Deep River of Song: Alabama

From Lullabies to Blues

Rounder CD 1829

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.     Martin Luther King. Washington. 1963.

Don't nobody know my troubles but God?
Don't nobody know my troubles but God?
    Vera Hall Ward. Alabama. 1937.

It is a sad thing to admit, but this entire Deep River project has me feeling ever so slightly underwhelmed.  True, the series contains some fantastic music, most of which has previously been next to impossible to get at.  Unfortunately, to hear it now, you've got to get past those dreary, depressing, funereal booklet covers, and those equally depressing CD labels.  Cover pictureMoreover, disenchantment does not always end with the packaging.  To be blunt, the sound quality is sometimes so primitive, that it makes listening more of a chore than a pleasure.  That is not Rounder's fault, nor is it the fault of their engineers.  It arises from the primitive recording equipment, which was in use in those days, and from the fact that the discs it cut did not lend themselves to repeated playing.  Unfortunately, I cannot promise you that the present artwork does anything to alleviate the gloom.  I can tell you, though, that the sound quality is surprisingly spruce.  In fact most of the tracks are a match for any other non-commercial pre-war field work, I can call to mind.  Best of all, good sound supports excellent material.

More of that anon.  First, a proviso or two.  As with several other issues in this subsection of the Alan Lomax collection, A.L.  is noticeable only by his absence.  The recordings are the work of John Lomax, who was aided by his wife Ruby Terril Lomax, and by local folklorist Ruby Pickens Tartt.  More importantly, their collaboration did not constitute an exhaustive survey of the musical folk culture of Alabama.  The white tradition is totally unrepresented, although the point is made clear in the booklet.  Also, the disc cannot pretend to be a geographical survey even of Black Alabama; the catchment area being confined to Sumter County, with a couple of forays into the nearby towns of Mobile and Montgomery.  Neither does it make any claims about offering an exhaustive sampling of Black Alabama folksong.  Religious pieces are underrepresented; there is little in the way of accompanied blues; and the disc does not have the usual Lomax incursion to the State penitentiary.  Finally, the introduction gives the impression that John and Ruby Lomax discovered the Alabama tradition as a result of making contact with Mrs Tartt in 1937.  I presume this to be an error, since three of these tracks were cut in 1934, without Mrs Tartt's presence.

Even so, it would take a rare piece of hyperbole to overstate the importance of their partnership.  Underrepresentations notwithstanding, there is some remarkable stuff here.  There is a variety of secular material, including a couple of worksongs, which seem to have been reclaimed for entertainment purposes.  There are assorted lullabies, play party and children's game songs; there are one or two rare examples of work songs from outside prison walls; and there are several singing stevedores from the docks at Mobile.

However, the disc's greatest significance lies in the fact that it includes the first recordings of the legendary Vera Hall Ward, or Ward Hall, as the booklet identifies her.  Amongst other things, the discovery of Mrs Hall indirectly led to her recording of Trouble So Hard, being incorporated into a recent hit single by the pop performer, Moby.  I do not connect with Mr Moby's music and do not know whether he has shown such excellent taste elsewhere.  Nevertheless, it is good that Mrs Hall should at last have reached a world-wide audience.  I hope that it will lead a few converts to look out her other recordings, this disc included.Moby's remixing of Trouble So Hard comes from Alan Lomax's 1959 recording of Mrs Hall.  The original recording was issued as part of the Southern Folk Heritage LP series: Sounds of the South; Atlantic 590 033.  The Lomax/Tartt team had previously recorded Dock Reed and Vera Hall singing Trouble So Hard during their 1937 meeting.  It is not included in the present selection, but can be heard on Rounder CD 1510; Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs and Ballads.1

For anyone not familiar with the lady, the booklet compares her favourably with the far more famous Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton, both of whom were recorded by one or other of the Lomaxes.  That is no invidious analogy, for in my opinion Vera Hall was one of the greatest of all American folk artists.  Here, she sings six temporal songs as solos, plus four spirituals.  Three of the latter are duets with her cousin Dock Reed, another very fine singer, and they are joined by his brother Henry for the fourth.  If the Hall/Reed duets don't quite equal the rapture of their recordings for Harold Courlander ten years later, that doesn't stop them being superb performances.For the Courlander recordings, See Dock Reed and Vera Hall: Spirituals, Folkways FA 2038.2  play Sound ClipJust listen to the way they swarm up the second half of the melody in Job, Job (sound clip).  For that matter, fans of Blind Willie Johnson will cock an approving ear at their version of What is the Soul of a Man.

