Looking for something to do with the family during Graduation Weekend? The Western Folklife Center has several activities for the whole family to enjoy. Whether it’s taking in some great cowboy poetry and music in a concert Saturday night, finding something special in our Gift Shop, enjoying the You’ve Got Spurs exhibition in the Wiegand Gallery, or doing the Portraits of the Gathering walking tour around downtown Elko, the historic Pioneer Hotel is the place to be in the heart of old Elko.
Photo by Hal Cannon.
At the Western Folklife Center, take in the amazing Portraits of the Gathering and You’ve Got Spursexhibitions in the Wiegand Gallery, watch “Why the Cowboy Sings” in the Black Box Theater, and find a last-minute graduation present in our Gift Shop, which has a little bit of everything, including: jewelry; wallets & purses; soaps & lotions; pottery and fine art from note card size to wall hangings, watercolor to metal; books and music – many items from local artists.
While in the Gift Shop, pick up a walking tour map for our Portraits of the Gathering storefront exhibition —featuring 24 cowboy poets who took the stage in the early years of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering—then use your cell phone to scan QR codes for a full audio experience.
Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland.
And on Saturday night, get ready as the Western Folklife Center presents a very special evening featuring Texas-based cowboy music historian & musician Pipp Gillette, and Elko’s own cowboy poet, Waddie Mitchell. These two friends will provide an evening of entertainment for the whole family with their mix of classic and contemporary cowboy poetry and music. Waddie Mitchell brings the cowboy’s West to the stage through classic tales and original verse, while musician Pipp Gillette shares favorite songs on guitar, banjo, harmonica, bones and more. Opening the evening will be a performance by young Tuscarora singer/songwriter Marinna Mori.
Poster artwork by Teresa Jordan.
About Pipp & Waddie
Pipp Gillette raises cattle on the family ranch near Lovelady, Texas, where his grandfather started raising cattle and cotton in 1912. Drawing on a lifelong interest in Western history and music, Pipp plays traditional cowboy music on guitar, banjo, harmonica and bones. His historic Camp Street Café & Store in Crockett, Texas, is a live music venue featuring performers from around the world. Pipp and his late brother Guy Gillette recorded eight albums of cowboy music and were recipients of three Western Heritage Wrangler Awards for their work. Pipp’s latest CD is Pipp Gillette with Lloyd Wright.
Waddie Mitchell was immersed in the cowboy way of entertaining as a boy on the Nevada ranches where his father worked. In 1985, Waddie helped organize Elko’s first Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Since then, he has kept busy writing, publishing and recording. In 1994, Waddie helped found the Working Ranch Cowboys Association (WRCA); it’s continuing mission is creating scholarships and crisis funding for working cowboys and their families. Inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 2011, Waddie was honored in 2012 with the Nevada Heritage Award from the Nevada Arts Council. In 2017, he released Cohorts & Collaborators, an album featuring top Western artists with whom he has co-written songs.
Waddie Mitchell and Pipp Gillette at 2016 National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Wrangler Awards, photo courtesy of Pipp Gillette.
The ongoing collaboration of Waddie and Pipp has resulted – so far – in two Western Heritage Wrangler Awards from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:
2016 Music – Outstanding Traditional Western Album
Pipp Gillette & Waddie Mitchell
“Singing Songs by Waddie & Pipp”
2013 Music – Outstanding Original Western Composition
Song by Pipp & Guy Gillette for “Trade Off,”
Written by Waddie Mitchell
Mark Paris and Mary Jean Paris talked about life in America in their StoryCorps interview.
From Basque sheepherder tales, to ingenuous escapades of small-town business-owners, to the working lingo of gold mines, to adrenaline-pumping perils fighting wildfires, the Western Folklife Center knows there’s a wealth of lived experience around Elko. And beyond. We want to hear your story! Share the everyday stories of your loved ones (and maybe even your not-so-loved ones), through our collaborative project between the Western Folklife Center, StoryCorps.me, and… you!
