I Fell Into the Fire


Today, I’m writing to you about my song “I Fell Into the Fire.”

Into this blues, I wrote memories from the lives of several women in my family who lived up on Smith Ridge. I didn’t know any of them in life, but their stories as told to me by my family have fascinated me for years. I wasn’t quite sure how to make a song out of their different lives or whether to write a song for each of them. They were all sisters or sisters-in-law. Then it struck me that together they could be part of a blues by each taking a verse. (By the way, as you read this story, you’ll see links in blue which will take you to spoken stories or other songs about the different people I mention — in case you’d enjoy travelling down musical rabbit holes).

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You can hear “I Fell Into the Fire” here.

The lyrics are:

I Fell Into the Fire (But Never Got Burned)

I fell into the fire, but I never got burned.
The Lord is my Scribe and I’m just livin’ his word.

You can look at a woman, cut her pattern out fine,
but you never will know what’s on that woman’s mind.

When you go down to Seagrove, I know what you do.
You let that Carolina girl whisper sweet lovin’ to you.

You can hang out your washin’ before the sun ever rise, 
but the wind loves me better and your washin’ never will dry.

I fell into the fire, but I never got burned.
The Lord is my Scribe and I’m just livin’ his word.

© Jeni Hankins, BMI
Performed by Jeni Hankins on rhythm guitar and vocals and 
Alfred John Hickling on lead guitar and backing vocals.

The first two verses are about sisters Fannie and Nannie. I’ll talk about the second verse first which is about Aunt Fannie’s gift for sewing clothes.

Aunt Fannie and her husband kept a general store on Smith Ridge. She was my great-grandfather’s sister. What everyone says about Aunt Fannie is that she could just look at a woman and cut out a dress, skirt, or shirt for her and sew it up perfectly. “You can look at a woman, cut her pattern out fine.” In the photo below, my Aunt Edith is holding my Aunt Princess (the are my grandmother’s sisters) and Aunt Edith is wearing a dress with made by Aunt Fannie. Mawmaw and her sisters have told me how when their father, Pawpaw Avery, went to buy feed for the animals and flour for the family, the goods came in brightly and beautifully patterned fabrics. These feed and flour sacks became an American phenomenon in the Great Depression and many a sack was handily turned into a dress by a good needle woman like Aunt Fannie. You can read more about these fabrics hereAunt Edith said that occasionally, Pawpaw Avery, would let her or one of the other girls go with him to the feed store and pick out the sack with the print they liked best!

Here’s a needle packet from the South Land Mill & Elevator Company, Nashville, Tennessee, in 1941 advertising their patterned flour sacks. This needle packet is on display at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. 

Aunt Fannie and her sister Nannie were both part of a miracle and a tragedy up on Smith Ridge. Everyone tells how the sisters were at a service in the old log cabin church on Smith Ridge in the wintertime and it was a holiness church where people were taken in the spirit, spoke in tongues, and fell down (were slain) in the spirit. Aunt Nannie was filled with the spirit and fell backwards putting her hand on the burning wood stove during the service, but when she pulled her hand away she hadn’t been burned. This was Nannie’s miracle and how God favoured her. And this is the origin of the first verse of my song. “I fell into the fire, but I never got burned.”

Nannie was married to Charley and they also kept a store on Smith Ridge. This amazes me that there were a number of general stores in this wilderness place. Smith Ridge is about seven miles long and there were at least five general stores to serve the people who lived there. Charley was given to drink and to threatening Nannie. One time she ran away from him, but only as far as another house on the ridge. Charley came looking for her and brought his rifle. He looked for her at Fannie’s house. But also at her sister Sarah’s house. Whether Charley mistook Sarah for Nannie or was drunk or was just wild, we’ll never know, but he shot Sarah and killed her as she was coming up from the garden with potatoes in her apron. I wrote a poem about this when I was a student at Bread Loaf School of English. You can read it at the end of this letter. Charley shot himself before the law could find him though they searched for him all night. Most of Nannie and Charley’s children moved away from the mountain when they grew up. This was the tragedy of Aunt Nannie’s life.

A detail from Sarah’s death certificate. “Gunshot wound of abdomen. Patient shot by her brother-in-law.”
Sarah’s tombstone in our family cemetery on Smith Ride. It’s the only one with a porcelain photograph which is how I came to ask Mawmaw about Sarah and then learnt the story of her murder.

The title of my song and the first verse are about when Nannie fell into the fire and didn’t get burned because she was a true believer and lived by the signs of God’s favour. In fact, Mawmaw says that Fannie and Nannie would generally say, “If the Lord wills it” before most things. “If the Lord wills it, I’ll do my washing on Monday.” I express this by writing, “The Lord is my scribe and I’m just living his word.” I always liked the word scribe in the Bible. And my Dad said I was a bit of a scribe my own self!

