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Category: Caught My Eye

Two head-and-shoulders portraits of the same man

Caught My Eye: “Iron Head” Baker and “The Mighty Blue Goose”

Posted by: Stephen Winick

In or about 1942, Alan Lomax sketched out a draft or proposal for a children's picture book, "The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose." The book, which Lomax planned to have fully illustrated by an artist, was to be based on "The Grey Goose," a song he had recorded for the archive alongside his father in 1934. Lomax credited the singer as the book’s main author: “Iron Head” Baker, a Texas prison inmate and trusty who sang about 60 songs for the Lomaxes. In 1936, Baker was paroled and spent three months collecting songs across the South with John A. Lomax, returning to prison in 1937. Like many of Alan Lomax’s projects, the book appears to have been interrupted by World War II and his departure from the Library of Congress. This is a shame, because Lomax was clearly onto something. "The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose" would have been inspirational on several levels. An homage to African American culture credited to a Black man and his white assistants, it would have been an inspiring children's book and a significant accomplishment in the legacies of the Lomaxes and of Iron Head Baker.

Five men stand on stage. One sings into a microphone.

Caught My Eye and Ear: Calypso Photos and Recordings, 1946-1947

Posted by: Stephen Winick

This post looks at photos and recordings of some important calypso stars of the 1940s New York music scene, Macbeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson) and Lord Invader (Rupert Grant). The 1947 photos are part of the William P. Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress Music Division, while the recording of a full-length 1946 concert by the three performers is part of the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection. These collections shed light on an interesting time in American music, before the emergence of rock and roll, when calypso and related Caribbean styles were vying for popularity with other folk music genres. In 1944, the Andrews Sisters had a major hit with Lord Invader's "Rum and Coca-Cola." In 1956, Harry Belafonte's "Calypso" became the first million-selling LP record. During the period between those milestones, it looked possible that calypso could emerge to be one of the leading styles of American pop music. Performers like Duke of Iron, Macbeth, and Lord Invader engaged in friendly competitions like the ones documented by Gottlieb and Lomax, using witty lyrics, catchy music, and personal charisma to fascinate audiences on stage and on record. Find the photos and a link to the concert audio in this blog post.

Print shows the president's box at Ford's Theater with John Wilkes Booth, on the right, shooting President Lincoln who is seated at the front of the box; on the left are Mary Todd Lincoln seated in the front, Major Henry Rathbone rising to stop Booth, and Clara Harris standing behind Mrs. Lincoln

Caught My Ear: Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Booth Killed Lincoln”

Posted by: Stephen Winick

For many years, the song "Booth" or "Booth Killed Lincoln" has been considered a prime example of a traditional ballad about a historical event. Telling in remarkable detail the story of John Wilkes Booth's assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, the ballad seems ripped from contemporary headlines. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who sang the song for the Library of Congress in 1949, has been credited as the song's collector, and many sources indicate a date of about 1890 as the latest possible origin for the song, since Lunsford said he heard his father sing "some of the stanzas" to the fiddle tune "Booth." But is there another possible explanation of the song's origins? In this post, we'll look more closely at Lunsford's various recordings of "Booth," as well as unpublished primary-source and secondary-source evidence in the AFC archive, to try to piece together the birth of "Booth."

Five people photographed on a platform overlooking the Himalayas

Personal Connections to Folklife Collections: The Linda LaMacchia Collection

Posted by: Stephen Winick

Linda LaMacchia was a folklorist and ethnographer who documented the music and lives of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, or jomos, in the Kinnaur district of northwestern India between 1985 and 2017. LaMacchia conducted fieldwork in Kinnaur for a period of fifteen months in 1995 and 1996 for her dissertation, while pursuing a PhD in South Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In this blog post, processing archivist Sara Ludewig writes about the personal connections she made with the collection, and presents comparisons of photos from the collection with photos she herself took in the same locations in India.

A man playing a guitar and singing to a close crowd of a dozen or so men and women

‘We have our own long history and culture’: Listening to Taissa Decyk, Ukrainian American Artist

Posted by: Michelle Stefano

“Now, this tablecloth,” Taissa Decyk says, “I was in a camp expecting my first child, who is now thirty-one, when I made this tablecloth.” In September 1979, Mrs. Taissa Decyk was interviewed in her Providence home about her extensive knowledge of Ukrainian embroidery traditions. Conducted by folklorist Geraldine Niva Johnson, the interview was for the …

A man playing a guitar and singing to a close crowd of a dozen or so men and women

Yuba Dam, 2020!

Posted by: Stephen Winick

Folklorists Barre Toelken and Gary Ward Stanton recorded the comic song “Yuba Dam” on August 25, 1979, among the songs and reminiscences of Kevin Shannon, a singer and storyteller with a large repertoire of songs and a deep knowledge of the history of the Irish American community in and around Butte, Montana. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, "Yuba Dam" has a new relevance. It's a tale of escalating misfortunes which leave the narrator alone, broke, and beaten up. Needless to say, I think we can all relate; it’s been a trying year. In that case, you might ask, why make it worse with a tale of woe? Well, that’s the great thing. Despite the misfortunes heaped on the shoulders of the narrator, “Yuba Dam” is a funny story. In fact, it’s just one variant of a joke that had been told in prose and verse for over 100 years when the song was recorded. In this post, we take a closer look at “Yuba Dam.”

A man playing a guitar and singing to a close crowd of a dozen or so men and women

Caught My Ear: “Sentenced to Death” by Andrew Gallagher

Posted by: Stephen Winick

The following was written by Hannah Rose Baker, a musician from Boston, MA, who recently completed an internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In 1938, in Beaver Island, Michigan, Andrew Gallagher, known locally as “Andy Mary Ellen,” sang a song called “Sentenced to Death” for Alan Lomax, who was collecting folk music …