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Hidden Folklorists: Harry Payne Reeves, the Mysterious Cowboy Singer Daca

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In our 1000th post, we featured the song “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle,” as misremembered by Alan Lomax from the singing of a mysterious figure named Daca, who, according to Lomax, owned a bookshop on Washington Square in New York. As I recounted in that post, I was eventually able to find a wealth of material on Daca in AFC and other Library of Congress collections. This material suggests Daca was what we’ve been calling a “hidden folklorist,” a person with in-depth knowledge of folk traditions who has been forgotten, or who was better known for other pursuits.

Head and shoulders portrait of a man with a guitar
Daca, or Harry Payne Reeves. We think the undated photo is from the 1930s. It was sent to us by Daca’s Daughter L.R. Pettus in 1994 and is in the Harry Payne Reeves subject file.

Among the collections at AFC relating to Daca are recordings of several songs which he sang for Herbert Halpert in 1939. That session started with “Don’t You Tell Pa” and “The Old Chisolm Trail.” Let’s hear both songs. To say just a few words about them, “Don’t You Tell Pa,” is a traditional children’s song with versions in the AFC archive (such as this one collected by John and Ruby Lomax), and one recorded as a popular waltz by the Maddox Brothers and Rose. This belies a claim by Daca’s informant, a young girl at a play-party in about 1896, who told him she had made it up it herself! As for “The Old Chisolm Trail,” Daca tells Halpert that he once collected between 12 and 15 tunes for this well known cowboy song, but that his manuscript collection was stolen from him! He attributes his first version to a distant cousin of his, “an old bronco buster named Huntsinger,” who visited him in 1896 or 1897. Hear them in the player below.

Before I could find these songs from Daca, or our file on him, I had to figure out who he was. Because the first reference I’d found to him was in audio form, I didn’t even know how to spell his name. So I started in the newspaper collections at the Library of Congress, looking for references to cowboys who owned bookshops on Washington Square in the 1920s and 1930s. I turned up several mentions of “Daca” in Gilbert Swan’s “In New York” column. The first was this one, from September 1928:

Funny place, the Village!

Take Daca, the ex-cowboy, who went out one night to borrow a coffee pot and fell heir to Frank Shay’s book shop…. Today he sells books to the young men and women of New York University, across from Washington Square, and broadcasts cowboy songs. Now and then a cowpuncher happens into town and drops in on him and shakes his head at the strange spectacle of one of his kind gone literary…

I’d love to hear more about the coffee pot story, but it seems to be lost to history for the moment. In 1931, however, Swan again mentioned Daca in a review of Rian James’s 1931 book All About New York. Looking up James’s book in the the Library of Congress catalog, I find that there’s an electronic copy available from the Hathi Trust, in which I find a little more detail:

Daca, who runs a bookshop on Washington Square South—the legend “Welcome, Comrade” is over the door—is the only ex-cowboy bookseller in New York, and if you’ll write your name on his white pine door, he’ll read your character from your handwriting….

However, Swan was quick to point out that James’s book was outdated:

I hope you don’t try to find Daca [on Washington Square], because he’s moved over to 12th street, or thereabouts. But that’s the way things go In New York!

A picture thus emerges of Daca as a former cowboy who sang cowboy songs on the radio, and whose day job was managing various bookshops while he roved around Greenwich Village. The bookshop with “Welcome, Comrade” over the door was probably the Washington Square Bookshop at 135 MacDougal Street–right about where West 4th Street becomes Washington Square South. This shop had once been a famous socialist, radical, and bohemian hangout, The Liberal Club. From 1915 to 1917, the shop had been run by Frank Shay, who went on to become a sea shanty expert and an important anthologist of folksongs, as well as a dramaturge.

Daca was also associated with another famous bookshop formerly run by Shay; this is the one most likely referred to by Gilbert Swan. I first learned of the connection in a very telling 1926 ad for sheet music in The American Mercury:

DACA’S COWBOY SONGS embody the spirit of the old West. Lauded by musical critics. Broadcast over Radio by Daca. Now ready in sheet music form. Write H. REEVES 4 Christopher Street NYC.

A few blocks north and west of the Washington Square Bookshop, 4 Christopher Street was also a small bookshop, which had also been owned (from 1920 until 1924) by Frank Shay. At this address, Shay famously collected autographs on his door, which seems a likely inspiration for Daca’s similar practice on Washington Square. Another of Shay’s practices was to allow the Christopher Street bookshop to double as a small publisher, putting out a poetry journal, a newspaper, and poetry chapbooks; it seems like a natural progression for them to publish Daca’s songs.