You may know StoryCorps—the innovative, nationwide, oral history project—from their National Public Radio show or their trademark airstream trailer recording booths that travel the country giving people a chance to sit down together to record a conversation. Couples explain the turning points in their relationships. Enemies reconcile with new friends. Mentees recognize mentors. Elders invoke oral history on their own terms. Neighbors share remembrances about helping each other out. In short, people honor the wisdom of their friends and loved ones, and, sometimes, even strangers, by recording a self-guided conversation in small groups of two or three.
Did you ever wish you’d recorded your grandmother telling you how she’d perfected her meatball recipe by happenstance? Or your father explaining how he harvests edible cactus? Do you want to ask your child what it felt like to learn a major life lesson? Or hear how that stranger at the nursing home won that ballroom dancing medal? Think it would be easier from the comfort of your kitchen table or a hospital room? Well, now there’s an app for that!
The goal is to archive the knowledge of humanity, one story at a time, through stories of the people by the people. With more than 50,000 interviews recorded so far, StoryCorps is gradually amassing a time capsule of humanity, in the form of 40-minute recorded conversations. These stories are stored in the Library of Congress, and, if you choose, published on the internet. Let’s make sure some of these 50,000+ stories reflect life the way you know it!
There are two ways to do this. Let us help or do-it-yourself:
Need some assistance with the process? Schedule an appointment and join us at the Western Folklife Center, under the glow of the neon granding irons, in our very own recording booth, Elko-style! Facilitators, volunteers and folklorists are on hand to help. But, ultimately, you choose the questions, you guide the conversation and you bring out the stories in each other.
Simply download the mobile app at StoryCorps.me, plan and record your interview. When finished, join us by affiliating your story with the Western Folklife Center initiative: at the end of the interview, when prompted, enter the keyword: westernfolklife. And listen to your neighbors’ stories by following our account at https://storycorps.me/user/wfcstorycorps/.
The premise is simple: as StoryCorps founder Dave Isay says, “Listening is an act of love.” Ask someone else-a loved one or a stranger-what they know about life. Let them leave a trace of themselves. And listen to what they have to tell you. And to tell us. It’s a legacy for humanity. But it’s also an exercise in humanity. Let’s listen to the stories of those who share the rural West with us.
The Western Folklife Center’s Media Producer Taki Telonidis and his production team recently returned from a 2-week shoot on the Blackfeet reservation in northern Montana for the documentary Healing the Warrior’s Heart, a public television special that presents a Native American perspective on both the soldier’s and the veteran’s experience. The program reveals the central role that military service plays in Native life and explores the spiritual traditions that help returning American Indian soldiers reintegrate into society and cleanse themselves of war. In addition to Taki, the production team includes partnering producer Gary Robinson, videographer Doug Monroe and sound engineer Paul Maritsas. This is Taki’s first blog entry about his experience shooting the film.
“The film shoot on the Blackfeet reservation was an intense experience, and one that served as a reminder of the poverty and tremendous need that exist among Native populations, as well as the power and hope that reside within traditions and spirituality. The Blackfeet Nation is a place where warrior identity is very much alive in our time, even though many current soldiers have lost the connection with the healing traditions practiced by their ancestors. Yet there are others for whom those traditions remain relevant both during their deployment and as they re-enter society.
Vietnam veteran Marvin Weatherwax presents an eagle feather to Martin Connelly.
“We spent a couple of days with one young man named Martin Connelly who recently returned from Afghanistan, was suffering acute symptoms of PTSD, and is now finding relief through ritual and spirituality. It seems that warrior ceremonies at Blackfeet were largely ignored as recently as 15 years ago, but are now re-emerging as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to help soldiers who are having a difficult time when they come home.
“We attended a sweat lodge for two returning veterans (one of whom was Martin), and witnessed an honoring ceremony for them in which an elder veteran/spiritual leader presented them with an eagle feather and warrior name, an important rite of passage for combat veterans.
