Jessie can be Three People…

I can remember it like it was yesterday. I stood in my Aunt Barb’s kitchen as the adults around me buzzed with conversation about something. It was obvious that whatever the topic of discussion may have been, I was intended not to hear it. So, I crept around the corner, hiding behind the wall and listening to a conversation in another room.

It was my mother’s voice, “I don’t know if we should let Cory see it or not.” Ohmygod! There was something I needed to see, but there was reason not to let me see it… this clearly had to be a life-changing experience. As the soft conversation continued I heard my Aunt Barb say, “Well, I’m not even sure if we should let mom see it… it gets kinda rough.” OhmyGOD! Now it wasn’t just something that I wasn’t supposed to see, but something that my GRANDMOTHER may not even be able to handle!

I smoothly (as smoothly as any 11 year old can) made my way into the family room to check out this conversation. Realizing that I must have heard some of the conversation, they began to openly discuss the topic in front of me. After some “I dunno” shrugs and the occasional wink from my Uncle Jim, the consensus voted to allow both my grandmother and me to watch whatever it was that was sitting on top of the television. At this point it could have been an episode of Rainbow Brite and I would have sat glued to every word… but it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t.

We gathered ’round the television as my uncle instructed me to insert the video tape. The box, a large plastic one with a paper insert, showed an image of a grizzled looking man, with an inscription at the top… “To Gim – Thanks Jesco.” Was this someone that my uncle knew? If so, why couldn’t he spell his name? Furthermore, why did he go with a far more complicated spelling of his name than any normal person would have, assuming that they couldn’t spell J-I-M.

All of these questions would have to wait, as the opening credits began to roll…

I was bubbling over with anticipation… what was this going to be!? As the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ classic “If You Want to Get to Heaven (You’ve Got to Raise a Little Hell)” poured from the speakers, a bearded man in a flannel shirt danced across a decrepit suspension bridge. This was Jesco White, this was Boone County, WV… this was going to change my life.

Being born a West Virginian, and with most of my immediate family still living there, I’ve always been familiar with the sights and sounds associated with the land John Denver sang of so fondly. It’s a beautiful state with a surprising amount of culture and sophistication (once you find yourself inside Charleston)… Jesco didn’t represent either of those things. Jesco represented the other side of WV, the one that you all know and love, the one that completely overpowers the rest of the state.

Watching the video I knew where he was, I was familiar with these accents, town names and phrases. I’d wager that a rather large majority of Jesco’s fans were unfamiliar with the phrase, “Pruney Town (if that’s how you’d spell it) ,” before seeing this video. I was very familiar with it, as it was where I was to be sent when I misbehaved as a child. “If you don’t act right we’re going to send you off to Pruney Town” was a fairly common phrase around the house. In case you’re wondering, “Pruney Town” is the West Virginia Institute for Boys… as Jesco says, it’s where they “Rebilitation Ye.”

Jesco shares a story of his first trip to “Pruney Town”

After the video wound down, we found ourselves in a moment of silent awe. My uncle had seen a few minutes of the video on PBS one night, and with Christmas upon us my aunt decided that it made the perfect stocking stuffer. She even went as far as to have the copy autographed for him… so, no, my uncle did not know Jesco personally. For people from West Virginia, The Dancing Outlaw is a mixed bag of emotions. It’s funny, it’s sad, but mostly it’s real. As my father once said, “People don’t realize, they could have made that documentary about anybody in Boone County, they just picked Jesco.”

As you may know, my father works for the coal industry. This job has carried him all throughout the state, but in the later years it has placed him predominantly in the areas of Boone and Logan County. Boone is, of course, the home of the entire White family… a place where it’s not uncommon to see five or six individuals with six-shooters on their hip in the grocery store. Logan is very similar to Boone County, a sister county if you will, referred to by locals as L.A. (Logan Area). Between these two regions of the state you could consistently find a Jesco on every corner… if memory serves, there used to be a rather large woman in one of those towns that wrestled bears for money and another one that thought she was Janis Joplin. They may have even been the same person.

It is with this first-hand knowledge that I became the resident Jesco expert for Powell County, KY once the tape hit our streets. I loaned a copy to resident hair guru, Rose Childers. Rose found herself so completely spellbound by what she was seeing that the film started its nearly endless run in her beauty shop. Vulgarity and violence be damned, this had to be made public. Being that Rose’s Beauty Shop was a central hub for socializing in the county, word quickly spread and Jesco became a phenomenon.

Rose actually found herself so engrossed with the characters that she traveled to see Jesco preform and even spoke to his sister Mamie on the telephone regularly.

Mamie explains the finer points of “Mud Ballin'”

As I grew older, Jesco mania began to spread. Whether it was a t-shirt or passing comment, people throughout the country were buzzing about this DIY video from WV. This culminated with an appearance on the Roseanne show where Jesco played the part of a long-lost uncle. Upon arrival in California, Roseanne and Tom Arnold were appalled to see Mr. White’s arms covered in swastika tattoos, but were perhaps even more shocked to realize that he had no idea why they would be offended or what meaning they had.

