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BIQ THICKET BALLADRY BY WILLIAM A. OWENS Noone has collected more Big Thicket songs or studied them more thoroughly than has Bill Owens. He was making the rounds with a recording machine when both collectors and recording machines were considered rarities. He cut the songs on aluminum disks that had to be played with a cactus needle, and his record of Ben Hooks' "Cattle in the Canebrake," made in 1938, still has the fidelity given by most modern tape recorders. Bill was East Texas from the start, having been born and raised in the community of Pin Hook in Lamar County, and began studying East Texas folk music seriously when he was doing his master's work at Southern Methodist University. His first book, SWING AND TURN: TEXAS PLAy-PARTY GAMES (1936) was an outgrowth of his thesis. In 1950 he published TEXAS FOLK SONGS through the Texas Folklore Society. Most of the songs in this book were collected in East Texas and the Thicket area. A lot of folks in the Big Thicket still remember that Frank Dobie came through on the trail of the Ben Lilly legend and that Bill Owens was around hunting for the old songs.-F.E.A. The Big Thicket is both a fact and a fantasy, with no definable overlapping of the two, geographically or otherwise, for the boundaries, like heat waves, shift with 199 200 79. William A. Owens. the viewer. Nearly any Texan will say the Big Thicket is down in the southeast part, somewhere close to Louisiana. No one, Texan or not, can tell exactly where it begins or ends, or how to trace its lines north, south, east, west. For thirty years now, off and on, I have traveled up and down East Texas in search of the Big Thicket in any form. In Livingston they said, "Go down yan way a piece'n you'll come to it." At Liberty they said, "It's over yander where it's nothing but pineys a-living." At Fred, they thought it might be down among the swampers. I found a settlement called "Thicket" on the map and went to it. Even there, the storekeeper was somewhat unwilling to admit that he was in the "Big" Thicket, an unwillingness that I believe comes from the force and character of the place. Early settlers pushing westward across the Sabine River encountered a vast region where heavy stands of longleaf yellow pine covered the sandy hillsides, where impenetrable thickets BIG THICKET BALLADRY grew along the innumerable streams, where swamps big enough to be called swamps, or small enough to be called baygalls, grew thick with canebrakes and palmettos. No wonder they called it the Big Thicket. At first, they thought it covered all the area between the Old San Antonio Road, the Camino Real, and the coastal prairie, and reached from the Sabine River to the Brazos. Before long, they realized that the Trinity River formed the western boundary. Even so, the region was large. The Camino Real crossed the Sabine at Gaines Ferry, near San Augustine, and followed a general southwesterly course until it formed the north boundary of what is now Brazos County. The southern edge of that early Big Thicket followed the coastal prairie near Beaumont to Liberty on the Trinity. In 1900, according to The Texas Handbook, the Big Thicket included all of part of the following counties: Hardin, Polk, Tyler, Jasper, Newton, Sabine, San Augustine, Angelina, Trinity, Montgomery , and Liberty. 1900 is a significant date. By then the pine forests were being cut away for lumber. In 1900, with the discovery of oil at Spindeltop, oil diviners and other explorers began to push deeper and deeper into the thickets. In 1966 the pines have been mostly cut away, and the hardwoods are going fast. State and national highways through the area bear a heavy traffic of people who have never heard of the Big Thicket. Change is apparent, but not everywhere. There are still pockets of untouched land, settlements of old-time people, but in another generation they, too, will be gone. In the beginning the Big Thicket was bounded on the east by the Neutral Ground, a fact that has added greatly to the fantasy. After the Louisiana Purchase, the United States and Spain were unable to agree on a boundary between Louisiana and Texas. In 1806 they agreed that the disputed area between the Arroyo Hondo on the east and the Sabine River on the west...


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