“We also conducted interviews with two directors at the Veterans’ Administration who’ve been instrumental in establishing Native Healing ceremonies at several VA centers including here in Salt Lake City. They expressed frustration with how slowly the VA system has incorporated Native healing into its programs, and also told us that they’ve documented a decrease in the use of medication by both Native and non-native vets who take part in sweat lodges and other Native ceremonies.
“We did an interview with the head of the Crazy Dog society, who are the keepers of Blackfeet spirituality, and who include many veterans in their ranks. We were able to record some of the preparations for their annual Sundance or Okan.
Three horses and a mule
“In strategizing about what visuals could best accompany a section that discusses how the healing traditions of today are carried over from warrior history and ceremony that reach back hundreds of years, we decided to do a warrior reenactment with young riders from one of the local ranches on the Blackfeet reservation. After rain forced us to postpone the reenactment twice, the weather cooperated on the third day and we were able to shoot a very nice sequence of warriors going off and returning from war. Incidentally, this reenactment was organized by a veteran of Desert Storm and the 2nd Iraq war who was given the title of War Chief after his return home.
A scene from the Blackfeet warrior reenactment
“We came home from our trip with more than a dozen interviews, and well over 1,000 video clips which we are now labeling and organizing. Right now the thought of boiling down this mountain of video into a coherent story seems daunting, but most big projects feel that way in the early stages of editing.”
Healing the Warrior’s Heart is a production of the Western Folklife Center in collaboration with Tribal Eye Productions and KUED Channel 7, Salt Lake City’s PBS affiliate. The program will premiere in 2014. You can support this project with a stakeholder donation to Western Folklife Center Media Programs.
The intrepid crew scans the horizon: Paul Maritsas (Sound), Taki Telonidis, Gary Robinson (Partnering Producer), Doug Monroe (Director of Photography)
By Hal Cannon, Western Folklife Center Founding Director
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
There are moments at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering that one never forgets. I had such a moment last night.
I was backstage in the Convention Center Auditorium in the show called “This is My Home,” featuring Waddie Mitchell, Andy Hedges and Andy Wilkinson, and Corb Lund & The Hurtin’ Albertans. Waddie had finished his set and Andy and Andy had played a few songs when Andy Wilkinson left the stage so the younger Andy could recite a poem. I listened, wholly transfixed, as Andy recited “Mining the Mother Lode,” a poem written by Andy Wilkinson lamenting the degradation of the aquifer in the Llano Estacado in the southern panhandle of Texas.
Reminiscent of arguably the most important cowboy poem ever written—”Anthem,” by the late Texas poet Buck Ramsey—”Mining the Mother Lode” is a plea to anyone who will listen to protect the mother-lode aquifer. It is a poem of anger and loss, with an urgent message for us to pay attention while we still have a chance to save the aquifer and its life-giving water. Andy Hedges’ recitation is beautiful and heartfelt. Here’s the last stanza:
“What will we do with this gift of the mother-lode?
Pray that the poets and the dreamers remember it,
pray that the guardians hold it in stewardship,
pray that we honor it, pray that we husband it,
pray for the tribe of the mother-lode aquifer,
pray for the water, the sweet Ogallala lake,
nourishing all who tread lightly and carefully,
lightly and carefully, lightly and carefully.”
You simply MUST listen to this poem. You can find it on our cybercast. Scroll down to “This is My Home,” Friday, January 28 at 6:30 pm. The poem starts about 31 minutes and 53 seconds into the show (the rest of the show is awesome too). Bring some tissue.
Andy and Andy tell me that they have recorded the poem on their next album, which comes out in a couple of months. Stay tuned to their My Space page.
Flat Stanley came in the mail the other week. See, he was flattened by a bulletin board and now goes on adventures. He’s visiting Nevada to learn about cowboys and cowboy poetry. Flat Stanley has gone on quite a few adventures while in Elko. He drove an old ranch truck.
He pitched some hay.
He sat in a saddle.
Back in the Saddle
He learned to carve leather.
Carving Leather with Andy Stevens
He met a cowboy poet.
Flat Stanley with Waddie Mitchell
He recited some poetry.
Reciting Poetry on Stage
He met a few musicians (Glenn Ohrlin and Adrian).