To understand this complex man, you must first realize that he is actually three people. Jesco White is just one facet of his personality, all three of which must occupy the same body. “Jessie” is the calm, good-natured dancer that undoubtedly granted these interviews. But underneath that smiling exterior lies “Jesco,” a man that his wife describes as “the devil in himself.” It’s Jesco that actually commits crimes, fights with the neighbors and occasionally threatens to kill his wife over sunglasses or eggs. Of course, the third and most legendary of Jesco White’s personalities is that of “Elvis.” White’s obsession with Presley extends far greater than his endless collection of knick-knacks, having become a legitimate branch of his psyche.

No matter how hard I try, I will never be capable of describing the inherent differences bound within the man as well as his wife, Norma Jean White. Her mountain of hair and bright purple shirt speak the truth in a way that I can not.

Norma Jean describes Jesco, Jessie and Elvis.

It should be stated that, despite the fascinating characters involved, this documentary was intended to be about dancing. Legend says that Jacob Young (the film’s director) was actually setting out to film the life story of Jesco’s father, D. Ray White. Upon learning of D. Ray’s untimely death, he realized that there was something rather magical unfolding in the life of his son Jesco, the rest is history. D. Ray was heralded as the greatest mountain dancer alive, perhaps arguably the greatest tap dancer as well. His wife, Birty Mae, insists that he knew 52 more steps than any other tap dancer in the world… an impressive achievement.

As I recall (and I could be confusing two stories here), D. Ray’s fate was met in the driveway of the family’s home. Jesco and Norma Jean had gathered at Pawney’s camper (I assume this isn’t a bar, but instead an actual camper) to “party” with a few of their friends. At some point, the party turned nasty as Billy Hastings, a neighbor, came into the picture and, “started workin’ us over like he’s on acid.” Words were exchanged and someone shoved D. Ray. This led to what amounts to hillbilly warfare that is best summed up by Jesco himself.

Jesco recalls the night his father was killed.

The loss of D. Ray took a toll on the family, sending them spinning wildly without the meager semblance of guidance he had once provided. Times were hard for the White family, but like all good mountain folk, they recovered. Jesco’s rising popularity propelled all of them into the spotlight, making them arguably the biggest celebrities to have ever emerged from Boone County. Family crises were met with the usual calls for help or donations, but instead of a mason jar at the checkout counter of the local Go-Mart, events like Jescofest were staged.

Countless musicians have referenced Jesco at one point or another. Hank III penned an entire song about his father, Live made a reference to him in “Rattlesnake” and The Kentucky Headhunters turned his saga into a bit of a comeback record. A friend of mine made the journey to Boone County to speak to Jesco one weekend. He asked him about the Headhunters’ song, but was met with stern disapproval. It appears that the band met White, brought him onto the bus and played for him a few bars of the song. He gave his seal of approval, but was allegedly never given any royalties for the record. This greatly upset White, who to this day feels betrayed by the band. If he was, in fact, denied compensation that he was promised I can understand his feeling of disappointment. Although The Kentucky Headhunters aren’t exactly billionaires, they’re certainly doing alright. The song was the reason that I purchased their album, I’m sure I’m not alone on that one… come on guys, cut him a check.

But, I’ll let you be the judge… does Jesco deserve royalties for use of his story? Here’s the song, you decide.

The Kentucky Headhunters – Jessico

The steady flow of information from the folks back in WV has kept me in the loop with all things Jesco. In the years since the initial film was made, countless other sagas have managed to unfold in the life of Jesco and those around him. Jesco & Norma Jean have separated and reunited more times than I could mention, but seem to have finally called it quits. Dorsey passed away as a result of an unintentional, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Mamie even tied the knot… to BILLY HASTINGS of all people! Billy was shot in the face back in 2005, but has since recovered.

But for all of the sweeping epic that envelops the life of Jesco and his family, nothing will ever take the place of that first moment when the harmonica kicks in and you see a man dancing up to a trailer. That trailer has since burned, destroying his Elvis collection almost entirely…

Jesco introduces us to his room, and shows it to us.

If there’s one thing to take away from this entire adventure it’s this: the most important thing you’ll ever have is your family and loved ones. When tragedy strikes, in one way or another, your loved ones will always be there to catch you. Whether it’s a trailer fire, a trip to Pruney Town or your father gunned down in the street, you can always count on those people that love you to pick you up again.

Even if you’ve never threatened someone’s life over a pair of sunglasses, surely you can relate to that.


6 Responses to “Jessie can be Three People…”

  1. slack Says:

    just ran across your page by a google search to learn about Jesco White. Thanks for your perspective.


  2. mamaflu Says:

    Some things I have learned: (I’m born, raised and reside in WV.)

    When John Denver was writing about the Blue Ridge Mtns. and the Shenandoah River, (not in WV) he needed an extra syllable. Hence – west Virginia…a dubious claim to Fame.
    We always said Pruney Town – even after driving past the dang sign that said Prunty Town – on the way to my Aunt’s house 2 or 3 times a year!
    I guess the Irish Hillbillies just can’t help it.

  3. xanthophyll Says:

    Of course it’s Pruny Town. Never ever heard anybody from WV pronounce it with a “T.”

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