Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip is a multi-format ethnographic field collection that contains sound recordings, field notes, dust jackets, and other manuscripts. The collection documents the Lomaxes' three-month, 6,502-mile trip through the southern United States. The materials include 25 hours of folk music from more than 300 performers that feature ballads, blues, children's songs, cowboy songs, fiddle tunes, field hollers, lullabies, play-party songs, religious dramas, spirituals, and work songs. Photographic prints from the Lomaxes' other Southern states expeditions illustrate the collection.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- The Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
- The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- African American Odyssey
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties
- FSA-OWI Photographs ca. 1935-1945.
- Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande
- The South Texas Border, 1900-1920
- Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941
Recommended additional sources of information.
- Biographies: John Avery Lomax and Ruby Terrill Lomax
- Related Resources
- A Teacher's Guide to Folklife Resources for K-12
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Photo Subject Index, Audio Subject Index, Audio Title Index, Performer Index, and Photo Title Index. To locate song lyrics and documents do a full-text search and, having selected a document, scroll down to find the highlighted search term, or use the Best Match function to find the pertinent reference.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
In 1939, John and Ruby Lomax traveled the southern United States, recording nearly 700 examples of folk music and oratory which, along with photographs and fieldnotes, comprise the online collection, Southern Mosaic. Together, these materials portray life in the rural South from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. For folk songs, transmitted orally, are communally created and re-created through time and generations and thus reflect multiple time periods.
The African-American Experience of the South
Though dating from the late 1930s, this collection reflects the African-American experience in the South during the period between Reconstruction and 1941. The songs the Lomaxes collected come out of a place that had changed very little since the Reconstruction era, though it was on the brink of great transformation. The war years that followed inaugurated a period of economic growth and political change that culminated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Teachers should preview some of these materials, particularly their language, to determine how much background about cultural differences of the past students will need in order to understand this collection appropriately.
Ruby Lomax's fieldnotes document the racist atmosphere in the South, while the collection's songs are African Americans' own personal expressions of what it was like to live in the South. Do a full-text search of white and negro for allusions to segregation and prejudice such as the following. Or browse blues songs and work songs from the Audio Subject Index, for expressions of hopelessness, desperation, violence, and perseverance in the face of a life of hard physical labor, frequent relocation, injustice, and poverty. Search master and slave and consider how racism and the African-American experience in the South evolved and were reflected in song.
"Louisiana is a murderer's home;
It may be a graveyard, but it's my home."
Henry Truvillion is foreman of a work gang for Wier Lumber Company, whose headquarters are at Wiergate, Texas . . . One evening later in the week we returned and set up our machine with batteries in the Truvillion living-room. We tried to persuade Henry to go with us to our hotel in Newton, where we could hitch on to electricity, but he refused. He said frankly that he was afraid, --afraid that such a visit to a white people's hotel might cause trouble for him after we were gone.
One particularly powerful documentation of racism and the African-American experience of the South is the collection's images, songs, lyrics, and notes, which reflect prison conditions for African-American inmates. Do a keyword search and full-text search of convicts, inmates, prisons, and chain gang to locate the materials that comprise this highlight of the collection.
The variety of materials in this collection reflect the cultural life of African Americans in the South. Browse Photo and Audio Subject Indexes as well as the Fieldnotes for materials documenting religion, work, rural lifestyle, children's play, and music. Or, locate African-American songs organized by geographical region by referring to the Special Presentation, "The 1939 Recording Expedition".
"Seed Tick" | MP3
Mrs. Tartt had told us about the Tartt family of Negroes that lived in the Boyd, Alabama community. She had heard the group sing together with beautiful effect. Because of the rain she thought they would not be working in the field and drove the seventeen miles or more to their farm home to bring them in to sing. She was told at their house that "Sim an' them is huntin' fish". Mrs. Tartt walked through the mud down to the river, calling as she went, to locate them the sooner. Finally she heard a startled whisper, "Dat's Miss Ruby Callin'! Hear her? Reckin what she want?" Then Mrs. Tartt, "Sim, Mandy, you heard me. Where are you?" They came forth, bare-footed and thinly clad; for they really had been fish-hunting. The high water, receding, had left live fish far up on the bank. These the Negroes were spearing and catching with bare hands.
