Skip to main content

Collection Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip

The 1939 Recording Expedition

For a brief overview of the entire expedition, see John A. Lomax's four-page 1939 Southern Recording Trip Report.

Texas (March 31-May 14) | Louisiana (May 15-19) | Arkansas (May 20-22) | Mississippi (May 23-25) | Alabama (May 26-30) | Florida (June 1-5) | South Carolina (June 6-12) | Georgia (June 11) | Virginia (June 13-14)

Texas

March 31 - May 14, 1939

On March 31, after several months of correspondence with the Library of Congress's Music Division, John and Ruby Lomax left their vacation home on San Jose Island at Port Aransas, Texas, and began their trip through the southern states. They spent seven-and-a-half weeks (more than half of the trip) in Texas, recording approximately 350 songs in a variety of settings in twelve different counties. They recorded 102 songs sung in Spanish, including examples of corridos, lullabies, and ring game songs. Examples of other genres recorded in Texas include blues songs, fiddle tunes, play-party songs, and railroad, riverboat, and prison work songs. One of the risks of recording with state-of-the-art equipment in the field is that the recording equipment can fail miles from any qualified repair shop, and the Lomaxes' correspondence with the Music Division documents the technical difficulties encountered. Their attempts to record the religious drama Morir en la cruz con Cristo, o Dimas, el buen ladrĂ³n on Easter Sunday in Houston were foiled by failing batteries; they visited the performers at their home in Sugar Land two weeks later to capture the entire drama.

Louisiana

May 15 - May 19, 1939

After so many weeks on the road in Texas, the Lomaxes spent only four days in Louisiana. While staying in Merryville, they made 36 recordings in Beauregard Parish and Vernon Parish, crossing the state line frequently to return to Newton County, Texas. They recorded in schools, churches, private homes, and offices, and the genres collected reflect a relatively large ratio of children's songs and spirituals. Read the Postcard from John A. Lomax to Harold Spivacke, dated May 18, 1939, in which he informs the Music Division chief of his progress and requests more discs.

Arkansas

May 20 - May 22, 1939

As brief as their stay was in Louisiana, the Lomaxes spent even less time in Arkansas, recording exclusively in prisons in Lincoln County and Desha County. The Lomaxes made 51 recordings covering a wide variety of genres, including examples of ballads, blues songs, children's songs, humorous songs, spirituals, and work songs. For an example of notes made by Ruby Lomax during the recording session, see Dust Jacket for AFS Disc #2670.

Mississippi

May 23 - May 25, 1939

The Lomaxes continued recording in prisons in Mississippi, spending two days at different camps at the State Penitentiary in Parchman. Here they recorded 21 tracks (17 included online), mostly blues songs, field hollers, and work songs, including two songs by country blues artist Booker T. Washington ("Bukka") White, known at this time as Washington "Barrel House" White. Read the Lomaxes' impressions of these recording sessions, as well as portions of the song text, in the fieldnotes.

Alabama

May 26 - May 30, 1939

John and Ruby Lomax spent five days in Sumter County, Alabama, assisted, guided, and introduced to performers by their friend Ruby Pickens Tartt, local folklorist and chairman of the WPA Federal Writers' Project of Sumter County. Mrs. Tartt facilitated the recording of 115 tracks (110 included online), including examples of children's songs, hollers, play-party songs, religious oratory, and spirituals, many of which were recorded on the porch of her home at Baldwin Hall in Livingston. Read Ruby Terrill Lomax's summary of this leg of the journey, written for a newspaper reporter, in the fieldnotes.

Florida

June 1 - June 5, 1939

Saddened though they were to leave the wealth of material and hospitality in Alabama, the Lomaxes traveled on to Florida, where they made a total of 63 recordings (62 included online) in homes and prisons in two counties. Their first stop was Newberry, in Alachua County, where they recorded nine tracks at the home of Mrs. G.A. Griffin, including examples of ballads, children's songs, farm calls, and humorous songs, before moving on to Union County to record at the State Farm in Raiford. In the Women's Dormitory, they collected examples of ballads, blues songs, lullabies, singing game songs, and spirituals; the male prisoners also performed fiddle tunes and work songs. Read excerpts from Ruby Lomax's letters to her family, written from the prison superintendent's home in Raiford, in the fieldnotes.

South Carolina

June 6 - June 12, 1939

A polio epidemic in South Carolina prevented the Lomaxes from recording large groups of schoolchildren in that state, as planned, but they nevertheless collected 49 songs (48 included online) in a variety of venues in three counties. At the home of another WPA Writers' Project contact, Genevieve W. Chandler, along the Atlantic coast at Murrells Inlet, they collected Anglo-American ballads from Mrs. Minnie Floyd and African-American singing game songs and spirituals from schoolteacher Annie Holmes and several of her students. In Clemson, South Carolina, host Ben Robertson gathered two groups at his home to sing children's songs and religious songs and escorted the Lomaxes to the Little Hope School House to record the church congregation gathered there. While driving through Anderson County, John and Ruby were appalled to see a chain gang of approximately 80 prisoners connected by an ankle chain; they recorded the group singing spirituals and work songs, and composed a letter to the governor to protest this inhumane practice.

Georgia

June 11, 1939

At the urging of their Clemson, South Carolina, host, Ben Robertson Jr., John and Ruby Lomax spent an afternoon at the Georgia-Carolina Singing Festival in Toccoa Falls, Georgia, where they recorded four religious songs (three included online) sung by two quartets. The program for this festival has been included in the fieldnotes.

Virginia

June 13-14, 1939

John and Ruby Lomax drove through North Carolina on June 13, arriving in Galax, Virginia in the late afternoon. Dr. W.P. "Doc" Davis, director of the Bog Trotters Band, was ill, so the Lomaxes' plans to record the band were stymied, but they nonetheless enjoyed the beautiful trip through the mountains and the company of the band members. Read about their brief visit to Galax in the fieldnotes.

 Back to top