Commentary and Letters

 Remembering Ocracoke's Roy Parsons 

By GARY MITCHELL
   
    (Editor’s note: This column is Gary Mitchell’s eulogy that he gave at the funeral earlier this month of his fellow musician, Roy Parsons, a genuine Ocracoker and an icon on the island.)

  
Roy Parsons was born on Aug. 17, 1921, one of James and Mary Elizabeth Parsons’ 12 children. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Elizabeth; daughter Edna Mae and son-in-law Howard Edman of Columbia, S.C.; sons Roger Lee and Leonard Steve, five grandchildren -- Beverly, Matthew, Amanda, Christian and Leslie-- and one great-grandchild. He was preceded in death by a son, James Leroy.

    Roy loved his home of Ocracoke, and he was always ready to tell a story about growing up here. He was a curious child, was always into something, always trying something new, always ready for a new adventure.
  

    A couple of his boyhood pals told me that Roy once took them hunting over at Mayo’s Hill, but he didn’t have any shells for the old cobbled-together gun, so Roy suggested they go “borrow” some eggs from Jake Alligood’s chicken pen and sell them to Mace Fulcher at the Community Store to raise some money. They thought that sounded like a real good idea, so they snuck over to the pen. Roy carefully lifted the hens’ back sides and the boys removed the eggs, then went over and sold them to Mr. Mace for 2 cents each, which gave them just enough money for two shotgun shells. When they got back to Mayo’s Hill a little while later, a flock of brants flew by, and Roy fired the old gun, but it blew up and covered his face with black powder. Maybe he learned his lesson -- but maybe not, because he did kill two brants with that one shot.

    His music career started at 14 with a Sears & Roebuck guitar he ordered, and I’m told his broadcast career began by singing into the stove flue at “Clemmie’s Ice Cream Parlor” with the sound coming out the top of the chimney. (I guess he got a black face there too.) Later on, with advances in his technological prowess, he actually built his own radio station at his home. Roy said that cars would be lined up in his driveway and down the street out front, just to receive his broadcast.
 
     Like many of the young men on Ocracoke in the 1930s and ‘40s, Roy traveled up north looking for work and adventure. He always seemed to find adventure! On his first day in New York City, still just a teen-ager, Roy found a room to rent in a boarding house and paid the landlady $2. He left his clothes, shaving stuff, and civil service papers in the room and told the landlady he was going out to eat, and she said the door would be open when he returned.

     “I never did find that place again” Roy said. He even got help from the police, but still no luck. “All the houses looked the same, and they’re all painted the same color. Woulda taken me five weeks to knock on all those doors and ask, ‘Do I live here?’”

    Somehow he came out of that on his feet, met some musicians, and traveled all over the northeast and mid-Atlantic playing music and finding new adventures, including a stint with “The Barney & Bailey Circus” (as he called it) at Madison Square Garden.

    In between music gigs he worked on dredges around Philadelphia, and eventually returned to Ocracoke to work for the legendary Sam Jones at the Castle, and for Col. Egan at the Berkeley Center. He cooked, as well as taking care of maintenance and repairs on these two historic Ocracoke landmarks. About this time Roy fell for his lifelong companion, Elizabeth, at Williams Bros. store where she worked. I was told by Della that he came in “looking like Clark Gable in that blue suit. Elizabeth handed him that hot-dog, their hands touched, and it was true love.”
 
        Roy built them a home from material salvaged from the old Navy base, and they have lived and worked there ever since their marriage in 1950.
    As a young father, Roy enjoyed taking his younguns out fishing and clamming at Teach’s Hole, and in later years he’d occasionally sneak over to Roger Lee’s to watch cowboy movies and drink Gatorade.
   
    Roy wasn’t born with much, didn’t have much education, but he certainly made the most of what he had. He was a self-taught man, and an excellent carpenter and craftsman, auto mechanic, cook, entertainer, husband and father. He was never afraid to learn something new, even taking up the saxophone at the age of 80. He also worked as a night watchman at the Cedar Island Ferry terminal into his 80s. My friend and mandolin player Gerald Hampton wrote an instrumental song in remembrance of one of those nights a few years back.
 
  There was a thick fog, and the Cedar Island Ferry was not able to safely pass through the channel out at the Lehigh, so the captain meandered northwards a few miles up on the back side of the island. Late in the evening, Jerry Gaskill, who was then head of the NC Ferry Division, called the Ocracoke Terminal to find out what was going on. Roy, being the only one on duty at the time, responded, “I guess the captain is feeding the ponies.” Gerald’s song is entitled “Feeding the Ponies.”

    Roy and I got to know each other through our love of music. He grew up listening to Jimmy Rogers, Gene Autry, and other early country and cowboy singers. He was always the best-dressed man at our shows in a beautiful cowboy shirt, boots, string tie, and fancy belt buckle. We worked together for over 10 years performing in Ocrafolk Opry shows, both here on the island and on the mainland, including a show at historic Thalian Hall in Wilmington. Audiences loved Roy everywhere he performed.

     He was a masterful yodeler, he knew exactly how to get the most out of a story, and his comic timing was perfect. He always enjoyed meeting and talking with the audience after a show, and they loved it too.
   
    A couple of years ago a group of our local musicians decided to take Roy on a trip to Nashville and the “Grand Ole Opry.” I asked him if he’d ever flown before, and he said, “Oh yeah, I flew with Bill Cochran from Hatteras to Ocracoke one time. Bill told his wife to ‘go get that Coleman can of gas outta the shed,’ and he poured it into the top of the wing of that Piper Cub and said, ‘That oughta be enough,’ and we took off. Bill said the tide was high and there weren’t much beach to land on, so I’d have to jump out, so as soon as the wheels touched down I threw out my bag and jumped out after it…Yeah, I’ve flown before”.
    When we got to the Grand Ole Opry, we enjoyed a backstage tour with Opry legend George Hamilton IV, and Roy was also recognized from the Opry stage that night for his contribution to the music of eastern North Carolina. It was a wonderful trip, and a very special time for all of us.

    When we were recording the first “Ocrafolk Music Sampler” album, Roy stopped suddenly and said “You know, Gary, music is good!” I immediately knew that that was the perfect intro for our very first recording of the musicians of Ocracoke. Roy was featured on several other recordings, including his own CD,
“Songs and Tales of Ocracoke Island.”            
    He once said, “You gotta grab a hold of life if you want life to hold on to you.” Roy did that. He kept on singing, entertaining folks, and working on his beautiful boat models right up until the end.

    Everyone I’ve talked with about Roy says the same things,
“He was full of love.” “He was a good guy.” “He loved to make people smile.” “He made me feel good to be with him.”  And one of the most common, “He never said a bad word about anyone.” 
  
   Roy was one of the best examples of Jesus’ teachings of anyone I’ve ever met.   
   
     “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
      That was Roy.
  
      “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
      That was Roy.
  
     Roy radiated love to everyone he came in contact with, and what better thing could you say about any person’s life?

     I’m extremely privileged to have known him.              

   
   QuickTime Video courtesy of:
   Neal Hutcheson - The North Carolina Language and Life Project
   

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