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A Tribute to George Gund III

George Gund, III
May 7, 1937 – January 15, 2013

By Hal Cannon, Western Folklife Center Founding Director

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George Gund III. Photo by Robert Davis.

George Gund III, friend and longtime supporter of the Western Folklife Center, passed away January 15 in Palm Springs, California, where he had been suffering from stomach cancer. He will be missed.

George was a great friend to many of us and it is fair to say that without his support there would not be a Western Folklife Center today. In 2013 the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is such a well-known and beloved event that it seems as it if it has always been here. Things were different in 1984 when we were out trying to raise funds to start it. We approached many of the corporate sponsors behind rodeo and other cowboy events and virtually all of them laughed us out of the room at the idea of cowboys reciting poetry. Individual supporters were no easier to find. George came forward as the only individual contributor that first year and wrote a check. He saw the promise of the idea and was willing to take a chance.

He joined our Board of Trustees in 1986, making him the longest-tenured board member in the organization. In recent years his son, George Gund IV (Crunchy), joined the board as well. For many years George hosted legendary board retreats at his ranch in Lee, Nevada, or at one of his homes in Palm Springs and on Stuart Island in the San Juan Islands. When the Western Folklife Center had the opportunity to purchase the old Pioneer Hotel out of bankruptcy, George bought the building on our behalf. In recognition of all he did to create a home for the organization, we named the G Three Bar Theater after his brand.

Today, there have been articles published about George all over the country. In Cleveland, his hometown, he is being remembered as former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and as a patron of the arts. In the Bay Area, his adopted home, he is being remembered as a founder of the San Francisco Film Festival and the professional hockey team, the San Jose Sharks. In most articles people talk about his world-class eyebrows, his unconventional ways, his Bohemian nature. But what all these various articles prove is how wide his interests were, how many friends he had, and how generously he supported the things and the people he loved.

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George Gund III with William Matthews at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. By Sue Rosoff.

George helped several cities become better places. Here in Elko we know yet another aspect of George that few of his urban friends had the chance to experience. He was an avid rancher and attended the Nevada Cattlemen’s meetings each year. He was always interested in cowboy traditions but he also wanted to know the latest about breeds and new ways of grazing. George was a horticulturalist. He loved taking people to his gardens in Palm Springs and picking exotic citrus fruits as they strolled the grounds. He had an extraordinary eye for art. His collections of Asian arts, Northwest Indian wood carvings, and western drawings and paintings are all unique. He did not buy art for investment. He collected art that he loved.

George loved ordinary people from bellhops to hockey-playing kids to young filmmakers. He was deferential to everyone. Often people had no idea of his wealth. He did not put on airs. He loved cowboys and ranch people and was involved from the beginning in the Folklife Center’s attempts at ”grass roots diplomacy” through international cultural exchanges with ranching people around the world. He not only funded some of these efforts but acted as photographer and friend during fieldwork documenting Australian drovers and South American gauchos.

It seems that most people who knew George have at least a few stories about him. Every time you were with him, the occasion turned into an adventure. Usually he didn’t initiate the adventure so much as bring it out of those who are adventurous at heart. I’d like to tell a couple of personal stories about George. The first is mine; the second is from my dear wife Teresa who now serves as a Trustee of the Western Folklife Center.

When I was traveling to Australia to find bush poets to bring to the Gathering, George offered to take me Down Under on his plane. Just getting off the ground was an adventure but finally we got underway.

After a long day of flying over the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye could see, George told the pilots we would land at the Marshall Islands for a night of rest and refueling. We landed on the atoll island of Majuro, and the next morning, on our way back to the airfield from our hotel, we made a quick visit to the village museum. We got to talking with the woman at the desk who had lived on the Islands for many years and learned that she was originally from my hometown of Salt Lake City. She grew up in a neighborhood where I had gone to a yard sale just the day before. When I told her that, she looked at me point blank and asked, “Did you buy my cowboy piano?” Sure enough I had. I was stunned to think the world could be so small. I glanced at George to read his reaction but he didn’t even twitch one of his voluminous eyebrows. Later I asked him why he didn’t seem surprised. I realized in his answer that George was constantly running into people he knew all over the world. This coincidence didn’t seem out of the ordinary. George’s world was a small world. By the way, that cowboy piano that I purchased those many years ago has been donated to the Western Folklife Center and can be heard every year at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in the Pioneer Saloon under the great care of pianist Dave Bourne.

