Historic Negro Spirituals and Work Songs from West Virginia
WVU Press SA-4
This is the fourth CD of archive material from West Virginia, which WVUP have made available for us, and it is the only one so far which I cannot unequivocally recommend. To explain why, I first need to summarise some of the booklet information1.
This tells us that the recordings are the work of Professor Cortez D Reece, a native of Oklahoma, who fell under the spell of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at an early age. Partly as a result of that influence, he pursued a music degree at Fisk University, eventually studying under the composer, Arnold Schoenberg, before securing a place on the academic staff at Bluefield State College, Bluefield, West Virginia. For his Phd subject he researched a body of field recorded songs, which he collected from Black people who had settled around Bluefield, following the opening up of coal fields there in the 1890s. The disc presents most of the religious songs and work songs from that collection.
Of the former, there is an interesting mixture of the obscure and the familiar, and the latter are often in unusual versions. I was particularly interested to hear a couple of items from the White spiritual tradition, and it would be nice to know where these were acquired. Were they brought to Bluefield's Black community by incoming immigrants, or were they acquired via interaction with the local White population?.
We are in less familiar territory with the work songs. With one exception - a fascinating shoeshine chant, where the singer sets up a pulsing beat with a shoe duster - these are railroad track lining songs. Very few examples of this genre have ever found their way onto commercial record. It is true that Jesse Fuller and Leadbelly both recorded examples, in fact a version of Leadbelly's Line 'Em turns up on this disc. But the only field recorded examples I can bring to mind are on Rounder CD 1517; Negro Work Songs and Calls2.
Curiously, there are no mining songs, and we are not told whether any will be included on a future release. But overall, the picture looks promising. The disc is attractively packaged, it contains some idiomatic photographs, and the sound quality on the whole is much better than previous WVUP releases. Moreover, the Black folksong tradition of West Virginia has received remarkably little exposure. Therefore, this CD ought to satisfy both the aesthete and the scholar. It should make for splendid listening, and have much to tell us about a relatively unexplored tradition. Moreover, it might give us a clue about how folksongs react to rapid social change. In the present case, we could possibly learn about what happens to people's singing habits, when they are abruptly transported from the violent and brutal racial persecution of their homelands, to the equally violent labour relations of American industry, of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries3.
We can ask such a question because a half century or so before these recordings were made, Bluefield was the subject of massive economic expansion. The coalfields brought the railroads, the railroads boosted exploitation of the coalfields, and between them they brought large numbers of migrant workers. A big percentage of these were Black, and Bluefield logically should have been a hotbed of African-American songs and performance styles from all over the South.
If it was, then very little of that hotbed has seeped onto this record. The singing is generally unexceptional, and many of the performances sound distinctly lacklustre. To be honest, quite a few of the singers do not sound as if they are giving their best, and I can hear little of the anguish and soul unburdening, which makes the Vera Hall Wards and Iron Head Bakers of this world such compulsive listening. I do not know why this might be, and I am left juggling a number of possible explanations.
First of all, could Reece have been dealing with a dying tradition? Were these songs recorded in a milieu where the older spirituals and work songs had become redundant? If so, could loss of function, on the part of the songs, have resulted in a concomitant loss of purpose on the part of the singers? Well, in many parts of Black America, the gospel song had taken over from the spiritual by the time Reece was recording, and we are not told for certain whether the railroad songs were still an ongoing tradition. Thus, redundancy does initially look as though it might offer an explanation. However, the argument loses credibility when we examine the time scale. The area was opened up as recently as the 1890s, and these recordings were made roughly between 1949 and 1953. Therefore, we are dealing in the main with groups of first and second generation immigrants. They would most certainly have brought their musical culture with them as integral parts of their occupational, religious and other traditions. Therefore it sounds to me as though we are dealing with a living tradition, albeit a somewhat displaced one.
Alternatively, it might be profitable to examine Reece's collecting technique, and I suggest this because the disc crams thirty-eight tracks into just over fifty minutes. In itself, such brevity makes for disjointed listening, and the reasons for it are not stated. We don't know whether we are hearing fragments of longer recordings; whether Reece recorded just the opening stanzas, presumably noting the rest of the texts by hand; or whether they are complete performances. Given the collecting methods which were prevalent at the time, I would guess that the second scenario is the most likely4. That makes me wonder whether the singers regarded the recording part of the operation as a demonstration of how the tune should go, rather than as a full blown performance.
However, that supposition does not square with many other short sample field recordings I've heard. The aural evidence of the Columbia World Library, for instance, suggests that traditional singers sound no less passionate when demonstrating a few verses, than when in the full flight of a complete performance5.
