Burkeville-Newton 5/39

May 16, 1939 to May 18, 1939
Burkeville, Newton County, Texas, United States
Sacred, play-party, and lyric songs, as well as occupational material of river roustabouts and railroad section gangs, including spoken re-creations of the work, performed by Henry Truvillion at his farmhouse on Route 87 between Burkeville and Newton, Texas. (87 is presumed as Ruby T. Lomax notes that he lived on the "main highway" between the towns.) Truvillion was first recorded by the Lomaxes in 1933; Alan had urged John to visit him again and make these further recordings. From Ruby T.'s extensive notes on Truvillion and the session (her use of dialect is preserved, with considerable distaste, here): "Yessir, I knows you,” said Henry Truvillion as he greeted Mr. Lomax on the porch of his East Texas farmhouse. "You come here once with your son. Yessir, I got your letter, but I didn't see no use to answer, 'cause everything's changed now; I done took to preachin'. I don't sing none o' them songs like you want no more." "Don't you work at Wiergate any more?" "Oh, yessir, I works on a week days and I preaches on Sundays, first an' third Sundays." "And you quit singing those pretty work songs and calls?" "Oh, no, sir, they's part o' my business. I has to call de track an' all dat to git de work done. But them others, them old-fashioned plantation melods, I done had a complete change an' I don't sing dat kind no more. Us sings spirituals now, an' church hymns,- short meter, yessir, common meter an' long meter, mostly long meter." It was late afternoon, almost dusk, "fust dark.” Henry was exhausted. He and his family had just returned from the funeral of his wife's sister-in-law, her brother's wife who had left a tiny baby girl for the Truvillions to "tend.” There had been sleepless nights of sitting up, with the sick woman and then with her lifeless body, and everybody was exhausted further by the long exciting funeral service. And so Mr. Lomax did not press Henry Truvillion to promise him "worl'ly" songs, but let him relax in the cool of the front porch and ramble quietly from snatches of spirituals to comment and miniature sermon. "'When de roll be's called in Heaven', dat's one o' my favorites," he began. "Dat's come a long way down in our family. Dat's one o' old Colonel Steppin's (Stephen?), my great grandfather on my mother's side. He used to sing it, and also my grandfather independent back in Mississippi. Did you ever hear it? It goes 'When de roll be's called in de Heaven I'll answer to my name'. You see, God's got a sec'etary dat keeps a list de way folks has got to go. I don't care how far down de (the) list my name is. In fact, I ain't homesick yet, an' he can jes' skip my name when he comes to it." There was no writing down the words of the song without dispelling his mood and only a phrase here and there was caught: "'Well, he set so high and he was so low',” and Henry commented, "He knows what he gwine do 'fore he starts." Two other spirituals he sang before we left, Ride on, Mighty Rider, and Shout on, Israelites. These songs he promised to try to sing into our microphone if we would return some evening later in the week after he had caught up with sleep and farm-work. Henry informed Mr. Lomax that he had not spelled his name correctly on the recent letter. "It's Truvillion, not Trevillion. My father and mother couldn't read or write and they didn't know how to spell their name, but I looked it up in some kind o' dictionary and found it spelled T-r-u-v-i-double l-i-o-n,- maybe a French name, somebody told me. But I reckin I ain't no sure 'nough Frenchman, ha! ha!" Henry Truvillion is foreman of a work gang for Wier Lumber Company, whose headquarters are at Wiergate, Texas. He was born in Mississippi where some of his family still live. He has been twice married. His only living child by his first wife is a man grown who lives in Mississippi. His present wife, a young woman who calls him "Mr. Henry,” and five children, from eleven years down to one in 1939, help make his home on his farm on the highway between Newton and Burkeville, Texas, some eight miles from his work which he reaches in his substantial-looking green Ford car. Henry thinks that East Texas lumber may play out some day, and so he has "bought a little place to work and lay something by." He has a neat white house of four rooms, comfortably furnished, and he and the children cultivate vegetable garden, flowers in the front yard and an orchard. Cotton, corn and peanuts are his best crops. He keeps a good cow and raises pigs and chickens. His mules look well-fed. And now, to supplement his regular Wier job and his