The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (Music in American Life)

The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (Music in American Life)

by Stephen Wade

ISBN: 9780252036880

Publisher University of Illinois Press

Published in Calendars/Music

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Sample Chapter


In May 1941, near the end of Fisk University's seventy-fifth anniversary festivities, music professor John W. Work III hosted an afternoon concert in the school chapel. The program included a banjoist he first saw busking on Nashville streets, a gospel quartet he heard about from his barber, and Fisk's minister, who doubled as an old-time storyteller specializing in slave-era tales. Work delighted in knowing these artists who lived so close by, and throughout his introductory remarks he saluted their talents, prized their discovery, and valued their repertories. They attested, he said, to the unique folklore riches that Nashville offered its citizenry. At the same time, he acknowledged that these performers had creative counterparts elsewhere, that the cultural forms they represented thrived "in every corner of American life."

Work stressed that earlier pastoral and isolate conditions did not adequately characterize folklore of the present day. Over the preceding fifty years, rapid movement, mass communications, monetary reward, and public literacy had permeated the countryside as it had the cities. He viewed folklore, a concept that unites specific communities with wisdom and knowledge rooted in the past, not as something inherently remote, but as something intrinsically local. The artists on the Fisk stage proved that no matter how recently their songs originated or how identifiable their composers, folk patterns and processes extended into modern times and cosmopolitan settings. Accordingly, to this audience made up of members of the Fisk community, Work mused "if a title for this program were necessary it would be—'The Beautiful Music All Around You.'" In addressing his listeners as "you," he included all of us.

Among those making a beautiful music all around us, we should count the performers who animate the chapters that follow. These twelve musicians, singers, and groups recorded between 1934 and 1942—seven black and five white—provide a baker's dozen of folksongs and traditional tunes. Apart from their surpassing artistic gifts, these individuals illuminate an America rich with local creativity. They resided in such places as Salyersville, Kentucky; Byhalia, Mississippi; and Salem, Virginia. Like the players at the Fisk concert, they confined their music making largely to their own communities. Sometimes they sang on playgrounds, sometimes while chopping cotton, and sometimes from behind bars.

At the time of these recordings, Virginia ballad singer Texas Gladden had a house full of youngsters and found music a way of calming her brood. Both the Shipp sisters and Ora Dell Graham attended school in Mississippi, where they shared their danceable game songs with their classmates and friends. Blindness afflicted two members of the Nashville Washboard Band, while the rest of the group worked day labor. Jess Morris, a classically trained violinist and former cowboy living in Dalhart, Texas, played at ranch dances throughout the Panhandle. Contest-winning fiddler Luther Strong followed a string of building jobs in Kentucky and factory work in Ohio. Singers Kelly Pace and Charlie Butler performed whatever tasks the state authorities of Arkansas and Mississippi compelled them to, tasks that included policing convicts like themselves. Kentuckian Bill Stepp worked as a logger in his younger days, but now focused his energies fiddling for neighborhood hoedowns. Banjoist Pete Steele, who began as a coal miner, had become a carpenter in a southern Ohio paper plant. Contralto-voiced Vera Hall, who sang in her church, found employment as an Alabama housemaid, and second-tenor quartet singer Bozie Sturdivant held down a job as a yard boy in Clarksdale, Mississippi, among other domestic chores. The life experiences of these performers also included prostitution, armed robbery, attempted murder, alcoholism, domestic violence, and death by partying.

Both happenstance and purposeful design surrounded the recordings they made. Two days before Pete Steele recorded "Coal Creek March," he had played at a nearby folk festival, creating a strong enough impression that collector Alan Lomax called on him at home. Jess Morris was remaking "Goodbye, Old Paint" for a second time with John A. Lomax, whom he had known for years. Vera Hall had sung for Lomax previously, too. Texas Gladden made some discs earlier for the Virginia Folklore Society, though this marked her first attempt with "One Morning in May." For the remaining singers and players, these encounters marked their inaugural and in most cases only recordings.

Occasionally they had forewarning, even if their song choices, sometimes prompted by the collectors, didn't emerge until the sessions. The Nashville Washboard Band knew to come to John Work's house on the appointed day. Christine and Katherine Shipp likewise heard from their mother to get ready. A well-placed townsperson who earlier had recommended the Shipp family singers for recording—the sisters, two of their brothers, and their mother—got word when the WPA sound truck would pass through Byhalia. The rest answered their doors to strangers they didn't expect, or else found themselves confronted by the recordists at places where they routinely spent time. News about them got to the collectors in various ways: through neighbors, local folksong aficionados, and members of the upper crust open to traditional music and interested in heritage; sheriffs, jailers, wardens, sergeants, and prisoners; schoolteachers and principals; church deacons and quartet singing coaches; and fellow musicians. All played roles in calling attention to these talents who lived among them.

