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Posts Tagged ‘Soul Stirrers’

Dealing with the devil: Houston gospel from the house of Robey

Posted by mcorcoran on October 25, 2017

 

Don and Evelyn

Houston’s Don Deadric Robey- half black, half Jewish, all gangster- beat Berry Gordy by 10 years to become the first African American record mogul. A gambler and a hustler, he did not get there by playing fair, but Robey put out some of the greatest gospel, R&B and rock n’ roll records of the 1950s and ‘60s from a building in Houston’s tough Fifth Ward. As Stax would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Southern music for an audience more into getting down than fitting in.

The 2809 Erastus Street address housed Robey’s sophisticated Bronze Peacock Dinner Club from 1945 to ‘53, and in a back office he launched Peacock Records to try and make his discovery Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown a star. That didn’t quite happen, but Peacock hit it big in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” predating the sensational Elvis Presley cover by three years. After he acquired the Duke label in the early ‘50s, Robey’s stable of acts contained not only Gatemouth, but Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright.

Robey’s empire included the Buffalo Booking Agency, run by the irreplaceable Evelyn Johnson, which repped many black entertainers out on the “chitlin circuit” and gospel highway. Robey insisted that his acts tour incessantly and if they had jobs they couldn’t leave, like Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951, he sent out singers to pose as them. As a one-stop operation, Robey got a piece of everything and used strong-armed intimidation to make negotiations go his way.

“He might’ve ripped me off,” Gatemouth Brown told me in 2004, “but if it wasn’t for Don Robey, nobody would’ve ever heard of me.” Such sentiments fueled impressario greed across the board in the music business at the time. Getting paid to do something you love was a novel concept after the Depression and WWII.

What was important was that Robey allowed musicians to make records, and the style didn’t matter as long a people were buying them. Robey had five labels, including Back Beat (Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” in ’65) and Song Bird (“Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” by Inez Andrews in ’73.)

As the label of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales, led by the volcanic housewreckers Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, respectively, Peacock was primarily known, in its early years, as the home of hard gospel. Add the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers from Chicago, Rev. Cleothus Robinson from Mississippi, Sister Jessie Mae Renfro of Waxahachie, the Christland Singers with R.H. Harris- and Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.

Robey with Al “TNT” Braggs and Bobby Blue Bland.

Chicago was still the headquarters for black gospel music, but because of Robey’s label and booking agency, Houston was gospel’s second in command.

It all started with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday when you mentioned “The Five Blind Boys” you were talking about the guys who formed at the Piney Wood School for the Blind near Jackson, Miss. Besides shoutmaster Brownlee, the original group, which was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937, included tenor Lawrence “Shorty” Abrams, baritone Lloyd Woodard and bass singer Joseph Ford (replaced by J.T. Clinkscales in the late ’40s).

After school, the group began singing professionally as the Jackson Harmoneers and moved to New Orleans for better opportunities. There, they picked up fifth member Percell Perkins and recorded obscure singles for the Excelsior and Coleman labels. Booked in New Jersey with another blind group, a promoter billed the concert as a battle between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama- and both acts ended up keeping the new names.

On tour in Houston in 1950, the Mississippi Boys met Robey, who decided he could sell some gospel records by adding a drum beat to quartet singing. While the first session with the “Original Five Blind Boys” did not produce a hit, the second session created a monster with “Our Father.” That intensifying of The Lord’s Prayer, over a repetitive bass drum, validated Robey’s vision by being the first black gospel record to hit the jukebox. Before that, almost all quartet records were a capella. After “Our Father” hit, almost none were.

Early Bells of Joy

Robey required all his studio drummers to follow the beat of a red light in the studio that simulated the rhythm of a human heart. Austin gospel group the Bells of Joy had a huge hit in 1951 following that Robey formula on “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” The lyrics were written by Lavada Durst, the KVET disc jockey who’d just recorded a piano blues single for Peacock as “Dr. Hepcat.” With sales of 700,000 copies, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” won the Cashbox award for best-selling religious single of 1951.

