Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?
by Donny Seagraves
There was a man from Alabama, a cousin of my grandfather’s, I believe, who always came to our annual Bailey family reunions on the Sunday before Labor Day, with his banjo, and his suspenders, and his twangy “Grandpa Jones” voice and sang, “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey? Won’t You Come Home?”
And some of us children, in that long ago muggy meeting room at Dudley Park, tried not to listen to this man, whose name really was Bill Bailey, as he sang his favorite song in that voice as ripe and pungent as the cantaloupe being sliced onto paper plates in the kitchen.
We, in our stiff, new school clothes, which were always a bit too big and way too wintry for the late summer humidity and heat, would rather huddle together in a corner and contrive a plot that would place us first in line for the covered dish luncheon. Or walk the rickety wooden bridge suspended across the muddy Oconee and toss rocks down into the swirling water below us. Or battle each other at pingpong or see who could swing the highest and jump out of the swing without breaking her neck.
We, the younger generation of Baileys, simply had no time back then for the strange old hillbilly from Alabama with his banjo and his funny voice and his tales of long ago.
Now that I’m 35 and beginning to taste life on the other side of youth, I wish Bill Bailey would come back home and sing for me once again. I wish he would tell me his stories and slap me on the back and grin that toothless grin one more time. I know I’d listen now, and I’d probably even take notes.
But Billy Bailey doesn’t come home anymore; his banjo is silent now. Like so many other Bailey relatives,he has passed on to that place we’re all going someday.
As Labor Day draws near this year, I find myself thinking more and more about Bill Bailey and his banjo. And Herbert, Winston and Dibba, three of my Bailey cousins from Metasville in Wilkes County. And my grandfather’s brothers, Luther, Frank, and Wesley, and his sisters Marie, Jessie, Eva, and Maggie. And all the other aunts and uncles, and cousins and inlaws from the annual family reunions. I realize now what a gift my grandfather gave me when he took the time to gather everybody together each summer of my childhood. For, without the annual family reunions, I wouldn’t have known all those people with whom I share a common ancestry, at all. I would have missed out on hearing Bill Bailey’s banjo and tasting my aunt’s special potato salad and eating corn and tomatoes fresh from gardens planted on the very land my ancestors settled after winning a Revolutionary War Soldier Land Grant on land near Washington, Georgia, several generations back.
But, these days, we don’t have Bailey reunions anymore. Just as silver coins and ’57 Chevys and elderly women in high-topped black oxfords have faded into oblivion, so have the Bailey family reunions.
That could never have happened if my grandfather, Sim Bailey, were still living today. He was the keeper of the list with all the names and addresses of everyone in the Bailey clan. He was the one who sent out the postcards each year and secured the place and made sure there was a family reunion for all his kin. But like most of his brothers and sisters, my grandfather has passed on now. And the Bailey reunions have become a relic from time past when family was considered, perhaps, the most important part of a person’s life.
I wonder, as Labor Day draws near, if I’m the only Bailey who’s thinking about Bill’s banjo? I wonder if there are others, perhaps from my own generation, who’d also like to remember his song, and gather together with their own extended family, so that our children can also have memories to carry them through the years when we will all be gone?
If the answer is yes, please let me know. Perhaps together we could find that list again, and send out those postcards, and father the family for an annual reunion just as my grandfather Sim did every year for almost 30 summers. Who knows, somewhere out there, there may be a Bill Bailey, Jr., with a hot banjo, just waiting for us to invite him home again.
Update: Our late cousin, Bob Ursry, who traced his ancestors to the Bailey and Latimer families of Wilkes County, reorganized and held several Bailey family reunions in the 2000s. Herbert Bailey of Washington, Georgia, continues to hold these reunions each summer in the old school house in Metasville, Georgia today.
This column originally appeared in the Wednesday Morning, August 26, 1987 edition of the Athens Daily News. No reprints without permission of the author.