Hanging with AdrianListening to Glenn Ohrlin
He played music with Dave Bourne.
Playing Piano with Dave Bourne
And he finished his night with some sarsaparilla (that’s Rooster Morris, who made Stanley his hat).
Having a Sarsaparilla with Rooster Morris
He’ll be headed back to Michigan next week, exhausted like the rest of us, and with lots of stories to tell his Kindergartner friends about becoming a cowboy poet.
He also made a flat horse friend, Pancake, but I didn’t get any pictures of them together yet. Check back in the next few days for the story of Pancake the Paint.
Fifth year stage managing at the Gathering, evidently just long enough to start remembering names and faces, and putting them together in the right combinations. I rolled in on the train on Wednesday night, and wisely stopped at the Folklike Center Saloon before heading on to bed. The crowd was peppered with cowfolk who I knew, and it really did feel like a homecoming. Such high spirits at the Gathering, and not just from the spirits.
I made my rounds through the crowd, but did pack myself off to bed at a pretty reasonable time. Sensible. The Gathering is a marathon, not a sprint, after all.
I won’t recount all the to-ing and fro-ing from the first day – backstage might be interesting a lot of the time, but there’s also a lot of sitting and waiting, going in search of a trash can or some tape, then checking the clock and sitting some more.
I had the pleasure to be backstage for Judy Blunt’s keynote speech this morning. A super-simple gig for a stage manager – no set changes, no ‘wrap it up’ handwaving, no greater organizing to be looked after than just “you’re next, you’re up.” But it was a distinct pleasure to get to hear what Judy had to say.
She hit on a familiar mournful tone of loss for some of the older ways of western livestock culture. But just at the moment that I was starting to wonder if the first Gatherings were as focused on the loss of the past, Judy tossed a hard turn into her address and reminded us how grateful a lot of folks have been for much of the progress of the last hundred years, and reminded us to look forward to how we can preserve the spirit & passion of this culture even amid all the changes. She staked her opinions deep and declared them clearly. Afterwards, she commented that she was afraid she’d be met by pitchforks and torches, but I heard many more comments like Paul Zarzyski’s, that Judy’s speech had made him cry into his mustache.
I had the middle of my day free, so I wandered doing a few regular Elko things. Picking up some boot polish, eating a so-so sandwich, pressing on further to a great cup of coffee, impulsively buying a mouth harp.
As the afternoon arrived, I headed to my rest-of-the-day gig, stage managing for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s dinner theater show over at the Great Basin College theater.
The tech crew were amazing, as always, and all the volunteers absolutely eager to help. Getting the musicians set up went perfectly, and everybody had what they needed by the scheduled end of the sound check. Perfect.
We got the place set up, the instruments all in place, the levels all set, and the band had time enough to go over a couple tricky spots, then we retreated back stage to wait for the diners to get fed, relocated and re-settled.
The show is amazing, I highly recommend it to anyone who can find the time and a ticket. Jack mostly stuck to the set list, best as he could. But the moment dictates the song it needs, and sometimes concessions must be made. I bet no one out front could even tell that two of those songs the musicians had never played with him before, though.
Much as I unreservedly endorse that show, though, I have to say, wandering in an out of Jack’s backstage monologue was certainly captivating and as entertaining as the music was. I had plenty to keep an eye on all over the theater, but when Jack starts a story, it’s mighty hard to walk away.
I heard bits and pieces about offending Peter Fonda, doing a screen test for Dennis Hopper, making a geisha cry by singing Bob Dylan, and I learned that a clew is the corner of a boat’s sail. Maybe you knew that, but it was news to me. I hated to interrupt, but it’s best if everybody gets to hear how much time there is before the show starts, so I did have to interrupt once in a while.
I have another full day of keeping the shows on the rails tomorrow, so I better not linger too late on the blog. One last thing, though – if you run in to Van Dyke Parks, I strongly recommend you try to get one of his business cards. You’ll be glad for it.
