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Listening to Texas

How folklorists saved the soundtrack of the Lone Star State

The late Blanche Inez “Aunt Tootsie” Bell Simmons of Pflugerville had never heard the fiddle music of her great-uncle, Peter Tumlinson Bell of Carrizo Springs, until she was nearly a century old. In 2008, Austinite Dan Foster, who researches old-time fiddlers and fiddle music, brought Tootsie copies of a compact disc, P.T. Bell—Master Texas Fiddler.

The fiddle tunes on the CD were captured on an ancient Vibromaster recording machine by folklorist William A. Owens in Carrizo Springs in 1941, when the musician Bell was 74. The Vibromaster recorded directly to aluminum discs. Verner Lee Bell said that among his first memories was sitting on the floor while his grandfather fiddled into the recorder as little curls of aluminum twisted away and fell under the table as the recording was made. Owens wrote that the audio on the aluminum discs was played back with a cactus needle.

Owens was following a tradition begun by John Avery Lomax, among the best known of all field recorders. Originally funded by Harvard University, Lomax traveled through Texas with his son Alan and wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, recording authentic, undocumented folk songs until his death in 1948.

Ruby Terrill Lomax, at top, accompanied Lomax on many trips through the South and kept meticulous notes of the field recordings.

Terrill and list: The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

One man Lomax recorded, whose name was only given as Blue, at the Smither Farm in Walker County concluded his singing by addressing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and urging him to come to Texas and do something for the poor folks on tenant farms. Alan Lomax later wrote that his experience at the farm changed his life and the mission for his work. From that point forward, he believed he needed to record the views of the unheard people in rural America.

A similar drive to preserve rural cultural traditions motivated other field recorders. Though some recordings were made in urban settings, these traditions were largely rural, and they continue to influence Texas music and lifeways in the 21st century.

Américo Paredes studied the stories, humor and border ballads—corridos—of the Rio Grande Valley for decades after becoming the first Mexican American to receive a doctorate in English from the University of Texas.

Sleeve: Library of congress. Paredes: Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

Others who took on this mission include Américo Paredes and Tary Owens (no relation to William Owens). Field recorders preserved cowboy songs, Old World ballads, Appalachian reels, Black spirituals, corridos and canciones that had been handed down through families from pioneer days. If not for the work of the field recorders—those truly listening to Texas—these musical traditions might well have disappeared.

Some of these recorded traditions became part of American culture. Cowboy Jack Thorp collected sagebrush songs in Texas in 1889 and produced a booklet titled Songs of the Cowboys in 1908. Based on that publication and John Lomax’s 1910 publication, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, the oral history of Western music seeped into mainstream American culture. As a direct result, the 1920s saw the creation of an archetype, the singing cowboy, on radio and records. And with the advent of “talkies,” motion pictures with sound, in the 1930s, the crooning caballero was firmly established as an American icon.

Jack Thorp was a pioneer in collecting and preserving homespun ballads.

Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives | Guy Logsdon collection | NMHM/DCA

William A. Owens spent much of the 1930s and early ’40s trekking the state in search of songs. Born in Lamar County in 1905, he returned home to Pin Hook to record singers in the early days of rural electrification. “A mystery, at times a superstition about electricity penetrated folk minds,” he wrote in his 1983 book, Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song.

Owens’ quest took him from the streets of Dallas’ Deep Ellum to the King Ranch to the woods of Texas’ deepest east. In East Texas he was often guided by Irvin “Cocky” Thompson of Silsbee, who, Owens wrote, “knew the paved roads … the wagon roads, the trails that led to lonely cabins or became lost in the rootings of hogs hunting for mast.”

In the unincorporated Houston County community of Austonio, Lemuel Jeffus—who could reportedly “make people grin like possums with his crazy old songs”—gathered locals and families from Bug Hill to record sacred harp singing for Owens. Marveling at the aluminum disc on the folklorist’s machine, they testified quietly, “I ain’t never heered my own voice.”

In Brownsville and Matamoros, Owens recorded a young Paredes and his then-wife, the future Queen of the Bolero, Chelo Silva. One performance seems especially emblematic of listening to Texas. “Chelo sang a version of the traditional Spanish Cielito Lindo,” Owens wrote, “that progressed from the original, through a guapango [huapango], a Negro blues, and ended as a cowboy yodel. To them, such a mixture seemed natural on the border.”

Though authorities did not allow Owens to take his Vibromaster into Mexico, a Matamoros cantina singer taught Paredes the words and melody to another song, the story of Gregorio Cortez, a ranch hand who fled Texas after a tragic struggle with the sheriff of Karnes County. Paredes’ dissertation on the story and its corrido, published as the 1958 book, With His Pistol in His Hand, has become a bedrock text in Mexican American studies.

Paredes rounded up a lifetime of border music in his 1976 book, A Texas Mexican Cancionero.

He included the oldest complete Tex-Mex corrido, El Corrido de Kiansis, about the famed trail drives from South Texas. “Many of the trail drivers were Mexicans,” he writes, “some taking their own herds, others working with Anglo outfits.”

Other border songs collected by Paredes include the stories of Texas journalist Catarino Garza, who led a revolt against Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, and Goliad native Ignacio Zaragoza, who led a Mexican force that defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862—a victory celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo. The song A. Zaragoza was sung at 1867 Cinco de Mayo festivities in San Ygnacio by a local guitarrero named Onofre Cárdenas and remained in the borderlands’ oral tradition until Paredes learned it from the Zapata County singer Mercurio Martinez in 1950.

Tary Owens became one of Paredes’ students at the University of Texas in the 1960s and earned a Lomax Foundation grant to record such artists as country bluesmen Mance Lipscomb and Bill Neely as well as piano legends Robert Shaw and Roosevelt Williams, also known as Grey Ghost. As Ruth K. Sullivan wrote in the Journal of Texas Music History, Owens documented a wide range of styles in Texas and “helped provide … a much more complete understanding of the unique and complex musical heritage of the Lone Star State.”

Some of Owens’ 1965 tapes were recently released on CD as Teodar Jackson With T. J. Jackson: African-American Fiddling From Texas. Foster explains that this music is “something rare and old as yet unheard in the familiar sound of old-time fiddling today. Teodar’s recordings have much to teach us about the sound of African American music in its own right.”

Thanks to Owens’ field recordings and the discovery of Teodar Jackson by young audiences, the fiddler was slated to play the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, where an even greater audience awaited his music—but he died before that happened. Listen to Jackson’s fiddle, and you’re truly listening to Texas.

Author Gene Fowler specializes in Texas history and culture.