The secular items include her famous Another Man Done Gone; a Railroad Bill, with the character portrayed as a bad man, rather than the figure of indolence I recall from the days when it used to be sung around British folk clubs; and yet another version of Lazarus.  I must sit down someday and work out how many times this song crops up throughout the entire Alan Lomax Collection, and in how many guises.  Here, it hardly constitutes a worksong, yet the rhythm and phrasing betray its occupational connotations.  My favourite though is her delightful Boll Weevil; if a boll weevil could ever be considered delightful, that is.  This piece is very short, just over a minute.  It is from the same family as the ballad which Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly made famous, but does not come in ballad format.  play Sound ClipNeither does it owe anything to the terse and tortured country blues, which Charlie Patton recorded for Paramount in 1929.  It is a lyric, pure and simple.  It is laconic, pithy and poignant and it is precise and to the point.  It displays all the finest characteristics of Negro folk poetry, and it is a superlative piece of singing.  (sound clip - Boll Weevil)

One can only feel grateful that such gems were preserved.  Yet, wonderful as they are, I am left feeling slightly uneasy.  Vera Hall and Dock and Henry Reed were members of a church which forbade the singing of 'worldly' songs.  That is well known and that is why Dock Reed steadfastly refused to record, or sing, anything other than spirituals.  Vera Hall was more obliging, at least as far as collectors were concerned, and a fair number of non-religious pieces were got from her.  Even so, Jerrilyn McGregory, the booklet's author, pointedly stresses the severity of strictures which could be levelled against church members who sang secular material.  If what we read is true, it could and did lead to transgressors being 'handled (IE., manhandled) out of the church for the slightest of infractions.  It could and did lead to offenders being forced to answer for their sins, in a manner which sounds distinctly reminiscent of the rigours of Calvinism.  I have no reason to doubt Ms McGregory's account.  However, for reasons which I will explain presently, her emphasis on this point leaves me feeling slightly sceptical.

First, I need to contextualise a moral dilemma; namely does the collector have any right to place their informant in such a difficult situation?  I would say not, but the issues this raises belong in a different time and age, and reflect a different set of social values.  The past, as someone said, is a foreign country and they do things differently there.  Of more immediate concern is the part which those values played in the mediation and presentation of traditional song, and the extent to which our conception of the idiom has been coloured as a result.

Recently, a correspondent wrote to Musical Traditions, loftily proclaiming the need to build an "unimpeachable paradigm" out of what was known of the repertoire of a particular traditional singer.  I would love to agree, even though our correspondent did not specify what he proposed to learn from a model which was incomplete, incapable of generalisation, and devoid of human or social context.  In short order, before we call in the paradigm builders, we should consider what it is we want to achieve, and whether that aim is likely to be achievable.

With that qualification in front of us, let me tell you where it's coming from, McCormick-wise.  I love this stuff.  It moves me to the core of my soul and it lifts the hairs off the back of my head, and that is all the reason I need for buying this record.  Yet the brain is suffuse with curiosity.  The need to know and understand is an intrinsic part of what makes most of us human.  Therefore, I am naturally concerned, not just with what this stuff does to me, but what it meant to the people who sang it.  To understand that, we need to know not just how many songs a person sang, or what type of songs they sang.  We need to know the part which those songs played in the life of that person.  It would be nice if we could construct a paradigm to tell us.  Unfortunately, for the vast majority of traditional singers, we cannot.  That is because we need more than a list of titles.  We need to know about the context of the performance, and we need to know the singer's own assessment of their material.  In the vast majority of cases, that information is lacking.  In the present instance, we can say that some facet of the social organisation of Vera Hall's community, must have accommodated the performance of secular songs alongside the strictures of religious observance.  We cannot say much more than that.

