Alabama Folkways Articles

February, 1998

State's Musical Heritage Preserved on Recordings

By Steve Grauberger

Alabama possesses a rich musical heritage. These traditions are documented on early commercial 78 rpm recordings made in the 1920's and 1930's of fiddlers D. Dix Hollis (recorded by Paramount in 1924), Y.Z. Hamilton (recorded by Paramount in 1926); the Allison Family Sacred Harp singers; country and gospel musicians, the Delmore Brothers, from Sand Mountain; and popular black gospel quartets from Jefferson County, such as the Sterling Jubilees, the Bessemer Sunset Four, the Famous Blue Jays, the Golden Leafs and others. Itinerant bluesmen like Johnny Watson, a.k.a. Daddy Stovepipe, from Mobile, also recorded for various labels.

While popular music and musicians of the period were most sought after for commercial recording sessions, there was also an avid interest in the documentation of the rural musical traditions of Alabama. The first special recording projects were for the Archive of American Folksong of the Library of Congress in Washington, now called the Archive of Folk Culture. In 1934 John Lomax made the first of these recordings featuring prisoners in Montgomery, Wetumpka, Speigner, and Atmore.

In 1937, 1939 and 1940 folklorist John Lomax, with the help of Ruby Pickens Tartt in Sumter County, recorded 600 songs of various African American singers and musicians of that region. Nolan Porterfield notes, in his biography of John Lomax (Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, 1867-1948. Chicago: University of Illinois Press) that, "the redoubtable Ruby Pickens Tartt, had played a material role in helping locate sources. As a $56-a-month local field-worker for the Writers' Project ("chairman" of its Sumter County operation), Mrs. Tartt was one of those who had answered a call for folklore material and so inundated the project's Washington office that Lomax had to be called. Once he spotted the rich variety of rare Negro songs and stories from Mrs. Tartt, he quickly set about arranging to visit Livingston with a recording machine. Ruby Pickens Tartt's interest in Negro life and culture reached back almost to her childhood, when she accompanied her father, a prominent landowner, to visit his black renters." Favorite singers of Tartt and Lomax, Dock Reed and Vera Hall, both later traveled to perform in Washington.

The earliest field recording made of Anglo-American folk music in Alabama for the Library of Congress was the Skyline Farms project in 1939, established by the government for unemployed farmers in Jackson County. Dr. David Campbell (Northeast Alabama State Junior College) notes that, "These 'play party songs' reflect the deep Scot-Irish heritage of the northeastern region of Alabama." A few of these recordings are included in a cassette titled "Skyline Jubilee" produced by David Campbell and the Scottsboro-Jackson Heritage Center in 1989.

In 1941 Robert Sonkin traveled to Gee's Bend in Wilcox County and produced another landmark recording project for the Library of Congress. Part of the project includes interviews focussing on the every day goings-on of the Gees Bend Cooperative, a government project for unemployed African-American farmers. Most of the recordings, however, are of hymns and spirituals sung by the residents. A 1984 video documentary on the history of Gee's Bend, "From Fields of Promise" was produced by Auburn University Television.

Another important collection of Alabama folk music is held at the University of Alabama. The 743-song, Byron Arnold record collection, from which he published his showpiece book, Folksongs of Alabama(1950) contains  he began in 1945. Music scholars Dr. Joy Baklanoff and John Bealle consider his collection the first systematic effort to collect folksongs representative of Alabama. In 1992 they produced "Corn Bread Crumbled in Gravy," an audiocassette and booklet highlighting the work of Byron Arnold.

Harold Courlander produced a set of recordings during a 1950 fieldtrip to Alabama and Mississippi sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. From this fieldtrip, 84 of these recordings are included in the 6-album series of records entitled "Negro Folk Music of Alabama," issued between 1950 and 1956 on Ethnic Folkways records. Courlander thanks Ruby Pickens Tartt of Livingston for her help. He recorded many of the same singers as Lomax. From these recordings Courlander published the book Negro Songs from Alabama (1960). The book contains written melodic notation of songs from Vera Hall Ward, Dock Reed and others.

One of the lesser-known collections of Alabama traditional music is the Ray Browne collection. Nearly 30 hours of recorded music are archived at the Library of Congress. Recordings in this collection were made in the summers of 1951-1953 when Browne, as he said, "traveled through every section and nearly every county of Alabama and talked with more than a hundred informants. During this time I obtained some 2500 ballads and songsā€”the largest collection ever made for Alabama, and, indeed, one of the biggest made for any state." From this research he produced his dissertation at UCLA and later, a book by the same name, The Alabama Folk Lyric: A Study in Origins and Media of Dissemination.