Steve Zeitlin

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Angola Prison

The very first thing that happened at the rodeo Hal and I attended on Sunday involved four cowboys on four bulls, all set free at the same moment and holding on for dear life. It’s called the Angola Bust Out…and a pun IS intended…because Angola is a prison. Formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and informally as The Farm, Angola is the nation’s largest prison with over 5,000 inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences. A few times a year, the gates are swung open and the public is invited to attend a rodeo that features inmates competing in various events. Our visit to Angola was the culmination of a week-long field trip tracing America’s ballad hunter, John A. Lomax, on some of the paths he took in the 1930s and ‘40s combing the South in search of folk songs. Some of his most fruitful collecting came from prisons, including Angola where he recorded the famous songster, Leadbelly.

I’m not a rodeo aficionado by any means, but this one was remarkable to me in many ways, primarily because of how “normal” and unremarkable it felt. Here we were wandering the grounds with hundreds of prisoners all around us, working the concessions, selling art and “hobbycrafts,” and performing music on several stages. All these men were convicted felons, but had achieved the status of “trustee,” which meant they could interact with the public (under the watchful eye of security). We interviewed several musicians throughout the day, many of whom had been there for decades, and who would never leave the confines of Angola; there is no parole for a life sentence in Louisiana.

Each and every person we spoke with was thoughtful, articulate and fascinating. It seems that their incarceration had forced them to come to terms with their past and their future in ways the rest of us rarely do. Maybe we’re just too busy with the responsibilities and distractions of daily life to philosophize like they do. We met Wayne, the young man who’d been asked to sing the national anthem at the rodeo, who was so humbled by this honor that he’d studied the words and thought deeply about the sacrifices made by America’s soldiers to secure the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, even though he’d forfeited his right to those same freedoms.

We also met Michael, a 27-year-old who writes and performs gospel rap songs, but who previously had rapped about his life on the streets as a “gangsta.” His new songs were positive and upbeat as was his conversation, but at one point he hinted at his sense of frustration and hopelessness in the early days of his incarceration. After we followed up on this point he took a deep breath, paused, then told us in detail about the night he attempted to commit suicide, and how the only reason he’s still alive is because he couldn’t find a place from which to hang himself. He then went on to talk about finding a bible that same night, and beginning his conversion to dedicating his life to studying the teachings of Christ. Because the rodeo was so loud, I had to get very close to him with the microphone, and I’ll never forget how his eyes locked on mine as he explained his ordeal. I don’t think I blinked for five minutes.

We spoke with many other prisoners that day and—to a man—I found their stories moving. And this leads to perhaps the biggest surprise in spending time with these inmates: my own reaction. I generally believe in being tough on crime, yet here we were with convicted felons…and not only did I feel comfortable, I felt compassion and empathy. On an intellectual level, I know these people have committed crimes, and that these crimes involved victims..some of whom may not have survived the incident. This is one of those experiences that’s going to take a while to process…and as crazy as it may sound… I look forward to my next visit to prison.

Taki Telonidis

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: East Texas

After a lovely dinner with our old friend and Houston City Folklorist Pat Jasper, we spent the night and got out of town driving through miles of urban sprawl. Finally the East Texas countryside opened up as we rolled into Huntsville, home of the Texas State Prison and its Museum. We had been turned down to visit the prison here so the Museum had to suffice. We had interviewed Bob Pierce earlier about the creativity in prisons so we got to look at many actual artifacts he had collected both showing real weapons and less direct weapons, remembering the old Woody Guthrie idea that his guitar was a weapon against fascism. After checking out a mural depicting Leadbelly on the side of a building near Huntsville's main square we drove on north toward Lovelady where the Gillette Brothers make their home. 

I'd known Guy and Pipp Gillette from Elko but my admiration for them grew as we witnessed their passion for the old-style life of East Texas ranching. Their ranch, its historic buildings, and the loving way they keep the traditions of their grandfather, all attest to how much they care for place and tradition. It was a joy to be taken through the construction of each out-building and then to the ruin of an old place on their ranch which used to be the social center for the black community in the neighborhood.

We got so wrapped up in the tour we were late driving into the community of Crockett where the Gillettes have established a music civic center called the Camp Street Cafe with music at least weekly. Folk musicians from all over go out of their way to tour to the Gillette's venue. There, we met a black preacher and his old cousin to talk about Camp Street in Lomax's time, contrasting the music scene today with that of the day when Lightnin' Hopkins played for nickels and dimes on the street which used to be the center of African American life in the town. We ended our visit with chicken fried steak, another fine American tradition and a final visit to the statue of Lightnin' Hopkins.                                                                                                                   

Hal Cannon

Steve Zeitlin, Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis stand next to the statue of Lightnin' Hopkins honchoed and maintained by the Gillettes across the street from the Camp Street Café, where Lightnin' used to hang out and play songs for the local African American community.

