Virginia Music Preserved in History

The Smithsonian is republishing a Ferrum College grad student’s 30-year-old recordings of African-American workers as they sang.


by DUNCAN ADAMS | 981-3324
Monday, October 7, 2013  | Original article on The Roanoke Times

The oyster shuckers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore sang to transcend the tedium of their labor and to help each shucker establish a rhythm for toil.

In the early 1980s, Glenn Hinson , now an associate professor of folklore and anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a graduate student making field recordings of traditional African-American work songs in Virginia for the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College.

Hinson said traditional music recordings collected and issued during the late 1970s and 1980s by the Blue Ridge Institute’s own record label transformed the understanding of Virginia’s soundscape.

“This entire chapter of recordings, the entire BRI Records series, occurred during a moment when many of these musics were passing, were transforming or were already gone,” he said.

Hinson said he was thrilled Tuesday to learn that the prestigious Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label has reissued the BRI “Virginia Traditions” recordings, nine albums in all, along with each album’s extensive liner notes, which have been described as both scholarly and readable.

“I’m all in favor of this music continuing to live,” he said. “Smithsonian Folkways provides a remarkable platform that allows a much wider audience to hear this music.”

Hinson’s album liner notes for “Virginia Work Songs” were nominated for a Grammy award.

Kip Lornell , an adjunct professor of music and ethnomusicology at George Washington University, also made field recordings and penned liner notes for BRI Records and spent several years as a grant-funded employee with the Blue Ridge Institute, which is supported by Ferrum College in Franklin County. Roddy Moore is the institute’s longtime director.

“No other small college has done anything like this, and it really is a showcase for the college,” Lornell said. “The breadth of what Roddy has done is amazing.”

Ferrum College is celebrating its centennial year.

More than three decades ago, equipped with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and microphones, Hinson joined the oyster shuckers at 3 a.m., the time the work typically began in shucking houses in Gloucester County. He waited for the singing to begin. Some mornings he waited in vain.

“If the load of oysters wasn’t good then there was not going to be a mood for singing,” he said.

And the work songs he recorded at shucking houses and at a crab-picking house in Northumberland County were already dying out. Hinson said many young black employees preferred to listen to the radio, and some associated the work songs with slavery. His liner notes quoted one young crab picker who said, “I don’t go for that old-timey slavery s---.”

BRI Records’ nine albums often mixed field recordings with commercial recordings and occasionally featured the re-creation of music genres by original performers of traditional songs that had already disappeared from Virginia’s soundscape. Vaughan Webb , assistant director at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, said the focus of the “Virginia Traditions” recordings was on “genres declining in popularity.”

The work songs album includes music recorded by famous musicologists and folklorists John Lomax and Alan Lomax , father and son.

Lornell’s work for BRI Records yielded, along with contributions to other collections, albums titled “Western Piedmont Blues,” “Non-Blues Secular Black Music,” “Tidewater Blues” and “Early Roanoke Country Radio.”

The “Non-Blues Secular Black Music” album, issued in 1978, was BRI Records’ first release. The album includes ballads, dance tunes and lyric songs.

Webb said that even though the banjo has African roots, black banjo players and fiddle players were becoming “scarce as hen’s teeth” when Lornell did field recordings for the album.

Webb completed field recordings for the “Southwest Virginia Blues” album, and his liner notes were nominated for a Grammy award in 1988.

The album features bluesman James Henry “Crip” Diggs on vocal and guitar singing “Poor Boy Long Way From Home.” The liner notes reference a Feb. 16, 1955, article in The Roanoke Times and World-News that reported Diggs had been arrested for robbery and sang “Hearts of Stone” to investigating officers. And when he was acquitted one week later, the notes report, Diggs played guitar and serenaded detectives with “Let Me Go, Lover.”

Jeff Place is an archivist for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Place said he has known Roddy Moore for a long time and that a casual conversation several years ago eventually led to the embrace of BRI Records by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Place said the BRI recordings and accompanying liner notes were a good fit for the national museum’s nonprofit record label.

Moore agreed.

“We wanted this material to be available to the great-grandchildren of the people we recorded, and we knew the Folkways label would ensure this would be true,” he said.

BRI’s “Virginia Traditions” albums also included “Blue Ridge Piano Styles,” “Ballads from British Tradition” and “Native Virginia Ballads and Songs.”

Hinson said he celebrates BRI Records’ contribution to preserving and documenting vernacular music and Smithsonian Folkways’ decision to include that work in its catalog.

“To me, that is hugely important,” he said. “These are documents of spirit, soulfulness and consciousness and are, as a consequence, deeply valuable.”