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“It was on a Sunday morning, on the 8th day of July
In the year of 2001
Way down in McDowell County, in the West Virginia hills
Our lives would change before the day was done.”– Muddy Water
This story originally aired in the July 30, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
In the little town of Kimball, on the banks of the Elkhorn Creek, Markella Gianato is making french fries at her Greek-American restaurant called the Ya’Sou. Kimball is in McDowell County, the southernmost county in West Virginia.
Back in the summer of 2001, Markella saw buildings and debris washed away in a horrific flood. People said it was a once-in-a-hundred-year flood, but it wasn’t. Less than a year later, an equally devastating flood tore through the county. This time, Markella, felt the heartbreak of witnessing a futile effort to save a mother and child from floodwaters. “I have had to have treatment for PTSD and so forth,” she said.
She says part of her healing has also come from a song — a ballad about the floods called “Muddy Water.”
“At first, it was very hard for me to hear it,” she said. “I could not talk about it at first. Now, it seems like it’s just part of my heart. Every phrase of that song is so real.”
Gianato uses the ballad story to tell her story when she talks to SWAP volunteer mission groups who come to the county to do repair work in the summers. She opened her PowerPoint presentation, and looking at a photo said, “That’s Richard Jones; that’s the guy who rescued my dad.”
In the background audio, Alan Johnston and his daughter’s voice sing the ballad. Johnston wrote “Muddy Water” in the summer of 2002. As Gianato looks at the slide show, Johnston sings, “we wondered if it was ever gonna end.”
“That part touches me,” Gianato said, and she remembers how rising waters forced her to retreat with her family to the upstairs apartment of her father’s grocery store, where she found her 13-year-old son attaching an empty milk jug to her father’s waist.
“And I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘My papoo might not remember how to swim. But if something happens and the rescue gets botched, or the building doesn’t stay under us, he’ll float and they’ll find him.’ He put a belt through the handle of that milk jug and around my daddy’s chest. That rascal had thought that far ahead,” Gianato said.
After waters receded, rescuers reached them with an endloader.
“I call the PowerPoint presentation ‘Forever Changed,’” Gianato said, “because it changed my life, changed our town, but mostly it changed me.”
New Dreams And Old Friends
Reflecting on the ballad lyric, “From Keystone down to Landgraf, and from Kimball into Welch, Muddy Water washed away our hopes and dreams.” Gianato said she sees two sides of those ballad words now. “It washes your hopes and dreams away but they come back to you sometimes. It may be different,” she said.
And that “different” for her is the restaurant she now operates. It’s not the original grocery store her father had operated since 1947, and it’s not her dream of the sandwich shop she’d planned, which washed away in the 2002 flood. But the dream that emerged instead was this Ya’Sou Restaurant and West Virginia Grocery. She’s still honoring the spot where her immigrant father started his dream, and the people of Kimball have a place to gather and hear live music on the weekends.
Alan Johnston performed Muddy Water at the Ya’Sou numerous times before the COVID-19 shutdowns. Gianato and Johnston are friends who have known each other since high school and they have lived through at least six major county floods in their lifetimes.
Johnston will still occasionally drop into the Ya’Sou for a burger. Many know him by his nickname of “Cathead” because of the cathead biscuits he loves to eat. He’s lived in McDowell County his whole life. He’s worked at everything from school teaching to furnace repair to grocery store management and juke box repair. He’s photographed his county end-to-end, and has written ballads about its range of characters, including John Hardy the gambler, Sid Hatfield the sheriff, and Homer Hickam the NASA scientist. He combines his passion for history, photography and music on his YouTube channel.
Don Rigsby, national bluegrass artist of eastern Kentucky, considers Johnston one of West Virginia’s finest songwriters.
“He equated the muddy water to having its own soul, its own personality and goals, instead of it just being a form of matter that we can’t create or destroy,” said Rigsby. “He gave it power beyond just being water in the river. He gave it life and character. And that’s very, very clever writing.”
Rigsby said Johnston is all about the feeling in a song first. “The old blues guys from back in the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s were the same way,” he said.
Rigsby recorded his version of Muddy Water with the iconic Vassar Clements on fiddle and Kenny Malone on percussion. “You can hear the fiddle making the devil-laughter up there, if you listen,” said Rigsby. “It’s one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve ever recorded,” he said.
He added that it’s also a legacy piece for him, as both Clements and Malone have passed away. And it’s special for Johnston, as Clements is his favorite fiddler.
Music Is In The Genes
Johnston grew up on Premier Mountain, just west of Welch, the county seat. He still lives there. Music is in his genes. When he was about 5 years old, he sang the coal mining ballad “Sixteen Tons” in the grocery store.
