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Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford: Spiritual Folklorists

This blog post about the “Two Sweet Singers” Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. In preparing this post, I was greatly aided by Shane K. Bernard, the archivist at Avery Island in Louisiana, and John Wheat at the University of Texas’s Briscoe Center for American History.

Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford: Spiritual Folklorists

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.

When I dreamed up the Hidden Folklorists series, I was inspired to choose its title by Hidden Figures, the 2016 nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, and the film of the same name. Shetterly’s book documented the careers of African American women who worked as mathematicians for NASA, and who (in Shetterly’s words) helped the United States “win the Space Race.” Most of our series’ “hidden folklorists” have remained relatively unknown as folklore collectors and scholars because of other accomplishments that eclipsed their folklore work. But it was always our intention to also honor folklorists who are unknown because of systemic discrimination, poverty, or other obstacles that kept them from being recognized. So in the next two installments of the series, this one in African American History Month and the next in Women’s History Month, I’d like to honor two prodigious collectors of African American spirituals, Becky Elzy and Aberta Bradford. These two African American women, who were born into slavery in Louisiana, remembered over one hundred spirituals and shared them with people who had the institutional means to preserve them. The result is a published book in the Library’s general collections containing 120 songs, a microfilm shared by the American Folklife Center and the Library’s Music Division containing at least 6 unpublished songs, and 3 sound discs in the AFC archive containing 10 recordings of Elzy and Bradford’s singing. Throughout this post, I’ll intersperse my writings with players in which you can hear the songs these singers sang.  If the players aren’t working or you can’t see them for any reason, you can hear most of their songs here on the Lomax 1934 website. Let’s hear the first of their songs, “Adam in the Garden Pinnin’ Leaves,” which tells the story of God’s discovery that Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit:

The Library of Congress has these great materials because Elzy and Bradford remembered these songs over a lifetime, and sang them at the request of two men: Alan Lomax, a Library of Congress folklorist, and E.A. McIlhenny, scion of the family that created and still makes Tabasco Sauce.

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

McIlhenny was the first to collect spirituals from Elzy and Bradford, for his 1933 book Befo’ de War Spirituals. The book contains an account of Elzy and Bradford, and describes the circumstances that led to McIlhenny working with them. As I detailed in my previous post about McIlhenny, the Tabasco leader’s search for spirituals began with an African American preacher named Reverend Rochell, who had taught McIlhenny spirituals in his youth. Rochell no longer remembered them, because, he said, he had “sung hymns from the Baptist hymn book for so long that the old songs had all been forgotten.” When asked if he knew any community elders who might remember the older songs, Rochell recommended a member of his congregation whom he referred to as “sister Becky Elzy.”

Elzy lived about six miles from McIlhenny, and McIlhenny soon went to meet her. In the collector’s words, “at the first meeting knew I had found a real helper.” He gave the following biographical details:

Becky…had belonged to the Morse Family who had owned a sugar plantation on Cotté Jellé only about twenty miles from my home. The Morses had been close friends of my people in before the war days. Becky was sixteen years old when the slaves were freed, and married. She and her husband took up a small piece of land on the prairie about six miles north of Avery Island and have lived there ever since, and she has never been ten miles away from home. Up to the time of her coming to my house she had never been close to an electric light, had never listened at a telephone nor ridden on a train and never heard a radio and had been in an automobile only once. In spite of her eighty years she is active, quick witted [and] intelligent.

Other records of Elzy are hard to find, especially since her name is spelled in different ways in various records. McIlhenny himself spells it “Elzy” and “Ilsey,” the AFC card catalog spelled it “Elsy,” and some government records spelled it “Elzie.” In some cases, a cursive z has been mistaken for a g, so the census records of a man I think was her husband have even been transcribed as “Elgie.”

One record suggests a reason for Elzy to have moved close to Avery Island from Cotté Jellé sometime after being emancipated: the 1910 census records an African American woman named Rebecca Elzie living with her husband Dave in “Salt Mine, Iberia Parish” Louisiana. The Salt Mine village was a company town on Avery Island, so the entry suggests that Elzy or her husband might have worked for the salt company at the time. This might have been what brought the Elzys into close proximity with McIlhenny, although it’s also possible they moved first and found work in the mine later.