Before 1956, when a full studio was built at 2809 Erastus, Robey and musical directors Joe Scott and Dave Clark used Bill Holford’s ACA (Audio Company of America) studio on Westheimer. Peacock artists were in and out of there all the time, as Robey kept signing acts like the Southern Wonders, Christian Travelers, Stars of Hope, Golden Harps and Gospelaires.

Peacock got thick in the game in 1952 when Robey signed established gospel stars the Dixie Hummingbirds, who rival the Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones as the most consistently great gospel quartet of them all. Led by the inventive, charismatic Ira Tucker, the “Birds” could sing it all, exemplified by 1953 smash “Let’s Go Out To the Programs,” in which the group delivered perfect imitations of the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Bells of Joy and, lastly, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Tucker told interviewer Seamus McGarvey years later that he never really had a problem with Robey. “The only thing that you had to watch was, if you had a deal with Don, you had to keep him with the deal (because) if he could talk you out of it, he would…If he could scare you down, he would.”

Roscoe Robinson of the Five Blind Boys, who replaced Brownlee as lead singer in 1960 after the great shouter died of pneumonia at age 35, said Robey paid the group with a new car and performing uniforms, but they never received royalties. Like all Peacock acts, they made their money on the road. “After our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said ‘no,’ so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago,” said Robinson, 86. But after the Five Blind Boys made a record for Chess subsidiary Checker Records in ’62, Robey had a scheme to defraud Chess by producing a contract with the Blind Boys that he had back-dated. “He said he would cut us in on a lot of money (Peacock sued Chess for $450,000) if we signed the contract, but me and Shorty refused, so they kicked us out of the group,” said Robinson. Robey put it out there that Robinson went against his own to sign with a white man, so he was effectively blackballed, he said, and had to leave gospel for R&B, having a minor hit in 1966 with “That’s Enough.”

By all accounts- and I do mean all– Robey was the black Lucky Luciano, ruling his musical turf as a ruthless boss. Such was Robey’s rep that when his rising star Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself to death on Christmas Day 1954, rumors started that it was actually a hit on an artist looking to leave his label. (Disproven by eyewitnesses, including Big Mama Thornton.)

 

In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke (reportedly using a Colt .45 as a bargaining chip), Robey started a gospel series on that label, including two releases by acts with ties to Austin’s first family of gospel, the Franklins. The Paramount Singers, who were co-founded by Ermant M. Franklin, but relocated to Oakland during WWII, and the Chariettes, featuring E.M.’s daughter Evelyn Franklin, recorded singles for Duke.

The Franklins who would have the biggest impact on Peacock were Ermant Jr. and brother Elmo, whose Mighty Clouds of Joy signed with Robey in 1960 and changed gospel music forever by making the full, funky band essential. The group, who would go on to be known as “The Temptations of Gospel,” recorded the spiritual hit “Ain’t Got Long Here” at their very first Peacock session and had enormous LP sales with Family Circle in ’62 and Live At the Music Hall in ’67. Clouds lead singer Joe Ligon, a native of Troy, Alabama, was an acolyte of Brownlee and Cheeks, taking Peacock’s anguished rasp sound full-circle. The band’s soul-funk influence is still prominent in current Texas gospel acts like the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers.

Little Richard was also on Peacock Records for a spell, in 1953, with his band the Tempo Toppers. In an interview with Dave Booth, Little Richard recalled that his signing was not voluntary. “I wouldn’t sign that contract,” Richard said, “and I ended up signing it because he beat me so bad. I had ran away from home…and he took advantage of it.”

By the late ’60s, Robey was spending more and more time at his ranch near Crosby, where he raised thoroughbreds and sometimes even competed in rodeos. As in the music biz, his specialty was calf-roping and tieing.

When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several co-“written” by Deadric Malone, Robey’s pen name), to ABC/Dunhill for an undisclosed amount. The deal called for Robey to remain a consultant on his catalog, but that gig was shortlived. The mogul died of a heart attack in 1975. Made a lot of money that’s probably all long gone. But also made a lot of records that will last forever.

 

 

Sources include “Let’s Go Out To the Programs” by Ray Funk, Rejoice! magazine 1990. Thanks to Robert Darden.

Listen to a playlist of Peacock gospel.

 

Posted in Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

80 years ago: Austin’s most important recording?