utf-8''_0100This from Teresa: “For our honeymoon, George offered Hal and me his cabin on Stuart Island. He met us at Dutch Harbor to take us over to Stuart on his needle-nose yacht, the Lambada. It was the day of the Russian coup and the San Jose Sharks had just brought a player over. The player’s family was still in Russia and George was terribly worried that they would not be able to get out. As we headed back to Stuart Island, George was talking on his satellite phone to Russia, but being George, he was also fishing, and he caught a big salmon. I remember him on the nose of the Lambada, trying to juggle the phone and the fish and the international conversation… Oh, there are so many more stories, and all of them, at their heart, revolve around his great spirit and generosity and concern for others. I just can’t imagine the world without him.”

George was one of the most original people Teresa and I have ever met. We feel a great sense of loss at his passing. Our hearts go out to his family and our love to all those who loved George.

Please share your own stories and memories of George in the comment section of this blog.

Read George Gund’s obituary in the Elko Daily Free Press.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to one of several charities, including the Western Folklife Center. To facilitate such contributions we have established the George Gund III Memorial Fund. If you wish to make a memorial donation in George’s honor, please send it to: George Gund III Memorial Fund, Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad Street, Elko, NV 89801, or call Linda Carter at 775 738-7508, ext. 222.

Big Sky Birthday, July 24, 2010

In the second of our series of conversations with Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird, Western Folklife Center Producer Taki Telonidis called to wish him Happy Birthday and found him in the town of Malta near the banks of the Milk River. Henry has been on the road for nearly two weeks, retracing the travels of his ancestors and giving out books of poetry to people he meets in rural towns and Indian reservations along the way.

LISTEN


 

TRANSCRIPT OF HENRY REAL BIRD’S INTERVIEW ON JULY 24, 2010

Taki Telonidis
A couple days ago you said you were doing this ride in part so you could ride horses like your grandfather and great grandfather did…in the same places. And I’m wondering as you’re doing this, what sort of things are you thinking about? Is your mind taking you back to those days of your grandparents?

Henry Real Bird and Levi Bruce five miles west of Glasgow, Montana, on U.S. Highway 2. Photo by Joseph Terry.

Henry Real Bird
Back to those days. Like you get the feeling…not that you have been there before…but to know that your blood has been there two generations before you. Unbelievable! It makes you…it just makes you…you’re so happy you just want to cry sometimes, just because you’re so happy, you know.

Taki Telonidis
That’s beautiful. I’ll bet you some poems will come out of this experience.

Henry Real Bird
Oh no. I’m doing that. I’m doing that. In fact I’m writing as I go along type of thing in my mind I’m putting it all together. And then in the end I’m going to regroup and finish this thing off maybe in one poem. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I see awful things too…good things and bad things. Just like over in Wolf Point, Montana, I saw a lot of alcoholism there. So that was a depressing sight, but that is there. So I’ll write a little piece in there to show that. Oh I’ve been wanting to use this line which I haven’t been able to use: what have you done to life, or what has life done to you? And then to wander around like that. I”ve had that line painted on my heart for a long time and I haven’t been able to really use it, but I”m going to use it there I think. I’m just working it all out.

Taki Telonidis
One last question for you Henry. Today is your birthday and you’re spending it on the banks of the Milk River and you’re 62 now which I think entitles you to reduced admission to National Parks and all sorts of privileges. But does it also make you an elder? Do you consider yourself an elder?

A coffee break by the horse trailer. Photo by Samar Fay.

Henry Real Bird
Oh I’m lucky to be an elder, and I appreciate that because of all the things that I have been though, and I’m lucky to be alive and I know that. And I appreciate that. You know they have that saying to where…long, long on the tooth or something like that…

Taki Telonidis
Long in the tooth.

Henry Real Bird
Yeah long in the tooth, but for us they say when your eye tooth crumbles and your hair is pure white, nobody can outfox you. Nobody can outdo you in thinking. And so for knowledge to turn into wisdom type of thing. I’m nearing that stage in life, type of thing. That’s how we see it, yeah.

Taki Telonidis
Henry thank you very much. It’s great to talk with you again, and we’ll touch base with you in a couple of days.

Henry Real Bird
Oh yeah, the next couple of days…tomorrow I’m going to stay over in Dodson, and then I’m going to finish off the fair there. So I’ll watch the demolition derby there, then after that I’ll be into Fort Belknap, and from then on I still have to make arrangements for the other end. But everything just falls into place. You just sort of kick your horse into the day and keep on going, and you run into something nice.

