In the year of 1941, the venerable folklorist and song collector John A. Lomax—best remembered for his 1910 book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, his field recordings made for the Library of Congress in the 1930s, and his discovery of the legendary Lead Belly—set out, at the age of seventy-four, to assemble a groundbreaking album of folk music from the Great Smoky Mountains of the southeastern United States. He selected from the catalog of the Victor record company (and their subsidiary label Bluebird) a total of ten masters of traditional mountain folk music recorded by relatively contemporary musicians and groups by the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, and the Carter Family. It was late in his illustrious career, and only one of the numerous remarkable accomplishments to his name.
John Avery Lomax was born on September 23, 1867, in Goodman, Mississippi, but he got to Texas as fast as he could. His parents James Avery and Susan Frances Lomax brought the family by wagon to “the low cedar-clad hills of Bosque County,” north of Meridian, Texas, where young John was reared. Growing up on what was then the western frontier, Lomax was exposed to cowboy ballads and folk songs sung by a former slave hired to work on the family farm, and he began to do what had seldom yet been done: collect them and write them down. At twenty-one, he left farm life behind and enrolled in college in Granbury. After graduating, he became a schoolteacher around the region of his upbringing. In 1895, he entered the University of Texas in Austin, graduating two years later with a major in English literature. While there, he showed his collection of folk songs to one of his English professors, who decried them “cheap and unworthy.” The dejected Lomax then burned them behind his dormitory and turned his focus to his studies. After his graduation, he married Bess Brown—with whom he would have four children, Shirley, John Jr., Alan, and Bess—and taught English for a stretch at Texas A&M. In 1907, he attended Harvard as a graduate student under Professors Barret Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge. Unlike his professor at U.T., they encouraged his interest in cowboy songs and ultimately helped him receive a Sheldon grant to research them. Thus, in 1910, at the age of forty-three, John A. Lomax published Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, with a foreword by former president Theodore Roosevelt, the first in a series of song collections he would compile. With U.T. professor Leonidas Payne, he also established the Texas Folklore Society in 1909. From 1910, Lomax also worked an administrative job at the University of Texas, until Texas governor Jim “Pa” Ferguson’s feud with academics got him fired in 1917. So he moved to Chicago to work as a banker in a firm operated by the son of one of his former professors, and later worked with U.T. alumni groups after Ferguson’s impeachment.
After his wife passed in 1931, at his son John Jr.’s encouragement, Lomax set off on a lecture tour that ultimately resulted in his involvement in the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song. Having previously recorded some Texas folksingers like Newton Gaines on wax cylinders, he arranged with the Archive to provide him with portable recording equipment, with which he would traverse the American South in search of traditional folksingers to record for posterity in the Library of Congress, preferably ones untainted by the influence of modern popular culture—those who still adhered to an older tradition. With his son Alan behind the wheel of his Ford sedan, the Lomaxes began their journey in their home state of Texas in June of 1933, visiting rural prison farms in search of musical convicts whose incarceration had separated their traditional repertoires from the dissemination of popular music. They were first turned away at the gates of the prison in Huntsville, but they soon found success when they arrived at the Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. There, they discovered sixty-three-year-old James “Iron Head” Baker and seventy-one-year-old Moses “Clear Rock” Platt,two “habitual criminals” who had spent the better part of their lives in the Texas prison system. Lomax recorded them singing hollers such as “Go Down Old Hannah”, “Old Rattler”, and “Black Betty”, ultimately making return trips to collect more of their music. Lomax eventually grew fond of “Iron Head”, and send him small amounts of money, which were reciprocated in the form of small handcrafted trinkets. Eventually, Lomax secured Baker’s parole to act as his assistant, though the arrangement was short-lived. Soon after, they ventured on to Louisiana, where they paid a visit to the State Penitentiary at Angola. Locked away behind the prison walls was a singer and guitarist who would become Lomax’s greatest discovery: the forty-five-year-old Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. After recording Lead Belly in several performances in July of 1933, Lomax returned a year later with superior equipment to capture more of his extensive repertoire in better quality. This time, Lead Belly requested that Lomax deliver a song he had prepared as a plea for his pardon to Louisiana Governor O.K. Allen. Lomax obliged, and Lead Belly was released later that year (though the state insisted that the song had nothing to do with it). Required to find work or face re-incarceration, Lead Belly convinced Lomax to take him on as a driver and aide in his travels. Ultimately, Lomax traveled several hundred-thousand miles and preserved hundreds of songs by numerous performers, both in and out of prison, for the Library of Congress.