I hope to get a few backstage pics in my wanderings around Elko events tomorrow & hope to get them up with my next post. It can be an eerie half-light world, and surprisingly solitary despite the impending audience interactions.
Have fun out there everybody! More soon!
-Dan, stage manager
The walls of the press room are reverberating with Cajun music. Cowboy poets and Hungarians come and go at will. The aroma of meatballs and merlot wafts in the air. Unusual, for some. Not for Elko.
Those experienced in the ways of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering can be somewhat prepared for what’s in store this week. The tenderfoots (tenderfeet?) will have the benefit of complete and unexpected immersion into the cowboy culture.
Me? I’m a veteran. My parent’s have been forcing me to recite at the Gathering since I was seven. I’ve seen performers from most continents, excluding Antarctica (although I wouldn’t be surprised if Meg somehow recruits talent from the subarctic). Yet in spite of these experiences, each year is always surpassed by the next, without fail.
The Gathering never ceases to amaze me with the talent it brings to Nevada, or its ability to unite cultures under one roof. What is more incredible are the ties these people have, despite living worlds away. Music, song, horsemanship, nature’s boon, hard work. A livelihood based on an openness and freedom not found many places in this day and age. Here, language barriers are defeated with horsehair strings and accordion notes. We may only see these individuals once a year, maybe once a lifetime, but the connections and memories seldom fade.
What do I have planned? Make a few new friends and see a dozen old ones. Learn a few words in Hungarian and dance the zydeco. Partake in the overall camaraderie. In the meantime, I’m off to see Geno Delafose and the French Rockin’ Boogie. Hope to see you there if you’re not here already.
Speaking of Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie, I have a story about how everyone in Elko comes together to make these performances happen. For those of you who don’t remember, I’m Tamara, Gathering Manager. That title is apt for what happened yesterday.
I got a call at 7:15 am on Wednesday morning. This was early for me, especially since workshops and shows weren’t starting until 9:00 am, but I dutifully answered the phone. Geno was calling to arrange a ride to the airport. He and the band got in on Tuesday, as planned, but their luggage stayed in Salt Lake City. They were told to pick up the luggage Wednesday morning at the Elko airport.
I headed in to the Folklife Center, planning on driving the 15 person van to the airport. Luckily, I ran into Carol Gamm and handed her the keys. She took them over to the airport while I handled some other issues (our shuttle coordinator fell ill with a nasty bug that’s going around, so I was filling in until we could get things straightened out, which we did by 9:00 am). At 8:30 am I got another call from Geno. Their luggage did not make it onto the 8:00 am flight. Their luggage, which included their instruments, was coming in at 11:30 am.
Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie were scheduled to perform for the CowKids’ Stampede at 10:00 am.
We couldn’t disappoint 900 kids, of course. So I got on the phone to find three instruments: bass guitar, single-note accordion, and frottoir, the washboard. First I called Mike Polise, of Polise Music. He had a piano accordion and bass guitar. Easy. Geno said he could play any kind of accordion, so we were set there.
So then I had to find a washboard. Sure, Elko is a town that holds on to its past, but where was I going to find a washboard at 8:30 in the morning?
Luckily for me, Rori Holford, who helps with the exhibits, remembered seeing one at Cowboy Joe. She called over there to see if we could borrow the washboard. The women working at Cowboy Joe were gracious enough to lend us their antique washboard.
The look on Demetric Thomas’s face was priceless when I walked in with a washboard. Carol ran to get some spoons and Darryl Guillory (Geno’s neighbor) found some rope. A frottoir was born!
Mike Polise dropped off the bass guitar and the accordion, and then ran back home to grab some drumsticks. In the meanwhile, Geno had decided to play the keyboard, and Colin, the sound engineer, set it up on stage in less than seven minutes.
900 kids were treated to the show of the year, and the show even started on time! Many thanks to Mike Polise and Cowboy Joe.
photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland
The 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is off to a great start! Thanks for being here, and enjoy the show!
P.S. All the luggage came in on the 11:30 am flight.