Posted by mcorcoran on February 1, 2016

soul_stirrers

The Soul Stirrers circa 1947. Rebert Harris is top right.

The Soul Stirrers are best known today as the Chicago gospel group that launched the career of Sam Cooke from 1951 until he crossed over to pop with “You Send Me” in 1957. But the group is actually from Trinity, Texas, by way of Houston. The Stirrers revolutionized gospel quartets by adding a fifth member- a second lead singer- which upped the intensity when the two leads traded verses while keeping the four-part harmony intact. Before the Soul Stirrers, gospel quartets were barbershop or jubilee groups doing old spirituals like “Down By the Riverside.” But the Stirrers came out to “wreck a house” with their hard gospel style and, in the process, influenced every quartet to follow.

Only Lubbock’s Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the model for the Beatles, and T-Bone Walker of Oak Cliff, who invented the language of electric blues guitar, are more influential Texas acts than the Soul Stirrers.

Gospel historians sometimes credit the Golden Gate Quartet as the precursors to the heightened emotionalism of quartets, but the Soul Stirrers actually recorded a year before those Norfolk heavyweights. And they made their recording debut in Austin, with John A. and his son Alan Lomax running the sessions for the Library of Congress. Billed The Five Soul Stirrers of Houston, the group recorded four songs on Feb. 12, 1936: “Lordy Lordy,” “John the Revelator,” “Standing At the Bedside of a Neighbor” and “How Did You Feel When You Came Out of the Wilderness.” These were all songs previously recorded by others, but no one did them with the thrust of the Stirrers, whose performance Alan Lomax called “the most incredible polyrhythmic music you’ve ever heard.”

Those Library of Congress recordings have been preserved in D.C., but never commercially released. But as a representation of what the five singers- E.R. Rundless, W.L. LeBeau, A.L. Johnson, S.R. Crain and O.W. Thomas- were doing onstage 200 nights a year, the recordings track a transformative moment in the evolution of spiritual sound. “No other recordings from that era are anywhere close in style,” wrote gospel historian Ray Funk, who pinpoints a Stirrers innovation as the harmony based around a higher tonal center- with “piercing falsetto” and a lighter bass- than the popular quartets from Birmingham Alabama.

soulstirrersloc

If I was to rank the 25 Most Significant Recordings in Austin History, the Soul Stirrers’ 1936 rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” would rival Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” for the top spot. It’s unknown where the Soul Stirrers sang for the Lomax’s recording machine, but John Wheat of the Briscoe Center for American History says the likely location was the big house at 400 W. 34th Street where John Lomax lived with second wife Ruby Terrill and kept his recording equipment. That’s also the residence,

1935 Austin City directory

1935 Austin City directory

torn down in the early ‘70s, where Leadbelly stayed for a spell after his release from Louisiana’s Angola State Peniteniary in 1934.

A name missing from the 1936 Stirrer credits is Cooke’s mentor R.H. Harris, whom many consider the most influential male gospel singer of all time. There has been conflicting information about when Harris joined the Stirrers, with the singer claiming he was recruited from the glee club of Mary Allen College in Crockett in 1933. But historian Funk puts the year he became a Soul Stirrer at 1937, which is backed up by the session notes in 1936. Before his death in 2000 at age 84, Harris took credit for introducing the falsetto to gospel quartets, but Rundless was already using that high-pitched technique when the Lomaxes got it down on record. Harris has also been credited for introducing the dual (and “duel”) lead vocals to the quartet style, but the Stirrers were already doing that before he joined.

Harris replaced group leader Walter LeBeau, who dropped out of the hard-touring group to become a minister at the New Pleasant Baptist Church in Houston. There’s no question that Harris was an amazing singer, who took the gospel quartet to new soulful heights. And he did teach Sam Cooke how to slur and flip and stretch into a new way of singing. But a piece of gospel history has to be rewritten with this newfound information. The original Five Soul Stirrers of Houston were the originators, but R.H. Harris was Jesus’ favorite singer and he made them better.

Dust jacket of Feb. 12, 1936 recording.

Dust jacket of Feb. 12, 1936 recording.

