The measurable results of bare-knuckled research, like gold and luck, will turn up where you find ’em. Folks often think of cultural research in academic terms – the ivory-tower stereotype, alone in the realm of uninterrupted thought and empirical fact-sifting, or the aloof egghead at large amongst the tribes – but a truer basis must rest with the very folks whose thoughts and dreams and deeds form the foundations of any popular culture.
Or should the term be populist, as opposed to popular, culture? No matter – the root word means “of the people,” in any event. And some of the most lasting such research has come from the efforts of working-civilian folks whose interest in the down-to-earth lives of other folks drives them to venture among the masses with a companionable attitude, laden with note-pads and recording devices, to take down impressions for the long term. (Pete Seeger has a good term for such excursions, research-driven or not: “a political vacation.”)
The Allan Turner Collection at the University of Texas provides a memorable example of this people-to-people imperative. The namesake of the archive is a news-biz colleague of long standing, and several of these conversational interviews date from a collaborative push that Turner and I accomplished during the 1970s and ’80s.
Deep-rooted sources of this influence include Thomas Edison (1847–1931). Eager to popularize and perfect his version of the 19th-century phonograph, Edison reconciled note-taking anthropological research with sound-recording technology by sending crews far afield, into the streets, to capture the crowd noises and pushcart-vendor cries of the turning of a century.
Then, in a more focused campaign of the early-middle 20th century, the father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax concentrated upon the preservation of American folk music – starting with the songs of prison inmates and field-hands in the Deep, Deeper and Deepest South. Alan Lomax (1915–2002) helped in particular to forge new commercial possibilities for traditional folk-singing during the 1950s and ’60s – advancing a Voice of the People urgency during the reactionary post-WWII years, on the one hand, and arguing the case for a purer folkloric expressiveness during the 1960s’ craze for a more commercialized dilution of folk-singing.
Only at a certain stage of accomplishment does one start thinking of such efforts as “research,” or “oral history,” of whatever other highfalutin’ label one might attach. I caught the Lomax bug as a grammar-school kid around 1956, encouraged by a combination of that family’s preservation of the story-songs of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and my own family’s purchase of a Sears & Roebuck Silvertone-brand tape recorder. The clincher was the realization that one of my grandmothers knew some of the same cottonfield-holler work songs that Leadbelly had sung.
Thus inspired to compile a family-album collection of recordings – war stories, early-times reminiscences, prairie ballads and such – I soon learned that the tape recorder provided a reliable means of annoying the kinfolks. They would pose, grinning, for a snapshot-camera, which had long since become a household commonplace. But the tape machine was imposingly larger than a Kodak Brownie, and unfamiliar on top of that, and people seemed not to know what to make of hearing their own voices from a playback.
“Who’s that ol’ hillbilly woman yackin’ her mouth off?” asked an aunt.
“Why, that’s you,” I answered.
“What?!” she yelled. End of session.
Allan Turner and I met during the 1970s as newspaper staffers in Amarillo and soon recognized a shared interest in field-recording activities. Turner had invested in an industrial-grade machine and, by this time, had entered what he calls “my Alan Lomax phase” of ranging throughout Texas and Louisiana to capture the words of cowboys, crawfish farmers, blues-and-ballads singers, back-country sin-killer preachers – anybody with a story to relate. We teamed first on a career interview with the veteran journalist A.F. “Tex” Kiersey, there at the Amarillo Daily News, where church-page editor Kiersey regaled us with tales of his early adventures as a pistol-packing crime reporter.
And Allan and I ranged the Panhandle area in search of folks who had lived through the catastrophic Dust Bowl of the Depression years. We huddled in a backroom of Fred “Papa” Calhoun’s North Side Fort Worth store, to document the pianist-turned-groceryman’s impressions of the origins of Western swing as a musical force. (Calhoun had played during the 1930s with Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies.)
And Turner and my wife, Christina, and I road-tripped to Southwestern Louisiana to make tapes and moving pictures of a rural Mardi Gras celebration. We visited the historic black community of Boardhouse, Texas, to capture the amen-corner frenzy of a circuit-preacher’s Sunday-morning visit. Some projects came with institutional commitments, but most were spontaneous exercises in the preservation of tribal memory. Even a microphone-shy grandmother of mine came around gradually to take part, speaking expansively of her childhood in Indian Territory.
Turner, now of the Houston Chronicle, has maintained such one-of-a-kind sessions in their original spooled ribbons of magnetic tape, occasionally hedging the bets for longevity with a digital-audio transplant. And at length, these organic-research documents have found their way into the academic realm, as the Allan Turner Collection at UT–Austin’s Center for American History.
The institutional abstract cites “interviews and musical recordings with musicians spanning a wide range of musical genres, including conjunto, blues, country-and-Western, Czech and German.” The non-musical topics are similarly extensive.
Allan’s entrenched interest in Texas and Southern folklife also has yielded contributions to publications of the Texas Folklore Society and a collaborative book (with Richard Stewart) called Transparent Tales: An Attic Full of Texas Ghosts. Alongside a long and successful newspaper career, the centerpiece of this substantial body of work is the collection at UT–Austin – the generous results of that 10-year “Lomax phase,” during which Turner criss-crossed Texas and Louisiana in search of authentic folk expression.
And the popular accessibility of the collection? Well, beyond the sensible restriction that “audio recordings may be used only by appointment with the sound archivist,” the center offers guidance through the archives and provides listening equipment.
The telephone number is 512-495-4542. The web address is a handful of keys, but a Yahgoogle search for “Allan Turner Collection” (quotation marks included) will take one there just as efficiently.