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The Beautiful Music All Around Us

The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 504
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  • Book Info
    The Beautiful Music All Around Us
    Book Description:

    The Beautiful Music All Around Us presents the extraordinarily rich backstories of thirteen performances captured on Library of Congress field recordings between 1934 and 1942 in locations reaching from Southern Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and the Great Plains. Including the children's play song "Shortenin' Bread," the fiddle tune "Bonaparte's Retreat," the blues song "Another Man Done Gone," and the spiritual "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down," these performances were recorded in kitchens and churches, on porches and in prisons, in hotel rooms and school auditoriums. Documented during the golden age of the Library of Congress recordings, they capture not only the words and tunes of traditional songs but also the sounds of life in which the performances were embedded: children laugh, neighbors comment, trucks pass by._x000B__x000B_Musician and researcher Stephen Wade sought out the performers on these recordings, their families, fellow musicians, and others who remembered them. He reconstructs the sights and sounds of the recording sessions themselves and how the music worked in all their lives. Some of these performers developed musical reputations beyond these field recordings, but for many, these tracks represent their only appearances on record: prisoners at the Arkansas State Penitentiary jumping on "the Library's recording machine" in a rendering of "Rock Island Line"; Ora Dell Graham being called away from the schoolyard to sing the jump-rope rhyme "Pullin' the Skiff"; Luther Strong shaking off a hungover night in jail and borrowing a fiddle to rip into "Glory in the Meetinghouse."_x000B__x000B_Alongside loving and expert profiles of these performers and their locales and communities, Wade also untangles the histories of these iconic songs and tunes, tracing them through slave songs and spirituals, British and homegrown ballads, fiddle contests, gospel quartets, and labor laments. By exploring how these singers and instrumentalists exerted their own creativity on inherited forms, "amplifying tradition's gifts," Wade shows how a single artist can make a difference within a democracy. _x000B__x000B_Reflecting decades of research and detective work, the profiles and abundant photos in The Beautiful Music All Around Us bring to life largely unheralded individuals--domestics, farm laborers, state prisoners, schoolchildren, cowboys, housewives and mothers, loggers and miners--whose music has become part of the wider American musical soundscape. The book also includes an accompanying CD that presents these thirteen performances, songs and sounds of America in the 1930s and '40s._x000B__x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09400-2
    Subjects: Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    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...

  6. 1 Bill Stepp: Retreat across America
    (pp. 25-46)

    John and Becky Arnett of West Liberty, Kentucky, made their way through Orlando International Airport and boarded the monorail that would ferry them to the departure lounges. Like a futuristic ride at nearby Disney World, the train glided past postcard views of manmade lakes and landscaped palm trees. It coasted to a stop, and a warning tone signaled the vehicle’s computer-driven arrival. They began their trek down the long, carpeted corridor to the plane. Gate announcements, prefaced by the bleating of an electronic whistle, barked from the public address system. Between the clatter of messages and noises, a crescendo of...

  7. 2 Kelly Pace: Coworker in the Kingdom of Culture
    (pp. 47-74)

    On October 1, 1934, using Arkansas State Penitentiary letterhead, John Lomax wrote home, “I ought to turn up something of rare interest.”¹ And over the next few days he did. Despite the malfunctions of his recording apparatus and the long drives “down the worst roads in Arkansas” to get it repaired, he could report on his very next postcard, “We are headed for fine stuff at Cummins.”² This unit of the state’s penal system, some seventy miles southeast of Little Rock, operated as a farm tended by an entirely African American workforce. There, for a second time within a week,...

  8. 3 Ora Dell Graham: A Little Black Girl from Mississippi
    (pp. 75-104)

    Sonny Milton focused silently on the road ahead. Nestled between us in the cab of his pickup, set in a rusted metal frame held fast by tacks and twine, lay a picture of someone he had always loved. Ora Dell Graham—“Honey”—had been his favorite aunt. The hand-colored photograph, mounted on cardboard and bent from more than a half-century of age, shows her in late adolescence, confidently looking on with a pixie smile. In her family, she had been the voluble one, the extrovert. “She loved to go, she always loved to go.”¹ Milton spoke quietly but emphatically. “She...

  9. 4 Christine and Katherine Shipp: In a Chromatic Light
    (pp. 105-128)

    “Do i remember when christine and katherine made those records?”1 Luella Shipp’s voice, already coursing with a vitality that defied her age, now leaped in volume. “Honey, I wasthere.” Her radiance matched the front room where we sat, a room ablaze with dozens of Christmas cards propped up among smiling snapshots of nieces and nephews and surrounded by gift boxes still encased in holiday ribbons and bows. Together they formed a glittering, glowing domestic shrine. By contrast, a damp February cold pierced the house. We huddled around a small electric heater. Between us lay a cassette machine, and as...