“So they put me up on the meat case there and I’d sing it,” he said. “I must have been a sight,” he said.
Johnston’s grandmother played the clawhammer banjo and passed that down to Johnston’s father, a coal miner and prize-winning fiddle player.
“Daddy, he was awesome on clawhammer banjo and the fiddle, and he played guitar very well,” Johnston said.
“So every night when I came home from school, after I got my homework done and everything, it was just play music, play music. Every night. And then he would give me a pointer or two. He’d say, ‘Do that like this, do that like this.’” Johnston said.
Musical Talent Passes Down
Johnston specializes in upright acoustic bass and guitar but he can also play mandolin, fiddle, banjo, electric guitar and keyboards. And perhaps any other instrument put in his hands. He’s the one playing all the instruments in the mix of Muddy Water. And he also sang.
“I’m not much of a singer,” he says. “I come up short on that end, but my daughters are fantastic singers.”
The voices of both Jessi Shumate and Stacy Grubb are familiar to many in McDowell County and Johnston recorded a version of Muddy Water with each daughter.
When Muddy Water played on the radio, shortly after the floods, it became the most requested song at WELC, the Welch, West Virginia AM radio station.
People wanted CDs of the song. Johnston thought he would mimic the old 45 rpm record singles. “And there was two songs on it. And front and back, you know, A side, B side. And I thought, well, that’s what I’ll do,” Johnston said. So he put two songs on a CD disk and made 50 copies, using his own home studio, printer and supplies. He took them with him to work.
“And before I could clock in, the 50 were gone and when I came to work the next day, people were outside waiting to get one,” he said.
He said he had to charge something to recoup the cost of supplies, so he sold them for $3 a piece. “I ended up selling over 5,000 of them,” he said.
Ballad Says What People Could Not Say
It’s the recording that still circulates on the internet that Cynthia Cox remembers hearing. Cox grew up in Northfork Hollow, about 10 miles east of Kimball. Her home was severely damaged in the floods and they made the hard decision of moving about 15 miles south to Bluewell, West Virginia, in neighboring Mercer County.
She’s still deeply moved by Muddy Water.
“Even driving in the county now, I still think at times that happened yesterday,” she said as she listened to the song on her smartphone. “The people stay with you and the song stays with you.”
Cox listens to and loves all kinds of music. “Growing up, McDowell County music was a part of your life to survive. And the musical love in my generation was because of our parents and our grandparents. Also music in church. It was a coping skill,” she said.
She loves the instrumentation in the beginning of the song. “Just hearing the rift of the music in itself draws you in. And then when you listen to the lyrics, yes, it offered comfort that we couldn’t speak,” she said.
The song lyrics also expressed the anger people felt, Cox said.
“Some people blamed the coal mines and the timber industry.
They called it the 100 year flood.“
“The anger toward the timber and coal mining was real. And he spoke it when he sang it. He could say what we couldn’t say,” she said.
What she hears in the song is a common language of empathy and struggle. “He put the community in the lyrics,” she said. “You know, the news articles tried to capture it, the photographs back then tried to capture it. But you don’t really hear it and feel the story, too, until you hear him sing Muddy Water,” Cox said.
Second Flood Brings More Suffering And Lessons
“But less than 10 months later, on the second day of May
The thunder clapped and rain began to fall.
And we ate the words that we had spoken way back in July
Muddy Water you made liars of us all.“
Johnston’s lyrics capture the unbelief people felt when the second 100-year flood came 10 months later. “If you would’ve told anyone at that time, there’s a flood coming tomorrow, and it’s gonna wash it all away, we’d called them a liar,” Cox said. “Like, are you just crazy? You’re talking nonsense, but it became a reality,” she said.
“Well we worked so hard to put back
What you took away before, just to have you come and take it all again
Ten thousand people cried, seven people died
And I could hear the devil laughin’ in the wind.“
Cox said she now lives with a faith that accepts that disasters may come. “We’re not invincible from any kind of natural disaster. You don’t think, ‘I might face a train derailment of toxic chemicals’ like the East Palestine train derailment, until the things happen.”
Music can give a sense of community even when devastation and natural disasters destroy it, Cox said. “So you need music. You need healthy outlets.”
“The therapy that comes from his music helped us to grieve, which gave us strength so we could rebuild and regather to like, okay, we’re either gonna stay down here or we’re gonna have to move. I commend those who were able to stay, and at times I envy that because once your county, that’s always home.”
Johnston said someone once told him he lived in a cool place. “The man said, ‘Everybody writes songs about where you live, you know, in Appalachia. Nobody has ever written a song about where I live,’” Johnston said he thought about that a while. “And I thought, it is a cool place to live. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.