Either I have missed it, or John Lomax and his disciples failed to ask Vera Hall where she sang these songs, and under what circumstances, and whether she shared them with anyone besides collectors.  In the teeth of astringent religious attitudes, we may wonder how on earth the songs managed to circulate.  Were they sung covertly among small groups of heretically minded people, or did Vera Hall sing them to herself when nobody else was around?  What was the standing in her own mind, of these songs?  How did she rate their importance when compared to the religious items?  Did she consider that she was being sinful in singing them?  We do not know, because nobody seems to have thought Vera Hall's opinions worthy of record.  As in many other cases, we cannot even rule out the possibility that some of the songs might have been sung solely for the benefit of the collector.  She may not even have acknowledged them as part of her repertoire.

We are not, and we never will be in the business of paradigm building.  We can, though, agree that it is important not to underestimate the severity of ecclesiastical expulsion.  It would have carried the threat of eternal damnation, and it would have led to earthbound ostracisation.  In a small, close knit community, like the one Vera Hall presumably lived in, falling out with one's neighbours was not a desirable option.  Yet Vera Hall, and presumably others like her, continued to sing 'worldly' songs, and seemingly managed to reconcile the singing of these songs with the demands of a spiritual existence.  How did they do it and why?  It is worth pointing out here that the blues was widely seen among Southern Black people as morally objectionable.  It was the devil's music, and it was a sure guarantee of a one way ticket to hell.  However, we need to make a distinction between those singers, who performed the blues as public entertainment, and those singers who sang them informally.  It is likely, that most of the former were non-religious and would have remained comparatively untroubled by the church's teaching.  Here, we are talking about people who did not have the luxury of being untroubled. 

Ms McGregory puts her finger on one aspect of the problem, when she tells us that informal blues singing constituted a widespread coping strategy among black people.  It is this sort of knowledge which makes me uneasy about sweeping generalisations, where communal organisation is concerned.  They make me uneasy because her explanation shows that blues singing had a social or psychological function; i.e., it was one of a range of functional mechanisms, whereby communities of individuals achieved emotional stability and communal integration, thereby ensuring the smooth running of everyday life.  For this particular mechanism to function as an agent of communal stability, it would have had to operate in concordance with all the other mechanisms; including those which relate to salvation of the soul.

I think there must have been an element of flexibility in the attitudes of Mrs Hall's fellow worshippers; that condemnation of sinful singing would have been tempered by a range of factors.  Citable examples would probably have included the person's standing in the local community, their status within the church, their popularity among other church members, and their personal circumstances.  Whatever formal constraints the church imposed on secular singing, and however harsh the sanctions, Vera Hall's neighbours probably perceived blues singing as an expedient safety valve; sanctionable action if sung too openly, or in the wrong place, but also a means of channelling the singer's grievances away from more serious sanctionable action.  It is interesting to note that, when Vera was eventually 'handled' from the church, it was not for singing sinful songs around the house.  If I have interpreted the booklet correctly, it was for singing to the Library of Congress and possibly also for going up north and singing her spirituals and blues at Carnegie Hall.  Such actions may have been interpreted as having less to do with sentient catharsis than with worldly gain.  Also, interdependent communities cannot function on anything other than an egalitarian basis.  They are communities of equals or they are nothing.  It may be therefore, that her peers ended up 'handling' Vera Hall because they felt she was getting above herself.

I see this kind of blues singing, not just as functionally important in its own respect, but as functionally supportive of religious activity.  Religious participation, especially in a persuasion which enforced harsh moral standards, was a guarantee that the participant would be succoured in the life hereafter.  It was a means of coming to terms with the miseries of the existing world, by offering salvation in the next.  Therefore, it too was a coping strategy, and it too was a cathartic mechanism.  Seen in this light, blues singing becomes the means of enabling the sufferer to secure the long term goal.  Also, to revert to the question of Mrs Hall's neighbours, in a mutually dependent community, individual coping strategies usually end up involving other members of that community.  They become support strategies.  The need to discharge one's feelings in song would have been recognised and understood, and very likely participated in by other members of Mrs Hall's community.