With Lead Belly along, Lomax went back to Yankeeland to begin a new series of lecture tours featuring the folksinger. Not long afterward, the partnership between the folklorist and the folksinger ended quite acrimoniously, as Lead Belly sued Lomax for payment that he believed had been withheld—though they later recovered a friendly acquaintanceship. In 1934, he remarried, to Miss Ruby Terrill, whom he had first met in 1921 while she was the dean of women at the East Texas State Normal College in Commerce. His associated with the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Music continued after his field work had more-or-less concluded. In 1947, with his son Alan, he wrote and published Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, a memoir of his life on the road in search of America’s native song. John A. Lomax died from a stroke on January 26, 1948; an ailing Lead Belly gave his last concert in Austin, Texas, honoring the late folklorist. His legacy was carried on by his sons John Jr., Alan, and Bess, and his influence continued to be felt, both in the field of folklore scholarship and in folk music for the decades to come.
Compiled and edited by John A. Lomax, Victor album P-79 was released in September of 1941, consisting of ten recordings, on five records, made between 1930 and 1938, seven of them made in Charlotte, North Carolina, the others in Camden, New Jersey, San Antonio, Texas, and Memphis, Tennessee. All were originally issued on Bluebird of Victor records. Discographical information is included with each side individually. While the original releases were marketed toward rural southern audiences, this album was directed toward the burgeoning movement of upper-class northeastern folkies.
Firstly, recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina, on August 2, 1937, and originally released on Bluebird B-7298, Wade Mainer, banjo, Zeke Morris, guitar, and Steve Ledford, fiddle, play a real show-stopper of “Riding On That Train Forty-Five”, much in the same style as it was performed by Henry Whitter and G.B. Grayson ten years earlier. This song permeates the southern mountains, and, like many such folk melodies, it is known by a number of titles and played in a number of different styles. It derives from an amalgamation of two closely related mountain songs: “Reuben’s Train” (Roud 3423) and “Nine Hundred Miles” (Roud 4959). Both are often sung as a forlorn ballad. The latter was first recorded by Fiddlin’ John Carson for Okeh in 1924, and later by Riley Puckett for Columbia in 1930. The former was also recorded (after a fashion) by Dock Boggs in 1927 as “Sammie, Where You Been So Long?” and by Emry Arthur in 1931 as “Reuben Oh Reuben”.
Next, Lomax selected a track by brothers Charlie and Bill Monroe of western Kentucky, a performance of the old folk ballad “Darling Corey” (Roud 5723). Known by a number of similar titles, the song was first put to phonograph record in 1927, with versions by several different artists: Clarence Gill for Gennett, Buell Kazee for Brunswick, and B.F. Shelton for Victor, the first of which was never released. The West Virginia coal-miner songster Dick Justice cut a rendition as “Little Lulie” for Brunswick in 1929. The Monroe Brothers recorded this version on June 21, 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it was originally released on Bluebird B-6512.
Third, the renowned Carter Family contributes their first of two sides in the collection of songs, singing and playing the archetypal Appalachian folk song “The East Virginia Blues” (Roud 3396). Melodically resembling the old “Greenback Dollar”, song was first collected in 1917 by Cecil Sharp, and the first recording was made by Clarence Ashley for Columbia in 1929. A version of the song contemporary to the Carters’ was also recorded by Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1933. The Carter Family recorded this rendition in Victor’s Camden, New Jersey, church studio on May 8, 1934, and it was first released on Bluebird B-5650.
