Field Recordings – Various Artists – Vol 10/11 Texas & Arkansas – Songs / Plus Interviews and Songs of Ex Slaves (1933-1941)
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Informative booklet notes by Professor Steve Tracy. Detailed discography. The recordings that make up the bulk of these two CDs feature material that belongs to a genre that provided some of the most significant examinations of and challenges to the hypocrisy of the notion of an existing wholly democratic America, the slave narrative.
The material included herein was made by JOHN HENRY FAULK, from Austin, Texas. Faulk began collecting Afro-American folklore for the Library of Congress and in 1942 and travelled to remote areas in Texas seeking out and finding informants who remembered slavery times and recording and/or writing down their stories. Faulk himself reports that his lack of familiarity with acetate disc recording machines caused irreparable technical problems with a number of recordings, but thankfully his recordings of LAURA SMALLEY and AUNT HARRIET SMITH survived, giving us a rare and excellent opportunity to hear first hand accounts of ex-slaves whose experiences included instances of horrifying victimization (as in Smalley’s account of a whipping and the subsequent snuffing out of a pipe on the beaten slave’s back), deception (as when a slave holder neglects to tell his slaves that they have been emancipated), but also courage and defiance (as when a slave mother refuses to allow her child to be beaten – “She was gonna fight him,” Smalley laughs delightedly and proudly in the narrative). These remarkable and valuable recordings are tributes to the strength and resilience of these two ladies, as well as to the humanity and foresight of the southerner Faulk, who, though occasionally awkward or clumsy in his questionings and promptings (“Did she scream?” he asks Smalley when she describes the pipe snuffing incident, “I reckon she did,” responds Smalley), generally elicits interesting responses in unfamiliar and uncomfortable circumstances.
The recording by WASHINGTON (“LIGHTNIN”‘) and a convict group was done for the Library of Congress in Sandy Point, Texas in December, 1933. The Grey Goose, the same song as the one recorded seven years later by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Quartet in New York City, is an attractive bit of antiphonal singing. LESTER POWELL’S snippet of a lullaby, Go to Sleep, was recorded in Weirgate, Texas on Sept. 30, 1940. This sounds very much like a female voice on the recording, suggesting that either the name was mis-transcribed or the female performer had been given a traditionally male name. JOHN L. HANDCOX is described in the notes to Songs for Political Action as a labour poet and union organizer inspired to poetry by the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and active in the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union. Born on Feb. 5, 1904 in Monroe County, Arkansas, Handcox was the first recipient of the Joe Hill Award for a half a century’s support of labour causes. There is a significant amount of irony in the name as it echoes the name of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, especially since his labour protest songs were recorded by Charles Seeger and Sidney Robertson for the Archive of Folk Song in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capitol. Handcox is a cackling singer with an interesting edge to his voice, singing his songs boisterously and meaningfully – especially There is Mean Things and Raggedy, Raggedy, where he repeats in most stanzas “We don’t get nothing for our labour” – and driving home his complaints with a determination and straightforward artistry that sits quite well beside the touching and dignified ex-slave narratives with which they share their space.