Geno Delafose and his band French Rockin’ Boogie, a cowboy zydeco band from southwest Louisiana, performed at the Gathering for the first time last year. Listen to what he had to say about his experience.
Geno and the band are returning this year and will be playing the Saturday Night Dance, among other performances. We just can’t wait to get out there on the dance floor! Dick and Sandy Sturm hosted zydeco and cajun dances at the Western Folklife Center all summer and part of the fall, so there are lots of Elkoans who are ready to shake their groove “thang.”
It’s that time again… the Western Folklife Center is abuzz with activity. The kids programs are in full swing in the G Three Bar Theater and in the Pioneer Saloon, where the kids are donning their Wrangler bandanas and drinking sarsaparilla at the bar after a morning of leather tooling (imagine 30+ hammers pounding in unison), a musical performance by Merrily Wright, and a tour of the Hungarian exhibition. It’s how we start every Gathering and seeing those school buses out in front of the building really puts us all in the spirit of the event.
It is always amazing to me how this event comes together every year. Every staff member and volunteer has a job to do and everyone puts his or her nose to the grindstone and does whatever it takes to make this event a success. There are challenges and setbacks, victories and meltdowns, but by the time people start arriving in Elko, we will be ready for them—”Come hell or high water!” as my mama used to say.
Throughout this week and next, we will be posting to this blog and sharing our experiences with you. For those of you who are traveling to Elko, we wish you safe travels as we eagerly anticipate your arrival. For those who can’t make it, we will miss you and we encourage you to read this blog, watch the Cybercast on our website, which starts on Wednesday night, and keep an eye out for new guerilla videos on our YouTube channel on Friday and/or Saturday. Every time we post to our blog, we’ll give you a heads up on Facebook so you will know to come and take a look.
And away we go!
Posted by Darcy Minter, Communications Director, Western Folklife Center
After riding horseback for more than 390 miles over the past two weeks, our friend Henry Real Bird is one day’s ride from his final destination at the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. Henry is the Poet Laureate of Montana, and he has traversed the state, visiting small towns and Indian Reservations along his route and distributing books of poetry. In this last installment of our conversations with Henry, he explains how this odyssey has given him a new perspective of his homeland, and of America.
LISTEN to our final interview with Henry.
National Public Radio also interviewed Henry today (July 30, 2010). Visit their website to listen to the NPR story.
Henry Real Bird’s Journey Poem
Henry’s journey across Montana has inspired him to work on a poem that attempts to chronicle the experiences he’s had along the way. Below is audio and a transcript of the first draft of his poem, which he plans to complete once he’s back home at the Crow Agency.
LISTEN to Henry’s Journey Poem
(Early draft with apologies for butchering Crow language spellings and punctuation)
Wind blows free upon the Missouri River, a big river, osh geza, where my life began. There is talk of where it is winter all of the time, woodlands and the lakes, but to move out of the earth lodge, gardens of corn, squash maker, thank you, Aho, to let me stand in this Earth lodge again, happiness beyond words, corn woman in a dream, she appeared, riding Paint through a vast sea of buffalo grass swaying in cool summer wind that blows free along the Missouri River from patches of Sweet Sage, happiness fills my glass, traces of where life has been clipity-clap from crescent moon mix sliver.
Oil boom on land of Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara. Life is full, abundant, flow of US currency greasing the edges of their mouths in no flaw. Eating juneberries routine of no urgency. Trail of the Buffalo turned into a trail between elevators to Cirrhosis Park, along the Missouri.
Sweat lodge with Assiniboine, I am one of the ones with the Breechcloth. Story of good health to give from the Smoker family. Smooth, gentle rolling plains, north below, north star with whitish breaks to noonday sun. Juneberry pie from Chief of Fort Peck Tribe, campfire smoke rising into stars, part of spiritual journey, a tear-wiping ceremony. I saddle each day to a prayer.
Young, beautiful families, Phillips County Fair, sparkle of dreams, America’s dream. Promise land. I remember who I am in the sweat lodge. Wishful thoughts and prayers were given to us to become human beings.