"There's ole Enoch", Doc Reed said as he sat on Mrs. Tartt's back "gallery" ready to sing. We listened to the "hollerin"' as everybody calls it, though that is too harsh a word for such a rounded-tones. He was crossing the bridge over the Sacarnatchie that runs at the foot of Baldwin Hill. He is artist enough to know that from just there his calls will sound most effective. It is a sort of "hallo-ing", perhaps a form of yodeling, though the words are those of field songs, with always a weird lonesomeness. We could never quite get the effect into our microphone. Usually he would call "oh-oh-oo-oo, I won't be here long", with variations on that theme. Enoch is a strange person, the kind of person that we are tempted to call "a strange creature", for he seems "other-worldly", a wraith that appears suddenly out of darkness...
Frontier Culture in the Southwest
The Lomaxes spent more than half of their trip in Texas, recording approximately 350 songs, many of which, along with photographs and correlative fieldnotes, reflect frontier culture in the Southwest from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. "Corrido del Soldado" (Ballad of the Soldier) documents the racism that marked the western, as it did the eastern, southern states."Corrido de las elecciones de Brownsville" and other songs found by searching for bandit, bandolero, Jesse James, and outlaw tell true stories lionizing western outlaws, while authentic cowboy songs such as "Old Chisholm Trail" give students a sense of the cowboy lifestyle. Have students consider the following questions:
- What motivates the cowboys in these songs to be cowboys? Do they enjoy their work?
- What tones and sentiments characterize these songs: happiness, sadness, regret, anger, fear, humor, resignation, determination, strength, sentimentality?
- Why do you think cowboys made up and sang these songs? What do they suggest about the people who created and sang them?
- How do cowboy songs differ from the work songs of other physical laborers? What do these differences suggest about the differences between the work and lifestyle of cowboys and other physical laborers?
- How does the representation of cowboys in these songs compare to those in movies, novels, and popular culture?
For a unique look into the Southwest of the late 1930s, students can browse the Fieldnotes and Photographs the Lomaxes made in Texas. In addition to the lawlessness and cowboy lifestyle of the Southwest, students will get a sense of its multiculturalism and community.
The Mexican Experience of the Southwest
As with African Americans in the South, Southern Mosaic documents the trials and culture of Mexicans in the Southwest. Songs in Spanish tell stories about Mexicans, such as the migrant cotton pickers of "Yo cuando era niño - mi padre querido", or the immigrants, known as "wet-backs," of "Versos del mojado." Mexican ballads, lullabies, love songs, and religious drama as well as canciones, corridos, habaneras, and huapangos found in the Audio Subject Index reflect the religion, family, work, music, and leisure of Mexicans in the Southwest. Do a keyword search and full-text search on Kingsville, and Mexican and browse section 6 of the Fieldnotes for pertinent images and text as well as songs.
Jose Suarez was introduced to John A. Lomax by J. K. Wells . . . Mr. Wells could not be so rude as to ask Jose his age. Instead, he asked in Spanish: "Jose, when did you cut your eye-teeth?" To this Jose replied, "Forty-three years ago."
"When money was good, I bought chickens, cows, horses, etc., but at forty cents a hundred, I am very poor, and I walk the streets of Laredo like a deaf mule."
"I was youngest of nine children in the family and my father's favorite. When he would come home on his big handsome horse from one of his five ranches, he would begin to sing this song way down the road as a signal to me to meet him. Then we would dance together to the snappy music. My mother thought it was silly."
Toward a Mass Culture, 1890-1930
Advances in technology and the incorporation of business around the turn of the nineteenth century gave rise to an increasingly homogenized mass culture. The Lomaxes were especially sensitive to the impact of this mass culture on distinctive regional folk traditions in Texas and in the South. Observations such as the following speak to the power and speed with which mass culture was disseminated, changing American culture. They can be found by doing a full-text search on radio, popular, and jazz.
