At the Library of Congress last Thursday, Todd Harvey, of the American Folklife Center, brought out boxes of treasures. There was a set of aluminum-core Robert Johnson acetates prepared by the Columbia producer George Avakian and Alan Lomax of the Library in 1940, and the prison-and-pardons record of one Walter Boyd, a.k.a. Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly. There were letters from Lead Belly, on his own show-biz stationery, to Alan Lomax's father, John Lomax, the great folklorist who had helped get him out of prison and onto the stage, and from Muddy Waters, begging Alan Lomax for copies of the records he'd made with him, and then for the money he had been promised (bureaucratic delays, Lomax wrote back to "Muddy Water"). There was a typewritten letter to "Mr. John A. Lomacks" from James Baker of Otey, Texas, dated 1941, with lyrics to songs Baker hoped Lomax would want to record:
Little Boy who fooled You on the river
Yellow woman fooled Me on the river
in them long hot summer days
— which is almost a novel —
I'm gonna chop all my good time away
If it takes Me all day, gonna chop
dese wees if it takes Me all day
chop all my good time away
— which is almost mystical in its vision of good time vanishing into the air. And then this:
I looked upon the hillside, I saw old Moster coming
with a bull whip in one hand, and A tie string in the
other, to tie My hands together, You order Heard Me
holler, He said no' get down Your britches, for
I love to hear You holler, I will give You A half A
Old Mistress and old Moster, sitting in the parlor
Figuring and studying, how to work A nigger harder
The story hides in the words, in the spelling: old Master... old Moster... old Monster.
There were other documents, and in their specificity, in their official status, they hit just as hard. That same year, in 1941, John Lomax apparently began an investigation into the death of Bessie Smith, the result of injuries sustained in a a car accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi, four years before. The story, circulated by John Hammond in a 1937 article in the jazz magazine Down Beat, and soon an article of faith among jazz musicians, jazz fans, and folklorists, was that Bessie Smith had died only after being turned away from local hospitals that refused to treat blacks — a story now discredited, mainly on the grounds that no driver anywhere near Clarksdale, Mississippi, would have for a second entertained the notion of taking an African-American, no matter how severe her injuries, to a white hospital.
For some reason, Lomax wrote the city government of Memphis, some 60 miles from Clarksdale. Walter Chandler, the mayor of Memphis, replied two days later to Lomax's letter of August 6:
I have never heard the story which you mention, but will be glad to make an investigation and let your hear from me as soon as possible.
Sadly, the Country is infested with negro communists who seek to poison their own people against their best friends, and I am glad to have the opportunity to join in establishing the facts, which I am sure will disprove the story.
Mayor Chandler wrote to Lomax at much greater length precisely a month later, including a copy of Bessie Smith's death certificate, and noting that as the certificate recorded that Smith's arm was amputated before her death, "she received hospital treatment following the accident." "I have checked all the Memphis hospitals," he went on,
and find no record whatever of Bessie Smith having been brought to any of them...Any statement that this woman was refused medical aid in Memphis is untrue. One of the best hospitals in the South is the John Gaston Hospital here, in which approximately 75% of the patients are negroes. It is operated by the City of Memphis, and we never have refused treatment to anyone — regardless of race, color or creed...I have inquired of a number of prominent colored [the last word is written in the margin of the typescript] citizens about the Bessie Smith case, and not one has any knowledge of her having been brought to Memphis for treatment.
The mayor was right; Bessie Smith was nowhere near Memphis on the night of September 26, 1937. The mayor was exasperated. But he had, apparently, done precisely what a public official is supposed to do. And what is folklore, anyway? It's not only stories, true or false: the Hammond version of Smith's death is itself now folklore, and it will never disappear. Folklore resides in the manner in which stories are told, the manner in which the details of those stories reveal ways of life that have vanished to us. The mayor's actions ought to speak to us today as American folklife as much as the slavery-survivals in the lyrics passed on by James Baker. "I have checked all the Memphis hospitals." Walter Chandler could have been saying that he had his secretary call up the various hospitals and ask if they'd ever heard of Bessie Smith. But I doubt it.
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Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010, The Shape of Things to Come, Like a Rolling Stone, and The Old Weird America; a 20th anniversary edition of his book Lipstick Traces was published in 2009. Since 2000 he has taught at Princeton, Berkeley, Minnesota, and the New School in New York; his column Real Life Rock Top 10 appears regularly in the Believer. He lives in Berkeley.
Books mentioned in this post
Greil Marcus is the author of Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010