Map labeled Greenwich Village Today, Drawn by Robert Edwards, November 1925.
The name “Daca” appears on this map at 4 Christopher Street, the former Frank Shay’s Book Shop. It’s just to the left of the Sixth Avenue El station and just below the name “Charley Reed.” (Reed’s establishment was listed in the Quill as “THE MIAMI INN Cor. Christopher and Greenwich Ave. Charley Reed, father of Greenwich Village dancing casinos. Kids under 14 not admitted without grandmother.”)

With a little more searching, I learned that Daca’s association with the Christopher Street shop went further than them publishing his sheet music. On a map drawn in November 1925, The Village Quill, a classic bohemian magazine of Greenwich Village, labeled 4 Christopher Street with the single name “Daca.” By 1926, The Quill carried ads for “The New Door” at 4 Christopher St., calling it “David Daca’s Book Shop. Circulating Library.”

The fact that Daca’s shop included a circulating library, as Frank Shay’s had, suggests that Daca took over the shop with its stock and business pretty much intact. One thing was missing, though: The Harry Ransom Center tells us that the famous door of Frank Shay’s, which included many autographs of village notables, was removed in August 1925 by the then-manager, Juliette Koenig. This may explain why Daca dubbed the bookshop “The New Door” when he took it over sometime in or before November 1925.

Snippet of a magazine page
This listing from the Village Quill tells you where you can get “dainty and germless eats,” where “Miss Crump of the crumperie serves crumpets and plays the uke,” and where to find David Daca’s Book Shop.

Although primarily interested in Theater, Frank Shay maintained a long interest in folksongs and ballads. He authored the books Iron Men and Wooden Ships: Deep Sea Chanties (1924), My Pious Friends and Drunken Companions: Songs and Ballads of Conviviality (1927), More Pious Friends and Drunken Companions (1928), and Drawn from the Wood: Consolations in Word and Music for Pious Friends and Drunken Companions (1929), which have been reprinted many times and are well known to folklorists. Given Shay’s interest in occupational folksongs, it’s easy to imagine the cowboy singer Daca arriving in New York, being introduced to Shay, becoming a bookseller in Shay’s old shops, and taking over 4 Christopher Street shortly after Shay left town for Provincetown in 1924.

A bookshop interior
This is the only known photo of the interior of the 4 Christopher Street bookshop, published in 1922 in Bookseller and Stationer magazine. In 1922 the shop belonged to Frank Shay, who left in 1924. By 1925 it was labeled in the Village Quill with the name “Daca.” Find the archival scan here.

It’s even possible that Daca sang Shay some of his classic cowboy songs, such as “Every Day in the Saddle,” which later he sang for Herbert Halpert in 1939. Let’s hear that song, which Daca said he heard first in southern Illinois and subsequently from “Bronco Charlie and several of the other boys” during his time out west in the 1900s and 1910s. It’s a version of “The Cowboy’s Soliloquy,” which my friends at the Western Folklife Center believe was written by Allen McCandless, inspired by lines from Shakespeare and the Bible. The text is considered a classic cowboy poem, and versions appeared widely in newspapers both with and without McCandless’s name; see the third column of this 1885 Missouri paper for an example. Daca’s version also contains traces of the old song “Rye Whiskey.” (Note also that Daca gives Halpert tips on collecting cowboy songs after the song.) It’s all in the player below!

Daca’s life as a singing bookseller continued into the late 1930s. Having reportedly left Washington Square by 1931 for “12th street, or thereabouts,” he was back on Washington Square to be visited by the Lomaxes in 1932, when Alan Lomax learned “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle” from him. This time, Daca’s shop was at 63 Washington Square South, part of a block that was known as “genius row” because of the number of artists, musicians, and writers who had lived there, including Stephen Crane, O. Henry, and Willa Cather. Artists’ lofts in the same building as Daca’s shop accommodated such painters and illustrators as Frank Nankivell and Rose O’Neill (of Kewpie fame). The British occult writer Aleister Crowley had also lived at 63 Washington Square South in the late 1910s. Perhaps attracted by its aura of genius and mystery, Daca seems to have stayed there longer than at other locations, since we have records of him there at least until 1939.

Photo of a row of four rowhouses
This photo shows “Genius Row,” 61-64 Washington Square South, in 1936.  The shop with the Coca-Cola sign was a side door in 64. On the front side of the building, where the black car is parked, you can just see the steps down to the basement shop in 63, where Daca was visited by the Lomaxes and later by Earl Bowman. The photo was shot as a street view of the furthest of the four houses from the camera, 61 Washington Square South, which was part of the WPA’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Find the archival scan here.