Taki Telonidis
And the demolition derby sounds like it’ll be a highlight.

Henry Real Bird
(laughs) Oh God yeah. Yeah I’m going to watch the demolition derby. I saw a poster here, so I”ll be there for that. And I called ahead over there and they’re going to let me stay over at the fairgrounds. So I’ll have stables and everything for the horses, and no motel or anything…so I’ll put up my tent and slowly drift out into the stars, you know.

Taki Telonidis
Henry it sounds great.

Henry Real Bird
Good night.

Taki Telonidis
Nice to talk to you.

Henry Real Bird
Yeah.

Ride Across Montana with Henry Real Bird

Henry Real Bird—cowboy poet, Crow Indian and recently named Poet Laureate of Montana—has embarked on a 415-mile journey on horseback across northwest North Dakota and northern Montana. He is handing out books of poetry to the people he meets along his route, which will take him through Indian country where his grandfather rode a century ago.This is not a press stunt, but rather a demonstration of Henry’s life, culture and poetry: a journey of horse and horseman slowly making their way across a vast ancestral landscape.

Listen to and read short interviews we’re doing with Henry as he progresses from his start at Fort Berthold, North Dakota, to his final destination on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation southwest of Havre, Montana, in early August. Over the next year, the Western Folklife Center will explore rural Montana by surveying traditional artists whose work and way of life provide social commentary that holds lessons for the rest of us. This extensive fieldwork effort will culminate in an hour-long radio broadcast, podcast and an exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum that is made possible through the generosity of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Listen to our first interview with Henry recorded on July 21, 2010, as he rides along the Missouri River thinking of the juneberry pie that he and his riding partner, Levi  Bruce, were gifted the day before.

LISTEN HERE


Transcript of Henry Real Bird’s Interview, July 21, 2010

Hal Cannon
Where are you Henry?

Henry Real Bird
I’m over here along the Missouri River.  I been ridin’ here since Tuesday…so I’ve been on the road about 9 days. And I stayed last night at a town called Fraser.

 Hal Cannon
Are you on a horse right now?

Henry Real Bird
Yeah I’m riding a horse right now along Highway 2 in Montana. What they call High Line.

Hal Cannon
Can you describe what you’re looking at right now?

Henry Real Bird
Oh gosh, just a vast amount of land…just rolling hills all over to the north, and then on over to the south I’ve got cottonwood trees in the valley floor of the Missouri River, north of the river. Then across the Missouri to the south we’ve got them hills there..the breaks…just beautiful.

Hal Cannon
Henry I’m hearing cars just speeding past you. What’s the difference between the way you’re seeing what’s going on and people going 60 miles an hour?

Henry Real Bird
Oh yeah. The slow pace..you see more. I saw hills and creeks that I didn’t know existed. I mean I’ve been on this road before but I never paid attention to it but now you see all this beautiful landscape. And uh..I mean this is good traveling here.

Hal Cannon
So where did you start out Henry? 

Henry Real Bird
I started out from the Fort Berthold Indian Revervation.  We started out along the Missouri there on the trail of the buffalo, and uh, going through patches of sweet sage, eating juneberries. And I was saying that life cannot get any sweeter than this.  To be able to ride a horse for the day and then just eat the juneberries.  And when I got over here yesterday, they stopped me on the road and took me over and gave me some juneberry pie.  And I had some more again last night and I went over to the sweat lodge over here in Frazer, and prayed.  They say the sweat lodge…you use that to remember who you are.  But the whole thing is…places where my great grandfather rode over on Fort Berthold and over to Fort Union and then I just wanted to ride a horse right where they rode horses too, along the Missouri. And that’s what I’m doing, and then giving out books of poetry along the way.   

Hal Cannon
What is the reaction when you hand someone a book of poems?

Henry Real Bird
They’re surprised and they just browse through it right there, and they don’t know what to think and so I’m gone by the next day so I don’t know what they think. I just put my name on there and everything else.  I just want them to enjoy the thought..enjoy the thought and go for the ride into the feeling whatever it is.

Hal Cannon
You were made Poet Laureate of Montana, is this part of what you think your job is as Poet Laureate for the state? 

