This episode of CU at the Libraries, “Exploring the Folklore Music Map of the United States,” features a conversation between Map Library Cataloging Naomi Heiser and Professor Emeritus and former director of the American Music Research Center Thomas Riis at the University of Colorado Boulder. The transcript has been modified to accommodate the difference in medium.
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NH: “Tom, I’ve been wanting to talk to you for three years about this map because I want to learn more about it and I knew you were the right person to talk to.”
TR: “I’m really glad you brought it to me, Naomi.”
“In part two we'll discuss instruments in the folk music tradition, the wide variations and room for individuality that exists in folk music.
“Finally, we’ll talk about its influence on other musical genres and into modern music.”
TR: “I can see some musical notes there.”
NH: “It has a beautiful border with lots and lots of detail. It has a big scroll on the top with lots of songs and notations in it. And then there are little pictures all over in each state, that show a song that supposedly relates to that state with people acting out whatever the song is describing.”
TR: “One of the things I see is the long list of categories and the song names in the top of the map just below the border. There’s even a bibliography!”
NH: “That’s pretty unusual for a pictorial map. This map is particularly full of actual information and not just meant to be sort of fun or decorative. This one has academic-type information, so maybe it was made for the purpose of teaching, whereas a lot of other pictorial maps from this time period are made for entertainment.”
TR: “Yes that's a good point, Naomi. The detail on the map is not only interesting and pictorial, it gives detailed information about many songs, some of which are familiar but many of which are probably not so familiar, except perhaps to a folk song collector.”
NH: “The pictorial map tradition is based a lot on the time periods interesting cartoons or in comics and so quite a bit of them are humorous or maybe they do seem a little bit slapstick. But this map in particular does have I think a level of respect that you don't necessarily see on some of the other pictorial maps.”
TR: “All of the pictures, while often they're small, they are not caricatures. It's very clear that she is, as you say, suggesting respect and she's wanting us to see there were many, many songs across the country.
“The pictures from an artistic standpoint are really beautifully distributed. She's not only paying attention to a song that might be popular, say in the Southwest or in the Northeast. She's wanting there to be a song or two in each of the many states and a few more songs in the larger states simply because it's artistically a little more balanced.”
NH: “You were talking about the information that the author Dorothy Dix Lawrence had included on the map and I just wanted to point out that the illustrator of the map is someone named Harry Cimino. I did a little research because I wanted to know whether he had illustrated any other pictorial maps and he has not. This is his only one, although he did illustrate a lot of books. He was a woodcut illustrator for a lot of books at this time period, but, no other maps.”
TR: “That's fascinating because I think it matches in a way with the unique quality of Dorothea Dix Lawrence, the woman who prepared the songs, who herself was trained as a singer. In fact, an opera singer who, in a way, discovered folk music and then treated it with the kind of respect that we were just talking about on her own programs.
“She was quite an interesting woman. She was born in 1899. And her career, her debut in opera was in the late 1920s and she had a blossoming career during the Depression. But, this was also a time when many Americans were wanting to pull together and she started to listen to folk music. Like many, many other collectors both before and after her, she found it fascinating. She was proud of the American heritage, which for her, obviously, was not just classical music, was not just opera and certainly were not just popular songs that were written to be sold. She set about things, I think, in a very systematic way. Then, eventually, put together a songbook after World War II. The map was printed in 1945, but in 1959, she put together a songbook for, I'm sure, herself, but also for any other singers be they professionals or amateurs who might want to perform the songs.”
NH: “So there's a book that goes with the ‘Folklore Music Map of the United States’ and it's called ‘Folklore Songs of the United States.’ It was written and collected by Dorothea Dix Lawrence, but arranged by Walter Rosemont, so the songs in the book match the songs on the map. It also includes some historical detail that she decided to write about each song.”
TR: “I think a good song to look at is a pretty well-known song, I think even to the general audience, “Arkansas Traveler.” We know there are hundreds of variants of this song. As a matter of fact, we have a couple of them in a collection at CU Boulder in the Ben Gray Lumpkin Digital Archive. Ben Gray Lumpkin was a professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder who made it his task to find out what the folk songs of the state were.