Finding out the spelling of “Daca” was one challenge, but discovering his full name was more difficult; as it turns out, he had more than one. We have already seen “David Daca” in connection with one of Daca’s bookshops; newspapers and magazines of the era told me he sometimes billed himself on the radio as “David Daca” too. But I also found evidence of other names. I mentioned the ad in the American Mercury as telling, not only for the Christopher Street address and the description of Daca’s songs, but for the name it contains: “H. Reeves.” Other clues pointed to similar names: songs Daca claimed to have written were copyrighted and published by a Harry Payne Reeves.

Looking in the American Folklife Center’s Archive for material relating to either David Daca or Harry Payne Reeves, I found that in the 1990s Daca’s daughter Lucy, known then as L. R. Pettus, wrote to AFC requesting copies of his recordings. At the time she sent us some photos and brochures, allowing us to establish a subject file on her father. The correspondence confirmed that Daca usually gave Harry Payne Reeves as his full name, and the biographical material is filed under that name. (As I mentioned in our previous post, Tony Russell, in Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942, suggested that Daca and Reeves might be the same person.)

Pettus informed us that Daca was born on October 7, 1886, in Carmi, Illinois. I found that in 1939 a social security number was issued for David Daca, born on that date and in that place–clearly, it was our Daca. In this record, David Daca’s father was named Ira Daca and his mother Mary Reeves. However, in 1900, when Daca was 14, the census found him still in Carmi, living under the name Harry P. Reeves, with his mother Mary E. Reeves listed as the head of his household. No father was apparently in the picture.

Rows of handwritten names
This snippet of a page from the 1900 federal census shows Mary E. Reeves as head of a household which includes one other person: her son, Harry P.

Through census and marriage records I was able to establish that Daca’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Reeves, was born Mary Elizabeth Payne, but married Ira Reeves in 1885. This means that in 1886 Daca’s mother was recently married to Ira Reeves but had a child with Ira Daca–or, more likely, that Ira Daca and Ira Reeves were two names for the same person.

In either case, it appears that the cowboy singer we know as “Daca” claimed the birth name David Daca, but that before 1900 he had taken the name Harry Payne Reeves, perhaps reflecting a change of name adopted by his father. Sadly, this evidence also suggests that Daca’s father either died or left the family before Daca turned 15, which seems to be corroborated by a grave in Carmi belonging to Ira Reeves, who died in 1893, when Daca was 7 years old.

As we’ve seen, Daca continued to use the name “David Daca” in several contexts, including some of his cowboy song radio programs, some listings for the Christopher Street bookshop, and his 1939 Social Security application. He used the shortened form “Daca” as his usual nickname and stage name, including in his promotional brochures. For other official purposes, as we’ll see, he usually used “Harry Payne Reeves.”

Exterior of a brochure entitled "the songlore society presents daca chansonnier composer the delight of lovers of unusual music."
This brochure from the 1920s was sent to us by Daca’s daughter Lucy Pettus in 1994. Click for a larger image.

Daca discussed his upbringing in Illinois in his session with Halpert. He sang “Woodpecker Peckin’,” which he said came from “river rats,” his name for people living on houseboats along the banks of the Little Wabash near Carmi. I haven’t been able to locate any other version of it. Let’s hear that song, plus Daca’s rendition of a popular song of the day, in the player below. (Note that AFC’s card catalogue doesn’t list “I Know of Two Bright Eyes” as being on this disc. It may have been omitted because it’s only a fragment, or because it’s not a folksong but an art song by pioneering African American composer Harry Thacker Burleigh. You can find sheet music and popular recordings of the song on the Library of Congress website.)

Believe it or not, “David Daca” and “Harry Payne Reeves” weren’t the only names I found for our man of mystery. In addition to Pettus’s letter and the “Daca” brochure, we have one more major biographical source on Daca, which gives him yet another name. In 1938, the cowboy singer was visited by novelist Earl Wayland Bowman, who was then collecting folklore and life histories for the Federal Writers’ Project. Bowman used Daca’s 63 Washington Square South bookshop as a headquarters of sorts, interviewing several people there. He also collected from Daca himself, mostly tall tales about his uncle, Steve Robertson. In this context, Bowman described Daca and also collected an autobiographical account from the cowboy singer. Both Bowman’s description and Daca’s autobiography are in the document at this link.

It’s from Bowman’s account that we know the address of Daca’s shop:

Informant’s own place of business [is] an old book store, in the basement of 63 Washington Sq. So. N.Y.C. […] A perfectly typical second hand book place with the intimate, friendly, air of thousands of old volumes cluttering shelves and walls and counters.