The moon in her struggle to be free tossed and turned and wiggled out of her reflection upon the Milk River. She offered dreams and promises. Lavender twilight of morning catches me easing into the day along edges of Milk’s glacier waters. Complete in peace, Christian song done in sign language, the assimilation.
And, on the other side of Fur Cap Mountain, Little Rocky Mountains, water pollution from mine, no money, water restoration. Who is going to speak for the trout, the water being Mission Creek?
We, the ones with the Breechcloth with relatives from across the sea. America’s people stand together against ills of the world. Glaciers shrink. How much longer can the ice hold Polar Bear? We make a stand, fight for peace.
Sitting Bull’s steps ended free life. Moving lodges follow the trail of the buffalo north of the Missouri River where the wind blows where it may. Chief Joseph, “I will fight no more forever,” haunts and rings into a woeful whisper ending in the cool evening moon shadows of Bear Paw Mountains. Riding Paint through a vast sea of buffalo grass swaying in cool summer wind that blows free along America’s Rivers. From patches of Sweet Sage happiness fills my glass. Traces of where life has been, clippity-clap from crescent moon, mix slivers. May we do our hearts will, to no end, Aho, America the Beautiful.
Me, I’m going to get the horses blessed at Rocky Boy.
TRANSCRIPT OF HENRY REAL BIRD’S INTERVIEW ON JULY 30, 2010
What’s the contrast of your pace and the people that are passing you by on the highway?
Henry Real Bird
Yeah, I just saddle up and I go the pace of my horse and that’s what I take care of. And in the morning when it’s cool I try to trot as much as I can to cover as much country as I can, and then when it heats up I slow down and I take a break. The movement of the horse, and the movement of mother Earth, and the crescent Moon we just came from. That’s when I started out…the crescent Moon on the Missouri River and the Juneberries were just plentiful and to just be eating that while everybody is using the Blackberry or using the phone in an air -conditioned RV pulling a small vehicle, and just cruising down the road. That’s their style and that’s good. But me, I just wanted to go back, and to be able to go slowly and to meet the people and to see the land, yeah.
How many miles have you gone?
Henry Real Bird
I think I’ve gone 395 miles, somewhere around there, because I think they said Rocky Boy’s is about twenty miles away.
So what’s next for you, Henry?
Henry Real Bird
After I do this one here, 300 of my children’s books are being shipped out, and I pick them up and distribute them at a youth rodeo on Rocky Boy, yeah. So that’s what I’ll be doing Monday or Tuesday.
Henry Real Bird
Oh, yeah, I’m lucky. I’m thankful that I’m able to do this. That type of activity that creates the exhaustion to where we can sleep good at night…and to be able to get into…I’ve had some good dreams here. I saw a dream of snow flying here a few days ago. I say that dream to all the people in radio land to where they will reach that day where the first snow fall is, and to be with their loved ones and to go through many of those first snowfalls upon this sacred mother Earth. And so I was able to be given that dream on the road here and I enjoy that, yeah.
Henry, how was the demolition derby, by the way?
Henry Real Bird
The demolition derby was the best. I haven’t seen that since I was a little boy over on Crow Agency. On this one here they changed the rules and they have heats, but back in those days they’d get the infield of the race track and its a free-for-all to the last car standing. But here they have rules and everything else, you know. But it was good. And on that one there, I mean those young families there…beautiful. Women and men with beautiful kids and so full of promise, it made you happy to know that America is so beautiful, so full of dreams. And to put on the best clothes that they have to come out to the fair reminded me of being young. Walking in new boots and new pants going to the Billings Fair, Montana State Fair. So I was able to take in everything there. It was beautiful.
Oh, that’s wonderful. Henry, thank you so much for letting us be a part of your journey and recording this. People have really enjoyed hearing your voice on our blog. It’s really wonderful to be a part of it.
Henry Real Bird
I’m having a beautiful time. Thank you.
Thanks, we’ll talk to you soon. Let us know how it turns out.
Henry Real Bird
Ok, I’ll do that. We’ll see you later.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.