 

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Austin and Houston

Lomax_sm
Lomax_sm

John Lomax grew up on a farm hearing the songs of cowboys on the trails and also the songs of freed African American slaves. Something in those two experiences guided him through a life of preserving and valuing those two particular traditions. He was a man of his times, so his attitudes may not jibe with how we see race today; nevertheless, Lomax never wavered from believing that these two musical traditions were essential to the American character. We spent the morning at the Lomax collection at the University of Texas at Austin with John Wheat and folklorist Roger Renwick. They both have studied extensively the life and times of John Lomax and we were able to have a really interesting conversation and interview about the man and his work. 

Wheat_sm
Wheat_sm

On the drive from Austin to Houston we listened to archival radio shows that were recorded by the Library of Congress narrated by John Lomax. The series The Ballad Hunter brilliantly and unabashedly laid out a rationale for the importance of folk creativity and what it means to a democratic nation to value the voice of the people. It's an inspiring radio show that in our cynical world everyone today should hear.

Downtown Houston is not fun to drive into after the lovely Texas countryside full of spring blooming wildflowers. We checked into a big impersonal hotel and made our way to the offices of the Houston Press, a weekly hip tabloid. There we sat with the great grandson and namesake of our subject, John Nova Lomax. At 40 years old, Lomax is the past music editor for the paper and feels a deep connection to the Lomax name. He loves his city in all its diversity and creative talent and works to bring out the finest talent of Houston. He also has a keen interest in social justice and combines all to carry on the Lomax name.

John Nova Lomax_sm
John Nova Lomax_sm

John Nova Lomax is a journalist for the Houston Press and writes extensively on the new music of Houston and the complexities of one of the most dynamic cities of our century.

Hal Cannon

In the Footsteps of John Lomax: Fort Worth and Meridian, Texas

Don Edwards

Don Edwards

 Taki Telonidis and I are in Texas for the week working on a radio documentary on the legacy of John Lomax, the first folklorist to record cowboy songs and other great American musical traditions. We've just been here a couple days but spent most of the first part of the trip with Don Edwards who showed us the Fort Worth Stockyards where Lomax recorded cowboys in 1909.On the second day, Don took us to Meridian, Texas, where Lomax grew up. Don was very generous with his time and talents. 

Next stop was to visit Rooster Morris and his wife Jody Logsdon. These days Rooster is in the schools all the time talking to kids and playing his fiddle. It was really wonderful to see them and talk to Rooster about his great uncle, Jess Morris, who was recorded by Lomax and was a wonderful cowboy fiddler.

Rooster Morris

Rooster Morris

After that we interviewed a folklorist/historian/prison archivist who talked about Lomax's recording of prison work music and discovering singers like Leadbelly. That was interesting too. Today we visit the Lomax archive at the University of Texas speaking to John Wheat and Roger Renwick. Then we drive to Houston to visit John Lomax IV who is a young music writer and great grandson of the original Lomax. We will have dinner with folklorist and friend Pat Jasper. On Thursday we spend the day with the Gillette Brothers in Crockett Texas and talk to them and members of the African American community about cowboy music, blues and folk music in East Texas. 

Steve Zeitlin, director of CityLore, is co-producing this with us and he and Taki are then taking me back to the Dallas Airport where I have to fly home for a day to attend my brother in law's funeral. I join them back in Louisiana on Saturday to record at Angola Prison where Lomax recorded Lomax and other Black musicians and singers. 

Hal Cannon

In the Footsteps of John Lomax

Don Edwards talks to the Western Folklife Center Media department outside the White Elephant

Don Edwards talks to the Western Folklife Center Media department outside the White Elephant

The Western Folklife Center has been asked to produce a story for National Public Radio on the folk music collecting of John Lomax. This coincides with the 100th anniversary of the publishing of his first collection, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, in November of 1910. We are working with a New York folklife organization called City Lore and hope to produce other stories on the journeys of early folklorists to discover the soul of America through its folklore. On this week-long journey through Texas and Louisiana, we go to the place Lomax grew up and saw, first-hand, the cattle drives after the Civil War. We visit the Elephant Saloon at the Stockyards in Fort Worth where he collected cowboy songs and where Don Edwards sang those same old songs in the 1970s. As we journey along the same paths Lomax took we contrast the world he lived in with that of contemporary America.

We hope to produce a second story on Lomax’s collecting of musical traditions of African Americans. Lomax looked for singers in isolated communities and visited prisons to collect blues, gospel and work songs. He felt that cowboy music and the music of black America were two of America's great musical traditions. We will end our travels this week at Angola—the largest prison in America—where we will document the rodeo and talk to musicians and singers in that prison.

DonE._1
DonE._1