“When Mr. Lumpkin arrived on campus, he was born in 1901 and he probably arrived here in the 1930s and 1940s, exactly when Ms. Lawrence was making her map. He wanted to do some research that did not necessarily involve the great ancient tomes of the old world and decided to go out into the countryside. His head of his department said, ‘Fine, whatever you find is what you find,’ and I think everyone was surprised, including Mr. Lumpkin, that there were so many songs to be found. And one of them was ‘Arkansas Traveler.’
“He traveled from town to town. He did this over several summers. He recorded people on the spot and the quality of the recording is not always what we might expect from a high-end digital recording nowadays. But, it certainly illustrates the idea that indeed everywhere you look, there are traditional songs that are being passed on by word of mouth and that are remembered fondly. Whether they actually are native to the state or the region is really not the point. We keep songs that we learn or we are taught from wherever they have come from, and ‘Arkansas Traveller’ is a good example of that.”
NH: “I thought what you said was interesting because also based on this map that we're looking at, there's just a couple of songs in Colorado because, as we talked about, the illustrator wanted to put a couple of songs on each state to make the map look full. So I'm wondering what songs do you think are particular to Colorado, at all, based on the Lumpkin collection? Or do you really think that Colorado is a place where maybe people came later from other parts of the country and didn't necessarily develop a base in their own folk songs?”
TR: “I think that's true for almost all of the areas that we have. That is to say, people are coming from somewhere to someplace else. We tend to hold on to the songs that we learned as children. Where did we learn the songs? I was born in New Hampshire. I don't remember any particular New Hampshire songs and I've also lived for many years in different states of the union. I know you've been in Tennessee, right?”
NH: “That's where I grew up. There were definitely Tennessee songs there and people like to claim them.”
TR: “Most folk songs are remembered because they're memorable or because they talk about a story that is, if not universal, certainly a common story: frustrated love, lonesomeness, nostalgia, I miss my home. The songs are in a way their own creatures. They travel in many ways on their own.”
NH: “So that's why something like “Arkansas Traveler’ would be able to be gathered here in Colorado.”
TR: “Why, the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ has been recorded many, many times but only rarely in Arkansas.”
NH: “Then, the song on the map that is particularly Colorado-based is something called ‘The Lousy Miner.’ Do you want to talk a little bit about the history of that song since you've looked into it now?”
TR: “I did not know it before we started looking at this map together, so thank you for introducing me to 'The Lousy Miner.' And of course lousy refers originally to having lice, which is something that afflicted miners a lot when they were away from soap and water it ways to get rid of vermin. The lousy miner song is not particularly associated with Colorado. Of course, there were miners in Colorado and I think the reason that Ms. Dickson and Mr. Cimino placed the lousy miner title on the border between Utah and Colorado was because that's where a lot of mining has taken place. It turns out that the most quoted text of the lousy miner was originally published in the early or mid 19th century in a little California songster. A songster, by the way just for those who might not know, is basically a small book, maybe a few inches wide, that you could slip into your pocket. Almost no songsters have notes, they just have words, but very often, as you might find in a broadside posted on a column or on a kiosk, it will say the following song, the following ballad to be sung to the tune of. And in the case of this early eighteen hundreds songster, ‘The Lousy Miner,’ is said to be sung to, ‘The Dark-Eyed Sailor.’ Now the text of the old song, ‘The Dark-Eyed Sailor’ has nothing to do with the text of ‘The Lousy Miner.’ But, again here is a case where the writer of the new text, the man who wrote or perhaps woman, we don't quite know who wrote ‘The Lousy Miner,’ thought it would go well with the melody of ‘The Dark-Eyed Sailor.’
“That's important to underline because this is true for hymns, it's true for some patriotic songs, even. Sometimes the same words, because the words themselves can be very catchy or the ballad is an important one, will get attached to different melodies because sometimes a variety of tunes will match the story. Or people want to tell the story over and over again.
“For each of these 100 or 125 odd songs that she's collected, she gives little explanations or commentaries. One can almost hear her doing this in her travels, as I said, she made many many traveling recitals where she would sing these songs and talk about them.