  10. 5 Nashville Washboard Band: Something Out of Nothing
    (pp. 129-152)

    During the spring of 1942 Fisk University music professor John W. Work III welcomed a quartet of street musicians called the Nashville Washboard Band into his home. This visit marked the first of two. The second took place that July when the group, bringing along a fifth player, returned to make their sole recordings. For the professor’s son, John Work IV, that initial encounter remained vivid nearly six decades later. “These people,” he said, “were their music.”¹ Then ten years old, Work IV had grown up in a musical environment. His family lived in sight of Jubilee Hall, an edifice...

  11. 6 Vera Hall: The Life That We Live
    (pp. 153-178)

    On a brittle, yellowed index card among John Lomax’s voluminous family papers lies an account of Vera Hall singing “Another Man Done Gone.” Writing in her own hand, Ruby Terrill Lomax evokes the first time she and her husband heard Vera mention the song, followed by their efforts to coax it from this self-effacing, thirty-eight-year-old singer whose grandparents had been slaves:

    Mr. Lomax asked her if she knew any other blues.

    “No sir, I b’lieve not, but my husband knows some. He sings and plays the guitar.”

    “What is his best blues?

    “I like ‘Another Man Done Gone.’”

    “Would he...

  12. 7 Bozie Sturdivant: A Song That Went with Him
    (pp. 179-206)

    Lewis w. jones, a fisk university sociologist, took on a research-and-recording project with the Library of Congress in September 1941 to study how music functioned in the lives of Coahoma County, Mississippi, black residents. In the county seat of Clarksdale and its outlying communities, Jones and his colleagues documented a cotton-growing region shifting from manual labor to modern mechanization. Just as the tractor vied with the hoe, the music touched both older forms and what he called “the world of the outside.”¹ His first evening in town, Jones dropped by the segregated nightspots near Clarksdale’s downtown business district. At Messenger’s...

  13. 8 Pete Steele: It’s What Folks Do
    (pp. 207-236)

    Pete steele had decided to pack up his family and start over. Afflicted with black lung disease after seventeen years as an East Kentucky coal miner, he planned now, a few months short of the Great Depression, to begin sharecropping in Bismarck, Illinois.¹ Born Simon Peter Steele (1891–1985) in Woodbine, Kentucky, Pete spent his youth in White Oak, a rural community in adjacent Laurel County. There he attended a one-room school where he met his future wife of seventy-three years, Lillie Mae Swanner (1895–1986), herself raised in Sinking Creek, a mile from his home. At school Pete assumed...

  14. 9 Texas Gladden: From Here to the Mississippi
    (pp. 237-266)

    Jim Gladden stood in his canning shed looking over his neatly stacked shelves of jams, jellies, and pickles. Each fall Jim made preserves for the winter months. Now, with Thanksgiving just two days away, he took a quick inventory. Along one shelf he kept several rows of homegrown tomatoes. Packed into wide-mouthed jars, their lids made tight with spring-loaded clamps, the largest of the produce looked faintly orange while the rest resembled grayish plums. In narrow glass cylinders fastened with rubber seals, peppers suspended in a vinegary solution splayed like branches across some miniature forest. He began to pick out...

  15. 10 Luther Strong: Way behind His Time
    (pp. 267-296)

    A few feet from Faye Sandlin’s door, at the next house trailer over, a nine- or ten-year-old girl stands outside playing a violin. Coming closer up the walkway, we make out “Old Joe Clark.” I can’t help but smile at Faye, conscious that her father, mountain fiddler Luther Strong, once knew this piece himself. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate, if unintentional, greeting. Faye thinks so too. When she was younger than this girl, she used to dance as he played the tune outside their home in rural Kentucky.

    Faye’s neighbor keeps at her music and we step inside...

  16. 11 Charlie Butler: Call Me to Home
    (pp. 297-326)

    Paul Oliver’s massive 1997Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the Worldsurveys an estimated 800 million dwellings. Their occupants include nomads, urban dwellers, pastoralists, and peasants, living under pointed thatch in Indonesia, makeshift huts in the Scottish outlands, and wooden farmhouses across Pennsylvania’s countryside. They have constructed with palm date grasses in North Africa and sun-dried brick in Pakistan, finished shelters with mud plaster and ceramic tile, created hygiene systems that range from sweatlodges to bathhouses, channeled ventilation through courtyards or sometimes wind catchers, and funneled water via cisterns and wheels. “All forms of vernacular architecture,” Oliver observes, “are built...

  17. 12 Jess Morris: Boiled Shirt and Cowboy Boots
    (pp. 327-360)

    To open the Jess Morris “corporate subject” file at the Archive of Folk Culture is to release a veritable flood of clippings, letters, and postcards brimming with the Texas fiddler and singer’s picturesque experiences and expansive personality. Other collections harbor the same unsinkable spirit, from the autographed sheet music he sent the Wyoming State Archives to the musical autobiography he provided theAmarillo Sunday News and Globe, from an update he returned to his college alumni office to heated moments he shared with the Texas Folklore Society. In one 1940 letter to theFort Worth Star-Telegramhe acknowledges with mock...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 361-422)
  19. Works Cited
    (pp. 423-446)
  20. A Note on the Recording
    (pp. 447-448)
  21. Index
    (pp. 449-478)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 479-486)