We are finding some new stuff and re-recording some of the last of the old. The gang work songs, sung in wild abandon, seem definitely gone. I can't find 'em anymore after only 2 years. And the old spirituals are following: Chief causes, I think, the radio and education.
Hattie Ellis is a blues singer who is very popular on the radio program sent out from the Texas State Penitentiary . . . in one week Hattie received 3,000 "fan" letters . . . Hattie's singing is fast becoming "throaty" as she strives to imitate the professional "blues" singers.
Have students listen to Hattie Ellis's songs and ask them to describe the difference between them and other blues songs in the collection. Do they find evidence of Lomax's assertion that she is imitating professional singers? Students may want to search for Web sites outside of the Library of Congress to find out more about popular blues music from the thirties.
. . . the pupils are all of Mexican families . . . It is interesting that when Mrs. Lomax asked them how to spell certain titles they shook their heads, saying that they could not spell Spanish words. Their written and spoken school work is all done in the English language.
The Depression Years, 1929-1945
The 380 photographs from the thirties comprise a visual record of life in the South in the Depression era. Images found under the subject index headings of farmers and farming evince the primitive agricultural techniques many still used. Images of the Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina afford a view of music, entertainment, and leisure in the 1930s, while others give a general sense of the times.
There are few textual references to the Great Depression in the collection. But because they come from first-hand accounts, they breathe life into topics that students read about in textbooks, such as tenant farming and sharecropping, the New Deal, and the crash of 1929. To locate such references, do a full-text search on bank, relief, and Roosevelt. In addition, the fieldnotes, like the collection's photographs, provide a portrait of the South during this era. Students can browse the Fieldnotes and look for clues about the time period in which they were written.
"Yon comes Bre'r Zeke; he ain' much on preachin', but he's 'bout de out-prayin'est Parson dat ever went to town on Satday . . . back in 1932, Bre'r Zeke walked out to de aidge o' de pulpit 'n' rolled his eyes up to de sky, 'n' stretched his arms straight out in frontta him, 'n' start prayin': . . . Now, Oh-o Marster, Thou seeth me in dese days o' 'versity; Oh-o Marster, Thou seeth me gwine upn' down de cotton fiel', tryin', Oh-o Marster, tryin' by de sweater my brow ter feed six chilluns wid some fo' cent cotton. Thou seeth me on a Sunday mornin', gwine down de Big Road, wid my elbows out, an' de botooms o' my foots reachin' de groun' thu de soles o' my shoes; Thou hath heared de Boss-man say dat de cotton us done riz won' 'pensate him fer de meat us done et. Now, Oh-o Marster, even as Thou knoweth all things dat be's possible, Thou knoweth also dat feedin' six chilluns wid some fo' cent cotton ain't one uv 'em...' Folks, you know dat prayer hit got answered, yessir, hit sho' be's answered, fer 'twarnt long 'fo' de Good Lord tuck an' drapped dis here Mister Roosevelt right down in Bre'r Zeke's arms, an' said: "Gi' dat nigger ten cents fer his cotton!"
The Role of Government in Promoting Art, 1929-1945
The Library of Congress's role in the collection and preservation of folk songs in the 1930s is just one example of the government's increased promotion of the arts during the Depression Era. See an excerpt from the Annual Report of the Archive of American Folk Song to learn more about the Library's role and its cooperation with other government agencies, including the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, the Folk Arts Committee, the Music Project, and Recreation Project of the WPA. The biography of John Lomax also speaks to the importance of the WPA in making this collection possible through contacts such as Ruby Pickens Tartt and Genevieve Chandler.
Southern Mosaic's variety of materials makes this collection an excellent resource for projects in which students can gain an exceptionally deep understanding of historical topics and issues and conduct thorough research. The collection also affords students the rare opportunity to learn to analyze and interpret songs based on their cultural and historical contexts.
Chronological Thinking: The Civil War
Students can read the Special Presentation, "The 1939 Recording Expedition," or The 1939 Southern Recording Trip Report and view the collection's regional map to get a chronological sense of the Lomaxes' trip through the South. Printing the map from the collection or tracing the region from an atlas, students can plot and chronologically number the towns, cities, and counties mentioned in the reports, fieldnotes, and captions. Students can then plot the geographical locations from which some of their favorite songs and images originated, thereby fitting them into a chronological as well as geographical context.
