Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie: Texas, 1939

Lomax Digital Archive

Between 1933 and 1946, John A. Lomax made some 80 hours of recordings in the state of Texas, his home state. (John was born in Mississippi in 1867, but his family moved to rural Bosque County, Texas, near Waco, just after his second birthday.) It’s a massive amount of material, reflecting an extraordinary diversity of vernacular traditions, and featuring the first and last recordings that John made. We’ve labored for quite a few years to secure the funding to digitize, catalog, and make available the collection in its entirety, but have to date come up short. In 2020 our colleagues at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center kindly provided us with the transfers they’d done some years earlier of the ten hours of Texas recordings that John and his second wife Ruby Terrill Lomax (“Miss Terrill,” as he always called her) made in the spring of 1939—our idea being that this discrete collection could function as a representative sample of all the Lomax Texas material while we continue our efforts to digitally preserve and make the entirety available. With the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, we digitally cataloged all of the ‘39 recordings and prepared the catalog for inclusion in the Lomax Digital Archive, where they are now available for your exploration and enjoyment. This exhibit attempts to provide an introduction to the collection, through some of its more notable performers and/or performances. We’ve linked throughout to the fine research conducted by Amy Bersch into various sites and subjects of the Lomaxes’ Texas recordings and presented on the East Texas History website. There you’ll find biographies of selected performers, background on some of the recording sites, and some remarkable photos provided by residents of the communities and/or descendants of artists. 

In a Plymouth with a Presto

by Dr. Langston Collin Wilkins

John and Ruby Lomax’s 1939 Texas fieldtrip documented the Lone Star State’s creative culture around one hundred years after it gained independence from Mexico. This tour was the initial leg of the husband-and-wife team’s larger Southern expedition that also reached Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and more over the course of that summer. The trip spanned six weeks and included a diverse range of locales—everything from the even-then cultural behemoth of Houston to relatively small but creatively rich towns like Falfurrias and Comanche. Traveling by 1939 Plymouth and armed with a Presto recording machine, the Lomaxes documented a wide swath of the cultural groups that populated Texas at the time, especially African Americans, Mexican Americans, and of course Anglo-Americans. The Lomaxes’ recordings are important not just because of the captured performances, but also because of the insight they offer into the Texas’ cultural climate between the World Wars. 

According to Ruby Lomax's notes, the group reached Houston in early April to catch a performance of "The Good Thief," a passion play passed down within the Mexican American Lopez Family. At the time of the arrival, Houston had just become the largest city in the state in terms of population, and the center of its industrial and agricultural growth. The performance was to take place at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, which is "The Mother Church" of Mexican American Catholicism in Houston. Located in the historical and still predominantly Hispanic Second Ward district, the church was built in 1912 to serve the worship and culture of the city's growing Mexican population.  

On Easter Sunday, April 9, the Lopez family took a break from preparing for their evening performance to stage a mini-performance for the Lomaxes’ documentation purposes at Providence Home, an educational and worship space for catechists. After recording a couple of songs from the play, the Lomaxes’ recording machine became inoperable and they set up a second session on April 23, this time at the Sugar Land home of Gonzalo Lopez, patriarch of the family.

Sitting some 20 miles southwest of Houston, Sugar Land is currently a vibrant suburb that offers an escape from the more overwhelming aspects of Houston’s physical spread.  In 1939, it was a company town run by the Imperial Sugar company (hence the name). After ending its use of the primarily Black convict-leasing system, Imperial Sugar employed mainly Mexican farmers to work their crops. This growing community of Mexican farmers harvested tobacco and cotton as well. Ruby notes that Gonzalo was working his family’s farm when the crew arrived to document his family's traditions. 

Postcard, Sugar Land, TX Sugar mill.

The Lomaxes recorded seven sacred songs of “The Good Thief,” but also various Spanish-language folksongs that had been passed down within the family across several decades such as “La vida de los arrieros” or “The Life of the Mule-drivers.” Lomax’s work with the Lopez family captures Catholicism’s role in convening and affirming Texas' Mexican population. Similarly, we witness the power of song in maintaining familial and cultural ties across time and space. 

The Lomaxes also visited several small Texas towns, documenting game songs, fiddle tunes, ballads, and more, in both English and Spanish. In Pipe Creek, they met Elmo Newcomer who offered several fiddle tunes, most notably one he simply called “Mabel.” Also known as the finest dance caller in his area, Newcomer was familiar with John Lomax, having purchased his collection of cowboy songs when he was a youth. Over in Comanche, John’s sister Shirley offered songs she heard during her Texas upbringing. Down in Kingsville, a South Texas town not far from the Mexican border, Francisco Leal and Agapito Salinas performed two Spanish-language songs with graceful guitar accompaniment. 