“On the bottom of the page for 'The Lousy Miner,' for example, she says, ‘Many of those seeking gold in the middle of the 19th century met with complete failure, like the lousy miner.’ Adrian Ekberg, the famous character of Death Valley California in the days of the Gold Rush, said the following: ‘Most of the gold around here is in the sunset, but don't let him fool ya. That's gold, really 24 karat, and they can't take that away from you.’ Lovely story, not about Colorado, not about Utah, but it's worth you know it's worth preserving and you can see her audience smiling when she has Mr. Ekberg’s punchline there in the story.”
NH: “Tom, you noted that there were many different layers of information on this and for a pictorial map, that's also absolutely the case. There's a border that has many musical instruments in it of different types. And it even has plants and flowers that are symbolic of different musical forms or different parts of the country. The whole top border has to do with some Zuni musical scale that Dorothy Dix Lawrence was interested in. And on the map itself, there's not only the people, but the titles the things they're doing and then references back and forth to the bibliography.”
TR: “This approach is intended to be pedagogical, right? She wants you to learn new things and she doesn't want to talk down to you. But she does it in multiple dimensions. We have musical instruments that are pictured on both sides and on the bottom and the top. To some extent, these are almost all folk instruments or instruments that would be connected with the tradition that is to say somebody’s folklore. I noticed in the folklore songbook that she actually explains the position of these instruments in various cultures.
“The most conspicuous thing missing, of course, would be orchestral instruments. And, actually, I would say, the most conspicuously absent instrument is the piano because all the piano was extremely common in the 19th century. We tend not to think of it as a folk instrument and even though her songbook is written for voice and piano when you say ‘folk instrument,’ most people would think banjo, guitar, various kinds of percussion instruments. Things that maybe are associated with cultures other than ones that are part of city music-making. This is not about orchestral music. It is not about fancy people's music. It is not about cultured or cultivated music or classical music. And so she includes certain things, something that looks like a string bass, or a double bass, or a cello. But again fiddles are the kind of a crossover in a way. We know about fiddles in bluegrass bands and other places, so she allows for those. We also have banjos, which is, of course, originally an African instrument. But we tend to think of that as a major folk instrument in this country. As well, we have a variety of drums and so forth and even some ancient instruments and, here, her history perhaps is a little looser. But again she's wanting to evoke these ancient traditions, whether they started on this continent or whether they were brought over from other places. ”
NH: “Which ancient instrument are you referring to on the border?”
TR: “Well there's something that looks like a lyre, which I normally think of as part of an ancient Greek tradition. She seems to be wanting to evoke the ancient traditions of oral folk poetry. I see there's also a mountain dulcimer, which of course is very strongly associated with Appalachian folk songs. I see a mandolin, which is often associated with Italian folk songs as well as American folk songs. We know this from again bluegrass bands and modern folk music.”
NH: “Here's a question for you. In the folk songbook and on the map, there was something described as this being published also for purposes of using in schools. So, if this is aimed at children as well as her adult audience, what do you think about what she intended the schools to convey to children with the use of this map?”
TR: “We all need to know, as students, even as very young students, the varieties of tunes that existed and still exist in the United States. I think this is in a way a statement about how all of these songs together make the totality of American song. And I think in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly under the stress of the Great Depression and then, of course, during the war, the idea of all of these things being part of America was really central. How do you create people's songs? How do you preserve people’s songs. You teach them to the children. You bring them into the classroom and you have them sing along.
“Many of the song teachers and leaders of this period do this very consciously. You can think of more recent individuals like Pete Seeger or the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, if you know that wonderful African-American vocal group. They teach one-on-one. They sing, you sing back. They speak, you speak back. This is a group activity. It says we are a community. It says we are together, even though we may come from different traditions. So, I think this is the ideal that informs this.”
NH: “Right. That's really interesting, because in reading more about the pictorial map tradition, which was from about 1915 to stopping in 1960. We have this really wonderful new book in the map library that people are welcome to look at and it's sort of an overview of the pictorial map genre and the most important pieces in it. This music map actually happens to be in this book, which I was glad to see. But the point that this author is making about this period of time and the reason that these maps came to the fore was for the same exact reasons you're talking about: wanting to get everyone in the community on the same page about our American heritage. So the pictorial maps arose out of a love of our common history, but also were something that was popular and that was accessible to everyone.”
