This blog post about the naturalist, ornithologist, and hot sauce innovator E. A. McIlhenny 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.
Edward Avery McIlhenny: Spicy Folklorist
In the Hidden Folklorists series we look at people whose folklore work is unknown, often because it’s overshadowed by another accomplishment. Or even two other accomplishments. In some cases, a person even has three or four claims to fame.
One such figure is hidden folklorist Edward Avery McIlhenny, a pioneer in the collection and publication of African American spirituals. If you hear the name in its more familiar form, E. A. McIlhenny, you’re most likely to think of his family’s company and its iconic brand, Tabasco Sauce. Although Edward Avery McIlhenny was the third head of the company (after his father Edmund and his brother John), he was the most influential. E.A. led the company for fifty years, during which time he designed or oversaw many of the products and features that are known the world over. When E.A.’s father Edmund died in 1890, he didn’t even consider his invention of Tabasco Sauce to be noteworthy enough to mention it in an autobiographical sketch. By the time his son E.A. died in 1949, Tabasco was a global prestige brand, possibly the best known hot sauce in the world. It even became part of folklore: “the real Tabasco” was an American proverbial phrase meaning “the genuine article.” (For more on that usage, see the note below!)
As I suggested, though, making and marketing hot sauce was not the man’s only notable accomplishment. He was a lifelong explorer and naturalist, getting his start as the ornithologist on Frederick Albert Cook’s 1894 Arctic expedition, and even leading his own Arctic expedition before becoming head of the McIlhenny Company in 1898. After assuming responsibility for the company, he continued his work in both industry and conservation. He established Bird City on Avery Island, Louisiana, a wildlife refuge which is credited with helping to save the snowy egret from extinction, and which was called by Theodore Roosevelt “the most noteworthy reserve in the country.” By designating his own land and convincing other landowners to do the same, he eventually expanded the reserves in his local area to almost 175,000 acres. He was an early adopter of bird banding, banding more than 189,000 birds and allowing scientists to study their migrations and habits.
Even some of McIlhenny’s failures were notable and influential. He was one of several local landowners who decided to found nutria farms, only to find the rodents bred too fast and were too good at escaping to be efficiently farmed. Abandoned to the wild, nutria bred until there were millions in Louisiana and elsewhere in the U.S. They eat native vegetation to the detriment of local wetlands, and are still a problem in several states.
Given all these activities, it’s a wonder McIlhenny had time for spirituals, but he did. He collected about 120 such songs from African American singers local to his home on Avery Island, Louisiana, which he gathered into a manuscript and then published in the 1933 book Befo’ De War Spirituals. Of course, the “War” in the title was the Civil War, and McIlhenny was particularly interested in spirituals that were sung in slavery times.
In the book’s introduction, he explains that the circumstances of life on Avery Island before the Civil War had favored the emergence of a strong spiritual tradition. Before the Civil War, the island had operated as a sugar plantation. Hard to reach by road or river, it was rarely visited by the landowners (McIlhenny’s family), and it thus operated as a relatively self-sufficient community, with farms to supply food and facilities for making cloth, lumber, bricks, machines, and other necessities. Most of the inhabitants were slaves, but were given (according to McIlhenny), Saturday afternoon and Sunday “to do with as they wished.” Among the things they did were worshiping in a small church and singing spirituals.
During the Civil War, McIlhenny’s family was stripped of their possessions and driven out of Louisiana into Texas. After the war, they returned to Louisiana to find most of their property permanently confiscated. The only home they had left was Avery Island, where they lived in close proximity to their former slaves. Although E.A. McIlhenny himself was born after the Civil War, when slavery was a thing of the past, he grew up surrounded by African Americans who had been slaves legally owned by his parents and neighbors. It was here, as a child, that he learned to love spirituals, as he recounts in the book:
Among my earliest recollections is the singing of the Negroes in the little church at the foot of the hill and at baptizings…. By the time I was ten years old, I think I knew every religious song of our community, and often joined lustily in their singing during the Sunday gatherings. These old religious songs or “spirituals” as they are now generally termed have always, from my youngest days had for me a fascination quite above any other music.
