It it the Twilight Zone? No, Just Backwoods Music

In 1954, the CBS news magazine show, “The Search,” came to the University of Arkansas to meet with English professor and musicologist, Mary Celestia Parler. She was the Ozarks’ own Alan Lomax, wandering around in the backwoods and barbershops with a tape recorder, collecting long lost folk songs, much like her contemporary, Batesville native John Quincy Wolf.

Narrator Charles Romine gives it a bit of a “Twilight Zone” vibe and, really, it was a twilight zone — a place where centuries’ old songs were kept alive by the aging rural Ozark folks of Arkansas. Shown singing here is Mary Brisco of Berryville. The introduction in this short video, sadly, doesn’t take us far into the journey.

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12 Responses to It it the Twilight Zone? No, Just Backwoods Music

  1. Excellent stuff. This blog is on fire right now (in a good way) and I haven’t had time to comment as I would have liked on the last few articles. I’ll just throw a couple of things out for context.

    1.) Anytime we’re talking about folk culture collectors, I think its good to look at, and question, the assumptions of the whole enterprise: that there’s some kind of bright line that can be drawn between folk culture and everyday life. sometimes this is true, and sometimes it isn’t. I’m not familiar enough with Parlor or Wolfe’s curatorial aesthetic to say whether this applies or not to them, but in general folk music researchers have tended to make this judgement on behalf of their informants, deeming some material “pure” (older, long-preserved material) and some “impure” (newer songs from popular sources). I’d argue that this gives us a false impression of the folk process and ignores the way it absorbs and alters new material. It can also give us a false impression of the cultural lives of these informants.

    2.) I could be wrong, but 1954 places this recording just into the beginning of the boom of midwestern retirees moving into the Ozarks. For me, that’s a fascinating part of the puzzle of this kind of story.

    • 2. I must amend my previous statement. Folklorist Otto Ernest Rayburn, who published his Ozark Guide magazine filled with Ozark tales and humor, spent his latter years in Eureka Springs where he not only gave guided tours and managed the Ozark Folk Festival, he also sold real estate. His publications were filled with ads urging people to retire to the Ozarks. In a 1960 issue, one ad touts Cherokee Village near Hardy. I lift this line from the Encyclopedia of the Ozarks: “When the property was formally opened in June 1955, Governor Orval Faubus declared it to be ‘the coming Mecca of the Ozarks.'” Mountain Home was also establishing itself as a retirement community as well.

  2. Thanks, Eric.
    1. I agree. I’m also guessing, though this is a presumption, that Alan Lomax was god-like, and there were many who wanted to follow in his footsteps. (In my research, there was a scholar at the UA in the 1920s — name escapes me at the moment — very much interested in African-American music and would present programs around the area to the white population.) Yet, I believe that 20th-century music — my key interest is that of the mid-20th century — is very relevant and is not being well preserved and can be tied to so much culturally and historically. They’re all reflections of their times. The recycling and re-adapting is very interesting to me, such as one Fort Smith musician I discovered from the early 1960s who could have been a voice double for Buddy Holly, certainly on purpose, too. It says a lot about the musical mood right after Holly’s death. This stuff can’t be dismissed.
    2. I don’t know if the folklore paid any role in the massive migration of people retiring to the Ozarks. I think of more of a precursor to the back-to-the-land movement. People searching for a utopia where land is beautiful and prices are rock-bottom cheap. Developers caught wind of this just as the back-to-the-landers did. It also made for a great place to erect a giant Jesus statue.

    • on #1: Yeah– totally agreed, What I find iteresting is the way that stuff mingles if you can work around the artificial barrier imposed by the curatorial finding of what is and isn’t folk. that nexus is where its at.

      on #2: I wasn’t so much looking for a connection between folklore and inmigration to the Ozarks, (tho I think its there) as I was thinking about the juxtaposition of the two things. Part of the folklorists discourse depends on the Ozarks being isolated territory, and that discourse was circulating just as the territory was becoming less isolated.

      • 2. I think the discourse was circulating because the territory was becoming less isolated. It was the motivator, I’m sure. Get the information before it goes away completely.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure most readers here know that Mary Parler Randolph was the widow of Vance Randolph, who was regarded by many as the leading Ozark folklore collector of his time. Randolph’s publications are part of the standard literature on Ozark folklore and balladry.

  4. Jon Winkler says:

    Echos of the Ozarks has become a favorite of mine. I have traveled many a road thru the hills of the Ozarks as a native “Arkansawer” and as a “fiddler”. The Ozarks have always embraced the elderly and the love for music. I commend Echos of the Ozarks for the fine work.

  5. yarnspinnerpress says:

    Howdy. I live in the Missouri Ozarks and am a folk singer and storyteller. Long years ago I was acquainted with Mae Kennedy McCord, another collector of folklore and a close friend of the Randolphs. She introduced me to them and I went down and had a good visit, somewhere along about 1964. She also gave me what I consider to be the quintessential answer to the question of what constitutes folk music, if not folklore. I was from a very small town and had just starting singing in public back then, and I told her people were calling me a folksinger, and I wasn’t sure what that was. “What does that mean,” I said. “Just what is a folksinger, anyway?’ “Hmph,” she replied. “You never heard a horse sing, did you?” That was good enough for me.

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