That boy needs a haircut," she'd say.

Daisy May took it all in stride until Ronald Reagan became president. "That durned Ronald Rayburn is a-cuttin' folks's checks back. Did you ever hear of sich a thing? I'ma fixin' to write him a letter."

Her voice was pitched low in her chest from years of smoking.

The man on the corner bar stool had been slumped there for some time, invisible, but he came to life now. It was hard to tell his age, but he was from the old neighborhood.

"Aw Daisy, save your breath," he said roughly. "President Reagan won't never get no letter that you write."

"He might," said another man sitting near the pool table.

"I'm goin' to mail it tomorrow," she said emphatically, pointing her sharp chin at her husband. "When Harold takes me to the doctor."

The man at the end of the bar stirred suddenly and said, "That's all women ever does is go to the durn doctor. I'll tell you what doctors wanta see. Doctors wanta see the green stuff." He rubbed the fingertips of one hand together in a "gimme, gimme" fashion.

"That Ronald Rayburn is worse than the durn doctors," Daisy said, having the last word, fumbling for a cigarette while sipping on a 7 and 7.

I miss the Appalachian population in Cincinnati. They laughed and danced and sang mournful songs. They migrated to Cincinnati in the late 1940s and '50s because it was easy to get here; they stayed because it wasn't as bad as most cities.

Appalachians -- or "hillbillies" as they're still called by comedians on late-night television -- have never really assimilated themselves into the mainstream. Like Daisy May, they were able to keep their identities intact through their music and their storytelling.

When Over-the-Rhine was taken over by social service agencies, they packed up their rich culture and moved to Norwood and started opening "country cooking" establishments that featured pinto beans, cornbread, biscuits and sawmill gravy.

I hope folks let them alone out there. I know they're having a big time.



CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.
 
 
 
 

 

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