Henry Real Bird
You know I took it on like that, because nobody else will ever do this type of thing, you know.  Nobody has the guts to just saddle up a horse and just go from town to town just giving out books of poetry and stuff like that.  And so I figure that I’m not like everybody else and that’s why I’m the way I am, and so this is just my style of giving back to the people what I have taken from life out here in Montana. 

Hal Cannon
Henry I admire you. 

Henry Real Bird
Oh, I don’t know it’s just uh…

Hal Cannon
I do, I count you as a good friend.  I really appreciate what you do.

Henry Real Bird
I appreciate you too because you’ve kept me alive.  In the beginning when I didn’t want to live any more, you guys kept me alive and that was alright, you know. And so I feel good today.

Hal Cannon
You’ve helped us.  You’ve helped keep us alive my friend.  So can we call you along the route and ask you how things are going?

Henry Real Bird
Yeah, call anytime and wherever I am on the road if I get good reception we can connect.

Hal Cannon
Good luck on your journey and we’ll call you in a few days. 

Henry Real Bird
OK. See you later then, OK.  Bye.

Hal Cannon
Bye Henry.

A Refugee Field of Dreams

Taki Telonidis and Hal Cannon spent a recent evening on the west side of Salt Lake City, Utah, with refugee families preparing to cultivate gardens in an abandoned field. Taki, the Western Folklife Center’s Media Producer, wrote this report of his experience.

Taki Telonidis interviews Ze Min Xiao as gardener Chris walks ahead with Ethiopian leader Michael to view the future garden spot.

It didn’t look like much when we got there one evening last week… just an abandoned field near towering power lines that buzzed and crackled, next to an empty softball field encircled by a chain link fence. This was on the west side of Salt Lake City, and we’d come to witness the first chapter of a story that has the potential to change the lives of dozens of refugee families struggling to make a home in America. This project is part of a “growing” trend that helps refugees capitalize on one of the few transferable skills they bring with them from the third world: farming. Last year, Salt Lake County’s refugee coordinator, Ze Min Xiao (Zee), facilitated a handful of tiny informal garden projects that not only provided refugees with food, but also put them side-by-side with Americans who took interest in the refugees, sprouting friendships and even a few potluck dinners. This year Zee is organizing a more ambitious project: a small training farm that will be managed and tilled by four refugee communities in the city. The short-term goal is to provide these folks with supplemental income, but the longer-term goal is to cultivate a crop of commercial farmers who might one day own and run their own farms.

Community organizer Steve attempts to explain what a 1/4 acre looks like to members of the Ethiopian refugee community.

Hal Cannon and I were excited about this project from the moment we heard about it a couple weeks ago. We’d been looking for a refugee story for several months, and this seemed like a perfect fit given the rural mission of the Western Folklife Center. Plus we’d get to follow the story from its inception, over the course of the summer, to harvest time. So the plan was to meet Zee and two facilitators at the farm site, and look on as they did an orientation for leaders of the four participating refugee communities: Ethiopian, Bhutanese, Burundian and Chin (from Myanmar). We’d parked our car and weren’t sure we were even at the right place until a second car pulled up and a man stepped out with an equally disoriented expression on his face. This was Michael and he was representing the Ethiopian community of Salt Lake. Other cars pulled up and it wasn’t long before about a dozen men and women (representatives as well as some potential gardeners) were surveying the weedy field… looking like a delegation from the United Nations. Zee and her colleagues Chris and Steve did their best to explain the size of the plots, and the plans for preparing and tilling the soil, bringing in a tool shed, building fencing and irrigation, etc. As they spoke, my mind was transforming this fallow field into a verdant utopia where the four communities would work side-by-side sowing the seeds of their future. I imagined our completed radio feature: an inspiring, quintessentially American story of rebirth in the new world.

Zee works to explain how the garden will work for everyone in the four refugee groups.

I snapped out of my daydream when Zee asked if there were any questions, and the group began peppering the organizers with queries. It was clear that some had not understood all the information that was conveyed to them, while others were hoping to accommodate many more families than their plot could support. One man asked if it would be okay to grow medicinal plants he wanted to import from India, while another wanted to raise goats at the site. The questions were handled graciously by Zee, Chris and Steve who promised to explore as many possibilities as they could. It began to dawn on me just how ambitious this project really is. The potential for that utopia is there, but it’s going to take an enormous amount of physical labor, diplomacy and translation to get to the promised land. This is, after all, a mash up of four cultures, each with its own language, leadership style and way of doing things, all trying to create something that must conform to American rules and regulations.