Speaking of washing, the fourth verse tells the story of Aunt Margie and Mawmaw Narcie, my Great grandmother, and the competition they had going about laundry. Some people pole vault and some people race horses, but these women raced each other to get their laundry washed, up on the line, dry, and off the line before each other. They were both married to Smith men and they could see each other’s washing lines just across the dip in the land between their houses. So, on a Monday, Mawmaw Narcie and her daughters would “work like the dickens” to get all their clothes washed and dry before Aunt Margie did.

Margie had a gas powered washing machine which you would think would have given her an advantage because Mawmaw only had a washtub and washboard. But that gas powered washing machine was Margie’s undoing, because you could hear her start it up clear across the mountain and Mawmaw knew how long the wash cycle lasted. So, they could always get the wash up before Margie. And Mawmaw’s yard was positioned for a fairer wind than Margie’s, so she had the advantage for line-drying as well. I have a strange love of washing machines and laundry and the whole business of cleaning clothes, so I must have inherited that from Mawmaw Narcie.

Mawmaw Narcie had a sharp sense of humour and I can definitely hear her and the Smith girls saying “the wind loves me better!”

Aunt Margie, Uncle Bill’s wife. Her gas-powered washing machine gave her away in the laundry olympics!
Here’s one of my prized possessions – a child’s washing machine made in the 1950’s by the Wolverine Company of Pittsburgh. I found it at the Goodwill Outlet in Nashville! They sell things by weight and it probably cost about $4. It has a little hose on the side which allows the water to flow out, so you could actually use it to wash up your dolly’s clothes!

The third verse is based on an affair that one of my great uncles had which produced a child out of wedlock. I won’t say who and who and I even changed the town to be in North Carolina just to be on the safe side. But, of course, back then these things were so very hard on the pregnant woman and often her child was raised as her little sister by her own parents. In contrast, these days my girl cousins have had babies without the father being on the scene or without necessarily being married and no one made them hide their motherhood. I wonder at the changes that time brings to our perception of social puzzles.

And in the end, that’s what I meant when I wrote:

You can look at a woman, cut her pattern out fine,
But you never will know what’s on that woman’s mind.

These women lived frugally and worked hard. They loved and feared God. Many had devoted husbands, some had straying husbands. One husband committed murder – the second murder in my family in less than twenty years. But though I know stories about them, I know I will never be able to say I knew truly what they were thinking – at the least they thought of love, laundry, and the Lord. I can only pay tribute to them in my song and in this letter. I would love to be able to go back and talk with them.

For me, a blues song has the musical flexibility to show the pageant of human life from the divine to laundry.

I’ve loved telling you about “I Fell Into the Fire” and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.



Here’s that poem I promised to share with you. It’s a sestina which a type of form poem where words repeat in a changing order at the end of the lines. Because so little is remembered about the actual events, I created a story poem based on the few known facts. I read this to the student body at Bread Loaf School of English and I can only remember complete silence and an intake of breath when I finished.

The Devil and Aunt Nannie

Old Mister Kyle said they was a pretty rough
bunch.  Too much getting liquored up and packing guns
when calling on kin.  Could be keeping that still
under the thicket in the woods out back of the house
proved too much a temptation in fallow times
between slaving for the coal company, Devil

take ‘um, and churchgoing.  Now the Devil’s
what got into Uncle Charley, who was rough
on PawPaw’s sister, Aunt Nannie, even when times
was good.  But times was not good.  And Charley had begun
to measure his days by pacing round their house
with a jar of shine and then getting real still

and spooked.  Aunt Nannie just kept on – still
hanging the wash and praying to the Lord to keep that devil’s 
hands off her.  Amen.  But from inside the house,
he hollered for her, “I swear Nan, I won’t be rough
with you.  I just wanna kiss you.  I ain’t gunna
hurt you.”  But Aunt Nannie had given in to his talk times

before and had the scars to prove it.  And this time
she dropped the washing and took off running, still
looking behind her for any sign of Charley and his gun.
She hid out at Aunt Sarah’s for three days before that devil
Charley got wind of it.  Then, he cooled his rough
throat with the shine, grabbed his gun, gave his house

a mean look, and took off over to Sarah’s house.
Nannie was inside cooking and about that time
Sarah came up outta the garden, her hands rough
from digging potatoes, which hung in her apron.  Real still-
like, Charley aimed his gun through the fence and that devil
shot her in the stomach and the potatoes had begun

to roll from her apron before she fell.  Charley took his gun
and ran off and hid in back of the old outhouse
behind PawPaw’s.  And he knew that the Devil
was in him.  And he prayed over all the times
that he had strayed from the path of righteousness.  Still
he could not make his sin come clean.  He felt his rough

finger on the trigger and turned the gun on himself.  It weren’t much time
before they found him in back of the outhouse and, as he lay there still,
Nannie shook that devil and pressed her face to his hand, bloody and rough.

© Jeni Hankins, 2003
Though our family can’t identify the woman in this photo from my Grandmother’s photo box, this picture always reminds me of my poem.


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