In his account, Bowman stated: “I have known informant personally for more than ten years,” and consistently gave Daca’s official name as “Harry Reece.” Perhaps Bowman was just bad with names, but as we’ll see, there’s some reason to think Daca was guarded about his identity, and may have given Bowman a false name, especially since Bowman was, after all, recording data for the federal government. Either way, Bowman’s collections contain important evidence about our hidden folklorist, so let’s begin with Bowman’s description of his friend:

Harry Reece is about fifty years of age; dark, eyes and contour of face very pleasant, almost benevolent; height about 5 ft 7 inches, weight about 150. Athletic in build; strong; hair abundant; dark, graying just a little. He is a darned good looking and generally well dressed person. And he is always affable, good natured and kindly disposed toward his fellow man.

Bowman also stated:

At present his occupation is operating a book store; accomplishments musician and singer also composer. I’d say his special skill is in music; his interest a lively consideration and understanding of life in general.

In another document, Bowman described hanging out outside the store and being introduced by Daca to another informant:

“Daca”, (Harry Reece) introduced me to Tom Nolan. It was at Daca’s bookstore, 63 Washington Square So., one evening a while before dusk. We were standing on the steps that led down into the store, watching the straggling stream of humanity drifting by…and tossing cigarettes a fourth or a fifth smoked out on the walk for the ‘mootchers’ who frequent that neighborhood to ‘shoot’. Daca said: ‘the poor devils get a thrill as if they’d suddenly had a bit of good luck when they find a ‘long-snipe’….

“While Daca was reaching for another cigarette to make ‘second-handed’ for some poor devil to whom a less than half burned smoke was a treat, Tom Nolan came along. Daca had known ‘Old Tom’ for years and no doubt had frequently supplied this husky, homeless old Irish-American with the price of a ‘flop’ or the two-bits for a plate of kidney stew, or set up of liver and onions at one of the cheap restaurants on some of the side streets below the Square.

Old Tom paused; Daca drew his tobacco pouch from his pocket and held it out to Tom…

“Fill up your pipe Tom and fog up a little. Here’s an old typewriter pounder Pal of mine, I think would like to chew up some ‘horse talk, with you…He’s a busted up old Texas cowpuncher and you’re quite a horseman yourself, Tom, so between you you ought to cook up some good ‘palaver’ — Kid, meet Tom Nolan  who knows more about New York City truckhorses than any man out of a museum, and Tom, meet ‘th’ Kid’ who has in his day taught a lot of mean bronchos how to be good!…”

That was my introduction to Tom Nolan.

Bowman’s observations of Daca suggest the cowboy singer was gruff but kind, resigned to the presence of homeless and indigent neighbors. While not an activist about eliminating homelessness, he was willing to help individuals out in a pinch…much like many New York storekeepers today.

It’s also noteworthy that Daca introduces Bowman by an alias, “th’ Kid.” This was short for Bowman’s common nickname “The Ramblin’ Kid,” which was the title and protagonist of Bowman’s most popular novel; it also suggests that Daca might have been careful about giving out other people’s names, just as he was careful with his own.

A man in cowboy garb
Daca as the cowboy “High Wide” in a production of “High Wide and Handsome.” The photo was sent to us by Daca’s daughter.

In connection with another story by Tom Nolan, Bowman described in poetic terms the atmosphere inside Daca’s shop:

It was a typically ‘wet’ New York winter night misty, drizzling, rain; the skeleton-like branches of the trees in the Square dripped steadily on the deserted benches along the lonely and silent walks; a steady rhythm of warning whistles came monotonously from the fog-shrouded harbor and river. A good night to be off the streets.

On such a night Daca’s Bookstore, 63 Washington Square, So., with its ceiling-high shelves crowded with old books — dusty, smelly and intimate — was a good place to be; a friendly place for men to sit and talk. It was there, in the thick clouds of smoke from Daca and Tom Nolan’s pipes and my own ‘hand-rolled’ cigarettes, that Old Tom, for many years a New York City horse track driver but now jobless, homeless and living by his wits because there was no place for him in the trucking or any other industrial field since ‘age’ and the coming of motor tracks made him ‘obsolete,’ discussed horse-sense versus man-sense and wondered which was most worth while….

Finally, let’s read Daca’s autobiographical account, as written down by Bowman:

I was born in the middle west. Out in the state of Illinois…and it was quite a while before the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Measured by the things that have happened since then it seems like a long, long time indeed.