McIlhenny had several stories about Elzy, including her reaction to electric lights. She asked McIlhenny how he had gotten the oil into the light bulbs, tried to blow out one of the bulbs, and on seeing McIlhenny switch them off, concluded that he was “a hoodoo.” McIlhenny also marveled at Elzy’s large family, which included 9 living children, 46 grandchildren, and 238 great-grandchildren! Most importantly, McIlhenny said, Elzy had “a wealth of information about the early religious customs of her people in this part of the country.”

McIlhenny reported that Elzy did not enjoy the newfangled hymns Reverend Rochell sang, although she could join in the choruses. Instead, she preferred the songs of her youth, and continued to sing them at home. When asked what she called these old spirituals, Elzy answered that they were “spiritual and jubilee hymns.” She explained that spiritual hymns came from your spirit as you praised the Lord, while jubilee hymns came from your heart when you were happy, and thanked the Lord.

Elzy also preserved information about the contexts in which the songs were sung. She told McIlhenny that before the Civil War, slaves would gather clandestinely at night in the woods to sing and pray. Sometimes, she reported, the elders had to put their hands over a fellow slave’s mouth, or even stuff a cloth in someone’s mouth, to prevent them from being heard by white “paterollers,” who would break up the meeting and punish the worshippers if the singing party were discovered.

By the time she met McIlhenny, Elzy could no longer sing as strongly as she used to, and she needed a younger friend to second her singing. Her preferred singing partner was Alberta Bradford. According to Elzy, Bradford “lived near her, and knew many of the old songs, and often came to the house and sang with her.”

McIlhenny didn’t write as much about Bradford, since Elzy was the leader on most of the songs. But he actually knew more about her, and had more precise details of her life, because she had been born at his home, as a slave of his parents. In his words:

Alberta Bradford was born in September 1861, on Avery Island. Her father, Robert Johnson, and her mother, Betsy Ann, were our slaves and Alberta was reared with the children of the “Big House.”

McIlhenny remembered a story his aunt used to tell about Bradford as a little girl. The aunt (whose name is not given in the book) taught Sunday school to the children of the family, and allowed little Alberta Bradford to attend. On one occasion, Alberta laughed when “milk and honey” was mentioned as the preferred food of angels in Heaven. When asked if she didn’t want to go to Heaven and eat milk and honey, Alberta, an honest citizen of Louisiana, replied that she would rather stay home and eat cornbread and molasses! As an older woman, though, Alberta’s attitude had changed, and she sang “I Want to Go to Heaven All Dressed in White.”

The day after Elzy first mentioned that Bradford was her singing partner, McIlhenny sent a driver to pick up both singers and bring them to his house so they could sing for him. These sessions continued, with the involvement of musician Henry Wehrmann, for “many enjoyable days,” during which Elzy and Bradford sang while McIlhenny wrote down the words of the songs and Wehrmann wrote down the music. By the end of the project, McIlhenny had at least 126 songs, which he compiled into a manuscript with typed pages of words and handwritten pages of music. In 1931, he loaned this manuscript to Robert Winslow Gordon, head of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song (now the AFC archive) so it could be photographed. The resulting microfilm is listed in this bibliography of the Gordon manuscript collections. It can be consulted in the Library’s Performing Arts Reading Room. In 1933, McIlhenny published most of the songs in his book.

This photo and caption appeared in E. A. McIlhenny’s book Befo’ de War Spirituals. Alberta Bradford (left) and Becky Elzy (right) sang over 100 spirituals for E. A. McIlhenny and 10 for Alan Lomax. Courtesy E. A. McIlhenny Collection, Avery Island Archives, Avery Island, Louisiana.

