Saving songs of America's hill folk; Collectors record oldies like 'Ground Hog'
In the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ga.
Lawrence Eller brings his log-laden, wooden wheelbarrow to a stop with the help of a homemade brake. Then he straightens up, tall and smiling in the crisp but sunny mountain air, his back to his old tin-roofed smokehouse, now used as a storage shed.Skip to next paragraph
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In work jeans, boots, and a camouflage hat and matching jacket, he hollers at Butch, his hunting dog, to sit and be quiet. He greets his city visitors, the ones with the tape recorder, who managed to get him and his brother, Vaughn, together for the first time in a quarter of a century to play old-time mountain music.
A few minutes later, inside the small, modest house, in a sparsely furnished living room Lawrence calls ''scroungy,'' he begins picking his banjo and Vaughn strums his guitar. Then they break out singing, in high-pitched, unvarnished mountain voices, songs from an era gone by, some learned as children from their mother - songs like ''Ground Hog,'' ''My Home is in Charlotte, N.C.,'' ''Weepin' Willow Tree,'' and ''Goin' Down the Valley One by One.''
The music is neither bluegrass nor country; there are no sequined shirts, no background accompaniment, no spotlights. Here in a cramped room on a hill in northeast Georgia, the area featured in the new Broadway play ''Foxfire,'' with only a bare bulb for light, the Eller brothers are again playing and singing the old music they love - in an almost typical setting for them.
The only things untypical are the twin microphones University of Georgia art professor Art Rosenbaum has set up and the Nikon camera his wife, Margo, wears on a strap around her neck as she waits to take another shot.
There was a time, before World War II, when Lawrence picked his banjo and Vaughn played the guitar at the foot of nearby Hightower Bald, where folks would gather for dances in a field. But the dances are no more, and neither are many of the musicians who played and sang the old mountain tunes.
However, efforts by collectors like the Rosenbaums to record the often-disappearing music unique to various regions and people are ''definitely increasing'' across the United States, says Joe Hickerson, head of the archives of folk culture of the Library of Congress.
And the number of professional folklorists documenting a broad range of old customs, though small, is steadily growing. Nearly 40 states have hired a folklorist in the past several years, says Bess Lomax Hawes, director of the folk arts program for the National Endowment for the Arts.
''Foxfire,'' which opened recently to good reviews, draws its inspiration from interviews by high school students in this area with an elderly mountain lady, Aunt Arie Carpenter, now deceased. In the play, an elderly woman, Annie Nations (played by Jessica Tandy) tells of her life in these mountains.
(The interviews were conducted as part of the Foxfire project, which has produced a popular series of magazines and books and is described in the accompanying article.)
Much of the recording of old music is by amateurs, says director Hawes. It is done with cassette recorders, even video equipment, as a hobby. ''I sometimes wonder how much of it gets listened to,'' she says.
But others, like Professor Rosenbaum, do a more professional job. ''There are a lot of Art Rosenbaums,'' says director Hawes, ''but he's one of the best.''
For Professor Rosenbaum, the motivation to capture on tape and in his paintings the sights and sounds of old-time musicians stems from a feeling that ''folk music is not something you go to the library [to study].'' He grew up playing the fiddle and banjo and later found musicians a source of ''inspiration'' for his paintings, he explained the day this reporter went with him and his wife to visit the Ellers. He says he has developed ''a passion to find things that might otherwise fade.'' His wife, Margo, considers herself more an artist than a ''collector.''