“No Hiding Place Down Here . . .” On a Saturday afternoon I stopped at a small Negro church in the Trinity River bottoms, a few miles from the town of Trinity, curious to know why it was newly painted and well kept when so many of the churches I went to sagged and slanted and leaked. Finding the door shut but not locked I went in. The altar and bench pews had been cleaned for Sunday. I touched a coal oil torch near the altar. It was filled and ready for lighting. There was a piano but no songbooks. At a house nearer the river I asked about the pastor. “He live in town,” a woman said. Her husband was a deacon and could tell me about the church but he was working way off somewhere. She did not expect him home till toward sundown or maybe “first dark.” “You c’n come back then.” I found the pastor resting on his porch in the Negro section. He was what they called “an ole timey preacher,” in the black suit and white shirt he wore, in his servile attitude toward white folks, in his praise for the white man who owned the land where his church stood. Not many landowners left like him, he told me. Not many landowners would give the land, build the church, and give money to the preacher. Not many would take so much interest in a darky preacher’s sermons or what he said to the members of his church. We talked about his religion and what he preached. He could read the Bible all right but he did not understand much about it except the promises. He was certain about the promises. “If a man be’s good and work hard here below,” he said, “he guina git his reward in heab’n.” He talked about the rewards. He could just lean back, shut his eyes, and see the gates of gold, the streets of gold, just like the Bible say. This he believed; this he preached. The landlord was partial to his sermons. Some Sundays he sat on his horse outside the church and listened. Sometimes they talked about “uppity niggers.” There was no place for them around there. I asked about the singing. “They sings good. They sung in town one time. White folks axed them.” I left him and went back to the deacon’s house down by the river. It was first dark and he was sitting barefoot on the porch he called it the gallery. I asked if I could sit with him and talk awhile. He gave me his chair and sat on the floor with his back against a post. The woman stood in the door. “I ain’t lit no lamp,” she said, “hit draws too many ‘skeetuhs.” There were no screens and I asked about the mosquitoes. “I don’t hardly pay them no mind,” the man said. He was not talkative, either about the church or himself. It was not that he distrusted me or thought I should not be there. His attitude was that white folks has got rights and they could come around when they wanted to. He did let me know that I could not sell him anything. He had to buy all his furnishings at the commissary and pay up at picking time. met Piper the collection had been printed as Swing and Turn Texas Play-Party Games. Piper thought it was a good beginning, but only a beginning. He had in mind a work of broader scope. He wanted to create a library of folk songs at the University of Iowa, a library the university would finance and I would collect. I was easily convinced; the university was not. At the end of the summer he was able to advance seventy-five dollars out of his own pocket, enough to begin the collection, if I would contribute my time and expenses. I agreed and agreed to track down songs wherever people sang, whether at home or singings, in church or honkytonk, in cotton patch or kitchen. Go after the song, he advised me. To him, not the singer but the song alone mattered. Back in Texas, I went to a new job, teaching English at the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College. It was a lucky change much better than the job I left, teaching English in the Robert E. Lee High School in Goose Creek. It was more centrally located, for collecting. My Aggie students, many of them farm boys, knew singers, and were eager to send me to them, or to go with me as guide and helper. With Piper’s seventy-five dollars I bought a second-hand Vibromaster recording machine, already an antique. It embossed rather than cut on aluminum discs. The quality of sound was not the best but the records were durable, as long as they were played with a bamboo or cactus needle a cactus thorn picked beside the road would do. With twentyfive blank discs ordered from New York at thirty-three cents each I started out. In town, where possibly two homes out of three had a radio, the recordings were a novelty; in the country, where there might not be a radio within twenty miles or more, they were often regarded as a miracle. My trips began at College Station, and extended out farther and farther as I saved up travel time and expense money. Within a year I had recorded in Negro churches in the Brazos River bottoms, Anglo-Texan settlements in the Big Thicket, Cajun French communities in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. Folk music had from the beginning of cities been regarded as rural, “country,” but it persisted among country people who moved to town in the prosperous Twenties, and went with them again when, to keep from starving, they moved back to the country in the Depression of the Thirties. You can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy was as true for folk music as for anything else. To me, as a collector, an English ballad was an English ballad whether sung by a Dallas streetcar conductor or a sawmill hand in the piney woods. It was the singer who lent authenticity. Four years later I came to a third turn. ing. Edwin Ford Piper had been dead two years. The University of Iowa had no interest in adding the three or four hundred records I had made to their library. The doctorate was almost in my hand; the university wanted no part of the recordings, as I had hoped. On January 1, 1941, I was back in Texas, starting a career as folklorist for the University of Texas. My territory was vast the whole of Texas; my instructions at times nebulous, at times conflicting. As an employee of the university I was to further the work of the Extension Division by setting up folk 16 AUGUST 5, 1983
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.