The Lomaxes’ Texas field study was undergirded by longstanding relationships with local insiders who possessed various levels of power. Their work in Falfurrias is a good example of this. The South Texas town was founded around the turn of the century by a Rio Grande Valley rancher named Ed Lasater, who used his earnings from the dairy industry to develop the town’s infrastructure and economy. Lasater died in 1930, and his 300,000-acre ranch was left to his widow Mary, who happened to have been John’s classmate at the University of Texas decades prior; thus the Lomaxes resided on the Lasater ranch during their stay in Falfurrias. Mary Lasater also informed them about Lake N. Porter, an 85-year-old Mississippi-born Texan who served as Goliad County sheriff but was also a champion fiddler. Porter played several tunes for the Lomaxes including his personal favorite, “Black Jack Grove.” 

The recordings at Brazoria County’s Clemens State Farm and Ramsey State Farm are as much stories of power (both the state’s and the researchers’) as they are of the rich performance practices that occur behind the walls. In the 1930s, African Americans in Texas were incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of whites, and made up nearly 40% of the prison system. Most of these inmates were housed in farm-units where they picked cotton to the benefit of the state prison budget. Then prison administrator Lee Simmons, inspired by his Southern upbringing, made the prison system self-sufficient by forcing Black inmates into agribusiness. Antebellum romanticism also influenced his development of the prison system’s creative culture. Under Simmons’ watch and urging, Black inmates participated in officially sanctioned rodeos, glee clubs, and radio shows, as well as musicking in their segregated social spaces. 

The folklorists traveled to Clemens State Farm on Saturday, April 15, to record a group of Black adult male inmates whom they disrespectfully called “the boys.” This manner of racial paternalism, along with a Southern romanticism like Simmons’, undergirded John Lomax’s work with Black practitioners and traditions. According to Ruby Lomax’s notes, John Lomax suggested the type of material he was looking for, and the inmates, likely motivated by the oppressive prison system and the hope of these researchers’ intervention, were eager to oblige. The result was over three hours of recordings that included work songs, sacred songs, instrumental performances, and, of course, many blues numbers. 

Ramsey State Farm Camp No. 4

During their trip to Ramsey State Farm, the Lomaxes met a similarly eager group of African American inmates. Wallace “Big Stavin Chain” Chains and Sylvester “Lil Stavin Chain” Jones, who collectively and aptly went by “The Stavin Chains,” contributed the stirring blues number “My Poor Mother Keeps on Praying for Me,” a musical lament that feels very relevant to their experiences as incarcerated men. The group of Ramsey performers also included James “Iron Head” Baker, an artist who was already familiar to the Lomaxes. Baker had first encountered John Lomax when he was an inmate at Central Prison. “Iron Head” performed a couple of sacred songs during the Ramsey recording session. Ruby’s descriptions note how “Iron Head” served as an organizer of sorts among his inmates, pushing them to eschew popular music songs because Lomax “don’t want that kind o’ stuff.”

These prison recordings are a multifaceted slice of a precarious life. They are an incredible look into the musicality of Black life, and into state power, in Texas at the time. However, one may wonder what the collection would have looked like without Lomax’s racial script informing the inmates’ repertoire during the recording sessions. 

John and Ruby T. Lomax’s 1939 Texas trip resulted in a complicated portrait of the Lone Star State. On the one hand, it bears witness to the state’s incredible diversity and vibrant creative landscape. On the other hand, it reveals the racism, segregation, and inequality that are deeply rooted in the Texas soil. The Lomaxes’ philosophy and methods too were shaped by these problematic power dynamics. Ultimately, the true value of these recordings hinges upon listeners’ recognizing the many layers of meaning embedded within them.

From Ruby Terrill Lomax’s field notes:

We left Port Aransas, where we had spent the winter months, on March 31. At Arkansas Pass, on the mainland, we unboxed and loaded into our Plymouth the fine, almost-new recording machine, microphone, stand and converter, leaving the two heavy batteries to be shipped directly to Houston by express. Then we headed for Austin where we knew a mechanic who could check the machine to be sure all parts were there and working.