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Happy 100th Birthday Alan Lomax, Austin’s Gift To the Music World

Posted by mcorcoran on January 22, 2015

John Lomax’s oldest daughter Shirley writes about Alan’s boyhood in Austin.
This letter from Shirley Lomax was sent to Nat Hentoff of the New Yorker for a 1959 article which, it turned out, was never published. Hentoff had asked Shirley to describe Alan’s upbringing in Austin. I found it at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT.

 

Lomaxcover

“You can’t kill off a culture until you kill the last person who cares about it” – Alan Lomax.

On March 31, 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and Ruby Terrill, the dean of women students at UT, announced their engagement to be married. But just two days later, John and his 19-year-old son Alan Lomax were on the road from Austin, collecting songs at the Clemmons Prison Farm outside Brazoria and the state penitentiaries at Huntsville and Richmond, according to John Szwed’s biography Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (2010). “My father figured that the sinners were probably in prison, so that’s where we went to find their stories,” Alan Lomax said in 1991. Domestic bliss could wait.

maplouisiana

The Lomaxes hit the trail and kept going. In June 1934, father and son would make their first foray to the Cajun and Creole regions of south central Louisiana. Aside from some records made in the 1920s by Leo Soileau and Amede Ardoin, the French-speaking black and white people of rural Louisiana were barely known outside the state. Alan knew a little French and father John was busy writing his memoirs, so this was really Alan’s project and he hooked up with an LSU grad student whose masters thesis was on Louisiana French folk songs for guidance and introductions. The Lomaxes wandered through New Iberia (where they stayed with the owner of McIlhenny’s Tabasco), Kaplan, Indian Bayou, Morse, Crowley, Delcambre and other French-speaking towns, recording old songs by both black and white singers. Alan Lomax was most-excited by the jure’ style they found in Jennings, which sounded African in origin. The polyrhythms of Jure’ would evolve into the infectious zydeco beat which emerged in the 1950s.

1935 Austin city directory.

1935 Austin city directory.

The summer of ’34 in Louisiana was a major juncture in Alan Lomax’s life, as he wrote that he “had my first glass of wine, my first shrimp creole, my first full-blown love affair and made my first independent field recordings.” For part of the sojourn he was joined by his girlfriend Becky Machanofsky, a Russian-born Jewish social worker- and avowed Communist- he met in Austin. Becky urged Alan to break free from his father, “an old man who wants to make money to marry and intellectualized old maid” and move with her to Brooklyn. They soon split up.

An incredible cache of French Creole and Cajun music, collected by the Lomaxes in 1934, can be found here. The jure’ music is from Jefferson Davis Parish.

ALAN LOMAX SITS BLIND WILLIE NEXT TO BEETHOVEN ON A WONDROUS VOYAGE

In 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan was chosen by NASA to head a team to select contents of a record to be placed on the unmanned Voyager I spacecraft, which was designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn, but now, nearly 38 years later, has traveled further from Earth than any other man-made object. The idea behind the two-hour disc, to be played back at 16 2/3 RPM with a stylus and cartridge provided, was to preserve “presents from a small, distant world” to any extraterrestrials who could conceivably happen upon the spaceship. And you thought Dark Side of the Moon was trippy.

President Jimmy Carter provided an introduction to the record as, “A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” This two-hour, multimedia presentation of life on Earth was encoded onto a disc coated with copper and gold for protection, which gave it the nickname The Golden Record.

Cover of The Golden Record, currently scuttling through empty space.

Cover of The Golden Record, currently hurtling through empty space.

The selections from Sagan’s team were initially drawn solely from Western classical music, so Sagan enlisted the help of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who had just compiled an anthology of world music, consisting of 700 pieces that illustrated the full gamut of human musical expression. Lomax and his team of folklorists operated under the banner of “cultural equity,” the idea that music made on a Texas chain gang or a Spanish fishing village is as valid as that of the world’s great symphonies. “Our job is to represent all the submerged cultures in the world,” Lomax told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991. “We give an avenue for those people to tell their side of the story.” Alan Lomax, inspired by his father John, spent six decades trying to restore the balance that wealth and privilege had taken away.