The recordists, working on behalf of the Library of Congress and allied cultural agencies, used disc-cutting machines as their primary documentation tool. These phonographic devices, whose early models weighed 315 pounds when outfitted with their microphones, playback heads, and amplifiers, literally engraved aluminum or acetate surfaces as the musicians performed. Family members present at these sessions unfailingly recall the spiraling coils of acetate falling away from the lathe during the recording process. Recordings often took place in performers' homes or front yards, but others were made in public facilities such as churches, social clubs, and hotel rooms. Collectors also carried extra lead-acid batteries, weighing seventy-five pounds each, and a converter to operate the disc machine when they ventured beyond the commercial power grid. Sounds from these environments seeped into the microphones and onto the discs: children laugh in their school's auditorium, a door closes as a fiddler begins his tune, a congregation thumps a quiet cadence on a church-house floor, a prisoner urges his fellow inmate to sing with all his might. For performers and witnesses alike, this art could not be set aside from life.

Or kept from the nation. Beginning in February 1943, these performances began appearing on compilations assembled by the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (henceforth Folk Archive). "The Library," read the original press release, "has prepared seven albums containing 119 titles selected as being the best and most representative of the approximately 30,000 recorded songs in the Archive and are now ready for distribution." Eight of the thirteen selections featured in these pages appeared on that first set of releases, leaving the rest, with one exception, soon to follow. Eventually the Library included all of them in Folk Music of the United States, a series that totaled seventy-one recordings in LP format. From that sampling, narrowed to pieces made only on disc-cutting recorders, I chose thirty for a 1997 compact disc called A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. The choices that comprise this book and its accompanying disc come from there.

These performances make good candidates for the Folk Archive "hit parade." Stemming from their initial publication in the Library recording series, and in some instances from their reissue on the Treasury, they have played identifiable roles in the wider culture. Several became sources for well-known popular songs and orchestral works. Others have resounded in television and film scores, found new parts in dramatic works and modern ballets, and even appeared in disco tracks and commercial jingles. I settled on these pieces not so much because of their fame but because of their capacity for renewal. Given this creative vitality, small wonder that John Work III and the Library's recordists found beautiful music all around them. The twelve singers and instrumentalists caught here on a handful of Folk Archive records show us the irrepressible admixture of music in America. Their stories are metaphors for how this country has lived.

The May 1941 concert in the Fisk Memorial Chapel marks a spiritual beginning point for the explorations that follow. John Work III's affectionate words for the omnipresent artistry he so warmly welcomed reach beyond the afternoon program his school modestly labeled "Folklore in the Fisk Community." He in turn credited as his mentor and champion one who had helped build that concert's philosophical infrastructure and voiced it within these walls thirteen years earlier. This person was also his next-door neighbor and friend. "My father," John Work IV told me, "loved Charles Johnson."

* * *

On October 17, 1928, Charles S. Johnson gave his maiden lecture at Fisk. A few days before, Johnson (1893–1956), an admired sociologist, editor of the National Urban League's magazine Opportunity, and a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, arrived on campus to chair its revitalized department of sociology. The previous year Fisk received a five-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to strengthen its social sciences department. Johnson accepted an invitation from Fisk President Thomas E. Jones to head this department, with the understanding that Fisk would become a major research hub of black life and race relations. Johnson's subsequent regional studies, which combined statistical surveys with first-person testimonies, became landmark works of social science, one by-product being the 1941-42 collaboration between Fisk and the Library of Congress in their joint study of black folk music in Mississippi's Coahoma County. Now, at the outset of his career at Fisk, which eventually led to his becoming the school's first black president, Johnson spoke in the chapel about matters of social status.

In a society of unequal opportunity and racial dogma, Johnson pondered aloud how black youth might best surmount these challenges. Early in his remarks he directed their attention to an available resource: "We have in Negro life a virgin world of beauty which can yield rich satisfactions and command a new order of respect, and ... the freedom which these bring is a first condition of participation in world culture." He recommended the students develop both "a cult of competence" and "a cult of beauty." With the former he discussed occupational strategies, development of skills, and notions of excellence. For the latter he counseled his youthful listeners to find in common experience its sustaining values. That search, he said "is the spirit of the New America."