The meeting ended with handshakes and an agreement to meet at the plot in 10 days with volunteers from each community who’d begin work on building rows and pathways for the farm. After Zee left, each delegation broke up into a huddle with the leaders of each group fielding questions from those who didn’t speak English. Hal and I were suddenly surrounded by animated conversations in four languages, as the field slowly turned golden in the evening light. The refugee farm project was officially under way, and I had a sense that there would be many huddles like this one in the coming weeks and months. Once again my mind drifted forward to what this plot of land might look like in two weeks, or two months, and whether this whole experiment would flourish or whither on the vine.

Ethiopian leader poses in front of future garden spot sporting a new tie that everyone loved. No animals were harmed making this tie.

Crack!

I was brought back to the moment by the sound of a baseball bat hitting a ball. While we’d been engulfed in discussions about the farm, two women’s softball teams had taken the adjacent field and a game was in full swing. I stepped back to take in these contrasting worlds, impossibly different from each other, separated only by a few yards and a simple chain link fence.

P.S. Stay tuned to our blog for occasional updates and photos of the Refugee Farm Project.

On the Trail of John Lomax: Visiting Ella Gant McBride

Hal Cannon writes about a recent visit to Ella Gant McBride, who was recorded by John Lomax in the 1930s singing with her family in Austin, Texas.

I felt guilty recently as I drove south from Salt Lake City to Santaquin, Utah, to visit Ella Gant McBride. Years ago, Bess Lomax Hawes had told me about the Gant Family. Beth came from a long line of folklorists: her father, John A. Lomax, had recorded rare folk songs from the Gants in the mid-1930s when they all lived in Austin, Texas. The Gants were Mormon, and Bess knew I’d grown up in Utah. She thought I should follow up, but I’d taken my sweet time.  

John Lomax recalls visiting the Gants in 1934 on a weekday, late in the morning. It was so quiet he almost left the house. Finally a woman answered the door in her bedclothes. Yawning, she whispered “Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” Eight children were still asleep and their mother, Maggie Gant, was staving off the Great Depression the only way she knew how. As Lomax reported in his 1941 book, Our Singing Country, she told him that “the singing kept us so happy, we couldn’t go to sleep.”

Bess remembered meeting the Gants when she was a young girl. While her father recorded the adults in the family’s shanty on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin, Bess and the younger Gant girls, Foy and Ella, hid out under the porch telling stories to each other and listening to the music that drifted down through the floorboards. Mike Seeger, who incorporated songs from these early field recordings into the repertoire of his group, the New Lost City Ramblers, liked to talk about “true vine,” the music that grew organically through family, occupation and community to be passed on through generations and occasionally shared with outsiders who cared enough to search it out. This image, of John Lomax and the rest of the family in the living room singing while the girls whispered and giggled below rooted by their own interests, brings the concept to life.

I played music with Mike just a year ago. He was one of my mentors and is gone now. John Lomax died in 1948, the year I was born. All of John Lomax’s children have passed on including Bess. And of all the Gant family that Lomax recorded, Ella is the only one left, sitting in a place called the Latter Day Assisted Living Center 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. As I drove down the highway I began singing one of those songs that Mike Seeger learned from the Gants, a song that many people have covered over the years including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jerry Garcia. 

When first unto this country, A stranger I came
I courted a fair maid, And Nancy was her name
I courted her for love, Her love I didn’t obtain
Do you think I’ve any reason, Or right to complain  

Earlier, Ella’s son Wayne had told me repeatedly not to expect too much. I didn’t think I’d gone with expectations. I wanted to meet someone who had actually been recorded by John Lomax. I brought a CD copy of a few of the songs from the Library of Congress that Ella had recorded with her sister Foy when they were just girls. I fantasized that Ella would hear her girlhood voice and start singing along with those recordings. I would record this blending of the old lady and girl and my guilt would be assuaged. In addition, I’d get some good tape for our radio story about John Lomax.

The moment I walked into Ella’s room I realized I would not be recording anything that day. Ella had barely a whisper left as she sat in her recliner clutching a blanket, her eyes opening halfway to talk to me. I asked if she remembered the time under the porch with Bess and Foy and she answered yes. Then she asked me if I liked her. I answered yes. She opened her eyes a little and looked at me, saying in her faint voice, “I love you.” I asked if she still remembered the old songs from her family. Again, she said yes. I told her I had brought some recordings of her singing and asked if she would like to hear them. Again, “yes.” I put the CD in her bedside player and listened as the scratchy sound of the original 1935 acetate disk began to play. The recording started with the archivist saying, “AFS 64, A side.” He set the tone arm on the ancient disc three times before it would track from the beginning and then the music began—two sweet untrained voices, singing in unison.