When discussing McIlhenny’s work, it’s also very important to credit several other “hidden folklorists”: African American singers and keepers of the culture without whom we wouldn’t have any of the songs. In the book, McIlhenny gives credit to many African American friends for preserving the songs and teaching them to him. One was J.C. Rochell, who taught McIlhenny songs when he was a child but didn’t remember them by the time McIlhenny was old enough to publish his book, by which time Rochell was in his eighties. McIlhenny mentions him both as a source of songs in his youth and as “the most magnetic preacher I have ever listened to.” Similarly, McIlhenny credits John Goffney, an African American hunter and woodsman who helped teach him about the local flora and fauna, and who also taught him many songs:
John, besides being a skillful hunter was a deacon of the church and a famous singer. He possessed one of the finest voices I ever listened to, and knew every spiritual of our section. Many were the nights we two would sit before our camp fire, miles away from any habitation, and sing the now long forgotten spirituals, and it is due largely to the days and nights I spent in camp with John that I now know so many of the old Negro religious songs which even the old slaves have entirely forgotten.
Finally, McIlhenny gives credit to Becky Elzy (also spelled Ilsey, Elsy, and Elzie), a former slave of his neighbors the Morses, and Alberta Bradford, a former slave of his parents. These women, who were about 85 and 75 when McIlhenny worked with them, together remembered over 125 songs. McIlhenny specified that “Becky knew far more of the old spirituals than Berta.” It was “Becky and Berta” who sang McIlhenny most of the songs he transcribed for his book.
McIlhenny’s book, Befo’ de War Spirituals, is a product of its time. Its title alone will tell you that; the convention of misspelling words in order to render African American dialect is an unfortunate and almost universal feature of the writing of the time. McIlhenny takes a paternalistic attitude toward slavery and the former slaves he knew so well. Yet he affords them more respect and dignity than most white Southern writers of his time, prompting J. Frank Dobie to write in The Southern Review:
As for [McIlhenny’s] book on Negro spirituals, it has the most sympathetic commentaries on Negro nature and singing that I have met with anywhere.
As an example, McIlhenny praised Elzy and Bradford with obvious and genuine affection, and a reverence for their knowledge and their singing abilities:
I have spent many enjoyable days with these good old souls singing over the old time songs and talking of the days and people and ways now long gone. They brought back to me many of the songs I had forgotten, and I was able to do the same for them. They would be greatly pleased when I would sing spirituals they used to know but had forgotten, and would recognize them instantly and generally name some one of the old people whose special song it was, long ago. Both of them have fine voices and sang for me by the hours and it was a rare privilege to hear their melodious voices, sweet and soothing, giving expression to music now a long time forgotten.
McIlhenny also praised the spirituals themselves in heartfelt and vivid language:
Let one hear them sung as I have, time after time, in the quiet of some little country church, so small that often not more than half of those attending could get inside, or in the fervor and excitement of camp-meetings, or baptizing, or under some moss hung live-oak grove with only the moon and stars for light, and hear the plaintive crooning echo of their voices come floating back from the mist banks rising in the forests; if one is not then soon entranced by, and eager to hear more of their music, that one has no music in his soul.
In addition to such praise, McIlhenny provides very useful descriptions of the songs and the singing tradition, making the book valuable as a basic musical ethnography as well as a source of texts. For example, he observes:
It is almost impossible to get an exact wording of a spiritual for even the same singer never sings one twice exactly the same. The singer will vary the words, lines and melody every time the spiritual is sung. The stanzas never occur twice in the same order, but are sung as they come to the mind of the singer, and as the singer will improvise as he sings, the number of stanzas that may be sung is unlimited and is governed solely by the time that particular song is wanted to be sung.
As an amateur but astute music lover and ethnographer, McIlhenny also understood the importance of presenting both the words and music of traditional songs. As he observed:
If one reads the words of the Negro spirituals, not knowing the melodies to which they are sung, they are found to be simple, monotonous and without poetic beauty, but hear these same simple words sung in the melancholy tones of an inspired group of negroes, and the effect is startling; words that seem to be foolish, take on under voice manipulation a beauty and volume of melodious cadence imparting to one an ecstasy of keenest pleasure. One must therefore consider the music and words of the old spirituals as an entirety; one can not be separated from the other without losing the value of both.
McIlhenny knew that taking down the music would be a difficult task:
To correctly transcribe the tones of the old Negro music to written notes is quite impossible, for knowing no written music and using no musical instruments in their religious meetings they relied solely on the voice to express their devotional songs…but what a beautiful and inspiring music they produced; full of half notes, trills and quaverings, and with beautiful voice inflections that cause the simple verse and refrain…to impart to those singing and to the listeners pleasure which often excites to shoutings and tears.
To make matters worse for McIlhenny and his singers, he had no way to record their voices, and therefore had to ask them to sing over and over while he wrote the songs down.