Johnson acknowledged that the spirituals and folklore of slavery days had given America some of its most stirring art. Recently that focus had widened with the emergence of the blues and creative writers going "'back to the concrete.'" In literature Johnson credited Carl Sandburg and Edwin Arlington Robinson as instigators of this movement that found "beauty in forgotten lives." To their company he added contemporary black authors such as Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer. He quoted Toomer's "Georgia Dusk," in which men sing as their workday shifts to evening pleasures, "the chorus of the cane / Is caroling a vesper to the stars." That such a scene might furnish materials of art communicated that "No life ... is without beauty, no beginning too low." Similarly, in an article published a few months earlier, Johnson applauded Langston Hughes, who took for subjects "cabaret singers, porters, street walkers, elevator boys, the long range of 'hard luck' victims, Beale Street and Railroad Avenue, prayer meetings, sinners and hard working men." He compared these figures to the blues, noting the broad appeal generated from its portrayal of those "who live beneath the range of polite respect." Wanting the students to cherish their culture at all levels of society, Johnson brought these outcasts and commoners, field hands and cane cutters home to the Fisk audience: "I am convinced that the road to a new freedom for us lies in the discovery of the surrounding beauties of our lives."

Johnson's credo came early in his career. Assigned by a charity to research some impoverished applicants for Christmas baskets, Johnson grasped that "no man can be justly judged until you have looked at the world through his eyes." Calling this the core of his social philosophy, "it led to the University of Chicago where I met ... Robert E. Park. It was he who linked this deep and moving human concern with science and human understanding, and with the great minds that have struggled with these issues—William James, John Dewey, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, all his friends." These names that begin with Park, Johnson's sociology professor whom he later hired at Fisk, helped shape American pragmatist thought that emerged from the wounds of the Civil War. Johnson identified himself with that tradition and put his faith, as had these others, in "the power of experience to provide, in its own on-going movement, the needed principles of belief and action." Johnson pressed its empiricism into the methodology that marked his research: "In working with the Negro migrants then moving in millions in a current too vast for them to comprehend, this zeal was channeled to see the world through their eyes and interpret it and them. So it has been, through each successive human problem that has become a part of my experience."

A like spirit of empathy and inquiry guided John Work III in his 1941 concert. Prior to that event, Work had visited with the day's musicians, learning about their artistry as they conceived it. Equipped with this knowledge, he then explored with the chapel audience habituated to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, heedful of Western European classical aesthetics, ways to appreciate vernacular music on its own terms. He explained how each idiom had corresponding but separate approaches to tonality, decoration, rhythm, and repetition. Work contrasted the "throaty tone" used by the folk with "our opera-set standard of head tone." While the former "never sang a head tone in their lives," the latter-and he included himself among them—"no matter how glorious we think the rich head tone may be, it is ... the product of the European concert hall and opera house." He also helped his listeners open themselves to the fiddle and banjo pieces. "When listening to a folk instrumentalist," he forewarned, "do not demand or expect a sweet, luscious, vibrant tone. The performer does not play upon a Stradivarius or Guarnerius violin.... If he is a good performer, he offers you instead a driving rhythm and astounding melodic patterns and ornaments, most of which he inherited from the tradition and some he invented." Musical values likewise served social practice. Work contrasted the hypnotic power of a repeated figure in a gospel song that in the classics would register as monotonous. He told of a Nashville churchgoer who exhorted a vocal quartet during an especially long song. "Keep on singing, chillun," she called out. "I ain't near tired yet."

Work's affectionate musicology went further than just illuminating the artists' traditions and their skills. The sight of street banjoist Ned Frazier and hoedown fiddler Frank Patterson exhausting their guitarist Ford Britton as they plowed through a set of vintage reels in the Fisk Memorial Chapel made an implicit statement about cultural inclusion. By inviting them into this sanctuary, Work had extended a position taken by his father and embodied by his grandfather. Both John Work I and John Work II played crucial roles in the formation and training of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the dissemination of their music. While Work II had at times scorned black secular styles, that dismissal fit within a larger strategy. He passionately defended the spirituals, knowing that the graceful beauties of the "sorrow songs" demonstrated black humanity to a skeptical majority. The international esteem accorded the Fisk spirituals confirmed their worth not just as a racial, but as an American art form. In effect, he reasoned, they made a case for social enfranchisement. At the 1941 concert Work III built upon this argument for a new generation by presenting genres and practitioners that his father could not. More than simply art appreciation surrounded his whimsical introduction of Frank Patterson's fiddling: "You will not hear any vibrato in his playing," he vowed, "although you are due to vibrate." That the poetic resided in the prosaic translated here into a democratic ideal.


Excerpted from "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (Music in American Life)" by Stephen Wade. Copyright © 0 by Stephen Wade. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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