An extraordinary set of Library of Congress field recordings from the 1930s and ‘40s captured the depth and breadth of American folk music. Folklorist and musician Stephen Wade revisits the South to tell 13 stories of the artists who helped define American identity while remaining virtually anonymous themselves.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In this excerpt from Stephen Wade’s book, The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience, the author profiles Ora Dell Graham, a little girl from Drew, Mississippi, who performed three playground songs for folklorist John A. Lomax in 1940.
Sonny Milton focused silently on the road ahead. Nestled between us in the cab of his pickup, set in a rusted metal frame held fast by tacks and twine, lay a picture of someone he had always loved. Ora Dell Graham—“Honey”—had been his favorite aunt. The hand-colored photograph, mounted on cardboard and bent from more than a half- century of age, shows her in late adolescence, confidently looking on with a pixie smile. In her family, she had been the voluble one, the extrovert. “She loved to go, she always loved to go.” Milton spoke quietly but emphatically. “She was what you call a night person. She loved to have a ball. She loved to dance. She loved to sing. That was her thing, you know.” The muscles in his jaw flickered, and there was a long pause. “And that’s what killed her.”
“I was playing ball with my friends,” he continued, “when I first got the news.” During the summer of 1952, Ora Dell Graham and three companions headed from her home in Drew, Mississippi, for the nightspots of Clarksdale. Three miles north of town, at the foot of a narrow highway bridge, their car smashed into a brick embankment. “They say her neck was broken. By the time I got there, they had taken her and the other three people in the car away.” Milton and his grandmother buried Ora Dell in the town’s segregated cemetery, marking the spot with a tin badge tied with wire. She was 24 years old. Her grave marker has since disappeared.
Now, 46 years later, we scoured East St. Louis, Illinois, for a high-grade photocopier able to reproduce Ora Dell’s sole portrait. A few days before, Milton first learned that his aunt had made some recordings. In the fall of 1940, the year she turned 12, Ora Dell stood before her class- mates in her school auditorium. As John A. Lomax operated a disc recorder, she performed a handful of songs that she animated with dance steps, hand clapping, and vocal effects. Three of these numbers, along with the earliest published recordings of Muddy Waters, subsequently appeared on an album of African American blues and game songs issued by the Library of Congress. This news came as a surprise to Milton. He listened patiently to the story, one that included a government library that until now he had never heard of. On our way to another strip mall with possibly a better duplicator than the machine we just tried, his reserve finally gave way. “Why,” he asked heatedly, “would anyone care about a little black girl from Mississippi?”
The question echoed something he had said earlier. “It was rough down there,” he remembered, “very rough.” In the early 1950s, the years of Sonny Milton’s youth, custom demanded that a black man step off the sidewalk in deference to passing white pedestrians. For that reason, he explained, he didn’t wear a cap. That way he never had to tip it to any whites he met on the street. “That’s why I say the good Lord didn’t let me be a slave. ’Cause they’d a-had to kill me. My people took some stuff that I wouldn’t have been able to take.” Then he mentioned August 1955. In a town 35 miles southeast of Drew—15 months after Brown v. Board of Education—a 14-year-old Chicagoan named Emmett Till had come south to visit relatives. Till allegedly whistled at a young white woman clerking in a grocery store. Three days later her husband and brother-in-law seized Till from his great-uncle’s home. After beating, facially mutilating and shooting him, they tied a ventilator fan to his neck and sank his body in the Tallahatchie River. At the trial the defense argued that the corpse, disfigured beyond the family’s ability to identify it, might not have been Till. The two who committed the crime, their guilt known throughout the community, were acquitted after 67 minutes of deliberation. “Emmett Till,” Milton whispered. “That hurt.”
No wonder he asked why anyone would care about a little black girl from Mississippi. Yet as we drove around that afternoon we somehow found an answer. In November 1940, just three weeks after Ora Dell made her recordings, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish summarized the Library’s acquisition policy in the “Canons of Selection,” which I read aloud with Ora Dell’s picture between us: “The Library of Congress should possess all books and other materials . . . which express and record the life and achievements of the people of the United States.” The Library’s canon embraced the en- tire nation, welcoming not only the papers of a president but the poetry of a schoolyard child. The recordings she made gave tangible evidence of this policy of inclusion.
I handed Milton a postcard of the Library. Inside that majestic edifice crisscrossed with marble staircases and portico busts, gold-leaf inscriptions and Greco-Roman grandeur, reside millions of items, possessions that express American life—from Thomas Jefferson’s books to a print of the Wizard of Oz, from a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the sheet music for “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Kept among them, too, are recordings of his aunt, a little black girl from Mississippi leading a few game songs she once played with her friends. In one of these pieces, Ora Dell portrays her world turned upside down, and in another, she rejoices with her classmates over a beloved food. These songs draw from a larger creative tradition of rituals and rhymes that have sustained the disenfranchised for centuries. This resonant heritage only adds to Sonny Milton’s haunting question. The pain he knew growing up in Mississippi in the time of Emmett Till made these recordings seem improbable. That some casual playtime amusements his aunt learned during childhood and performed once into a microphone had been gathered and conserved, cataloged and disseminated, surpassed all reasonable expectation. Earlier on this drive he acknowledged a grim irony—Ora Dell’s death stemmed from her yearning for music and dance. That same vitality, radiating from her recordings, became her legacy for the nation.
We swung back onto the highway still hoping to make a faithful copy of Ora Dell’s picture. Sonny Milton looked over. “I see what you mean,” he nodded. “Now I understand.”
From The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. Copyright 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. This material, in whole or in part, cannot be reproduced, photocopied, reposted online or distributed in any way without the written permission of the copyright holder.<>