That’s where the Lomaxes come into the story. In 1934, the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax visited Louisiana to record folk music on instantaneous discs for the Library of Congress, where the senior Lomax was Gordon’s successor as Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song. They knew of McIlhenny’s work from his book and from the microfilm here at the Library. They consulted him looking for singers to record, and he put them in touch with Elzy and Bradford.

The catalog cards for AFS 100 and AFS 106 claim the recordings were made in Avery Island.

The catalog cards for these songs tell part of the story. As you can see, when the cards were made some years later, “John A. Lomax” was given as the recordist’s name. At some later time, someone added “and Alan” to some of the cards in pencil, for the very good reason that Alan’s voice can be heard on some of the discs, proving that he certainly was there when those discs were recorded.

The place of recording on some of the cards was given as Avery Island, where the Lomaxes went to look for Elzy and Bradford at McIlhenny’s suggestion.  But puzzlingly, some of the cards say the songs were recorded in Lake Arthur, some 50 miles away. This location is confirmed by Alan Lomax’s announcement on the disc AFS 105:

The spirituals on this record were sung by Becky Elzy, 86, and Alberta Bradford, 73, who in their younger days were slaves on the Avery Island plantation. They recollected these songs over all these years and still have the wonderful voices to sing them as they should be sung. These spirituals that they have sung are to be found in Mr. E.A. McIlhenny’s book Befo’ de War Spirituals. These songs were recorded in Lake Arthur, Louisiana, in the month of June, 1934.

The catalog cards for AFS 105 correctly state the location of these recordings as Lake Arthur.

More recent sleuthing has solved the puzzle of their location, and also revealed a fact we didn’t know: as it turns out, John Lomax was not present at all when these discs were made—they were recorded by Alan alone.

In Nolan Porterfield’s biography of John Lomax, there’s a reference to a letter in which the elder Lomax describes the session to his then-fiancée, Ruby Terrill, whom he was to marry just a month later. The letter was not among our collections, but in the John Avery Lomax Family Papers at the University of Texas’s Briscoe Center for American History. Their curators were kind enough to share a scan of the letter, which sheds more light on the session. We don’t have permission to reproduce the image at this time, but I’ll quote the relevant parts of the letter.

With dry wit, John Lomax gave the letter the return address “by the side of the road.” It contains a description of a very bad rainstorm that had just passed, as well as many personal details intended for his fiancée, but the most relevant passage is this one:

Now Alan is going alone 40 miles with Alberta…to find Becky, her singing partner, not certainly known to be alive. These two old slave women sang for Mr. McIlhenny over a hundred spirituals, “before the war” songs which make up the entire text of his book. We are now after the music. I can’t go, because over these roads the car might go down. Alberta is hefty. There is a lot of inside work waiting for me or someone else. And Alan’s wings are a-quiver with impatience for freedom and independence.

This reveals what must have happened: McIlhenny had at first put the Lomaxes in touch with Alberta Bradford. When they arrived at Bradford’s home on June 17, 1934, they found that Becky Elzy no longer lived within a few miles. She had apparently moved to a home near Lake Arthur—most likely with one of her many children or grandchildren. Lomax’s statement that Elzy was “not certainly known to be alive” suggests that it had been some months since Bradford or McIlhenny had seen her.

The unlikely trio of Bradford and the Lomaxes soon realized they had a problem. The previous day’s torrential rainfall had left many of the Lomaxes’ possessions “irretrievably ruined” and the roads awash with mud. The recording equipment and batteries were heavy. Though Alan Lomax was a slender youth of 19, John and Alberta were both rather stout. The result was that the Lomaxes couldn’t be sure the car could carry all three of them as well as the equipment as far as Elzy’s new home and back without breaking down or getting stuck in the mud. The course of action was clear: the heftier Lomax was left behind, and Alan and Alberta drove off together.

For his part, the elder Lomax walked five miles to a café where he could get orange juice, then saw a John Barrymore movie, then walked two more miles to camp. He wrote his letter in three installments over the course of the day, and by the end expected Alan back “probably in two or three days.”