There was a bit of head-butting when Lomax was brought aboard and chucked DeBussy in favor of Peruvians and their panpipes and Chuck Berry playing rock n’ roll. In Murmurs of Earth, a book recounting the Voyager project, Sagan wrote that Lomax was “a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible.” In the end, Lomax was responsible for 15 of the 27 musical recordings on Voyager 1, including Blind Willie Johnson’s moaning “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which accomplishes the rare feat of being eerie and emotional at the same time. Lomax said he included that guitar-sliding Crucifixion song as the best embodiment of loneliness. Space aliens from the future will no doubt relate better to the blind, guitar evangelist from Marlin, Texas than to Beethoven, who follows Blind Willie to close out The Golden Record.

bwjcrop

 

Lomax selections on The Golden Record:

* Senegal percussion
* Pygmy girls initiation song from Zaire
* Aborigine songs “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird”
* “El Cascabel” by Mariachi Mexico
* “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
* A men’s house song from New Guinea
* “Tchakrulo” from the Soviet Union
* Peruvian panpipes and drums
* Azerbaijan bagpipes recorded by Radio Moscow
* “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven
* Bulgarian folk song “Iziel je Delyo Hagdutin” by Vulya Balkanska
* Navajo Indians night chant
* Solomon Islands panpipes
* Peruvian wedding song
* “Dark Was the Night” by Blind Willie Johnson

The Voyager moved past Pluto in 1990, but will be on the move at least another 40,000 years before it reaches another planetary system. “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space,” Sagan wrote. “But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

We’re counting down to the centennial birthday of Austin musicologist Alan Lomax on Jan. 31. “I’ve always been with the Woodys, in whatever language it was,” he told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991, in reference to Woody Guthrie. “I’ve always been with those people who were exploring and pushing the edge of their own culture and making something happen…They have a sense of form and innovate inside of it.”

Further Reading: Here’s my story on Blind Willie Johnson from 2003.

 

STIRRING THE SOUL OF GOSPEL 1936

The Soul Stirrers are best known today as the Chicago gospel group that launched the career of Sam Cooke from 1951 until he crossed over to pop with “You Send Me” in 1957. But the group is actually from Trinity, Texas, by way of Houston. The Stirrers revolutionized gospel quartets by adding a fifth member- a second lead singer- which upped the intensity when the two leads traded verses while keeping the four-part harmony intact. Before the Soul Stirrers, gospel quartets were like religious barbershop quartets or jubilee groups doing old spirituals like “Down By the Riverside.” But the Stirrers came out to “wreck a house” with their hard gospel style and, in the process, influenced every quartet to follow.

Only Lubbock’s Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the model for the Beatles, and T-Bone Walker of Oak Cliff, who invented the language of electric blues guitar, are more influential Texas acts than the Soul Stirrers.

Gospel historians sometimes credit the Golden Gate Quartet as the precursors to the heightened emotionalism of quartets, but the Soul Stirrers actually recorded a year before those Norfolk heavyweights. And they made their recording debut in Austin, with John A. and his son Alan Lomax running the sessions for the Library of Congress. Billed The Five Soul Stirrers of Houston, the group recorded four songs on Feb. 12, 1936: “Lordy Lordy,” “John the Revelator,” “Standing At the Bedside of a Neighbor” and “How Did You Feel When You Came Out of the Wilderness.” These were all songs previously recorded by others, but no one did them with the thrust of the Stirrers, whose performance Alan Lomax called “the most incredible polyrhythmic music you’ve ever heard.”

Those Library of Congress recordings have been preserved in D.C., but never commercially released. But as a representation of what the five singers- E.R. Rundless, W.L. LeBeau, A.L. Johnson, S.R. Crain and O.W. Thomas- were doing onstage 200 nights a year, the recordings track a transformative moment in the evolution of spiritual sound. “No other recordings from that era are anywhere close in style,” wrote gospel historian Ray Funk, who pinpoints a Stirrers innovation as the harmony based around a higher tonal center- with “piercing falsetto” and a lighter bass- than the popular quartets from Birmingham Alabama.

soulstirrersloc

If I was to rank the 25 Most Significant Recordings in Austin History, the Soul Stirrers’ 1936 rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” would rival Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” for the top spot. It’s unknown where the Soul Stirrers sang for the Lomax’s recording machine, but John Wheat of the Briscoe Center for American History says the likely location was the big house at 400 W. 34th Street where John Lomax lived with second wife Ruby Terrill and kept his recording equipment. That’s also the residence, torn down in the early ‘70s, where Leadbelly stayed for a spell after his release from Louisiana’s Angola State Peniteniary in 1934.

