Saving songs of America's hill folk; Collectors record oldies like 'Ground Hog'

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.

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.''

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.

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.

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