- The Mary Lomax Ballad Book: America’s Great 21st Century Traditional Singer by Art Rosenbaum
Lemuel Uriah Payne (1884–1968) farmed other people’s land in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in northern Georgia for most of the first half of the twentieth century. He and his wife Tressie produced 10 offspring, and he supplemented the sometimes meager income generated by tenant farming with such traditional practices as homemade whiskey production. He also sang. In fact, his repertoire of material was both extensive and expansive. It consisted of many of the pieces that have come to be associated with traditional singers from the southern Appalachians, including several Child ballads as well as a number of narrative songs cataloged by G. Malcolm Laws. Moreover, he knew complete, often lengthy versions of many of these ballads, most of which he had probably acquired from hearing them performed by vocalists in the region in the late nineteenth century. [End Page 103] Bunyon Payne attempted to preserve his father’s repertoire by writing down the words of many of his songs, and Lemuel Payne’s daughter Mary Lomax converted her brother’s manuscript into type to produce what has conventionally been called a “ballet book” (though she does not use that term), from which she and her sister Bonnie Loggins have sung what has become a family tradition into the twenty-first century. The typescript also includes material that appeals to Lomax but does not appear to have come from her father.
Art Rosenbaum’s book and compact discs preserve the musical legacy of Lemuel Payne. The center of the multimedia project is the two CDs, which feature Mary Lomax singing material from her typescript of her father’s repertoire. The CDs also include several songs performed by Bonnie Loggins and by Bonnie’s son Casey, a reminiscence by Mary about her father’s singing, and a couple of fiddle tunes. The core of Rosenbaum’s book is a set of transcriptions of the sung verbal texts from the CDs, which often vary slightly from what appears in the typescript. A photograph of a typescript page of a portion of “The Drunkard’s Hell” suggests how very slight the differences between the ballet book and the sung performances are. Rosenbaum introduces each transcription with a headnote, which usually provides some historical information about the song, relates the Payne version to other variants, and provides enough bibliography to facilitate the reader’s search for some of those variants. No musical transcriptions appear in the book since, Payne argues, the CDs provide the melodies. Another section of the book reproduces songs from the typescript whose tunes had been forgotten by Lomax and consequently do not appear on the CDs.
Rosenbaum introduces the contents of the ballet book with a thorough overview of the Payne family history, much of it quoted or paraphrased from notebooks in which Mary Lomax recalled events from her childhood and the genealogical traditions she heard from family members. The reader also learns how expressive culture besides music has informed the lives of Lemuel Payne’s descendants. Bonnie Loggins is a painter and, in fact, provided Rosenbaum’s first contact with the family through her work. Rosenbaum pays ample attention to the processes of tradition that extend from Lemuel Payne and appear to be ongoing; one of his great-great-grandchildren received a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the Georgia Arts Council to learn family songs from Mary Lomax in 2008.
The song texts, for the most part, are familiar items in the repertoires of traditional singers from the Southern Appalachians. Child ballads such as “The House Carpenter” (no. 243), “Barbara Allen” (no. 84), and “Lord Lovel” (no. 75) appear alongside murder ballads (“Omie Wise” [Laws F2]), outlaw songs (“Sam Bass” [Laws E4]), and narratives that Laws traced to British broadside sources (“The Butcher Boy” [Laws P24]) as well as occasional lyric folk songs.
Many of these songs are...