We lived on a farm, and even telephones were curiosities to myself and the country boys of my age. Electric lights were something to marvel at…the old Edison phonograph with its wax cylinder records and earphones was positively ghostly…and trolley cars, well they too were past understanding!

From the farm home in Illinois, while yet in my teens, I listened to Horace Greeley’s advice and like human beings have been doing in masses and individually ever since time began, obeyed the call to…‘Go West’! Followed the ‘trail of the setting sun!

It was out there, in the cow-country, yes, and the sheep country, that I began to sing; perhaps it was because there is something about the open plains and the lonely life of cowboys and sheep-herders (although it is unpardonable to couple the words ‘cowboy and sheepherder’ in the same sentence, except in mortal combat!) that makes the sound of the human voice—even if only one’s own—sometimes a welcome sound.

Before ‘ambition’ led me again toward the East I had learned all the old range songs, from ‘The Dirty Little Coward Who Shot Mister Howard,’ to and including ‘the Dying Cowboy!’ I still sing them and I still think they are great songs…

But I have learned other songs since then and other things…too much and too many to tell all at once…

Daca didn’t sing “Jesse James” or “The Dying Cowboy” for Halpert in 1939, but he did sing several other range songs, including “Trail to Mexico,” which we can hear below. It’s a cowboy adaptation of the English folksong “Early, Early in the Spring” and we have another version from the AFC archive online. Daca says he heard it first from Huntsinger, his cowboy cousin, who visited him in Illinois during his youth. He further states that he later heard the song from many cowboys, including once again “Bronco Charlie.” I edited Daca’s rendition together from two sound files, since the disc side ran out in the middle and he continued the song on the next disc.

As we’ve just seen, Daca’s own brief autobiographical statement from 1938 emphasizes his traveling out West to acquire cowboy songs. One of the brochures sent by his daughter gives a picture of his subsequent education and his travels:

Daca grew up singing, went off to college, was graduated from the University of Illinois, won a Departmental Scholarship in Romance Languages, got a Master of Arts degree in Spanish, and then sailed for Spain. In Madrid, he had phonetic training with Navarro y Tomas. In Segovia, his gift for extempore singing won the friendship of a Gypsy guitarrista, who helped him collect many unusual Gypsy songs. Wandering, singing, song-gathering through Barcelona, Valencia, La Coruna, Daca then left the land of sunshine and languorous melodies, sailed for England, went song-hunting around old Chester, crossed for a prolonged stay in Paris, returned to Spain for more quaint folksongs, and finally came home to continue his work carried on since boyhood: the collecting, recording, arranging and singing of American song lore.

Although the brochure does verge on hyperbole, after a little research into other primary sources I believe this account is substantially accurate. As we’ve seen, Daca was born October 7, 1886, perhaps as David Daca, and in 1900 lived with his mother under the name Harry Payne Reeves in his birthplace of Carmi, Illinois. In 1910, he and his mother are listed as still living together, but in Urbana, Illinois.

Interior of the daca brochure
This brochure from the 1920s was sent to us by Daca’s daughter Lucy Pettus in 1994. Click for a larger image.

Daca’s University of Illinois yearbook confirms that he earned his bachelors degree in 1913, when he was at least 26. This comports with his account of spending several years of his teens and twenties out west among cowboys and sheepherders before returning to finish his education. The yearbook confirms also that he was a polyglot, and a member of the French, Spanish, and German clubs. Daca’s masters thesis, which can be found at this link, confirms another key point in the brochure, and provides further evidence of his great proficiency in four languages by 1914; it’s a comparison of fables by three eighteenth-century authors, one English, one French, one Spanish, and it also extensively quotes criticism in German.

Head and shoulders portrait of a man in an oval frame
Daca’s University of Illinois yearbook photo, 1914.

Daca’s trip to Europe is likewise corroborated by other primary sources. Specifically, he applied for an emergency passport at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, in August, 1914–about two months after his Masters thesis was accepted. Whether he had lost his passport or managed to get to Europe without one is unclear. Either way, though, the application survives, and is handy for us as a federal record of his whereabouts that confirms his own story! According to the application, he left the United States for Spain on June 13. He also appears in the passenger list of the SS Chicago, arriving in New York from Le Havre on December 26, 1914. This means he was in Europe about six months–perhaps not as long as the brochure suggests, but long enough to do many of the things it claims he did.

A section of a government form from 1914: yellowing paper with black printing and handwriting.
The descriptive elements on Daca’s 1914 emergency passport application are amusing: “Forehead: Low. Eyes: Brown. Nose: prominent. Mouth: regular. Chin: bearded. Complexion: swarthy. Face: regular.” Daca’s passport was issued under the name Harry Payne Reeves.

