Saving songs of America's hill folk; Collectors record oldies like 'Ground Hog'
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Next year his book on the lives and music of old-time North Georgia musicians will be published, with his paintings and drawings and his wife's photos, by the University of Georgia Press. His tapes will also be available at the university library.Skip to next paragraph
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For anyone not ambitious enough to trek the mountains, ''hollers,'' and other often remote places where old-time music is still sung, such collections offer a chance to hear it. The Library of Congress now has some 35,000 recordings of such music (plus thousands of 78 r.p.m. and long-play records).''We get more than we can possibly handle,'' says Hickerson.
The steady growth of interest in recording fading forms of music dates back to the 1930s, he says, though some recordings date back to the 1890s. The focus of interest frequently shifts. Today there is a keen interest in sea songs, Irish music, ballads, and hammer-and-dulcimer music, he notes.
Maude Thacker, one of the North Georgia mountain singers the Rosenbaums have recorded, says she knows ballads 300 years old. But she represents ''the end of the line'' in her family for ballad singing, Rosenbaum says. Her children and grandchildren are not learning them from her as she learned from her family.
An effort is being made at the federal level to keep afloat various folk festivals where some of the old-time musicians still play. The National Endowment for the Arts spent $2.4 million last year helping support festivals and artists.
Rosenbaum tells the story of W. Guy Bruce, an 87-year-old banjo player he convinced to leave his Georgia home for a trip to Washington, D.C., to play at a folk festival at the Smithsonian Institution. The man nearly backed out of going , twice, saying he thought no one would be interested in his kind of music. But he was a big hit, just as the Eller brothers have been at some recent festivals, says Rosenbaum.
The secret to their popularity among at least a small segment of the American public, may be their unaffected way of performing. ''We're old mountain hoosiers ,'' says Lawrence Eller. Recalling one of his performances in front of several thousand people, he says: ''I was just plain what I was. It was as simple as it was [playing] on my porch there.''
There is a growing realization among collectors of old-time music that one of the best markets for records of a particular area or people's music is people in that very area. For example, records that have been made of the Yaqui and Papagos Indians with the help of a University of Arizona professor have been selling well to the Indians, says Mrs. Hawes. ''Everybody likes to hear their own stuff,'' she says.
And old-time musicians like the Eller brothers, whose music Mrs. Hawes says is ''really good,'' love to play their own stuff, too.
In the cramped living room of Lawrence Eller's home, his brother, Vaughn, shy at first, is swaying with the music, standing on one foot, with one leg draped casually over a chair. Lawrence keeps time tapping one heel. Now and then his face fills with the wrinkles from a smile as he looks at one of his visitors.
Later, Vaughn plays a songbow (also called a mouth bow), which looks like a small archery bow. He puts his lips around part of the wooden bow and strikes the taught cord with a closed pocketknife to produce a high-pitched twangy sound. According to Professor Rosenbaum, it is one of the world's oldest instruments, seldom seen today in the US.Later Lawrence plays some more, at his mother's home next door. Leatha Eller, in her 80s, learned to play piano as a child. ''We'd miss a note and our daddy'd tell us to go back and get it,'' she says, her face aglow as she happily watches her son pick the banjo.