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Nicholas Ray: frustrated folklorist

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This blog post about the filmmaker Nicholas Ray is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits.

Nicholas Ray (1911-1979)—iconoclastic filmmaker, writer, friend to trouble, and…folklorist?

Photo of Nicholas Ray, U.S. filmmaker. Fair use,

To those who know the name, Nicholas Ray is most readily recognized as the director who brought Rebel Without a Cause to the silver screen. More committed fans of Ray will also know the films They Live by Night, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar (listed on the National Film Registry, alongside Rebel…), or a host of feature films he was involved with during the course of his three decade career in cinema.

But Ray also had connections to the field of folklore during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1938, as an employee of the Recreation Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), he was asked to join the Joint Committee on the Folk Arts, a committee of interested professionals throughout the WPA system, which was headed by Benjamin Botkin and Charles Seeger, and also included folklorists Herbert Halpert and Sidney Robertson. As part of this committee, he conducted fieldwork in South Dakota for the Recreation Project, resulting in eleven instantaneous disc recordings housed in the Archive of Folk Culture (AFC 1939/019). And, through his connections with long-time friend Alan Lomax, Ray wrote and directed episodes of the 1940-41 CBS radio program, Back Where I Come From.

In 1938 and 1939 Ray held the position of Drama Consultant within the Professional & Services Division of the WPA, working from a Missouri office. He traveled to Mitchell, South Dakota in October of that year in order to undertake field recordings of folk songs (including miner, cowboy, and army songs), fiddle tunes, stories about Deadwood, and stories and poems about sheep herding.

Telegraph from Nicholas Ray to Dr. Harold Spivacke confirming receipt of recording equipment loaned by the Library of Congress in support Ray's field recording in South Dakota.
Telegraph from Nicholas Ray to Dr. Harold Spivacke confirming receipt of recording equipment loaned by the Library of Congress in support Ray’s field recording in South Dakota.

On October 17, Ray sent the above telegraph to Dr. Harold Spivacke, Chief of the Music Division within the Library of Congress. The recording gear loaned to him by the Library had arrived, and he began preparing to make the recordings he had been sent to gather. Within two days, Ray telegraphed Alan Lomax—then “Assistant in Charge” at the Archive of American Folk Song—expressing doubt that Spivacke would be able to arrange for a Michigan collecting project, while also noting that his limited time and mobility in the Mitchell area have made the “work here less fruitful than anticipated.” Lomax’s brief response via post three days later on October 23 indicated he had found someone else to go to Mt. Pleasant, MI for field recording as it “seems too much of a problem” for Ray to get there.

Despite his frustrations, Ray found time to record while in South Dakota and produced the disc recordings documenting a range of performance genres. All are available for listening in the AFC reading room as collection AFC1939/019.

By the end of the month, Ray was back in Missouri and fired off the letter below to Spivacke on October 30. Ray tempers his irritation and displeasure at being “confined” to Mitchell for recording with hope that some fieldworker in the future will properly document the musical and cultural activity of the region that he sees as carrying “much of the lore and spirit of the frontier.” He ended the letter with more frustration, reporting on his stalled efforts to write about the “origin, development, and decline of the Folk Theatre in America.” Apparently bureaucratic busyness supplanted the work he felt he had been charged to do.

Letter from Nicholas Ray to Harold Spivacke reporting on Ray's experiences and frustrations with his field recording trip to South Dakota.
Letter from Nicholas Ray to Harold Spivacke reporting on Ray’s experiences and frustrations with his field recording trip to South Dakota.

Ray’s connection to the WPA appears not to have lasted much longer, nor did he engage in any more folklore collecting activity for which there are any records. However, his relationship with Alan Lomax continued, as it would until Ray’s death in 1979. Their friendship took a creative turn at the start of the 1940s, and they began working on the CBS serial radio program Back Where I Come From. Running three evenings a week between August 1940 and February 1941, each fifteen minute episode showcased live performances of folk music and storytelling by a host of artists–the Golden Gate Quartet, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Josh White among them. Lomax and Ray collaborated on the script writing, while Ray directed the forty-three episodes that aired. Here at the AFC, we have a range of manuscript and sound recording holdings documenting the production of Back Where I Come From (AFC1939/002 and AFC2004/004). When Ray passed away Lomax made notes for a eulogy or obituary, in which he uses terms like “big warm laughing,” “powerful,” “friendly,” and “supportive.”  The notes are online at this link, as part of Lomax’s manuscript collections.

After the radio program ended, Ray shifted toward film as his primary medium of expression. He launched his cinema career with They Live By Night, an almost pointillist film noir that wrapped production in 1947 but did not see release until 1949 due to internal complications at RKO Studios. While he never returned directly to the realm of folklore, Nicholas Ray’s artistic output on through the early 1970s explored the types of individualistic and liminal culture that he identified during his sole foray into fieldwork back in South Dakota. So, even though he didn’t identify professionally as a folklorist, we’ll take him on the team.

Comments (2)

  1. In the foreword to my mother’s book, “Traditional American Folk Songs from the Anne and Frank Warner Collection” (Syracuse University Press, 1984) Alan Lomax describes a moment at a party, most likely in Greenwich Village sometime in the 1940s…

    “One evening at a singsong we chanced to learn what lay behind Warner’s magic performances. Jean Ritchie, Pete Seeger, and others were singing, and Nick Ray filmed them all in slow motion. When we played back the reel we saw something extraordinary. While the rest of us held to one basic facial expression all the way through a song, so that the impression was one of rather flat affect, the frame-by-frame plaback revealed that Frank was approaching each word with a different dramatic emphasis. It was as if he was tasting the ballad syllable by syllable–the way an actor savors the manifold shifts in feeling in each scene. It was all very subtle, of course, invisible until slow motion revealed it, but it was clear that Frank Warner was recalling sound by sound just how each model singer had handled each turn of tune and phrase. This was not imitation; it was dynamic recreation of the art of ballad singing that Warner’s sensitivity allowed us to share.”

    Wish I could find a copy of that footage.

    • Gerret- Thanks for the note, and thanks for reading the blog. We can look into Ray collections held at the Library, as it does sound like fascinating footage. It’s unlikely any such footage exists in the AFC, though, as we only have the few recordings and some correspondence that Ray created. Stay tuned!

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