Clearly, John A. Lomax wasn’t there to record Elzy and Bradford in Lake Arthur, so the cards are wrong on that account. That alone makes these recordings significant as being among the earliest recorded by the 19-year-old Alan without supervision. The mystery of the card catalog reflecting two different places of recording now also becomes clear: the Lomaxes’ notes indicated they went to Avery Island to record Elzy and Bradford. The WPA workers making the catalog cards used that information for discs 100 and 106. But on disc 105, Alan states clearly that those recordings were made in lake Arthur. The WPA workers used that more accurate information for that disc.

Another mystery brought up by the letter is this: if the Lomaxes knew that Elzy and Bradford could sing over 100 spirituals, why did Alan only record 10 of them? The probable answer can be gleaned from another passage of the letter. John Lomax wrote:

I do not know Shirley’s address. If you can reach her promptly, please tell her to ship to me at once 25 blank records from the package I left in our room at Mrs. Thompson’s parcel post. It might save you some trouble to phone and ask Mrs. Thompson to do me this service. If Virginia be at home I know she would help us promptly. Mrs. Thompson has no car. Suggest that Mr. Dobie will forward them if she will wrap and address the package. Thank you ma’am for your willingness to serve!

(The Shirley of this letter was probably Lomax’s eldest daughter, later Shirley Lomax Mansell Duggan.) The urgency of the words “at once,” which are double-underlined in the original, and the attention to minor details that might hasten the package’s arrival, suggest that John was already out of discs. Other evidence also suggests a shortage of blanks. In the field, Alan used the discs now numbered AFS 105 and AFS 106 to record Elzy and Bradford, then went back and used an unused side of the disc now numbered AFS 100. This resulted in AFS 100 side A being out of sequence, which also contributed to the catalogers’ confusion about the place of recording: since AFS 99 and AFS 100 side B were both recorded in Iberia Parish near Avery Island, it makes little sense that AFS 100 side A would have been recorded 50 miles away in Lake Arthur, until you realize that the A side was recorded days later than the B side. A careful fieldworker would try to avoid this kind of confusion, but any good fieldworker would certainly bend this rule if there were no more sides to use. Keeping these songs in our collective memory was the most important imperative for Lomax and the singers alike.

This suggests that the Lomaxes were simply out of discs, and that Alan only had 5 unused sides with him in the car. He must have recorded as much of the duo as he could, down to his last side, before returning to John.

The Lomaxes had the solace of knowing that McIlhenny and Wehrmann had preserved the rest of Elzy and Bradford’s songs as words and notation. Still, we can only imagine Alan’s frustration at returning to his father leaving over 90 songs unrecorded from these magnificent hidden folklorists.

What became of the women McIlhenny called “The Two Sweet Singers?” The Louisiana Statewide Death Index indicates a woman named Becky Elzie died in Jefferson Davis Parish–where Lake Arthur is located–on December 31, 1940. This record, like the census entry from Salt Mine, comports well with what we know of the Becky Elzy who shared her spirituals with McIlhenny and the Lomaxes. I couldn’t find a record to indicate where or when Alberta Bradford passed away.

I’m planning a future post to look at Elzy and Bradford’s unpublished songs from the McIlhenny manuscript. But for now, let’s give our hidden folklorists, Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford, the last word. On AFS 105, the two singers perform a song we placed on our Lomax Iconic Songs List. The Lomaxes called it “Thank God Almighty,” but McIlhenny had given it its more common title, “Free At Last.” It’s a widely known song in the African American spiritual genre, and has been recorded numerous times by popular gospel groups. It was famously quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, in which King deliberately placed it in the context of a patriotic song, “My Country ’tis of Thee,” and its closing line, “Let freedom ring”:

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

To hear Bradford and Elzy, two black women who were born into slavery, sing “thank God almighty, ’cause I’m free at last” is a powerful experience we think everyone should share for African American History Month.

Hear it below:


Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly appeared at the 2017 National Book Festival, and you can see her appearance as a webcast at this link. She will return to the Library with Donna Gigliotti, producer of the film, for a conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on March 12, 2018. You can come see her, or follow the event livestreamed on our Facebook page and Youtube channel.