What I am left to puzzle over, is the extent to which coping strategy theories might be stretchable to cover other forms of secular song.  What of Mrs Hall's bad man ballads, for instance, or her boll weevil song?  Did they have a similar cathartic effect, or where they sung for a different reason?  The fact that we do not know is an unhappy consequence of the social climate in which Vera Hall sang and John Lomax collected.

It is time to look at the booklet.  As I mentioned, the notes are by Jerrilyn McGregory of Florida State University, and they are well up to the standard of this estimable series.  If the introduction is shorter than usual, that is hardly surprising when there are thirty two tracks to annotate.  Nevertheless, it covers a lot of ground.  It discusses the relationship between Ruby Pickens Tartt and the Lomaxes; the problem of those secular pieces of Mrs Hall's; the other genres of song heard on this disc; and it gives thumbnail sketches of a fair number of the performers.

There is also a brief biography of Mrs Tartt.  That is something I was particularly glad to see, for I have always found her a shadowy figure; one who tends to get ignored by historians of folk music collection.  However, whilst recognising that the past is another country, I do wish that Ms McGregory had thrown in a couple of comments to counter the patronising racism, which so often passed for liberal attitudes in those days.  Whatever gave you the idea that they were your Negroes, Mrs Tartt?

The rest of the disc doesn't quite trail Hall's and Reed's clouds of glory, but there is still plenty to savour.  There are a number of lullabies which, by European standards are taken at a ferocious tempo and rhythm.  The babies of Alabama might not have got much sleep, but they certainly wouldn't have needed to ask what the word swing meant!  Vivacious rhythms and tempos seem to have infected the children's songs as well.  Just cop an ear to those girls rattling through Ain't Gonna Rain No More.  I'm not sure why Lomax had to get them to double up the tempo on Jack Can I Ride, though.

Talking of doubling things up, perhaps the most equitable member of the supporting cast is a fast talking harmonica player, called Richard Amerson.  He ties Lomax in knots, talking about the massive loads he can tote, on account of the double jointed arms he was born with, and the double jointed meals he has to eat.  He does a graphic Hog Hunt on the harmonica, complete with tall tale introduction, and supplies us with a near statutory train imitation.  If the latter is overhauled by John Lee Thomas's superb railroad piece on the Georgia Deep River disc, and by DeFord Bailey's classic Pan American Blues, it is a fast runner nonetheless.Deep River of Song: Georgia, Rounder CD 1828.  The Bailey recording has been available via a variety of outlets.  The most accessible at the present time is probably County TFS-122: DeFord Bailey: Country Music First Black Star.3

Amerson's harmonica contributions fall within the ambit of blues performance; although they are perhaps a little outside the mainstream of race record material.  Equally, many of the unaccompanied tracks on this disc possess a bluesy tone and sentiment, as though belonging to an era before the idiom had properly crystallised.  Surprisingly enough, though, the disc contains only three examples of accompanied singing.  Of these, one is a Worried Blues, with some rather tasty slide guitar provided by Tom Bell.  The other two examples are by Blind Jesse Harris, who accompanies himself on the accordeon.  What wondrous news is this?  Zydeco musicians apart, the only black rural accordeon player I can ever recall was Leadbelly.  I may be right, or I may be wrong, but I've always presumed Leadbelly's accordeon playing to have been a borrowing from his Cajun near neighbours.  I doubt though that Mr Harris would have been influenced by many Cajun musicians; so what does black Alabama accordeon sound like?  Well, the playing is far less energetic than that of Leadbelly, or of most Cajun musicians, or of most blues instrumentalists.  play Sound ClipPerhaps it's got something to do with the fact that his instrument was in a severe state of disrepair, but there are long instrumental breaks which transported me far from Alabama.  Close your eyes.  Listen to the pace and the rhythm and you could almost be on an English village green watching a team of morris dancers.  (sound clip - Honey Take a Whiff on Me)

I wonder though if the accompanied tracks constitute quite the under-representation which they first appear.  Here, I am roughly distinguishing between unaccompanied blues, typically sung as informal coping strategies, and their accompanied equivalent, which would have been performed more often (although not exclusively) as paid public entertainment.  Think of commercial blues entertainers and one thinks of Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.  One also thinks of the Piedmont and Tennessee and Georgia.  One does not think of Alabama.