TR: “It seems that this late 19th, early 20th century period up through the middle, certainly into the 1960s is reflected both in the maps. The desire that we know, all of the variety that’s here and that we bring a certain amount of respect to it, and that it's important to pass this on to the next generation. I think all of those things are part and parcel of the process.
“Let's hear a couple of versions of a folk song on the map called “Weavily Wheat.” the first one is by Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals.
“Next we have a very different sounding version but still an equally authentic one. The Dixie State Women's Chorus performs Shawn Kirchner’s arrangement of the song at Dixie State University. Clearly, they are different pieces. I don't think you'd have too much trouble telling them apart, but they're both based on the same song.
“It says in her title Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Pals with the instruments and a solo voice and then the other clearly an arranged version for the women’s choir, which has its own movement aspect to it. How did these work?
“Both of them function as play pieces, dance pieces. You could easily move to them. Why are they both the same piece? Well, the basic tune is the same. Most of the words are the same But, clearly, they are not the same piece. This kind of gets to the core of what's so wonderful about folk music. It's there in a way, but it's open to variation, suggestion and expansion.”
NH: “So Tom, you had mentioned that there are various types of music for different purposes on the map and one of the pieces that you picked is under the form of…?”
TR: “Well, the general tradition is called the spirituals, African-American spirituals, which are very well known. In fact, it was one of the very few kinds of American music that was famous worldwide by the end of the 1800s. There's a wonderful example that's on the map of a song that clearly comes from the African-American spirituals tradition called ‘Keep A Inchin’ Along’ It's kind of a generally optimistic tune.
“We have one historic recording of the song made by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1926. The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the world and performed for the crowned heads of Europe in the 1880s and 1890s and they are still performing to this day.
“This was the 1926 Jubilee Singers singing and ‘Keep A Inching Along.’”
NH: “That was really perfect because you mentioned earlier Dorothy Dix Lawrence traveling through Europe to promote the folk-song traditions, and you're saying that the Fisk Jubilee Singers also traveled. Do you think that she knew of them and had seen them herself?”
TR: “I'm pretty sure that she knew of them, whether she'd seen them herself, I don't know but they certainly were traveling widely and may have still been traveling when she was out and about.
“We have a very contrasting version of this song with the same text and the same melody by a much more recent group. These are the Howard University Gospel Choir. Gospel is not the same thing as spirituals, although they're both strongly associated of course with the African-American folk tradition, gospel, obviously, a more recent development and only really widely known outside of the religious communities in the middle of the 20th century. So this is the Howard University Gospel Choir singing there version of ‘Keep A Inching Along.’”
NH: “We're running out of time but we have time for one really last fun song and I wanted to point out that this song can also be found in the Ben Gray Lumpkin Digital Collection. But the version that we're going to hear is very different. Can you tell us about that?”
“The version we're going to hear is a pretty dynamic version from Sam Cooke. We don't generally think of Sam Cooke as a folk singer, he was very active in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. But a wonderful voice. This illustrates almost as well as one could imagine how things that we think of as folk songs or folklore objects make their way into the broader culture.
“This is an amazingly popular, effective, beautiful rendition of a song that was well-known. There are over 300 different versions of Frankie and Johnny out there. The Sam Cooke version is, I think, a good cap or a conclusion to what we've been talking about this morning.”
NH: “I have learned so much about the map. Now I'm going to be able to use it in the classes that we teach and it's going to be very exciting to pull it out for students over and over. I really appreciate getting some context for it in our pictorial map collection that we have in the Earth Sciences & Map Library, which people are certainly welcome to come see along with this map. This map was bought in conjunction with the Howard B. Waltz Music Library, and it’s important to remember that they have all kinds of collections that speak to this discussion.”
TR: “I've had a lot of fun too, Naomi! It's really been educational for me to learn more about these individuals and songs.
“I should also mention that in addition to the Ben Gray Lumpkin collection, the American Music Research Center collections also contain the music of Walter Collins, who collected college songs books, which is a kind of folk music. And, also, a very interesting mother-daughter collection very small one by Kerry Kramer and her daughter Grace Kramer Small, who are pioneer families who moved out in the direction of Colorado about 100 years ago. And there are probably other folklore collections and possibly even other digital collections that would do with exploration.”
NH: “Thank you, Tom, so much for letting us your expertise.”