In 1916, Daca appears in the yearbook of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, as an instructor of Spanish and French. In June, 1917, he registered for the draft there, using the name Harry Payne Reeves. He asked for a deferment on the basis of having a wife and two young children. This is corroborated by the federal census in 1920, in which he still lived in Delaware, Ohio, and had a wife named Elinor and children Barbara Ann, Margaret, and Harry Payne Reeves Jr.

The first indication we have of Daca singing on the radio is a listing for David Daca singing “solos” in August 1923; the first listing I found mentioning cowboy songs is from December 20, 1924. (“Distant Stations” at 7:10.) In this listing he is called “David Daca, New York.”

Once again, this all comports generally with the story he told to Bowman, the story told by his brochure, and Gilbert Swan’s columns: he went out west in his teens, returned to Illinois for university and graduate school, went to Europe in 1914, taught Spanish and French for a few years, and moved to New York to pursue his music career in time to meet Frank Shay and take over his former bookshop when Shay left in 1924.

In honor of all these travels, let’s hear him sing “I’m Ridin’ Old Paint” and another version of “Old Chisolm Trail” in the player below. “I’m Ridin’ Old Paint” is a widely known song sung by cowboys and folksingers alike; it was a favorite of the Pulitzer prize winning poet, biographer, and song collector Carl Sandburg, whose version you can hear at this link. Daca attributes “I’m Ridin’ Old Paint” once again to Huntsinger, and states that this version of “Old Chisolm Trail” is set to a tune he wrote himself.

In her correspondence with AFC, Daca’s daughter, Lucy Pettus, called him both “Harry Payne Reeves” and “Daca.” In the surviving letters, she did not explain the origin of the sobriquet “Daca” and did not mention the name “David Daca.” She also admitted she knew little about her father’s early life as she was not born until 1941, when he was 54.

Still, she gave us some valuable details about her father. She confirmed his interest in handwriting analysis, which crops up in the earliest newspaper accounts. She confirmed that he studied with the great opera singer Emma Calvé, saying, “I have a portrait photograph of Calvé, inscribed to him.” She confirmed that he was a polyglot. She also added the detail that before running bookshops, Daca had briefly managed the Open Door club, a Greenwich Village gathering place which became famous for Jazz in the 1940s. The club was only about 3 blocks from his Washington Square bookshop and a block and half from Daca’s address in the 1930 census.

Head and shoulders portrait of a man.
Daca’s photo from the 1916 Ohio Wesleyan University yearbook.

Pettus also gave a description of Daca’s World War II service, suggesting that his language skills were put to use in secret:

During World War II he worked for the government, first as a translator (/censor?) and then (my mother told me, over twenty years later) doing something with codes. He didn’t discuss this.

There is reason to believe that, even before his secret government service, Daca wasn’t always honest about the details of his life. Apart from the three different names he gave at various times, the most obvious example is an interview he gave to the publication Musical Observer as “David Daca” in 1923. At that time, he was attempting to attract music students by stressing his classical music training in Europe and his work in theater. There can be no doubt about him being the same singer described in the Daca brochure, whom Daca’s daughter identified as Harry Payne Reeves; “David Daca” gives many of the same specific details, such as his love of both classical lieder and folksongs, his studies with Emmanuel Reicher and George Sweet, and his intention to create a full recital of Robert Franz songs. But he led the Musical Observer to believe he was “a Spaniard,” and called himself “Senor David Daca!”

In 1938 he told Earl Bowman, who knew him as “Harry Reece,” that he had no family except his elderly mother. In fact, we have seen that he had three children by 1920 with his first wife Elinor, and Harry Jr.’s draft card shows that both he and Elinor were still alive in 1940.

Daca called himself “Harry Payne Reeves” in the censuses of 1920 and 1950–respectively, before he moved to New York and after he left. But in 1930, while living in New York, he gave the name “David Daca.” He told the census taker he was from Texas. He also claimed to have a wife, Mary, and that they had been married for 21 years. These details don’t fit our Daca, but it’s clearly him: he’s exactly Daca’s age, both his parents are from Illinois, his occupation is listed as “proprietor, book shop,” and he’s living at 238 Thompson Street in New York City–about a block from Daca’s bookshop on Washington Square South and a block from The Open Door, which (according to his daughter) he also managed. Moreover, our Daca had used the name “David Daca” for years. We can only conclude he misled the census worker about his place of birth and marital status.

