Alabama Folkways Articles

August, 1993


by Erin Kellen

It was in the middle of the summer, 1947, Laurie Carlton of Grove Hill recalls. "Before we had air-conditioner. The perspiration would be streaming down his face, but he would stay right on." Byron Arnold, a professor at the University of Alabama, had come to the house where Mrs. Carlton still lives today to find out if she knew any folk songs. He had heard that she liked to sing.

Byron Arnold is best known for the book Folksongs of Alabama, published in 1950 by the University of Alabama Press, which he compiled by travelling through state, recording the songs by hand because he didn't have any recording equipment. By the time he borrowed a recorder and located Laurie Carlton, the University of Alabama Press had already accepted his manuscript.

One of the songs she sang for him that day provides the title for a collection of previously unreleased field recordings by Arnold that is now available on cassette, Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy: Historical Alabama Field Recordings from the Byron Arnold Collection of Traditional Tunes. The recordings from which the songs on Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy were selected were originally made on Bakelite disks using a Presto Recorder.  These sat in the University of Alabama Special Collection until the mid-1980s. At that time, Joy Baklanoff of the Alabama Folklife Association, with the assistance of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, embarked on a project to make highlights of the collection available to the public.

Mrs. Carlton first heard "Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy" when her youngest son's baby-sitter, a young black woman named Mary Chapman, sang it to him. It was his favorite lullaby and according to Mrs. Carlton, "It always put him to sleep." She attributes this to the fact that the song is sung in a minor key. Arnold also recorded Mary Chapman's singing of the song. In fact, Mrs. Carlton recalls that he asked Mary Chapman to sing it "over and over." Because of the deterioration of the sound quality of the Mary Chapman disks, it is Mrs. Carlton's voice we hear on the cassette version.

Laurie Carlton has continued to enjoy singing as a pastime. She is, in fact, representative of the rich tradition of home singing, customarily the province of women. And when she sings what she, as a educated woman, knows are old folk songs, she can also claim not to have learned them from a book or a recording or a radio, but from someone that she knew. She learned minstrel songs, for instance, from an aunt and uncle who often attended the shows. "She would remember the tune and he would remember the words and they would sing them together," and thus young Laurie learned to sing them. She learned Civil War songs from her mother-in-law who had learned them from soldiers who came home from the war. Though Arnold recorded her 46 years ago, Mrs. Carlton still takes pleasure in singing these songs and it distresses her that people no longer sing together as much as they used to. "It bothers me," she says. "They don't teach their children to sing and they lose a great deal."

And this is the value of the Arnold Collection. It reminds us that not that long ago singing was everyone's pastime. Any occasion, whether it be work or play or bedtime or worship, was an occasion to sing. Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy includes, in addition to Mrs. Carlton's lullaby, gospel songs, play-party songs, and the songs that railroad men used to line the tracks. The cassette is available for purchase and includes an accompanying booklet with essay and song annotations by folklorist John Bealle.