Tag Archives: John Lomax

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: East Texas

The Huntsvile Texas Prison Museum displays the creativity of captivity both in weaponry and in the less harmful arts.

After a lovely dinner with our old friend and Houston City Folklorist Pat Jasper, we spent the night and got out of town driving through miles of urban sprawl. Finally the East Texas countryside opened up as we rolled into Huntsville, home of the Texas State Prison and its Museum. We had been turned down to visit the prison here so the Museum had to suffice. We had interviewed Bob Pierce earlier about the creativity in prisons so we got to look at many actual artifacts he had collected both showing real weapons and less direct weapons, remembering the old Woody Guthrie idea that his guitar was a weapon against fascism. After checking out a mural depicting Leadbelly on the side of a building near Huntsville’s main square we drove on north toward Lovelady where the Gillette Brothers make their home. 

Taki, Steve and I interview Pipp and Guy Gillette about their historic East Texas ranch near Lovelady.

I’d known Guy and Pipp Gillette from Elko but my admiration for them grew as we witnessed their passion for the old-style life of East Texas ranching. Their ranch, its historic buildings, and the loving way they keep the traditions of their grandfather, all attest to how much they care for place and tradition. It was a joy to be taken through the construction of each out-building and then to the ruin of an old place on their ranch which used to be the social center for the black community in the neighborhood.

Cousins Harry James Scott and Pastor Harry Fred Scott, at the Gillette Brothers' concert venue, the Camp Street Cafe. Camp Street was once the African-American center of the small East Texas town of Crockett.

We got so wrapped up in the tour we were late driving into the community of Crockett where the Gillettes have established a music civic center called the Camp Street Cafe with music at least weekly. Folk musicians from all over go out of their way to tour to the Gillette’s venue. There, we met a black preacher and his old cousin to talk about Camp Street in Lomax’s time, contrasting the music scene today with that of the day when Lightnin’ Hopkins played for nickels and dimes on the street which used to be the center of African American life in the town. We ended our visit with chicken fried steak, another fine American tradition and a final visit to the statue of Lightnin’ Hopkins.                                                                                                                   

Hal Cannon

Steve Zeitlin, Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis stand next to the statue of Lightnin’ Hopkins honchoed and maintained by the Gillettes across the street from the Camp Street Café, where Lightnin’ used to hang out and play songs for the local African American community.

 

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.