Census form filled out by hand
The second row of this form is Daca’s entry in the 1930 U.S. Census. He is listed as “David Daca” and as “Proprietor, book shop.” Click for a larger version.

All this suggests that, after his family life in Ohio didn’t work out, Daca, like so many others, came to New York for a fresh start and tried to leave the past behind. We don’t know if he maintained contact with Elinor and his children, only that he didn’t tell Bowman or the census about them.

When he moved to New York, Daca was just one of the thousands of people over the years who hoped to make it there as a musician and actor. Like his younger contemporary Woody Guthrie, Daca’s chosen niche of folk and cowboy songs made him a novelty in the city. Also like Woody, and even more like Woody’s young friend and successor, Bob Dylan, Daca tried on a few identities and even a few different names once he got to the Big Apple. But one thing remained constant: whether people knew him as “Harry Reece,” “David Daca,” or “Harry Payne Reeves,” they all knew him also by his nickname: “Daca.”

Sometime after 1939, Daca gave up the bookshops, and largely gave up performing on the radio. It’s likely his wartime service, mentioned by his daughter, occasioned his move from New York. If this is the case, he left just as Woody Guthrie arrived in 1940 to take his place as New York’s resident cowboy singer.

In Illinois after the war, Daca polished off his diplomas and got a job teaching. In the 1950 census, as “Harry Payne Reeves,” he was living once again in Urbana. He was then 64 years old and married again, this time to Margaret, who was 36. Harry listed his occupation as “Spanish teacher” and Margaret listed hers as “intern, psychology clinic.” The couple had two children, a boy named Franklin, and (as we would expect) a daughter named Lucy. Forty-four years later, this same Lucy, going by her married name L.R. Pettus, would write to us at the Library of Congress.

In July 1950, Harry Payne Reeves attended the 3rd annual meeting of the International Folk Music Council (now the International Council for Traditional Music) in Bloomington, Indiana. He listed his affiliation as the University of Illinois and his location as Urbana.

A group of 42 people standing on the stairs outside a building.
Daca at the 1950 conference of the International Folk Music Council. Front row, left to right: Otto Andersson, Mrs. Lumpkin, Ben Gray Lumpkin, Sigurd Erixon, Jasim Uddin, George Herzog, Maud Karpeles, Marius Barbeau, Walter Anderson, Stith Thompson. Second row: Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Sirvart Poladian, Laurits Bødker, Albert Lord, Samuel Bayard, Mrs. Saygun, Herbert Halpert, Elizabeth Burchenal, Ake Campbell. Third row: Jonas Balys, [space] Duncan Emrich, May Gadd, [space] Ayala Kaufman, [space] Howard Darington. Fourth row: John Mickey, Barbara Lattimer, Harry Payne Reeves (Daca), Leonard Austin, Sidney Robertson Cowell, [space] George Pullen Jackson, Evelyn Wells, Mrs. La Farge [space]. Back row: Reidar Christiansen, E. Eddy Nadel, Victor Dolan, Sam Eskin, Ahmed Adnan Saygun, Bertrand Bronson, Olcutt Sanders, Joseph Raben, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Charles Seeger. Many attendees are missing from the photo, including Alan Lomax, Richard Waterman, Ivan Walton, and Sarah Gertrude Knott. The photo is in AFC’s Harry Payne Reeves subject file.
Many of the world’s leading folk music scholars and ethnomusicologists attended the conference, including Daca’s old friends Alan Lomax and Herbert Halpert, but also the luminaries in the photo above, and many others. One collector in attendance was Sam Eskin, who took the opportunity to record songs sung by other participants, including Daca. Thanks to Eskin, we have two more recordings of Daca to share. The first has him singing the old cowboy song “Yippie Ti Yi Yo,” also known as “Git Along, Little Dogies.” An iconic cowboy song, this one became part of the folk revival as well; Alan Lomax recorded it from Tom Paxton in the early 1960s, which you can hear at this link. Hear Daca’s version in the player below!

In this interview, Daca finally clarifies that his frequently cited informant “Bronco Charlie” was Bronco Charlie Miller, possibly the last surviving pony express rider and something of a Western celebrity. Daca claimed a close acquaintance with Miller, and said he hoped Bronco Charlie was still alive at about 100 years of age. (Indeed, Miller didn’t die until January 1955, at which time he was 104.)

Unlike Bronco Charlie, we don’t know much about Daca’s final years. The last trace I could find of him in archival collections was just where we might expect, in Urbana, at the University of Illinois. It’s a description of a series of photos from April 1955 in the pdf finding aid you can download here. Daca is referred to as Harry Payne Reeves, and described as a professor of Spanish at the University of Illinois. He’s not the main subject of the photos–rather, he was captured on film while socializing with Carl Sandburg.