My Love’s a jolly cowboy, he’s brave, he’s kind, he’s true,
He rides a Spanish pony and throws a lasso, too.
And when he comes to see me, our vows we do redeem
 He throws his arms around me and then begins to sing

I could tell Ella was listening, recognizing the song. Just then, I noticed a homemade binder under her bedside table. A piece of paper was pasted on the cover, which read: “Ella loves to have these old songs read or sung to her.” I opened the binder. On the first page was a telling inscription: “dedicated to my eternal husband Mark.” Following were pages of family photos and a sheet talking about the importance of keeping and preserving family songs. Then came the collection itself, at least a hundred songs, both words and music all compiled by Ella. I knew many of them as old ballads from Great Britain, popular songs from the Civil War era, cowboy songs, sentimental songs from the day and original songs Ella had written. When she was compiling the book she consulted her family for the accuracy of lyrics and it brought them together. It started to dawn on me that Ella was the very last of this singing family who knew the joy of music mixed with the bitterness of hard times. These songs were at her core.

I turned off the first recording and asked her if she remembered the song. She said, “Oh yes.” Then she looked at me again and said, “I love you.” This time I don’t think she was talking to me. Maybe she was speaking to Mark, her eternal husband. She began to cry, “I love you so much. I love you so much.” She held out her hand and I took it. In her hand there was such love. It seemed for a moment that all that was left of Ella Gant McBride was a shell of a body, some scattered memories, and a clear deep abiding love, pure love. At that moment it didn’t matter that I was not the love of her life she was talking to. I was simply the conduit for her love.

I’ve thought a lot about interviewing, and have interviewed people all my life. The great practitioners approach interviewing with a variety of values. Some think it is all about listening. Others keep a critical mind and make an interview into a game of outfoxing the other. For me it is all about empathy, trying not just to listen but to feel what the other person is feeling. I’d never tried to interview someone with dementia before. With Ella I sought to feel what she felt as she listened to the songs. I’d never known her before today so I could not compare her to the way she was. I was there without judgment. In a way, meeting Ella for the first time was like joining her in her dreams. She did not have much language or voice left to express herself but she had feeling, strong feeling, and that feeling was love. We listened to the next song both sitting silently.

When I was a little boy, fat as I could roll
When I was a little boy, fat as I could roll
Sent me on a bus and then we had a show

Listen to Ella and her sister Foy sing LongCameJohnny.” Courtesy of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.


After it ended I said, “Isn’t it amazing, 75 years later, we can still hear you and your sister singing? You were just girls. Do you remember singing with Foy?” This time she said, “Foy was my sister. I love her so much. Foy, I love you so much, I love you Foy.” Again, she started crying. It was almost as though Ella was calling out to Foy on the other side, calling for her sister to find her. I had come to express my gratitude to Ella for the Gant Family songs, but now I began to feel uncomfortable being a stranger in this very personal place. I told her I thought I better leave. She took my hand again: “Please don’t leave, stay a little longer.”

So, having no questions, no answers, I put on another song.

No more have I a mother’s love
No more have I a father too
No more have I a mother’s love

We sat and listened and I could tell she was taking it all in. Now it really was time to leave. I told her next time I’d bring my guitar. She said, “Good, I’d like that.” She asked for my hand and again told me she loved me. She took my hand to her lips and kissed it tenderly, then looked up and said, “I just want to die, I need to die.” I answered that I understood… and I do.

Hal Cannon

Read more about the Gant Family in a recent article by Michael Corcoran in the Austin American Statesman.

Ella Gant McBride passed away peacefully on the day after this blog was posted, May 19, 2010.

 

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Angola Prison

An inmate on the ride of his life.

The very first thing that happened at the rodeo Hal and I attended on Sunday involved four cowboys on four bulls, all set free at the same moment and holding on for dear life. It’s called the Angola Bust Out…and a pun IS intended…because Angola is a prison. Formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and informally as The Farm, Angola is the nation’s largest prison with over 5,000 inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences. A few times a year, the gates are swung open and the public is invited to attend a rodeo that features inmates competing in various events. Our visit to Angola was the culmination of a week-long field trip tracing America’s ballad hunter, John A. Lomax, on some of the paths he took in the 1930s and ‘40s combing the South in search of folk songs. Some of his most fruitful collecting came from prisons, including Angola where he recorded the famous songster, Leadbelly.