The most recent recording included in the album, having been cut on January 26, 1938, once again in Charlotte, North Carolina, and originally issued on Bluebird B-7951, that ever-energetic geriatric, Uncle Dave Macon, plays a number titled “Cumberland Mountain Deer Race” (Roud 6675), spinning a song and painting a picture of the subject matter with the banjo much in the same fashion as did Henry Thomas with his quills and guitar in “The Fox and the Hounds”. Dave first recorded the song for Brunswick in 1929, but that version was never released. His recording appears to represent the only 78 RPM recording of the piece, also known as “The Bear Chase”, though it was later recorded by Mike Seeger.
Fourth in the album, the North Carolinian Dixon Brothers—Dorsey, playing guitar, and Howard, on slide guitar—play and sing a colorful song of Dorsey’s composition: “Intoxicated Rat” (Roud 11257). It was recorded on February 12, 1936, (again) in Charlotte, North Carolina, and originally on Bluebird B-6327. Quite true to its name, the song tells the story of a rat who lapped up some spilled booze and had quite a time. It is my impression that Bill Cox covered the song in 1939 as “Dang My Pop-Eyed Soul”, but having never heard that song, I cannot confirm it to be true. In the later years, the number became popular with revivalists such as the New Lost City Ramblers and Doc Watson.
Set to the tune of the old folk-blues tuned jazz standard “St. James Infirmary” (and thereby a relative of such songs as “Streets of Laredo”), Arthur Smith’s Trio, consisting of Smith on fiddle and the Delmore Brothers (Alton and Rabon) on guitars, plays “Chittlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County” (no Roud index number, though “St. James Infirmary” is Roud 2), it’s minor key blues melody belying the rather lighthearted and un-impactful subject matter surrounding the preparation and subsequent consumption of pork offal. Smith’s Trio recorded the song on February 17, 1936, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it was originally released on Bluebird B-6322.
Another North Carolina group, J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers—fiddler J.E. Mainer, banjoist Wade Mainer, and guitarists Zeke Morris and Beacham Blackweller—play a rendition of Carson J. Robison’s “Wreck of the Number Nine”, here titled “On a Cold Winter Night” (Roud 3229), recorded on June 15, 1936, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and originally issued on Bluebird B-6629. Originally recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1927 on several different record labels, the song entered the traditional repertoire remarkably quickly by way of phonograph records. Mainer’s rendition is quite faithful to the original, albeit played at a faster tempo and in a more authentic Appalachian style.
Playing an old-time song that Lomax recalled from his childhood in Texas, north Georgia’s Gid Tanner and his famed Skillet Lickers lay down a bright rendition of “Ida Red” (Roud 3429); coincidentally, it was recorded in Texas, at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio on March 29, 1934, the first day of the Skillet Lickers’ final session, and first released on Bluebird B-5488. Most famously recorded by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys in 1938, the history of “Ida Red” goes back generations earlier, and is of uncertain origin. The earliest recording was made in 1924 by Fiddlin’ Cowan Powers and Family, and the number remained a mainstay with fiddle bands and songsters alike, with well over a dozen further recordings ensuing over the subsequent decade.
On the penultimate side in the album, the Carter Family return with one of their best remembered songs: the “Worried Man Blues” (Roud 4753). The Carters recorded the song in Memphis, Tennessee, May 24, 1930, and originally issued on Victor V-40317—making it the earliest recorded song Lomax included in the album. Probably derived from African-American blues by A.P. Carter, the Carters were the first to record the song in its presented form, which was soon picked up by fellow folk artists from Appalachia and elsewhere, including, notably, Woodie Guthrie.
On the tenth and final side of the album, Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris make their third appearance, this time without Ledford (actually, he was still there playing fiddle, but was not credited on the label), to sing and play “Down in the Willow” (Roud 446), recorded on August 2, 1937, in (as were many of the others) Charlotte, North Carolina, and was originally released on Bluebird B-7298. One of many songs from the region whose premise involves a boy murdering his sweetheart (see “The Knoxville Girl”, “Pretty Polly”, “Down on the Banks of the Ohio”, and so on), the song, also known as “Rose Connelly” (or some variation on that), is from the rich Appalachian tradition of murder ballads, probably passed down from Irish origins. An early recording of the song was made by the aforementioned Grayson and Whitter in 1927, as “Rose Conley”