The number and variety of this collection's materials allow students to gain a deep and multifaceted understanding of several historical topics. The African-American experience of the South, as outlined in the U.S. History section, is just one. A second topic is religion in the South.
The numerous spirituals in Southern Mosaic, promising redemption and warning sinners, attest to the importance of a distinctive evangelical Christian culture in the South, many aspects of which were shared by blacks and whites alike. Students can listen to recordings from among 131 spirituals as well as recordings found under the subject headings of benedictions, hymns, prayers, religious songs, music, and oratory to learn more about not only evangelical Christianity, but Mexican Catholicism as well. They can also view images listed under a number of subject headings including spiritual life, baptism, pulpits, churches, and clergy. In addition to this visual and auditory data, students can round off their comprehension of religion in the South by doing full-text searches on a variety of terms such as church, preacher, Sunday, God, and Dios locating lyrics and fieldnotes such as the excerpt below. Similarly comprehensive explorations may be done of rural life in the South and folk music.
- What can you determine from these materials about the uses of religious rhetoric and religious ideas such as redemption and sin in the South?
- How are the uses the same and different for different communities, such as African Americans in Louisiana, Caucasians in Texas, and Mexicans in the Southwest?
- Are the religious songs inspirational or instructional? What feelings do they inspire? What messages and information do they relate?
- How are the sounds of religious songs related to the ideas they express?
For the evening Mr. Robertson had investigated Negro rural servicers We were told that the Little Hope Baptist congregation would have services. It looked like rain, but we started out. On the way we learned from Negroes on foot that the group was gathering at the school-house which was nearer than the church house. When we arrived some fifty people of all ages had gathered. The house was dimly lighted but we set to work as quickly as possible, since lightning was beginning to flash. Perhaps the congregation did not feel at home here, but response came slowly. Finally we did record several lined hymns and spirituals and one very pretty cradle song. By the time we had packed up ready to go, the rain was coming down in sheets....with the careful driving of Mr. Robertson we slid safely along the clay roads home. I couldn't help wondering what the "Sunday Best" of those faithful church members looked like after they had waded through the rain over the several miles that many had to travel. They are a very patient, fine-spirited people.
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Southern Mosaic's images and fieldnotes provide a context for its songs that can be used to help students learn how to analyze and interpret songs. Students can access the full significance of work songs by considering them in conjunction with related images and texts. Have students listen to songs listed in the Audio Subject Index under work songs, field hollers, hollers, and mule-driving songs. Then, to find related lyrics and fieldnotes, students can do a full text search of work, calls, or leader. For images of men singing as they work, search workers . Students can use these materials as a starting point for analysis and interpretation with the following questions:
- What can you learn from the fieldnotes and images about who sang work songs, how they were sung, when, and why?
- What kinds of tasks are mentioned in these songs?
- What do the voice parts, mood, rhythm, rhyme, speed, repetition, assonance, and alliteration indicate about what kind of work was done to these songs?
- What attitudes toward work are reflected in these songs' lyrics and tones?
- While many of these songs are about work, they are often about other things as well. What are some of the other subjects of work songs?
- How are these subjects related to work? Why might laborers have sung about these subjects while working? What does this suggest about the work and workers' attitudes toward it?
- What roles did work songs play in workers' lives?
Similar exercises may be done with songs listed under any number of headings in the Audio Subject Index, including spirituals, blues songs, ballads, and lullabies.
Researching the collection for images and texts about those who sang folk songs provides enough historical and cultural context to begin asking questions about the uses and significance of these songs, which came not from professional musicians on the radio, but out of the everyday needs and joys of communities.
Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making
Students can use this collection to study two historical issues with continuing relevance today. First, they can better understand the passions surrounding the issue of immigration and the possible consequences of the way in which immigration and border culture are regulated. The early twentieth century, including the decade just prior to the Lomax's expedition saw forced and violent removal and even killing of Mexican immigrants. For a picture of the violence and poverty of border culture, students can read notes about the street singer, Jose Saurez, his border ballads, and other songs recorded in Brownsville, Texas, in section 6 of the fieldnotes. Provide students with a contemporary account of border issues from a newspaper and have them consider how and why border issues and culture have and have not changed. What are the problems and potential solutions of this issue? For more information about the culture and controversies surrounding the Mexican border, including a history of the Mexican Revolution, refer to The South Texas Border, 1900-1930.
Second, students may also use this collection to study the homogenization of culture, as outlined in the U.S. History section. Have students consider the following citation and questions:
The Texas Folklore Society's founding members shared with Lomax a sense that their state's rich folklore needed to be documented and preserved for the analysis of later scholars. Nascent technology such as the radio and the gramophone, it was feared, would end the age-old tradition of transmitting music and lore directly from one person to the next . . . Ironically, (Lomax) relied on the latest technological advances to document the very oral tradition he feared technology would destroy.
- Can a technological form of documentation accurately preserve an art form that is based on live, person-to-person transmission?
- Is folk music still authentic once it's been recorded, or does it become something else once it can be mass-produced, distributed, and heard outside of its cultural and historical context?
- Have the radio and other technologies ended the tradition of "transmitting music and lore directly from one person to the next?" If so, what have we lost?
- What other art forms and lifestyles have been squelched by the growth of mass culture?
- Has a mass culture taken over in America, or are their elements of culture that defy homogenization?
- Are there elements of culture today that are threatened by mass culture and merit preservation and documentation? How might you go about doing this?
- Is a mass culture necessarily a bad thing? What are its costs and benefits?
- With increasingly global technologies and economies and the appearance of McDonald's and Disney theme parks throughout the world, are we headed toward a global mass culture? Or will we choose to preserve cultural differences? How can this be done?
Historical Research Capabilities
Southern Mosaic affords students the opportunity to research the experiences of people who don't usually receive attention in text books. For example, materials documenting prison life can be used to explore the social function of prisons in the segregated South. Sources range from songs like "Have You Ever Been to Nashville" and "New Buryin' Ground" to John Lomax's summary of his time at the Cummins State Farm near Varner, Arkansas on page 196 of the fieldnotes' section 14. For more sources, do keyword and full-text searches on prison, pen, convict, jail, sentence, Govenor, Gov'ner, and chain gang and explore links in "The 1939 Recording Expedition". The collection can also be used to study the experience of children and Spanish-speaking Southerners.
Southern Mosaic affords students the unique opportunity to study the folk and blues genres, including the relationship between song and oratory. They can explore the relationship between music and literature by analyzing lyrics and the use of humor in songs. These activities will also help students to maximize the meaning they can derive from songs. Finally, the collection's materials can be used in creative writing as well.
Folklore and Folk Music
Folklore includes customs, tales, sayings, or art forms originating from or traditional with the common people of a given country or region. Folk music, a form of folklore, is transmitted orally from generation to generation, and generally reflects the lifestyle of those people who originated and perpetuated it. Though reflecting one "people," folk music can have a variety of forms and uses including entertainment, education, religious expression, artistic expression, and communication. Challenge students to browse the fieldnotes, Photo and Audio Subject Indexes, and lyrics to find proof, such as the following excerpt, of as many different uses of folk music as possible. What uses does the music students listen to today have? Can they find proof in the collection of the folk music's oral transmission through time and generations? Why might this form of transmission be important? How does the way modern music is transmitted effect its audience and use?
Whenever, in the old days, anything exciting happened, a poet made verses about it and distributed the composition as a broadside. Musicians made up the air or tune for the verses. Prisoners leaving on boats would make up verse accounts of their experiences,- accounts of their crimes, etc., and sell them on the streets or from the boat.
Students can learn more about folk music by searching instruments and musicians. What do images of folk musicians and their instruments suggest about their music? Also have them consider the musicians' vernacular recorded by Ruby Lomax throughout the fieldnotes in excerpts such as the following. Finally, have students note the musicians' wide-spread use of nicknames such as "Garmouth," "Little Life," "Clear Rock," and "Stavin' Chain." How many more nicknames can they find? What do they think was the purpose of such nicknames? What can they learn about it from doing a full-text search on the fieldnotes? What can they learn about folk music and musicians from the musician's names and vernacular?