On April 4 we arrived at Houston, which we made headquarters for the next two weeks. The engagement that set the date for this trip was a performance of a Sacred Drama, The Good Thief, about which Sister Joan of Arc of the Our Lady of the Lake College had written us. It was to be presented on Easter Sunday, April 9, at Guadalupe Church, Houston, by a group of Mexican Texans led by the Gozalo Lopez Family of Sugarland. With the help of Sister Mary Dolores an appointment to record the choral parts of this drama was arranged for the afternoon of April 9. Unfortunately after two of the choruses had been recorded something went wrong with the machine; there being no electrician at call on Sunday afternoon, the recording had to be postponed and a date was set for a meeting at the Sugar Land home of the Lopez family.

 

Man on porch

La vida de los arrieros

 

Brothers Gonzalo and Cleofe Lopez, recorded at the former’s farm near Sugar Land, Texas, performing La Vida de los arrieros, The Muleteers’ Life—a song about the freedom and sorrows of being a muleskinner, with a reassurance to the muleskinner's sweetheart that he'll always be her lover. The Lopez brothers and their extended family were introduced to the Lomaxes by a nun named Sister Dolores, in Houston, who had taken an interest in the passion play called El buen ladrón, or the Good Thief, handed down through several generations of Lopezes and mentioned by Ruby T. Lomax above.

Fiddle Tunes

John and Ruby managed to hit several terrific fiddlers that Spring in Texas. The oldest and perhaps most illustrious of these fiddlers was retired cowboy and sheriff Lake N. Porter of Falfurrias. Ruby later described him in her notes: 

[Porter], is a charter member of the Texas Old Trail Drivers Association. He went up the [Old Chisholm] trail three or four times, often sawing his fiddle as he rode along. For a long time he discontinued playing the fiddle and singing, but he has taken it up again recently, and now 'he doesn't do anything else all day long,' so his wife reports. The couple celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary last December (1938). They live in a comfortable cottage with their own garden and chickens…. [Their] son has recently written to thank Mr. Lomax, for giving his parents so much pleasure by recording the fiddle tunes and to enquire whether he might get copies of the records. Mr. and Mrs. Porter were very much pleased to be 'invited out' to a public restaurant for dinner. 'Black Jack Grove' is his favorite fiddle tune.

Black Jack Grove

Recorded in Falfurrias, Texas
 
Lake N. Porter. By Travis Keese.

The great Jesse Elmo Newcomer, or—as he was identified on the two records he made for the Cro-Mart label in the 1940s—the Pipe Creek Kid. Not to be confused with the East Kentucky tune called “Glory In the Meetinghouse,” his “Glory to the Meetinghouse” (or “Mabel”) was recorded by the Lomaxes at Elmo’s home in Pipe Creek along the San Antonio-Bandera road, May 3, 1939. It begins with the truly sublime lyric: 

Love it is an awful thing and beauty is a blossom / And if you want your finger bit then poke it at a possum

Ruby T. reported that:
Mr. Newcomer was introduced to the Lomaxes by J. Marvin Hunter, editor of the Frontier Times and Director of the Frontier Times Museum in the town of Bandera. Mr. Newcomer, his wife Birdee Augusta Ellis and four children live in an old two-room house, where Mr. Newcomer lived from the age of two (he was born in San Antonio in 1896), and where his mother died when he was four. He told John and Ruby that he 'always' played these tunes and is a favorite caller at dances. [She writes elsewhere that he had the 'reputation of being the best dance caller in the county.] His greeting to Mr. Lomax was 'Shake, boy. I've heard about you all my life. Me an' a neighbor boy was both left to live alone with our fathers. We read in a paper when we was about fourteen years old, that you was sellin' a book of cowboy songs. So we scraped our savings together an' sent em to you an' sure 'nough here come the book. Here, Clyde, bring me that cowboy song book. Can you reach it? (It's put away up high where the baby can't reach to get to it). We read it and sung from it so much and loaned it out so much that it's might nigh tore up." 

And there was the 1910 edition of the book of cowboy songs, no two pages hanging together, but apparently all there between the covers.

 

Elmo Newcomer and Ijits

On the evening of Sunday, May 4, 1939, the Lomaxes found themselves in Pipe Creek, Texas, at a tourist cabin where they set up their Presto recording machine and recorded a trio composed of Clinton Saathoff, Otis Evans, and Charles Eckhardt playing square-dance tunes and animal imitations, with Eckhardt blowing an old-fashioned cow-horn he’d fashioned himself. Ruby described Eckhardt as a “skillful tanner, leather-tooler, hunter, fisherman. When he visited the Lomaxes' cabin he was wearing his 'new' buckskin shirt, which he had shot, dressed, treated and sewed himself, and which he had been wearing five years.” 