A name missing from the 1936 Stirrer credits is Cooke’s mentor R.H. Harris, whom many consider the most influential male gospel singer of all time. There has been conflicting information about when Harris joined the Stirrers, with the singer claiming he was recruited from the glee club of Mary Allen College in Crockett in 1933. But historian Funk puts the year he became a Soul Stirrer at 1937, which is backed up by the session notes in 1936. Before his death in 2000 at age 84, Harris took credit for introducing the falsetto to gospel quartets, but Rundless was already using that high-pitched technique when the Lomaxes got it down on record. Harris has also been credited for introducing the dual (and “duel”) lead vocals to the quartet style, but the Stirrers were already doing that before he joined.

Harris replaced group leader Walter LeBeau, who dropped out of the hard-touring group to become a minister at the New Pleasant Baptist Church in Houston. There’s no question that Harris was an amazing singer, who took the gospel quartet to new soulful heights. And he did teach Sam Cooke how to slur and flip and stretch into a new way of singing. But a piece of gospel history has to be rewritten with this newfound information. The original Five Soul Stirrrs of Houston were the originators, but R.H. Harris was Jesus’ favorite singer and he made them better.

FURTHER READING: Here’s my Sept. 2000 obit on Rebert H. Harris for the Dallas Observer.

 

The Lomax family were Austin’s greatest gift to the music world. Here’s the first part of a series that leads up to Alan Lomax’s 100th birthday on Jan. 31.

 

 

The Gant Family Singers 1936. Mother Maggie at left, Ether on guitar. Standing Foy, Glida and Ella.

The Gant Family Singers 1936. Mother Maggie at left, Ether on guitar. Standing Foy, Glida and Ella.

It sure seemed quiet for 10 a.m. on a weekday, when John A. Lomax, who recorded folk songs for the Library of Congress, knocked on the front door of a six-room shanty on the northern bank of the Colorado River, not far from Deep Eddy Pool. Maggie Gant answered, in her bedclothes. The children were still asleep, the mother of eight whispered.

“Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” she told Lomax, which he recalled in Our Singing Country, his 1941 book with son Alan that contained four songs collected from the Gants.

“The singing kept us so happy,” Maggie Gant told Lomax, “we couldn’t go to sleep.”

It was 1934, during the depths of the Depression, but the Gant family of dispossessed sharecroppers was rich in music.

John Lomax, a former University of Texas administrator, and his 19-year-old son Alan made more than 40 primitive recordings of the Gant family, whose vast repertoire ranged from jailhouse ballads and play ditties to cowboy songs and minstrel tunes.

The most prominent of those, in retrospect, was “When First Unto This Country a Stranger I Came,” which Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang live and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded in 1993. They all learned it from the 1960s folkies the New Lost City Ramblers, who heard it from the Gants.

Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) of the Ramblers and his sister Peggy knew the song growing up, as their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, transcribed and archived the songs the Lomaxes recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1930s.

If Maggie Gant and her 17-year-old daughter, Foy, hadn’t sung the tragic song about a jilted lover-turned-horse thief into the Lomaxes’ acetate phonograph disk recorder, it almost certainly would’ve been lost forever.

“Folk songs can be easily preserved,” Alan Lomax wrote in The American Girl magazine (October 1940).  “You, and all Americans can find them right in your own back yards. Somewhere in your neighborhood there may be an old man, or woman- or perhaps a young one- who can sing you hundreds of love ballads and work songs. Your own grandmother may remember some.”

“I grew up in Austin, Texas knowing many of these tunes, for my father, John A. Lomax, is what is called a ‘folk song specialist,’ a rather frightening title which masks a job which is pure adventure.”