A prisoner shows off his creation at the Hobbycraft fair at the Angola Prison Rodeo.

I’m not a rodeo aficionado by any means, but this one was remarkable to me in many ways, primarily because of how “normal” and unremarkable it felt. Here we were wandering the grounds with hundreds of prisoners all around us, working the concessions, selling art and “hobbycrafts,” and performing music on several stages. All these men were convicted felons, but had achieved the status of “trustee,” which meant they could interact with the public (under the watchful eye of security). We interviewed several musicians throughout the day, many of whom had been there for decades, and who would never leave the confines of Angola; there is no parole for a life sentence in Louisiana.

Wayne Guidry a few minutes before singing the national anthem to open the Angola Prison Rodeo.

Each and every person we spoke with was thoughtful, articulate and fascinating. It seems that their incarceration had forced them to come to terms with their past and their future in ways the rest of us rarely do. Maybe we’re just too busy with the responsibilities and distractions of daily life to philosophize like they do. We met Wayne, the young man who’d been asked to sing the national anthem at the rodeo, who was so humbled by this honor that he’d studied the words and thought deeply about the sacrifices made by America’s soldiers to secure the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, even though he’d forfeited his right to those same freedoms.

Michael Palmer became a Gospel rapper in prison, and was a "gangsta" rapper in his previous life.

We also met Michael, a 27-year-old who writes and performs gospel rap songs, but who previously had rapped about his life on the streets as a “gangsta.” His new songs were positive and upbeat as was his conversation, but at one point he hinted at his sense of frustration and hopelessness in the early days of his incarceration. After we followed up on this point he took a deep breath, paused, then told us in detail about the night he attempted to commit suicide, and how the only reason he’s still alive is because he couldn’t find a place from which to hang himself. He then went on to talk about finding a bible that same night, and beginning his conversion to dedicating his life to studying the teachings of Christ. Because the rodeo was so loud, I had to get very close to him with the microphone, and I’ll never forget how his eyes locked on mine as he explained his ordeal. I don’t think I blinked for five minutes.

Inmates not allowed to mingle with the public watch the rodeo from bleachers surrounded by a high fence.

We spoke with many other prisoners that day and—to a man—I found their stories moving. And this leads to perhaps the biggest surprise in spending time with these inmates: my own reaction. I generally believe in being tough on crime, yet here we were with convicted felons…and not only did I feel comfortable, I felt compassion and empathy. On an intellectual level, I know these people have committed crimes, and that these crimes involved victims..some of whom may not have survived the incident. This is one of those experiences that’s going to take a while to process…and as crazy as it may sound… I look forward to my next visit to prison.

Taki Telonidis

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Austin and Houston

John Lomax, impresario and folklorist.

John Lomax grew up on a farm hearing the songs of cowboys on the trails and also the songs of freed African American slaves. Something in those two experiences guided him through a life of preserving and valuing those two particular traditions. He was a man of his times, so his attitudes may not jibe with how we see race today; nevertheless, Lomax never wavered from believing that these two musical traditions were essential to the American character. We spent the morning at the Lomax collection at the University of Texas at Austin with John Wheat and folklorist Roger Renwick. They both have studied extensively the life and times of John Lomax and we were able to have a really interesting conversation and interview about the man and his work. 

John Wheat is the curator of the Lomax collection at the University of Texas at Austin, and has been a great resource in understanding the life and times of John Lomax.

On the drive from Austin to Houston we listened to archival radio shows that were recorded by the Library of Congress narrated by John Lomax. The series The Ballad Hunter brilliantly and unabashedly laid out a rationale for the importance of folk creativity and what it means to a democratic nation to value the voice of the people. It’s an inspiring radio show that in our cynical world everyone today should hear.

Downtown Houston is not fun to drive into after the lovely Texas countryside full of spring blooming wildflowers. We checked into a big impersonal hotel and made our way to the offices of the Houston Press, a weekly hip tabloid. There we sat with the great grandson and namesake of our subject, John Nova Lomax. At 40 years old, Lomax is the past music editor for the paper and feels a deep connection to the Lomax name. He loves his city in all its diversity and creative talent and works to bring out the finest talent of Houston. He also has a keen interest in social justice and combines all to carry on the Lomax name.