Work songs, blues, and display pieces from Texas prison farms

Throughout the Texas penitentiary system, the Lomaxes documented the inmates as they worked clearing ground, planting crops, and chopping timber, keeping time with axes or hoes, adapting to their condition the slavery-time hollers that sustained their forebears and thus creating a new corpus of American song.

The first* recordings of the group work songs sung by Black inmates of the brutal Southern penitentiary farms were made by John and Alan Lomax in Texas, in December of 1933—first at the Central State Farm (now known as C Unit) near Sugarland; and then at the Darrington Prison Farm south of Houston. And what were these places, but for all intents and purposes reconstitutions the slavery-era plantations serving the explicit purpose of turning a profit for the states and implicitly to preserve the white supremacy of Jim Crow through a complex system of intimidation, exploitation, and brutalization. 

John and Alan, together and apart, recorded in such prison farms throughout the 1930 and ‘40s, throughout the South. All the former states of the Confederacy maintained such institutions, and the Lomaxes visited them all. But it was the extensive prison network of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice where John Lomax made the bulk of his work-song recordings. 

John Lomax always prioritized recording in prisons. It was in the Darrington State Farm in Texas where, in 1933, he proved his hypothesis that older forms of Southern Black music would have been preserved there, namely in the form of the group work songs (known in Texas as “river songs,” as they accompanied labor performed in the bottomlands of the Brazos and Trinity rivers). But repeat visits to carceral institutions throughout the South produced documents of a whole range of Black vernacular music, including recordings of some genuinely monumental artists.

*John first attempted to document the work-gang songs in July of 1933, but the cylinder recorder he was traveling with was hopelessly inferior to the task of capturing the many voices of the men along the “line” — the long line of inmates inching forward as one, singing at their work, whether clearing ground with hoes, chopping wood with axes, or picking cotton and dragging sacks behind them. His later disc recorder wasn’t much better suited to the task, so John learned to set up small groups or individual performers during their noontime break. Thus the Lomaxes were never able to record the actual line, and instead the records they made are of re-enactments of the work and the singing.

Among the foremost of the artists recorded was a singer and guitarist named Smith Casey,  a native of Riverside, Texas, on the Trinity River northeast of Huntsville. A terrific guitar player and a deeply affecting singer, Casey made his only recordings in April of 1939, while he was serving a 99-year sentence for murder at the Clemens State Farm. He didn’t record a mediocre song for the Lomaxes, and perhaps his finest is a song called “Shorty George.” 

Casey grew up in Black community of Riverside, along the Trinity River northeast of Huntsville, Texas. Most everything we know about him was taken down by the late researcher Mack McCormick (and published, in 2019, in The Blues Come to Texas), who visited Riverside in the 1960s and interviewed, among others, Carrie Peterson Sims Jackson, Casey’s aunt and the woman who raised him. Casey helped his aunt and her husband work their farm, but by the age of 15 he was playing music for what living he got. 

“He was like any other man, he liked to avoid work,” she told McCormick. “He was very good. He went around singing church songs and some others. He sang reels and blues and religious music. Then he started going to dances and making money.” Smith formed a string band with three other young musicians—two fiddles, two guitars—and they played for dances around Riverside, though apparently most of his income came from busking. McCormick offers a portrait of these activities: 

Six foot tall and slenderly built, weighing only about 140 lbs., he was a striking figure in his bright shirts and white Stetson hat, as he played his guitar on street corners in Riverside, Oakhurst and other towns along the Trinity River bottoms. He did not stray far, hopping freight trains and traveling within a radius of thirty miles from his home, but his music was in demand and the quarters and dimes that he collected in the tin cup that he had wired to the neck of his guitar kept him eating. Frequently, and especially on Saturdays when money was freely circulating, he would make the trip into Huntsville along the State Highway 45, past the forbidding “Walls” to Courthouse Square, where the colored and white sections of the town met. Here, on a busy intersection, he sang the songs and blues of the country as the coins clattered in his cup.  