Alan Lomax, who lived the first 10 years of his life at the family home at 910 W. 26th St. (torn down for a fraternity house years ago), wrote that he didn’t take to his father’s folk song obsession until the summer of 1933, when he was preparing to transfer from Harvard back to the University of Texas. An 18-year-old Alan accompanied his father on a song collecting trip that changed his life forever. Father and son traveled the U.S., from the fishing villages of New England to the California coast, lugging 300 pounds of portable recording equipment and cutting records by prisoners on chain gangs, cowboys of West Texas, Kentucky coalminers, Vermont woodsmen, auto factory workers and the like.

“My father and I don’t burst in like college professors in search of quaintness,” Alan Lomax wrote in 1940. “We make friends. We live in the neighborhood. And before we even go to a place, we find out about the kind of work in that section so we can talk about it. Only then do we go out and ask for songs.”

They had an easy job getting acquainted with the Gants, whom they met through Alan’s UT classmate John Henry Faulk, who had been doing song collecting on his own. But young Faulk didn’t have the clout of the Library of Congress, which had hired John Lomax in ’33 as head curator of its Archive of American Folk Songs.

1935 Austin city directory. 3203 Riverside View was near Lake Austin Blvd., behind where Brackenridge Apts are now.

1935 Austin city directory. 3203 Riverside View was near Lake Austin Blvd., behind where Brackenridge Apts are now.

With the Gant family of singers, led by mother Maggie (father George wasn’t very musical), the Lomaxes found a treasure that didn’t require more than a 10-minute drive. By 1934, a widowed John Lomax married UT’s Dean of Women Students Ruby Terrill and the family lived at her big house at 400 E. 34th St.

In a note in the Lomax family papers, archived at UT’s Center for American History, John Lomax wrote, “The Gant family in Austin, Texas has a repertoire of about two hundred genuine folk-songs. We only had just begun the job of recording these tunes when we left town.”

The Lomaxes recorded only a fraction of the Gants’ material before they took off to manage and tour with their great discovery Leadbelly, yet it’s a body of work that puts the Gants as “among the most important informants on traditional music that no one’s ever heard of,” said Minnesota musician/folklorist Lyle Lofgren.

The family’s list of songs passed down was “astoundingly broad,” Lofgren said. “It included many rare versions of archaic British ballads, the sort you might expect to find, if you were lucky, in some remote holler of the Appalachians, but probably not in Austin.”

The Gants were Mormons and, according to a family genealogy which Foy Gant Kent registered with the Mormon church before she died in Houston in 2008 at age 90, Maggie Gant’s maternal grandmother, Lavinia “Lucy” Brown, was born in Wales. “The Land of Song” has a rich ballad tradition.

Maggie’s mother, Sarah Reeves, was born and raised in the Tennessee mountains but moved to Texas before Maggie was born in the East Texas town of Lone Oak in 1893. Lavinia Brown, the Welsh wellspring from which the songs most likely came, died in Grayson County, about 60 miles north of Dallas, in 1899.

The Gant family’s path to Austin can be charted according to where the children were born, starting with oldest son Nephi in the Northeast Texas town of Mineola in 1913. The next four — Ether, Foy, Adoniron and Ella — were born just a few miles south of Mineola, when the family lived in Kelsey, the largest Mormon colony in the state. Georgia came next in Altus, Okla., in 1925, and the youngest, Trovesta Mae, was born in 1929 in the Texas Panhandle town of Shamrock, from which the family moved to Austin after a severe drought dried up farm work.

George, Maggie and the kids arrived in Austin in 1933 looking for work and, according to John Lomax, went on relief at times.

Nephi and half-sister Glida Koch started families and lived together in a house at 1115 E. Third St. The rest of the family lived in the riverside shack where the Library of Congress recordings were made, about a half-mile west of Deep Eddy Pool.

In her 2008 memoir Sing It Pretty, Alan’s younger sister Bess Lomax Hawes, who was 12 when she met the Gants, recalled that the family’s house on the river was constantly being flooded. “But that old river never could stop the flow of their extraordinary repertory of Anglo-American balladry and folksong.”

Foy Gant, far right, sang lead on several songs. She kept her family’s genealogy and submitted it to the Mormon church records.

The Lomax family background — patriarch John got his master’s degree in the arts from Harvard University — was different from the Gants’, but they had the Great Depression in common.