. . . Doc Reed and Vera Hall, cousins who have sung together for many years, are her most dependables. They are good singers of the old style spirituals, are perfect in "seconding"- "following after" they call it,- and they know many songs. Not having book-learning they store in the back of their heads innumerable tunes and stanzas. Vera Hall is especially quick to "catch up" a new tune. And if they do not understand completely the text, they are ingenious in supplying substitutes, either from other spirituals or from their own feelings of the moment. These two, however, unlike old Uncle Rich Brown, do not substitute jargon; their texts mean something, if not always what the original words meant.
Included among folk music's many uses is its use as a poetic form. Students can analyze the lyrics of one of the collection's songs and consider how the poem is enhanced by its musical form. Have students choose lyrics transcribed in the fieldnotes or song text and consider the speaker, plot, mood, tone, theme, imagery, and symbolism of each song. How does the alliteration, assonance, and meter of the poem contribute to its mood and meaning? What does the music add? Alternatively, students can explore symbolism across the collection or some portion of it. For example, they might explore symbols such as the devil and the railroad in the collection's blues songs. What other words do you see appearing frequently? Is there a consistent symbolic meaning you can assign to them? How are these words used in other types of songs? Why do you think these words took on symbolic meaning for the people who sang about them? For a formal outline of a lesson on blues music and poetry refer to a Teaching Unit in The Robert Johnson Notebook site at the University of Virginia.
The humorous songs found in the Audio Subject Index provide students with fifteen examples with which to study humor. Have students analyze and compare the different ways in which humor is created in each song. Is it through words or sounds? irony or puns? Listening to very different songs such as "Old Gray Mare" and "Work Don't Bother Me" brings into relief the fact that humor is created by an artist through different techniques. Challenge students to identify what they find funny in each song, to articulate why, and identify the technique.
Students might also search the collection for humorous images. Are the techniques for creating visual humor the same as those used in writing and song?
In addition to humorous songs, this collection indexes those songs classified as belonging to the blues genre. Students can begin to get a sense of this genre by sampling some of these songs and considering the following questions.
- What do you think makes a song a blues song?
- What do these songs have in common?
- What instruments are used? What sounds are created by these instruments and by the singer's voice? What adjectives would you use to describe them?
- What moods are created and how?
- What are the subjects and themes of these songs?
- Why do you think this genre is called the "blues"?
Students may also want to analyze the songs' lyrics with questions suggested in the section on poetry. Then, they can inform their understanding with some research into the background of these songs, reading correlative fieldnotes and viewing images of blues musicians. What is the cultural and historical context of these songs' creation and perpetuation through time? To learn more, students can supplement their exploration of these songs with chapters from Robert Palmer's Deep Blues.
Finally, these songs can be studied in conjunction with literature by blues authors such as Langston Hughes, Robert Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston as well as William Faulkner. How do these writers' African-American characters of the South compare with the singers and subjects of Southern Mosaic's blues songs? How are the sounds of blues music reflected in blues literature? Southern Mosaic also offers the opportunity to view images of Zora Neale Hurston in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, the setting for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by searching Hurston and Eatonville.
Southern Mosaic boasts numerous ballads whose lyrics tell detailed stories.
Students can use one or more of these songs as a starting point for a short story. In addition to the characters, events, and tone of a song, students can draw on related images or texts from the collection to inform and inspire their stories.
The collection highlights a variety of examples of oratory, indexed under audio subject headings such as announcements, benedictions, humorous recitations, prayers, narratives, tall tales, religious drama, and religious oratory. Less traditional forms of oratory are indexed under hollers, field hollers, farm calls, animal calls, hunting calls, imitations, and laughs. Students can sample and compare these various forms. Why do you think the Lomaxes included these recordings in their documentation of folk culture and folk music? How are these forms of public speaking related to song and what is the role of performance in folk music?