In early 1935, Smith Casey worked up a partnership with another guitarist named Abraham (also known as Abe, or Abbie) Hopkins, brother of Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins. Casey and Hopkins played together for much of that year, but apparently they were also involved with the same woman and as Lightning later told McCormick, “they was getting into scraps over that.” Folks interested in the details can find them in Blues Come to Texas, but the digest is that on Christmas Day ’35, Smith Casey shot Abe Hopkins; he claimed self-defense and that Hopkins had threatened him with a knife, although no witness reported seeing the knife. (According to Mrs. Jackson, Casey’s aunt, the two had been drinking and Hopkins had bashed Smith over the head with his own guitar, though no witness corroborated this either.) In 1936, he was sent to the Walls; at some point over the next couple years, he was transferred south to the Clemens Farm. Before his imprisonment in ’36, Smith Casey had contracted the germs of tuberculosis from his uncle, George Casey, who was dying of the disease. By the time the Lomaxes met him at Clemens in 1939, he was sick himself—and he’d ultimately only serve seven years of his 99 year sentence. Popular recollection in Riverside was that, in the words of an unidentified resident quoted by McCormick: “he played music so good that they had to let him out,” but more likely he received a mercy pardon due to his deteriorating health. Before long he had joined the Baptist church, given up music, and picked up work at the German POW camp in Huntsville, now the site of the Sam Houston State Teacher’s College. He died of TB at Marlin Sanitarium, in Marlin, Texas, 1949.  

 

Shorty George was a short-line railway that brought visitors—namely women—to and from the Central State Farm in Sugarland from Houston; and John Lomax had in fact recorded a song by the same name in 1934 at Central, by James “Iron Head” Baker (whom the Lomaxes met and recorded again, this time at Clemens, during the 1939 trip). Baker’s version says, “well that Shorty George ain’t no friend of mine,” presumably as the train isn’t bringing him a woman. (Baker had told Lomax that he didn’t like to sing the song because it made him emotional.). Casey’s take on the trope, though, is even more lonesome; Iron Head’s “ain’t no friend of mine” becomes “he was a friend of mine.” Alan Lomax, writing of it in the notes accompanying its first release in 1946, on the Library of Congress's Blues and Game Songs album, describes it a “dirge for a dead comrade.”

Yes, he died on the road
I had no money to pay his board
Ah, he was a friend of mine
Every time I think now I just can’t keep from crying

We’re thrilled to present the song here at what is close to its appropriate speed. All earlier issues of the track have been slightly slow—going by the pitch of Casey’s guitar, John Lomax’s spoken introductions, and the harmonica of another performer recorded at the same Clemens Farm session, one Ace Johnson, we’ve adjusted the speed and pitch of all of his recordings to something closer to what he sounded like in life.

Shorty George

Performed by Smith Casey
 

The Library of Congress's Blues and Game Songs album introduced Smith Casey to, among others, one of the pillars of the Cambridge Mass folk scene, Eric Von Schmidt, who used Casey’s “Shorty George” as the basis for a song called “He Was Friend of Mine”—released on a record he made with Rolf Cahn for Folkways in 1961. If that title rings a bell, it’s likely because you know Bob Dylan’s song by the same name. With everything relating to Dylan and the early years of the urban folk revival, provenance gets muddy—Dylan certainly knew Von Schmidt’s version, though Robert Shelton has argued that Bob’s take on the song may have come from Blind Arvella Gray, the Chicago street singer, who as it happened, was a native of Somerville, Texas, 60 miles from Sugarland. In any case, regardless of the breadth of its reach through the repertoires of the folk revivalists, Smith Casey’s Shorty George is an undeniable masterpiece.

Two work songs from Clemens State Farm in Brazoria: the first, led by Tommy Woods, the second, by Clyde Hill. While they are in fact discrete items, recorded on separate discs, it’s important to note that they’re not discrete songs—a songleader could, and no doubt would, combine the Go Down Old Hannah lyrics with those of Long Hot Summer Days, and keep on appending other verses, a half dozen, or a dozen, or two dozen, from collective sources, or from his own "make-up", as some songleaders called it, to get the work gang through the particular job they had at hand. 

“Go Down Old Hannah,” a work-song specific to Texas (where such songs were called “river songs,” owing to their use in the Trinity and Brazos river bottomlands), was a favorite of the Lomaxes. When in 1936 John A. sponsored Sugar Land inmate James Baker, known as “Iron Head,” for parole and took him traveling with him on a field-recording trip, Lomax had Baker sing the song for the incarcerated men as an example of the  material he was looking for. 

Long Hot Summer Days

 

Go Down Old Hannah

 
Camp 4 at Ramsey State Farm.

