If asked her about her profession, Ruby Pickens Tartt (1880-1974) would say that she was a painter. In an era when Alabama women rarely attended college, she graduated from the Chase School of Art in New York and painted and taught painting for much of her life. But folklorists consider her one of their own. She was self-trained, it is true, but she gave herself a remarkable education over many years. If anyone wanted to study the language, songs, stories and/or history of African Americans in Sumner County, Tartt was an indispensable colleague. If you have heard recordings made in Alabama in the American Folklife Center’s collections, then you have heard some of the fruits of the work of Ruby Pickens Tartt, even if those recordings were not marked with her name.
Born Ruby Stuart Pickens on January 13, 1880, she was the daughter of a prosperous cotton farmer. She enjoyed going with her father has he saw to the work on the farm, meeting with the African American workers who lived as well as worked on the property. Young Ruby had a keen eye for observing cultural ways and took an interest in the lives of these workers. As she grew to be a teenager, she learned to ask them about the old songs, the songs their parents had sung. She encouraged them to keep singing those songs. She also took an interest in their living conditions and asked them if there were things that they needed. Her compassion earned her the trust of African Americans, not only on her father’s property, but also in Livingston and the local area as she visited local churches to learn more about African American religous songs. Her curiosity about African American culture did not evaporate as she went to study to be a teacher and later went to art school in New York. She became aware of the poor educational opportunities for African Americans and saw how that lack of education held them back. She became interested in the social conditions and discrimination African Americans faced in Alabama, and wanted to help.
Ruby married a young man from a banking family, William Pratt Tartt, in 1901. Her good fortune made it possible for her to continue to pursue her work as a painter, and her avocation as a collector of folklore and song.
When Tartt met a young teacher, Carl Lamson Carmer, and found he shared many of her interests, she encouraged him to write a book including some of the songs and stories she had collected as well as his own experiences. She did not want credit for herself — she did not think of herself as a writer at that time — she wanted someone to help preserve what she had compiled. Stars Fell on Alabama (first published in 1934, now available from University of Alabama Press) is that book, and the character Mary Louise is Ruby Pickens Tartt.
In her era, people collected folklore by memorization and writing down stories, life histories, and song lyrics. Even as cylinder recording equipment became available it required some training to use and was not widely available. The advent of disc recording machines in the 1930s only made recording technology heavier to carry and harder to learn to do well. But the most important consideration for Tartt and many folklorists was that sound recording required electricity. The homes of tenant farmers and agricultural workers she visited did not usually have electricity. So she wrote down all she learned and had singers teach her some of the songs.
Tartt’s life of prosperity changed with the stock market crash of 1929, as it did for many others. By the 1930s, Tartt’s avocation of collecting African American songs and stories was well known in the community and was a kind of preparation for a job she did not seek. She was contacted by the Federal Writers Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration) providing jobs during the Great Depression. She was offered the job of the administrator for the Federal Writers Project in Sumner County. She was shocked at this offer. She was a painter, not a writer. How could she possibly manage a group of writers as part of a government project? But fortunately she was talked into it, as her unique knowledge of the County gave her the right tools for the job. Her oral histories of former slaves, part of the Slave Narrative Project, figure prominently among those collected in Alabama. It is clear that many of the people trusted her in the way that many of them shared painful memories. A list of the interviews she did with links to them can be found at the end of this essay. (Tartt’s experiences with the Federal Writers Project are related in more detail in Toting the Lead Row: Ruby Pickens Tart, Alabama Folklorist, by Virginia Pounds Brown and Laurella Owens, in their chapter on “Working With the WPA,” beginning on page 12. University of Alabama Press, 1981.)
Through the Federal Writers project Tartt became known to folklorists in many parts of the country. She met John Lomax, Ruby Terrell Lomax and later John’s son Alan. When John Lomax came to record songs from the people Tartt had built a relationship with, she brought the singers to her house in her car so that Lomax could record them, setting up a place out in the yard where she felt the performers would be most comfortable. If recording away from the house, Lomax had a set up in his trunk with two automobile batteries linked together that made it possible for him to record. Tartt would commonly give the performers a meal, or a small payment, in return for their singing. Then she would drive them home again. This was the way that we have come to have recordings of African Americans of Sumner County still available to us today. Dock Reed (also spelled Doc Reed) and Vera Hall are two of the singers that became well known as a result of Tartt’s fieldwork and then the recording equipment brought by folklorists who sought them out. Harold Courlander was another folklorist who followed the same path to Tartt’s door in the 1950 and made several recordings of singers there, resulting a series, Negro Folk Music of Alabama, and Spirituals with Dock Reed and Vera Hall Ward, (FW02038, FA 2038) that are still available, published by Smithsonian Folkways.
Here is an example of the kind of music that Ruby Pickens Tartt loved, the old fashioned spirituals sung without instrumentation. This is “I’m Going Home on the Morning Train,” sung by Dock Reed as the lead singer, with Jesse Allison and Hettie Godfrey. Find more examples of songs recorded at the Tartt home by John and Ruby Lomax in the online collection, Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax Southern States 1939 Recording Trip. Photographs taken by Ruby Terrell Lomax of the recordings made in Alabama in 1940 are also available online and include some of the singers recorded in 1939.
There are letters between Ruby Pickens Tartt and Alan Lomax in the AFC archive from the 1940s, and some of these discuss the possibility of arranging a trip to train Tartt in the use of the disc recording machine so that she could borrow equipment and make recordings herself. The planned training fell through and the correspondence ends with the hope that it would be done at a later time. So far I have not been able to find out if that ever happened. But the Alabama recording sessions with the Lomaxes and with Harold Courlander should be properly seen as a team effort, as they would not have been possible without the work of Ruby Pickens Tartt. A somewhat ironic outcome of Tartt’s adventures in collecting folklore is that the woman who thought she was not a writer became an author, writing fiction in her later life as a second outlet for her art.
Transcripts of Slave Narratives Collected by Ruby Pickens Tartt
These link to the Alabama volume of the Slave Narrative Collection organized and digitized through the work of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. Photos are available for most of these, as listed. The photographer is not identified.