In that case, could Reece's background have had some bearing on the matter ? Did he, as a prominent member of the Bluefield musical establishment, with interests in classical music and jubilee singing, and with his own a capella choir, unconsciously inhibit the singers?6 For that matter, did his musical interests and social connections steer him towards informants who were more genteel in style than those we are used to? Could it be that some of his informants were more socially mobile, and with greater claims to middle class status, than those who normally excite the interest of folk music collectors? Well, it is true that the disc includes quite a few railroad workers, but I was struck by the fact that about one third of the singers came from the ranks of the professional and business classes. In particular, I noticed a rather ingratiating rendition of John Henry, which reminded me of some very twee girl singers who were knocking about English folk clubs in the 1960s. I wasn't all that surprised to find that the singer was also the proprietor of The Peter Pan Dancing School in Bluefield.
I am in no position to check any of these conjectures. That is partly because the subject matter is so under-researched, but also because the booklet is not very enlightening. It consists of a historical introduction, which briefly outlines the area's economic development; a concise but informative biography of Professor Reece; suggestions for further reading; notes to the songs and descriptions of how the work songs were used; and thumbnail sketches of most of the singers. Recording dates are given throughout, and enough ages are quoted to suggest that Reece spread a wide demographic net. We are not told though where many of the singers were located. Was there a preponderance of urbane Bluefield dwellers, or did some of them come from a more remote and possibly economically backward hinterland? Could there be some significance in the fact that two of the - to my ears - most interesting singers both came from Lake Superior, McDowell County? I was unable to find Lake Superior in the Britannica World Atlas or via Multimap, but that fact alone may suggest a remote location.
Most of the booklet's editorial and literary work is uncredited and the only definite attribution I could find was for the biography of Reece. The author is one Joseph Bundy, who is identified as a music historian and local businessman. However, Danny Williams, the CD's producer, acknowledges Bundy as the major source of research, so I guess that the rest of the booklet is his also.
The songnotes, worksong descriptions, and thumbnail sketches are extracted from Reece's thesis, and there are various supporting comments. Unfortunately, the extracts are very brief, the supporting comments are often difficult to distinguish from the extracts, and both tend to be uninformative. For example, in the case of Waldo Dickason's Way Over In The Promised Land, we are told that "Reece cites documentation of the song from as far back as 1854 and as far afield as the Bahamas". But none of the documentation is cited here. I appreciate the restrictions which booklet size imposes, and apologies for brevity are made on the grounds of limited space. However, the situation is not helped by the fact that the booklet is only twenty four pages, including covers, and is printed in an unusually large typeface. Nevertheless, I was glad to see those thumbnail sketches. They suggest that, in terms of acknowledging human sources, Reece was far ahead of many of his contemporaries. Also, whilst searching the Internet, I came across a posting from Bundy and Williams, appealing for information on the singers. There is some evidence in the text to suggest that they were partially successful.
Otherwise, little effort seems to have been made to update or supplement Reece's original work, even where this is clearly deficient. Thus, for a number of the songnotes, the booklet has a statement to the effect that no information is available, because Reece did not include any in his thesis. This leads to some unfortunate gaps which a little more research might have filled in. For instance, I was puzzled by a declaration that Reece knew of no other version of Drinking of the Wine than the one which appears on this CD. A check through Steve Roud's Folksong Index revealed five entries for that song (Roud 7851). They include one from Odum & Johnson, The Negro and His Songs, which was published as far back as 19257. I would find it very strange if Reece did not know about this book, or did not use it in his research. But whether he did not know, or whether that particular source just got overlooked is not really the issue. I would have expected someone compiling a historical release, such as this, to have looked a long way beyond the immediate source material.
I was also puzzled by the booklet's comments relating to Some Bright Day. This is another song which Reece was unable to trace anywhere else, although there are no less than thirty six entries for it in Roud. My concern here though, was more to do with the fact that the notes appear to highlight a problem with Reece's methodology8. It is that his work seems to show its age by assigning racial characteristics to some of the melodies. That is an approach which many scholars nowadays would regard as questionable, and it is one where I would advocate caution and consistency. In the case of Some Bright Day, however, no ethnic attribution is claimed. Yet melody and format seem so redolent of the White spiritual tradition that, for once, I'd have thought some acknowledgement of the same would have been in order.
Nor is the problem confined to the song notes. I have already mentioned that brief sketch of the economic development of Bluefield. Unfortunately, it is too short to give us much information about the human aspects of that development. As well as the questions I raised earlier, it would have useful to know what regions the migrants came from and how the song repertoire of Black Bluefield compared with those regions.