Sylvester Jones and Wallace Chains were incarcerated men at Camp 4 of the Ramsey State Farm in Otey, Texas. Jones and Chains were known at Ramsey as the Two Stavin’ Chains—according to Ruby's notes, they both "claimed the nickname of the famous ‘Stavin’ Chain’; they compromised by accepting the amended names Big Stavin’ Chain and Little Stavin’ Chain”—or alternately, Texas Stavin’ Chain, for Sylvester Jones, and presumably some other locational adjective for Wallace Chains. Complicating matters was the fact that Wallace’s last name was actually Chains!

The original Stavin’ Chain was a Black folk hero bad-man of the early 20th century, memorably described by Alan Lomax as a “sexy Paul Bunyan,” due to his sexual prowess and his tremendous strength, who was perhaps based on a Louisiana railroad worker named Richard Jones.

The name Stavin’ Chain pops up in several recorded blues of the 1920s, and Jelly Roll Morton referred to him in the positively filthy “Winin Boy Blues” he recorded for Alan in 1938 (a song easily 30 years old at that point). 

Lomax: And what about Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll: Stavin’ Chain, well he was a pimp. Supposed to have more women in this district than any other pimp.
Lomax: Did you actually know Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll: No, I heard everybody talk about him, never get into his way…
Lomax: What what did you hear about him, this is very interesting cause, you know, they have a song about Stavin’ Chain
Jelly Roll: Well, you know, he slept like Stavin’ Chain.
Lomax: Good tune, too.
Jelly Roll: Yes, I like the tune, I can’t, couldn’t memorize the tune, you know…
Lomax: Popular around New Orleans as well.
Jelly Roll: Yeah, at one time it was. Let’s see… that was around… 19...8.
Lomax: Was Stavin’ Man a white man or colored one?
Jelly Roll: A colored one.
Lomax: Supposedly good looking.
Jelly Roll: Yes, he... Women was supposed to be crazy about him.

Stavin chain

John and Alan, in their field-trip through Southwest Louisiana in 1934, also recorded a memorable version of “Stavin’ Chain Blues” performed by the trio of Charles Gobert, Octave Amos, and Wilson Jones—the latter of whom was known as, you guessed it, Stavin’ Chain.

The origin of this nickname is up for debate—some maintain that it comes from the device called a “staving chain,” which coopers used to hold loose staves in the shape of a barrel while the hoops were hammered down over them. It worked similarly to a choke collar, and the same name is sometimes used to describe the ankle chains worn by prisoners on chain gangs. This choke collar comparison also lends some weight to the positing of a more lewd meaning of the term, which we'll leave to your imagination. 

As for the Two Stavin' Chains at Ramsey, where, according to Ruby Terrill Lomax, “most of the incorrigibles and habituals stay,” they were located on the premises, “with the help of the Captain and some his guards.” The disc machine was set up in the Warden’s office and the singers, who also included men named Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Columbus Christopher, were recorded, as Ruby writes, “behind three sets of locks.” How much of this is sensationalizing is anyone’s guess; in any case, it doesn’t make listening to the recordings an uncomplicated joy, as good as their performances are.

 

According to Ruby T. Lomax’s field notes, Hattie Ellis was “a blues singer very popular on the radio program sent out from the Texas State Penitentiary.” (That institution was Walls Unit, or simply “The Walls,” also in Huntsville; the broadcast, over station WBAP,  was called “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” which also occasionally featured Smith Casey.) Ruby continues: “Ellis claims to have composed "Desert Blues." Captain Heath told us that in one week Hattie received 3,000 ‘fan’ letters. She is in for thirty years for killing a man. [sic] Another Dallas, Texas Negro girl who ‘come visitin' in Arkansas and got took up for somethin' I didn't do,’ told us that Hattie wouldn't have got such a long term if she hadn't sassed the judge when he brought her boot-legging activities into the murder case.” A postscript, which Ruby added in the fall of 1940, says that “Officials of the Old Fiddlers Contest, held annually at Athens, Texas, announced that Hattie Ellis would not keep her engagement to sing with the group of musicians from the State Penitentiary, because she had recently been paroled and was back at home in Dallas.”

Ellis was actually in prison for the murder of a woman, one Henrietta Murphy, whom she had shot and killed in February 1932. (Murphy’s death certificate gave the cause as “shot by enemy” at her home in Dallas.)

Hattie Ellis, backed by Cowboy Jack Ramsey (Ramsey was a white prisoner who played in the “Thirty Minutes” string-band) on guitar, cut two songs for the Lomaxes on May 14, 1939—the only recordings she ever made. (The other was a version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody”).