Why this was so is something I can only guess at, although we need to remember that when we talk of the race recording industry, we are talking hard economics.  We are talking a different set of motives to those which possessed the folksong collector.  The Lomaxes and Tartts of this world aimed to epitomise folk culture, although their approaches to collecting often overemphasised the odd and the unusual.  The amount we can learn about folk tradition, from the collectors of folk tradition, is therefore somewhat constrained.  It is made all the more so, by the fact that they usually failed to ask enough questions.

Their equivalent entrepreneurs in the commercial record industry recorded what was easy to come by and what they hoped would sell.  As businessmen and capitalists, they ignored most of the materials of folk tradition; the work songs, the lullabies, the field hollers, the unaccompanied ballads.  They overemphasised the blues, not because the blues was the most common form of musical currency in Black America, but because that was what Black people were willing to pay to hear.  The record companies too presented us with a distorted picture.  In their case however, the distortion became reality.  In true capitalist fashion, once black singers identified a market for blues, they proceeded to satisfy it.  Hence, it was largely from commercial intervention that the blues became the dominant musical form of rural Black America.

It is true that a small number of blues performers came from Alabama, or at any rate, were associated with that State.  Among them we may list Cow Cow Davenport, Bo Weavil Jackson and Peanut the Kidnapper.  Nevertheless, the implication is that, in Alabama, the conditions did not exist for commercial blues to flourish in any significant quantity.  Yet we may wonder what was in short supply, for I have heard Alabama described as the poorest State in the Union, and I have heard it described as the most racist.  I do not know whether either epithet is entirely justified.  However, oppression and poverty must have reigned there in plenty, and poverty and oppression are essential ingredients for nurturing the blues.  So too is money, and the blues cannot function as professional, or semi-professional entertainment without it.  Other regions of the South, impoverished as they were, obviously generated enough spare cash for people to buy musical instruments and phonographs, and to pay for live entertainment.  Is it possible that things were so bad in Alabama, that people failed to achieve even this miserable improvement on the minimum level of bare subsistence?  Is this the reason why the blues is more in evidence there as a personal coping strategy, than as public entertainment?

I don't know, but I do know that the myopia, which afflicts the student of folksong, is of a different order entirely to the myopia which judges and condemns people by the colour of their skin.  Equally, we should not judge this record by the colour of the booklet, but by the character of its contents.  Beneath the surface we all have marvellous music inside us.  That is another of the things which makes us human and which identifies us as a single species.  Therefore, limitations to comprehension notwithstanding, we can find some basis for commonality in music, and we can all learn to love each other through it, and we can all learn to live in peace and harmony.  And if the white supremacist honky, who recently questioned my ethnicity via an extraordinarily colourful e-mail, has managed to read this far - I'm from the same race as everybody else, Buddy; the human race.


1. Moby's remixing of Trouble So Hard comes from Alan Lomax's 1959 recording of Mrs Hall.  The original recording was issued as part of the Southern Folk Heritage LP series: Sounds of the South; Atlantic 590 033.  The Lomax/Tartt team had previously recorded Dock Reed and Vera Hall singing Trouble So Hard during their 1937 meeting.  It is not included in the present selection, but can be heard on Rounder CD 1510; Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs and Ballads.

2. For the Courlander recordings, See Dock Reed and Vera Hall: Spirituals, Folkways FA 2038.

3. Deep River of Song: Georgia.  Rounder CD 1828.  The Bailey recording has been available via a variety of outlets.  The most accessible at the present time is probably County TFS-122: DeFord Bailey: Country Music First Black Star.

Fred McCormick - 17.8.01

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