We are not enlightened on any of these points, but instead the editor directs us to just four sources of further reading and listening. Two are economic or social histories, which do not sound as though they concern themselves with songs. Nevertheless, they will presumably elucidate the social background, and are therefore to be welcomed. Of the other two recommendations, one is Reece's thesis, which runs to four volumes. It has never been published and we are told that it exists in only a few photocopies. Readers will be glad to learn that it is available on interlibrary loan. But unless things have changed since I last ordered one, interlibrary loan copies of unpublished theses are customarily sent on microfilm. Lengthy microfilmed documents are notoriously difficult to read. Incidentally, the booklet has no textual transcriptions, and for these we are referred to the thesis. One would expect them to be more easily available than via interlibrary loan, especially if my hunch about Reece using short sample recordings turns out to be correct. Also, my remarks about good overall sound quality notwithstanding, there are times when a combination of distortion, bad acoustics and extraneous noise makes the words difficult to decipher.
The other recommendation refers to the aforementioned Rounder CD, Negro Work Songs and Calls. The reasons for including that particular disc are not stated, and I can only presume that it is listed for the railroad worksongs. Therefore, I should perhaps mention that only four of the tracks deal with this idiom, and none of the recordings were made in West Virginia.
Finally, publishing data is given in the text, but not in the further reading, of a biography of Memphis Tennessee Garrison, one of the singers on this disc. Ms Garrison was an early Black civil rights activist, and her story might shed some light on the social background of Reece's informants. It would have been helpful therefore if, as well as listing the other bibliographic details, the names of the authors could have been included9.
I must apologise for taking readers on this brief tour of scholarly resources, for I realise that some people regard the study of folk music as an unnecessary intrusion on their listening pleasure. I most vehemently do not. Moreover, however rare some of this material might be, it is difficult to see Work and Pray having much appeal, beyond alerting scholars to a previously neglected area of Black American folksong. This, it could have done a lot better. For that matter, the disc will no doubt be considered collectable by anyone with a specific interest in the folkmusic of West Virginia. For everyone else, there is so much first class Black Americana on CD these days, that there is little point in buying this one.
Also, I hope that my remarks about these performances will not sound disparaging towards the Black middle class. To raise oneself up from the position of helpless servitude, which vast numbers of Black Americans accepted as their immutable lot, must be counted as a spectacular achievement. But in my experience, upward mobility and good traditional singing seldom make compatible soulmates. Finally, I must point out that West Virginia UP have further CDs of Reece's work in the pipeline. It may be that some of my questions will be answered there. Yet I am left with the feeling that this release has been put together by someone who is not terribly well acquainted with the methods of folklore. I hope that future releases will meet higher standards than this one.
2. This disc is a reissue of Library of Congress LP AAFS L8. Examples of Leadbelly's Line 'Em can be found on the LPs, RCA NL 90231: Alabama Bound, and Fantasy 6015: Leadbelly.
3. The only book which I can recall dealing with working conditions on American railroads, in a musical context, is Norman Cohen, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. Urbana, Illinois UP, 1981. Discussions of labour songs in American mining regions can be found in:
4. Susan White's John Henry does though sound like a full performance. It is over three minutes long, and one can hear the guitar reaching a coda at the end.
5. The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music (recently reissued on Rounder) contains material which is for the most part contemporary with Reece's work. Volume XVII, Romania (Rounder 11661-1759-2) includes a brief discussion by Speranta Radulescu on the problems of short sample recordings, and the economics of audio folklore collection at that time.
6. For a discussion of performer inhibition in what the author calls 'the collector-informant context', see Kenneth Goldstein, A Guide For Field Workers In Folklore. Hatboro, Folklore Associates, 1964
7. For anyone not familiar with Roud numbers, the Folksong Index and Broadside Index are an ongoing pair of databases, which are being developed by Steve Roud, librarian of The Folklore Society. The eventual aim will be to catalogue every traditional song and every broadside in English, from every collection known to exist. Both databases are available on CD-ROM from Steve at Southwood, High St, Maresfield, East Sussex, TN22 2EH. Email: email@example.com .
The sources of Some Bright Day listed by Roud are:
8. Roud 4213. See also a version in the Max Hunter collection, sung by Ollie Gilbert of Mountain View, Arkansas. This is not listed by Roud, but is on-line at http://www.smsu.edu/folksong/maxhunter/0845/index.html My thanks to John Garst for assistance in straightening this one out.
9. Memphis Tennessee Garrison: The Remarkable Story of a Black Appalachian Woman. Ancella R Bickley and Lynda Ann Ewen. Ohio UP, 2001.
Fred McCormick - 27.8.03