30 minute behind the walls
A.B. Johnson on WBAP

Mama Don't Allow

 

A.B. (“Ace”) Johnson was another regular performer on “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls.” This on-air introduction of him is reprinted in Ethan Blue’s Doing Time in the Depression:

And here’s another of our Negro entertainers—Ace Johnson, a strapping, six-foot Darky with an educated harmonica. He says the little instrument does everything but talk. But be listening, Folks, in case it does do a little bit of off-the-record speaking.

As Blue explains, none of the Black performers on “Thirty Minutes” were allowed to speak during the broadcast, so the suggestion that his “little instrument” may do some talking of its own carries a particular charge. 

Johnson backs up singer and guitarist (and serial forger, which is what landed him at Clemens) Larue Winthrop Gooden for this fragmentary version of “Mama Don’t Allow.” 
 

Steel-Driving Song

 

Henry Truvillion, “calling track,” or reenacting the work of directing the unloading of steel rails by a railroad section-gang. Truvillion, of Wiergate, Texas, could benefit from an exhibit of his own—between 1933 and 1940 he recorded some 60 pieces for the Lomaxes, with the earlier recordings including a number of play-party songs and blues ballads like Casey Jones and Duncan and Brady, what he called “worldly songs,” which, by the time John A. and Ruby T. caught up with him in 1939, he had forsaken, having been called to preach. But Truvillion still sang work songs, as his occupation obliged him to—after working on the Illinois Central, a job he started at the age of 13, he was hired by Northfield (later Wier Long Leaf) Lumber in Wiergate. He worked his way up to lead spiker and later section boss, working throughout East Texas and Western Louisiana laying temporary track for timber-cutting gangs and timber-hauling trains along the company’s railroad operations, the Gulf & Northern Railroad as well as a private line. 

From Ruby T. Lomax’s field notes (see here for a complete transcription of her notes on Truvillion, and here for photos relating to Wier Long Leaf’s railroad operations): 

Henry Truvillion is foreman of a work gang for Wier Lumber Company [sic], 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 a 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.”

Henry Truvillion and John A. Lomax, Sr., at Wiergate, Texas

Children's Songs

On May 7, John and Ruby stopped at the ranch of a Judge and Mrs. Oscar Callaway (the wife was not identified beyond her husband’s name) where John’s daughter—Alan Lomax’s older sister—Shirley Lomax Mansell was also visiting from her home at the time in Lubbock. Shirley recorded for her father and step-mother several discs’ worth of childrens’ songs that she had learned from her own mother, the late Bess Brown Lomax, John’s first wife. Bess, a native of Virginia. One particular stand-out is something called “Crows In the Garden,” which at first blush sounds every bit like a game song or lullaby, but upon closer lyrical inspection turns out to be a piece of incisive social commentary—the best kind of children’s song. It was composed in 1859 by Will Loftin Hargrave, an extremely marginally successful writer of lyrics and prose works. (If he’s known at all, it’s likely for his 1902 Wallannah: A Colonial Romance: “John Cantwell puts up a good front, but he is not the honest man the people of New Bern think he is. Despite his high social standing, his business dealings are shady and his personal life dishonorable. His schemes affect the lives of many people in the New Bern area in the decades leading up to the American Revolution.”)

“This busy busy world is full of crows / And money is the corn that’s sure to draw / Let em catch you napping and away it goes / With a merry merry kaw kaw kaw.” 

 

Tengo una muñeca vestida de azul

 

Ruby T. Lomax on Ms. Salazar: "She knows a wide variety and a large number of songs, most of the old ones learned from her mother, now nearly ninety years of age. Mrs. Salazar has a rooming-house for Mexican girls attending the college in Kingsville. She was introduced to Mr. Lomax by Mr. Octavio Perez, teacher in the Stephen F. Austin Grammar School (for Mexican children). Mr. Perez is himself making a collection of Mexican play-party and children's songs, and Mrs. Salazar is his "find". [...] Mrs. S. does not speak English."

 

Little girl petting calf.

Ruby T. Lomax described the circumstances of their recording at the Wiergate school: 

"Wiergate is the headquarters of the Wier [Long Leaf] Lumber Company, which employs many Negro workmen. While we were waiting to see some the Wier officials, we drove over to 'the quarters,' or Negro settlement; on the school grounds we saw a group of small girls circling around and singing. We could not catch the words. Recess was soon over. As the children were marching in, Mrs. Lomax asked one of the girls what they were playing. 'Seed-tick,' she replied. With the permission of the principal and his wife, Mr. [Richard] and Mrs. [Edna] Mack, an assembly was called. The same group of little girls sang and played Seed-tick into the microphone. This was followed by others in rapid succession before the buses came to take the children to their home[s]." 

