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Category: Folksong

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.

A portrait of an anthropomorphic egg from the front and the back

Humpty Dumpty: Metafolklore, Riddles, and Yolks

Posted by: Stephen Winick

This post looks at the history and meaning of the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty." It considers several popular origin stories for the rhyme, including that it is about Richard III of England, or about a siege engine in the English Civil War. It points out that these stories constitute "metafolklore," or folklore about folklore, and traces their history. It also considers how the rhyme works as a riddle, whose solution is "an egg." It includes many unusual versions of "Humpty Dumpty," many fun stories, and many classic illustrations!

Two women standing outdoors with trees behind them

Song Hunting in the Appalachians with Karpeles and Cowell: In the Footsteps of Cecil Sharp, Part 2

Posted by: Stephen Winick

On September 8th, 1950, two women set out from Washington DC for the Appalachian Mountains on a hunt for folk songs. The veteran English folklorist Maud Karpeles, 65 years old and intent on revisiting some of the singers she had encountered with Cecil Sharp more than thirty years before, was accompanied by the American folk song collector Sidney Robertson Cowell, 18 years her junior, who had worked in many areas including the Appalachians. Their 27-day expedition in Cowell’s car, bearing an Eicor tape recorder loaned by the Library of Congress, took them from Virginia to North Carolina, and yielded 91 recordings, plus a number of photographs. In this series of blog posts we will be exploring their adventures along the trail, meeting some of the wonderful singers they encountered, and comparing the versions of the songs they recorded. This is the second post in the series.

Song Hunting in the Appalachians with Karpeles and Cowell: In the Footsteps of Cecil Sharp Part 1

Posted by: Stephen Winick

On September 8th, 1950, two women set out from Washington DC for the Appalachian Mountains on a hunt for folk songs. The veteran English folklorist Maud Karpeles, 65 years old and intent on revisiting some of the singers she had encountered with Cecil Sharp more than thirty years before, was accompanied by the American folk song collector Sidney Robertson Cowell, 18 years her junior, who had worked in many areas including the Appalachians. Their 27-day expedition in Cowell’s car, bearing an Eicor tape recorder loaned by the Library of Congress, took them from Virginia to North Carolina, and yielded 91 recordings, plus a number of photographs. In this series of blog posts we will be exploring their adventures along the trail, meeting some of the wonderful singers they encountered, and comparing the versions of the songs they recorded.

Shape note singers in Chicago, 1977.

New Research Guide: Shape-Note and Sacred Harp Traditions

Posted by: Douglas D. Peach

The American Folklife Center (AFC) has published a new research guide, highlighting collections materials related to shape-note singing and Sacred Harp traditions in the United States. Read this post by Deena R. Owens, the guide's creator and a former AFC intern, to learn more about the research guide, the shape-note singing tradition, and Owens' experiences with this musical culture.

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."

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman

Lillian Short: Mrs. Robin Hood?

Posted by: Stephen Winick

This post continues the story of Lillian Short, who sang the song "Robin Hood" for Vance Randolph in 1941. It reveals that Lillian's husband, Leonard Short, was a notorious bank robber who had died in a jailbreak attempt in 1935. It recounts several legends that have developed about Leonard Short, including that he had a network of tunnels under Galena, Missouri, to allow him to escape the law. Most interestingly, it shows that Leonard Short himself had the reputation of being a modern Ozark Robin Hood, raising the question of whether Lillian's singing about Robin Hood had any connection to her husband.

Head and shoulders portrait of a woman.

Lillian Short: More Than Just Robin Hood

Posted by: Stephen Winick

In 1941, Vance Randolph recorded 34 songs from one of his favorite Ozark singers, Lillian Short of Galena, Missouri. We've featured Lillian Short's version of the song known as "Robin Hood," "The Cornish May Song," or "Hal An Tow" on the blog before. This post presents more information about the singer, with a selection of her best recordings. In addition to biographical information and photos, it includes extensive notes on her songs.

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

Posted by: Stephen Winick

Learn about the fascinating character "Daca," a bookseller in New York who taught Alan Lomax the cowboy classic "Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle." Daca contributed ten songs and a sheaf of tall tales to the Library of Congress. He was a cowboy in the 1910s and a bookshop owner in Bohemian Greenwich Village in the 1920s and 30s, while he moonlighted by singing cowboy songs on the radio. He had a master's degree in Spanish and was an expert on European fables. He also went by at least three names (Harry Payne Reeves, David Daca, and Harry Reece). Daca was 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 this way, he laid the groundwork and established some of the norms for the folk scene in Greenwich Village. Read his story, hear his songs, and find out about a little known "hidden folklorist"--all in this blog post!