Interestingly, Lucy Pettus also mentioned Carl Sandburg’s friendship with and admiration for her father:

Carl Sandburg once said (so I’m told) he could listen to Daca for hours without hearing any song he’d ever heard before.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you HAVE heard “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle” before. I included Alan Lomax’s 1937 version and Daca’s 1939 rendition in our 1000th blog post, which is at this link. That post will tell you all about the song’s history. In 1950, Daca sang it again for Sam Eskin. Let’s hear Daca’s later recording of “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle,” surely his most enduring contribution to American folksong.

Daca’s daughter, Lucy R. Pettus, told us he died on October 4, 1956, in Urbana. Pettus, herself a folklorist as well as a poet, passed away in 2014. The last piece of correspondence we have from her is a handwritten thank-you note to my colleague Judith Gray. In it, she wrote:

My own work is with European folklore, but it’s nice to think Daca’s file may someday contribute half a footnote to somebody’s research into North American folk music or early radio….

I think Daca deserves more than half a footnote, which is why I wrote this blog. As a singer and raconteur, he contributed a lot of folklore to the Library of Congress. As I pointed out in our 1000th blog post, he was crucial to the history of the song “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle,” and he claimed a hand in adapting other songs as well. A trained literary scholar, Daca understood the importance of context in folklore, and provided contextual information along with his songs and stories. His interviews even hint at his own collecting: he mentioned compiling a cowboy song manuscript, which included 15 versions of “The Old Chisolm Trail,” but which was stolen from him before he could publish it. Sadly, aside from his recordings and the Bowman manuscripts, he doesn’t seem to have left any other tangible folklore collections behind, but we do know he made some, and more importantly that he thought deeply about the songs and stories he loved so much.

As I’ve suggested above, Daca was also a fascinating forerunner both of Woody Guthrie, another cowboy singer who arrived in New York just as Daca left, and of Bob Dylan, a trickster who concealed his identity with aliases and gave evasive answers to interviewers. In a way, he laid the groundwork and established some of the norms for the folk scene in Greenwich Village.

For all these reasons, I’m happy this blog will introduce our readers to the material collected from Daca: his songs in the players above, the tall tales he gave to Earl Bowman, the photos and brochures in his subject file, and his masters thesis about literary versions of European fables. I’m especially glad to provide a firm connection among what at first appeared to be three different people: singer David Daca, raconteur Harry Reece, and scholar and publisher Harry Payne Reeves, who together constituted the fascinating hidden folklorist “Daca.”

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for this fascinating tale — and a fine tale it is — wonderful to ponder all of its ramifications. The Daca/Reeves/Reece Greenwich Village sojurn is the centerpiece of the story, I think, and without that chapter, the man might truly have escaped notice. Then, years later, he turns up in the 1950 photo with some of folklore’s heavy hitters, including (in the shot) Duncan Emrich, head of the then-still-named Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress and (missing from the photo) the folk archive’s former “assistant-in-charge,” Alan Lomax. Whew!

    • Thanks, Carl! He’s a bit like the Forrest Gump of folk music!

  2. Daca and Margaret actually had three children: I was born in 1951 in Urbana and sat on Carl Sandburg’s lap when he came to visit. I am a retired philosophy instructor and poet now living in Bremerton, Washington. I’m sorry I didn’t run into your blog sooner; I could have corroborated some of the details, though my knowledge of his early life is as patchy as my late sister’s. He sang many of the songs you feature on the radio program “Hi Wide [sic] and Handsome” in which he co-starred with John Tucker Battle. Thanks for your detective work–it was a delight to find this treasure trove as a first search result. Incidentally, my son Gus Reeves is a singer and guitarist, though not a folklorist.

    Robert Arthur Reeves

  3. I found an article about Mr. Reeves in a July 1955 issue of The Carmi Times, a daily newspaper in his hometown which I edited many years later. Here is a paraphrase of the article: Carmi native Harry Payne Reeves has achieved national recognition as an entertainer. He’ll be featured on WILL Radio’s “The Library Presents” program this week, singing some of the folk songs and ballads that have made him a national figure. He’s been a teacher at the University of Illinois for ten years and became known as a singer and strummer at the encouragement of his good friend, the poet and historian Carl Sandburg. One of his signature tunes is “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” an old slave ballad Harry learned from a Negro boy in Carmi while he was growing up. Harry’s father, Ira, was a druggist at the Peto store at Third and Fackney streets.

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