See East Texas History here for more on Wiergate School, as well as on the Lomaxes’ session at the Liberty School, a Julius Rosenwald Fund institution constructed in the Freedom Colony of Liberty, Texas. 

Here Comes Uncle Jesse

Performed by Ottie Brails Ford and Wiergate schoolchildren
 

Grace Crawford Longino and her husband William Longino, a professor at Sam Houston State Teacher College, were instrumental in identifying Walker County musicians for the Lomaxes to record. Ms. Longino herself performed a range of material: game songs, play songs, sentimental tunes.

“All the babies in my family were entertained with a little game from the time they were three months old until they were about a year old, which my mother called ‘Roly Boly.’”

See East Texas History for more on Grace Longino. 

 

Cowboy Songs

While John Lomax’s reputation as a collector and scholar of cowboy songs and lore was immense, especially in Texas—to which Elmo Newcomer attested earlier—the 1939 collection is light on singing cowboys. (Between 1940 and 1942 John would return to Texas to make extensive recordings reprising his earlier work in the cowboy field, including his 1942 document of perhaps the great cowboy performance in history, Jess Morris’ “Goodbye Old Paint.”)

That said, the Lomaxes did record a few fine vaquero ballads, such as Francisco Leal and Agapito Salinas’s “La potranquita,” a song about a little filly who wouldn’t be roped. The duo was recorded in Kingsville, Texas, the heart of South Texas cowboy country, but sadly, Ruby T. took no notes on these fine performers and we know nothing whatsoever about them.

Los Chinacos cut a version of the same song for the Victor label in Mexico City circa 1937:

E.A. Briggs was a genuine, if retired, Texas cowboy, introduced to the Lomaxes (as Ruby noted) by Mrs. Fletcher Layton, chairperson of the National Music Week celebration in Bandera County. He performed perhaps the hoariest of cowboy ballads, “The Cowboy’s Lament,” in its iteration known as Sam (or Tom) Sherman’s Barroom—a variant somewhat famously recorded by another bona fide cowpuncher named Dick Devall, of Reed, Oklahoma, with whom John Lomax made some extraordinary recordings in one of John’s last sessions in 1946. 

(A piece of phonographic trivia: Dick Devall’s 1930 record featuring his “Tom Sherman’s Barroom” b/w “Out on the Lone Star Trail” was the only a cappella country music release of the 78-rpm era.)

 

Sam Sherman’s Barroom

 
Hamburger stand

 

Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie (The Dying Cowboy)

 
Frank Goodwyn

Frank Goodwyn was a schoolteacher and while not a cowboy by trade, he came by a big store of cowboy lore honestly, having been brought up on the legendary King Ranch—which now advertises itself as “the birthplace of American ranching”—where his father was foreman. It’s unclear exactly how the Lomaxes met Goodwyn—either through his distant cousin, the Texas writer and folklorist J. Frank Dobie, or through some of Goodwyns contributions to the publications of the Texas Folklore Society. In any case, they found him teaching school in La Gloria, a community—as John’s biographer Porterfield puts it—of Mexicans and Mennonites near Falfurrias, and recorded him extensively at the tourist cabin where they were lodging. Porterfield, who met and interviewed Goodwyn in 1990, recounts this wonderful story in his Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax:

When Lomax and Miss Terrill found [Goodwyn], he was teaching school at La Gloria, a small community of Mexicans and Mennonites near Falfurrias. Godwyn and his wife lived in what had once been a tourist cabin; he took the Lomaxes there to get his guitar and demonstrate a few songs. Years later, Goodwyn recalled the incident: “You know, John was full of bull [and] he was really heavy with it that day. He bragged a lot about how he was going to make me famous.” Lomax sat on a bed as Goodwyn played, and after a song or two, “he really got carried away; he liked what I was doing and said he was going to  take me to New York and this-that-and-the-other, it was going to be the greatest thing that ever hit the country.” Suddenly, in the midst of Lomax’s spiel, the bed collapsed and threw him to the floor. Goodwyn suppressed a laugh; he had few illusions about becoming famous on the strength of his cowboy material. 

Goodwyn later became a professor of Spanish at the University of Maryland and a prolific author of novels, poetry, and non-fiction about the American West.