John Nova Lomax is a journalist for the Houston Press and writes extensively on the new music of Houston and the complexities of one of the most dynamic cities of our century.

Hal Cannon

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Fort Worth and Meridian, Texas

Don Edwards standing by his Texas Trail of Fame Star at the Stockyards in Fort Worth.

 Taki Telonidis and I are in Texas for the week working on a radio documentary on the legacy of John Lomax, the first folklorist to record cowboy songs and other great American musical traditions. We’ve just been here a couple days but spent most of the first part of the trip with Don Edwards who showed us the Fort Worth Stockyards where Lomax recorded cowboys in 1909.On the second day, Don took us to Meridian, Texas, where Lomax grew up. Don was very generous with his time and talents. 

Next stop was to visit Rooster Morris and his wife Jody Logsdon. These days Rooster is in the schools all the time talking to kids and playing his fiddle. It was really wonderful to see them and talk to Rooster about his great uncle, Jess Morris, who was recorded by Lomax and was a wonderful cowboy fiddler.

Cowboy fiddler and children's author Rooster Morris shows us his modern fiddle and tells us about his great uncle, Jess Morris who recorded the famous "Old Paint" for Lomax in the early days.

After that we interviewed a folklorist/historian/prison archivist who talked about Lomax’s recording of prison work music and discovering singers like Leadbelly. That was interesting too. Today we visit the Lomax archive at the University of Texas speaking to John Wheat and Roger Renwick. Then we drive to Houston to visit John Lomax IV who is a young music writer and great grandson of the original Lomax. We will have dinner with folklorist and friend Pat Jasper. On Thursday we spend the day with the Gillette Brothers in Crockett Texas and talk to them and members of the African American community about cowboy music, blues and folk music in East Texas. 

Steve Zeitlin, director of CityLore, is co-producing this with us and he and Taki are then taking me back to the Dallas Airport where I have to fly home for a day to attend my brother in law’s funeral. I join them back in Louisiana on Saturday to record at Angola Prison where Lomax recorded Lomax and other Black musicians and singers. 

Hal Cannon

In the Footsteps of John Lomax

Don Edwards tells Steve Zeitlin and Taki Telonidis about John Lomax recording some of his first cowboy songs at the White Elephant Saloon where Don played for many years.

The Western Folklife Center has been asked to produce a story for National Public Radio on the folk music collecting of John Lomax. This coincides with the 100th anniversary of the publishing of his first collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, in November of 1910. We are working with a New York folklife organization called City Lore and hope to produce other stories on the journeys of early folklorists to discover the soul of America through its folklore. On this week-long journey through Texas and Louisiana, we go to the place Lomax grew up and saw, first-hand, the cattle drives after the Civil War. We visit the Elephant Saloon at the Stockyards in Fort Worth where he collected cowboy songs and where Don Edwards sang those same old songs in the 1970s. As we journey along the same paths Lomax took we contrast the world he lived in with that of contemporary America.

 We hope to produce a second story on Lomax’s collecting of musical traditions of African Americans. Lomax looked for singers in isolated communities and visited prisons to collect blues, gospel and work songs. He felt that cowboy music and the music of black America were two of America’s great musical traditions. We will end our travels this week at Angola—the largest prison in America—where we will document the rodeo and talk to musicians and singers in that prison.

Don Edwards preparing to sing a song that Lomax says he heard as a child in the late 1800s on his farm near Meridian.

Cowboy Sing Along

For the second year we are inviting folks at the Elko Gathering to make a CD with us of memorable cowboy songs. You too can be part of an OK Choral singing along with Liz Masterson, R.W. Hampton, Dave Bourne, Andy Willkinson and Andy Hedges. We will record this Thursday session in the G3 Theater then go back to our cave and make the CD so we can deliver them to you on Saturday so you can sing-along on your long drive back home. So that’s the idea.

Photo by Sue Rosoff

Behind the scenes I’ve been collecting songs from these wonderful performers. They all have to be original songs or public domain songs so we don’t get balled up in rights issues. Also, we can’t tax the audience too much with unfamiliar and complex songs. Next step is to make a slide show of the words to the songs which will be projected on a screen during the singing so we can all sound like we did this on purpose.

I believe there are still tickets available if you’ve always had that secret wish to be cowboy singing star. We are all getting very excited to see all of you in Elko next week.

Hal Cannon, Founding Director