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Hidden Folklorists and Hidden Spirituals on the Folklife Today Podcast

Sepia toned photo of two women in white dresses sitting in chairs outdoors facing the camera.

Alberta Bradford (left) and Becky Elzy (right) were from Iberia Parish, Louisiana. They sang over 100 spirituals for E. A. McIlhenny and 10 for Alan Lomax. Courtesy E. A. McIlhenny Collection, Avery Island Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana.

Season 3, Episode 7 of the Folklife Today Podcast is ready for listening! Find it at this page on the Library’s website, or on Stitcher, iTunes, or your usual podcatcher.

In this episode  John Fenn and I, along with Joshua Clegg Caffery of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, look at three “Hidden Folklorists” from Louisiana. The Hidden Folklorists are Becky Elzy and Aberta Bradford, two spiritual singers who had been born in slavery, but who years later sang over a hundred spirituals for collectors; and E.A. McIlhenny, who first collected their spirituals into a book.  As usual, I’ll present links to the relevant blog posts and audio selections in this post!

But first:

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Sepia-toned, three-quarter view portrait of E. A. McIlhenny, looking left.

E. A. McIlhenny ca. 1910. Courtesy E. A. McIlhenny Collection, Avery Island Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana

In this episode, we tell the story of Bradford and Elzy, who remembered over a hundred spirituals, and E. A McIlhenny, head of the the Tabasco Sauce company, who collected them in his book, Befo’ de War Spirituals. We recount details of how a microfilm of unique, unpublished manuscript spirituals by Bradford and Elzy came to be part of the American Folklife Center archive. Most importantly, we recount how Bradford and Elzy came to be recorded on audio discs for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax in 1934, with the resulting recordings also coming to the AFC Archive. It’s an amusing story in which the 19-year-old Alan Lomax is forced to leave his father, the seasoned collector John A. Lomax “by the side of the road” and drive 40 miles with the 73 year old Bradford to try to find the 82 year old Elzy so they can sing together for the Library’s recording machine. The episode also presents several of their spirituals, and ends with the very moving recording of two women who had been born in slavery singing “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, got free at last!”

We’ve already told this story in written form here on the blog.

I first recall coming across the story of Bradford, Elzy, and McIlhenny when I was researching the disc numbered AFS 100 for our 100th blog post:

Guess Who’s Turning 100?

I told the story in a fuller form in three more posts. Those posts contain all the audio of Bradford and Elzy, as well as scans of all the manuscript pages of unpublished spirituals from the same great singers, plus more photos of Bradford, Elzy, McIlhenny, and Avery Island:

Edward Avery McIlhenny, Spicy Folklorist

Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford, Spiritual Folklorists

Soul Got a Hiding Place: Hidden Spirituals from the McIlhenny Manuscript

Joshua Clegg Caffery stands at a lectern and speaks into a microphone.

Joshua Clegg Caffery, presenting his Alan Lomax Fellow Lecture for the Library’s John W. Kluge Center on April 23, 2014. Photo by Stephen Winick for AFC.

Our guest for the episode, Joshua Clegg Caffery, may also sound familiar. He was an Alan Lomax Fellow in the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center, and we have profiled on the blog before. In that post, you’ll find details of some of his projects as well as his lecture in our Benjamin Botkin folklife lecture series:

Rediscovering Lomax: Joshua Clegg Caffery and “I Wanna Sing Right”

Since then, Josh has been named director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.  Read more about that at their website!

Finally, in the podcast we talk about Josh’s standalone website where you can listen to all of the Lomax 1934 Louisiana recordings. Find that at the link below:

John and Alan Lomax in Louisiana, 1934

As always, thanks for listening, thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time!

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