Although he made his mark as a folklorist with his 1910 anthology Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, John Lomax had moved on to other pursuits and was working for a bank in Dallas during the 1929 stock market crash, which left him unemployed. Even worse, his wife Bess died in 1931, leaving him with two school-age children to raise.

Oldest son John Jr. encouraged his father, then 65, to get back into “ballad hunting,” a passion born from the cowboy songs Lomax heard growing up on a ranch in Bosque County, about 40 miles northwest of Waco. The Library of Congress, created in 1928, agreed to foot the bill for the “second act” Lomax expeditions. With Alan, a polished writer with a scholarly approach, at his side, the father and son proved to be quite formidable, with an unquenchable passion for discovery.

The LoC provided the Lomaxes with a bulky recording machine, which fit into the family’s Ford after the back seats were removed. Superior to the old wax cylinder recorders, the new machine cut grooves onto a disk as the songs were sung, giving the singers all the reward they wanted when Lomax played back the record they’d just made. On one session Alan wrote about later, the Lomaxes recorded a 75-year-old black prison preacher named “Sin Killer” Griffin. When they played the record back, tears welled up in Griffin’s eyes. “People have been telling me I was a good preacher for nigh onto 60 years,” he said. “But I didn’t know I was that good.” In some prisons, the execution chambers were converted into recording studios because of the sound-proof walls.

It was in one of those prisons the Lomaxes discovered Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, who taught the world “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special.” But Leadbelly’s most important composition was the one he wrote about Louisiana governor O.K. Allen, which the Lomaxes recorded and delivered to the state capitol building. “If I had you, Guv’ner Allen/ Like you got me/ I’d wake up in the mornin’/ Let you out on reprieve,” Leadbelly sang. The Governor was so charmed he released Ledbetter from the penitentiary and the singer joined John and Alan on the road. The Lomaxes set Leadbelly up with some high-falutin’ gigs on the East Coast and he became a sensation and settled in New York City. When he brought up his girl Martha from Louisiana to marry, John A. Lomax gave the bride away and Alan was best man.

Leadbelly

Leadbelly

The Gants recorded only for the Lomaxes, in four sessions from 1934-36. When World War II hit, acetate previously used for field recordings was restricted to the war effort, and the Gant family split time between Houston, where there were jobs in the Ship Channel, and San Angelo, where the parents moved with their three youngest. Maggie and the kids never recorded together again after 1936. The Gants’ last public performance is believed to have at the State’s Centennial Celebration in Dallas that same year.

The family just may have lost the joy in performing after tragedy struck on Feb. 1, 1936. Oldest boy Nephi, 22, was murdered after a fight at Ollie’s Place at the corner of East Fourth and Waller streets.

(Read Alan Lomax’s never-before-published story on the incident here. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.)

Lomax wrote that Nephi, who had two hungry babies at home, had gone to the beer joint to try to borrow money from a bartender friend or “maybe he could pick up a few nickels singing … because he was the best singer in the family.”

At Ollie’s, Nephi was challenged to fight by a man who’d just gotten out of prison 24 hours earlier and was “already crazy drunk and looking for trouble.” Nephi got the best of 21-year-old Howard Armstrong, who went out to his car, got a gun and shot Nephi in the head through the glass door. Sporting a black eye, Armstrong turned himself in to police the next day and claimed self-defense. But the jury deliberated less than an hour before convicting Armstrong and sentencing him to 30 years in prison.

At Nephi’s funeral, Alan Lomax noted that the family “cried so much that their eyes and cheeks were red with salt burn.” Calling the Gants “a lovin’ bunch of poor people,” Lomax wrote of the incredible pain they surely felt at losing a brother, a son.

“They knew what it was like to be hungry and cold and not have a place to call home; but they’d been strong under all this suffering and sorrow because they loved each other so much.”

FURTHER READING: Austin couple the Lebermanns help John Lomax save “Home On the Range”

This series commemorates the incredible cultural contributions of the Lomax family, leading up to the 100th birthday of Alan Lomax (who passed away in 2002) on Jan. 31. Portions of the Gant family story were originally published in the Austin American Statesman in 2010.

 

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