Monday, January 19, 2009

Ancestral tribute to Bascom Lamar Lunsford

So many people have had so long to reflect upon the meaning of Barack Obama in the context of the prior life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. that nothing new remains to be said about their connections, and the subject is in danger of being reduced to the numb meaninglessness of a cliche.

So I'd like to break the relationship down to its essentials and apply those essentials to something personal to myself. Their essential relationship is ancestral. This is one reason I have been thinking even more than usual of my own ancestors these days. And it's why, as the 2009 MLK holiday fades into the dawn of the Obama presidency, that I would like to reflect upon Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

I have written often, here and elsewhere, about Bascom Lamar Lunsford: a songster, song collector, proto-folklorist, folk festival impressario (the first!), and archivist who relied only on the original archive, the ur-hard drive, the human memory.

I am thinking about him tonight as a remarkable model of cross-cultural repect and engagement. Bascom was collecting songs in the Southern mountains as a white man when most white men had little interest in African Americans or their culture and nothing good to say about them. The Civil War was a living memory, barely thirty years in the past, when Bascom began traveling the Southern mountains as a fruit tree salesman and beekeeper to gather ballads.

It is remarkable, then, that he went out of his way to attend sermons and tent revivals led by black preachers ("Negro" was the term of respect, at the time) and to remember the songs he heard there. He preserved them, along with the old English ballads and mountain banjo shouts, and recorded them with the rest of his memory collection twice: in 1935 at Columbia University Library and in 1949 at the Library of Congress.

I have been working with the 1949 recordings to curate a boxed set to be released this year by Locust Music out of Chicago. I was thinking tonight about the introduction Bascom gave in 1949 to the "Negro" spiritual "Little David."

"To enjoy a Negro spiritual, one should sing it in the proper spirit," Bascom urged. "When you put into it a phraseology or expression rather in derision, it definitely injures the song, because the Negroes are a very religious people and they are always serious and in a fine spirit when they sing these spirituals."

That is a simple demand of respect for a people and a culture. It would take a long time for the majority of other non-black people to catch up with Bascom Lamar Lunsford on this score.

I have always been struck in particular by one "Negro" spiritual that Bascom learned, remembered, and recorded, "Dry Bones." A commercial recording of the song he did appeared on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and that recording was what first put me on Bascom's trail in the early 1990s.

My band Eleanor Roosevelt later recorded "Dry Bones" in the Southern mountains inside a small, A-frame cabin on property along South Turkey Creek owned by Bascom's daughter, Jo Lunsford Herron (since deceased). Just outside that cabin was the platform where Bascom had called square dances almost until the day he died in 1973.

Here is Bascom's very rare and unreleased Library of Congress recording of "Dry Bones" and our version of the song.


Free mp3s

Bascom Lamar Lunsford
To appear on Memory Collection (Locust Music)

"Dry Bones"
Eleanor Roosevelt
To appear on Water Bread & Beer (Skuntry Music)


Roy said...

So what is the status of the BLL project?

Confluence City said...

"To be released this year," reads the blogpost. Yo.

Raine said...

I read in a book, the accompaniment to the Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Josh Dunson and Ethel Raim, that Lunsford didn't want to travel to the North so he didn't have to face [sic] "reds", Jews, or black people, and was actually rather overtly racist. Is this verified, or just a subjective opinion in the book?

Confluence City said...

I'd have to read the piece, this isn't enough to go on, and it doesn't make me want to read more, to be frank.

Bascom traveled north repeatedly (he recorded his memory collection in D.C. and NYC, for example) and he repeatedly welcomed (invariably Northern and often Jewish) song collectors into the mountains and his own home. So that part doesn't check out at all.

He did collect folklore that included offensive language of various kinds, but I am aware of no public record of his using this language in his personal vocabulary or any time he wasn't performing a piece that had this language in it - and, as I say in this post, he was decades ahead of his time in respecting diversity in folklore and recording it faithfully and fighting for the respectful performance of it.

Now, he was patriotic and didn't cotton to Communists. He called them "pinkos" rather than "reds," according to his daughter. He applied this term to more than one member of the Seeger folklore dynasty. I suspect their testimony colors the account you have read. The Seegers are not great sources on Bascom, unless they are commenting on a banjo tuning.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the prompt reply! It's reassuring to know that that book is very subjective. Until I read their overview of Lunsford, I had thought the book was quite objective. But reading through your posts and research it is clear Lunsford was not the "overtly racist" character the book portrayed him to be. I haven't done my thorough research on him myself.

Thanks again, and good luck on your Lunsford journeys (or is that with an "ie"? Just doesn't feel right)

Confluence City said...

I forgot to add that it is ludicrous to assert that Bascom didn't go North because he didn't want to be around black folks. He did go North, though the North was just as segregated then as the South was. Also, right there in the Southern mountains, Bascom actively sought out black folks to learn their songs and stories, just as he sought out white folks and the Cherokee. Most of us are still catching up with him in his eclectic and inclusive approach to American culture.

Anonymous said...

Do you know any of his current day relatives?
L. Lunsford