farm, he has taken to preaching. Some Sundays he gets as much as seven dollars from the collection plate. When we bade him goodbye at the end of the week he requested us to send him a "Breeze-case, to carry my Bible in to church and to Conference.” His wife, Oneal, is a faithful helpmeet in the church as well as at home. She is better educated than "Mr. Henry,” and she and the children, as they get old enough to go to school, are fast ridding Henry's vocabulary of many of his most picturesque phrases and pronunciations. The children's names are: Jim Henry, Ruby Lee, Garfield, Dora Ruth and Modistine. One evening later in the week we returned and set up our machine with batteries in the Truvillion living-room. We tried to persuade Henry to go with us to our hotel in Newton, where we could hitch on to electricity, but he refused. He said frankly that he was afraid, afraid that such a visit to a white people's hotel might cause trouble for him after we were gone. Henry gave us his spirituals very readily. We found that his wife served as a second line of defense for his conscience in the matter of singing "worl'ly songs.” But after she heard the spirituals played back, she made no objections to Henry's recording his everyday work songs. Then she could see no harm in his singing the inoffensive children's songs, especially when he took Ruby Lee into his lap to help with "Mary had a red dress." Hadn't he sung her to sleep with it many a night? "From then on out" Henry relaxed and let his mind slip back, "way back yander,” to his childhood days in Mississippi on through his varied experiences of work and amusement, prompted now and then by a discreetly quiet but leading question from Mr. Lomax. Some of his explanations and comments which we tried to record are as interesting as the songs. There had been some battery trouble, calling for a trip to Wiergate for a mechanic, and midnight overtook us with Henry still recalling fresh songs and fresh stories. In his early childhood Henry follows the plow, cut and hauled wood, chopped and picked cotton. But for forty years, since he was thirteen, he has worked mainly on the railroad. The first railroad that he worked for "regular" was "the I.C. mainline.” His first boss on the I.C. was W.L. Renfrew; "For I-couldn't-hardly count-the-years, I stayed bent down with a white man over me." He has done all kinds of railroad work in his time, and he can tell them off on his fingers: "first, gradin' in the levee camp, now called gradin' camp; then up an' down the river on a cotton boat, cuttin' willow an' makin' mats for holes in the levee an' placin' 'em. Made a dollar a day cuttin' willow, a mean, tedjous job." After that he did "river world, a little too killin',” he said. Then s ome work around town. "Spent twelve years, 'bout, wid de shevil (shovel).” When he quit the mainline, he "went on the Northfield Lumber Company." For the past twenty-four years, he estimated, "or a little wusser,” he has worked in East Texas and Western Louisiana. He has worked for the Wier Lumber Company nineteen years, "track-layin', steel-layin', (spikin'), track-linin' (straightenin').” He became lead-spiker and later boss. He and his gang spend most of their time building temporary track for timber-cutting gangs and timber-hauling trains. Henry Truvillion's mind is stored with facts about his experiences, his work- and play- mates, his bosses, from which he draws the many details of fact and incident that come out in his songs. For a half hour at a time he can reel off names and characteristics of bosses, engineers and other railroad and company officials of present and past decades. He did not make it clear just when he helped load cotton on river-boats, but details of the work show up in his songs that only a roustabout would know. Texts of his songs and calls, as well as his recorded conversation, are very scrappy and incomplete; first, because the vocabulary of gang work songs is foreign to the uninitiated, and, again, because Henry's amazing performance fascinated his listeners and made them forget the mundane task of writing down words. Like many another Southern Negro Henry claimed to have "Made up" John Henry. "You made it up yourself?" questioned Mr. Lomax. "Well, no, sir, not 'xactly by myself. Some other boys holp me put it together."

Track-lining holler (#1)

Calling track (#1)

Calling track (#2)

Unloading rails

I'll Answer To My Name

Ride On, Mighty Rider

Israelites Shoutin' In Heaven

I'm Gonna Lay Down My Life For My Lord

Steel-driving song

Wake Up, Sleepy (roustabout song)

January, February (tie-tamping song)

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