Not being able to transcribe the music himself, he employed Henry Wehrmann, one of New Orleans’s best known musicians of the time, to take on the job. Then a retired master-musician, Wehrmann had been lionized some 35 years earlier by May Mount in her 1896 book Some Notables of New Orleans, as both a “musical genius” and a careful music librarian:
The subject of this sketch possesses what is probably the finest musical library in the South and is certainly the most valuable in New Orleans. […] All the great artists in the musical world are represented in this handsome library in operas, oratorios, scores, and compositions of deathless harmonies, shut within folds of vellum and gold which are loosened at Mr. Wehrmann’s touch and opened to thrill the senses with melody. As a complement to the whole, the works have been carefully catalogued.
McIlhenny’s love of folksongs must have rubbed off on Wehrmann, and coupled with own ability as a native speaker of French, this made the French-born musician an ideal person to collect and transcribe Louisiana Creole folksongs, which he later did. This led to a 1946 publication of 19 songs, and a collection at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Befo’ de War Spirituals presents 120 songs with full lyrics and music. It’s a wonderful document of the concerns and feelings of African Americans born in slavery, and contains such classic freedom songs as “Free at Last,” “I Am Free,” and “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” (“Let My People Go”). Other well known pieces include “Dry Bones,” “Gospel Train,” and “Do Lord Remember Me.” The book contains martial imagery in such songs as “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” “I’m Going to Stay in the Battlefield” and “Feel Like Dying in This Army,” as well as songs about the supernatural such as “Arkangel,” “No Devil in Our Land,” and “Death Going to Lay His Cold Icy Hands on Me.” Old testament stories such as “Adam in the Garden Pinning Leaves,” “Daniel’s in the Lion’s Den,” and “Keep the Ark a’ Moving” rub shoulders with New Testament ideas, such as “Been Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,” “Rollin’ in Jesus’s Arms,” and “Give Me Jesus When I Die.”
McIlhenny and Wehrmann’s work was crucial to the preservation of a longstanding local tradition of African American spirituals, and stands as a major source of information about Louisiana songs. In his introduction, McIlhenny worried that this tradition would die out, but he did note a hopeful sign for the venerable songs: Julia Latula, the “young girl” who acted as his typist for the manuscript, had “taken an interest to learn and sing all of them as Becky sings them.”
Older styles of African American spiritual singing are alive and well in other regions of the country. You can see some examples in AFC’s webcasts of the McIntosh County Shouters from Georgia and the Singing and Praying Bands of Delaware and Maryland. Such spirituals also became part of the basis of many traditions of gospel singing, which you can hear in many webcasts from AFC and elsewhere in the Library of Congress. I hope Julia Latula taught the songs sung by Elzy and Bradford for McIlhenny and Wehrmann to later generations of singers, so they could be part of this vibrant sector of our folk and popular music.
McIlhenny’s work has connections to other archival treasures at the American Folklife Center. A pre-publication manuscript of the book was shared with Robert W. Gordon during his time at the Library of Congress in the early 1930s. I’ve examined the resulting microfilm, which is listed in this guide to Gordon’s manuscript collections, and found that it contains 6 more songs than the book itself! I’ll present those in a future blog post.
More importantly, when John and Alan Lomax visited Louisiana in 1934, McIlhenny pointed the way to Elzy and Bradford. As result, AFC has 10 recordings of these outstanding singers. I’ll be returning to the topic of these remarkable recordings in another future blog post. In the meantime, you can hear two of them in this previous post about one of the discs.
A Note on “the real Tabasco”
“The real Tabasco” (or “the real tabasco”), when used as a proverbial phrase, has the same sense as “The Real McCoy,” which also probably originated as a brand-name endorsement, for G. McKay, a whiskey distiller in Scotland. “The Real Tabasco” is perhaps more obscure, and isn’t much used in the 21st century. Like “The Real McKay,” it simply means “the real thing” or “the genuine article,” and can sometimes mean “the best in its class.” It was a favorite expression of P.G. Wodehouse, and can be seen in his characters’ dialogue and narration here, here, and here. You can also find examples in old newspapers in the Library’s Chronicling America collection, including here (bottom of column 2), here (top of column 4), and here (middle of column 1). It even occurs sometimes in a figurative sense as ”the real tabasco sauce,” as in the description of a baseball series toward the bottom of column 2 of this paper:
But the last game of the series, when we played a picked team from the entire bunch, was the real tabasco sauce. They had us beaten up to the seventh inning by the score of 9 to 3, but when we came in and scored six runs and tied the score the whole outfit scampered off the field, thinking that we had just been putting them on to give them another severe drubbing.