Some Negro Songs Heard on the Hills of North Louisiana
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153 Some Negro Songs Heard on the Hills of North Louisiana —Vallie Tinsley We include this piece as an item of historical interest, a snapshot of scholarly inquiry into the musical practices of rural African Americans near Shreveport from an era long past. The Louisiana Folklife Program’s database of theses and dissertations identifies this work as a “M.A. 1928 Louisiana State University.” Because of the absence of notated music, we assumed it to be a thesis in English. As it turns out, Tinsley wrote her paper for the School of Music, fulfilling a requirement for her concentration in music history and literature. In the context of contemporary music study, during a time when Eurocentric work predominated, this late 1920s graduate music thesis is interdisciplinary, focuses on black American music, and looks in its own backyard. Thus, it may be viewed as forward-thinking, even groundbreaking, for almost any music department to sanction such a topic for graduate work at this time. That said, it occasionally lapses into language that reflects the embedded racism of 1928 society. When the substance of the work is not affected, we have edited out demeaning language. While outside the mainstream for historical musicology, Tinsley’s study was in line with folk song scholarship during the late 1920s. Scholars like John Lomax and Robert Winslow Gordon scoured the South collecting the words to American folk songs, mostly from black and white performers. Tinsley, in fact, refers in passing to the work of Dorothy Scarborough, Howard Odum and Guy Johnson, and Thomas Talley. Although scholars increasingly used sound recordings beginning in the mid-1920s, these earliest folk song collectors were most interested in the words rather than the music or performers’ lives. These rural words presented challenges to the researcher intent on writing down an essentially oral tradition. Struggling with transcription of the dialects she recorded, Tinsley used Kenyon’s American Pronunciation as a guide to “give through phonetic transcription the dialect of the negro as used in these songs” (p. 1). 1 VALLIE TINSLEY 154 Tinsley focused her study directly out her front door, in the “fields, kitchens, churches, and in the memories of the old and the young” she found within a circumscribed area of northwestern Louisiana. She notes that her findings are “only a few rays from the million sunbeams of songs pouring over those hills and valleys.” Her collection includes secular and religious songs classified by Tinsley as “spirituals, blues, lullabies, reels, and rhymes” (p. 1). Tinsley’s section divisions are somewhat idiosyncratic to our modern sensibilities and she does not distinguish between oral, recorded, or other sources of the songs she collected.“Searching for Spirituals,” for example, contains largely nineteenth-century spirituals, along with discussion of her methods and locations for song collecting.“From My Father’s Collection” contains short verses of non-religious songs Tinsley gathered from her father, who learned them through job experiences as “the ‘Mister Mun’ or ‘cap’ to the negroes” (p. 12). These include words to fiddle tunes like “Sally Gooden” and minstrel show songs. Similarly,“My Mother’s Contribution” contains songs from “the kitchen and at the wash-place,” learned by her mother from African American women she encountered in the domestic sphere (p. 21). An odd section titled“If I Can”contains a hodgepodge of songs Tinsley characterizes as“spontaneous outbursts of real feeling,”unified, it seems, by texts that all imply movement—often to a better place. Several sections refer to the people from whom she collected. She named“Azzie’s Songs,”for example, for the woman who accompanied her to several local churches; these most notably include a version of “The Midnight Special,”a song closely associated with Lead Belly. Similarly,“Dorthula’s Songs”come from a singer identified only as“Mis Hester’s colored girl.”“Bob’s Song,”a brief fragment she posits as from“some old phonograph record,”(p. 33), is in fact the opening line of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 race record hit“Black Snake Moan.”Likewise,“Fannie and Angeline’s Song”is the opening of the gospel hymn“Just Over in the Gloryland.”The final section,“Some Blues Songs,”contains stanzas from three songs,“found by Mr. A. H. White to be very popular among the negroes working in the oil fields north of Shreveport”(p. 36). She suggests that these might be from phonograph records; however, in this instance, none can be directly tied to a particular 1920s commercial recording. Two clues locate her efforts...


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