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A Field Guide to... The Ozarks

A Field Guide to... The Ozarks
A Field Guide to... The Ozarks | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Explore and learn about the world of sound and music found in the Smithsonian Folkways collection from the comfort of your little device. A Field Guide to… the Ozarks was curated by Jason Morris (Smithsonian Folklife Festival) with support from Drew Beisswenger (Performing Arts Librarian, University of Arkansas) and the curatorial team of the upcoming 2023 Festival program The Ozarks: Faces and Facets of a Region.

"As a preview to the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program The Ozarks: Faces and Facets of Region, we’re rolling out an introductory playlist to the music of the region, drawn from the Folkways catalog—with a few additional non-Folkways tracks thrown in," says Morris. "This playlist isn’t meant to be comprehensive or representative of the wide range of music in the Ozarks. It’s a starting point."


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Track Notes

The first third of this playlist is dedicated to fiddle and old-time tunes—broadly understood. The middle third focuses on ballads and story songs. The final third takes the listener further afield from these genres and focuses on artists and styles that draw some level of inspiration from the music, geography, and culture of the Ozarks region.

The physical Ozarks is generally recognized as a geographic region stretching across portions of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois that is known for its distinct blend of karst and caves, springs and streams, hills and hollers, forests and fields. The cultural Ozarks is a human region built from the ever-changing cultural practices and traditions of the peoples who have and continue to inhabit this beautiful yet demanding and fragile terrain. The physical and the cultural are deeply, inextricably intertwined. The music of the Ozarks, a key pillar of the human landscape of the region, is, in many ways, a product and reflection of this intertwinement.

Much of what’s formally identified as Ozarks music in the Folkways catalog comes from field recordings or the work of self-identified “collectors” of traditional music from the region. The role or position of the “collector,” relative to the individuals from whom songs are being collected, is often complicated and varied. Alan Lomax, who recorded the performances by Almeda Riddle and Ollie Gilbert that appear on this playlist during his “Southern Journey” in 1959, is perhaps the most well-known collector and archiver of folk and traditional music from North America and beyond. But, there were numerous other collectors, motivated by a variety of impulses and emerging from a variety of backgrounds, who recorded and documented folk and traditional music across the United States during the early and mid-twentieth century. This playlist draws extensively from four such collectors who all collected and recorded music in the Ozarks in the late 1950s and early 1960s—around the same time that Lomax and his assistant Shirley Collins were touring the American South in a Buick Roadmaster packed with recording equipment.

David Mangurian and Donald Hill recorded the entirety of the Music From The Ozarks volume during a single hot August Sunday in Delaney, Arkansas, in 1958. College students at the time, they had no formal connection to the place and the people from whom they collected. These recordings represent only a portion of the recordings that Mangurian and Hill made during a summer road trip from California to the Mississippi Delta.

On Ozarks Folksongs and Ballads, Max Hunter performs songs that came to him “through a number of years of conscious collecting from his many friends in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas.” According to Sandy Paton, Hunter established his own set of rules when collecting and “follow[ed] them to the letter.” These included not singing a song that he himself had not collected “from a traditional singer” and not consciously changing “a word or an inflection of his informants’ material.” Like Music from the Ozarks, the songs on Ozarks Folksongs and Ballads were collected and recorded in the late 1950s. They represent only a small handful of the hundreds of songs that Hunter collected during his lifetime.

Loman D. Cansler was in his “ninth year as a public high school teacher and counselor” when, in the late 1950s, he recorded the songs on Folksongs of Missouri. On this record, Cansler performs and shares songs learned from family and friends in the Missouri Ozarks. Similar to Hunter, Cansler notes that, to the best of his knowledge, “all of the songs [in the collection] were passed down by word of mouth. They came from the true folksingers of Missouri.”

Gordon McCann, who plays guitar on “Wink The Other Eye,” is the most well-known living collector of traditional fiddle and old time music from the Ozarks. McCann took on playing and collecting Ozarks music as an avocation while also working for several decades as private businessman in Springfield, MO.

Track 1

Fort Smith / Rabbit in the Grass
By Calvin Van Brunt
From Music From the Ozarks

Track 2

Sally Goodin'
By Calvin Van Brunt and the Delaney Musicians
From Music From the Ozarks

These particular recordings were captured during the afternoon of Mangurian and Hill’s day in Delaney “in a house behind the general store-post office.” Van Brunt, according to the album's liner notes, was an uncle to two of the younger musicians who were at the recording session. He was 50 years old at the time of the recording and had been playing the fiddle since the age of 14. Mangurian recalls that “John D. and Lee’s uncle, Calvin Van Brunt, came in with his fiddle. He also had a pickup and plugged into John D’s amplifier, but it didn’t distract from his playing. He stood in the middle of the room with his eyes closed and foot stomping and let go with the oldest music we recorded that day […] The crowd of people overflowed the room to the outside where at least one old man buck danced to the fiddle pieces.”

"Fort Smith / Rabbit in the Grass" is popular throughout the Ozarks region and is generally played in two parts. Various stories circulate about the origin of the tune including that the melody was developed in the mid-1800s when a cavalry division of the United States Army was stationed at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph recorded versions of "Sally Goodin’" from Ozarks Mountains fiddlers in the early 1940's. According to Randolph, the tune was popular at play parties in the region in the late 1800s.

Track 3

Wink The Other Eye
By Lonnie Robertson, Gordon McCann, Art Galbraith
From Lonnie's Breakdown: Classic Fiddle Music From Missouri

During the 19th century, the title “Wink the Other Eye” was used for various tunes, including a waltz, a schottische, and a jig, but this fiddle tune appears to be based on the circa 1891 popular song “Then You Wink the Other Eye” by W.T. Lytton (made famous by Marie Lloyd.) The lyrics describe both men and women who engage in sneaky behavior and then wink at witnesses. In the Ozarks, the tune is usually associated with Missouri fiddler Lonnie Robertson, who traveled widely as a radio fiddler and likely learned it on the road. Art Galbraith, who plays mandolin on this track, was also a top-notch Ozark fiddler. He and Gordon McCann performed at the 1991 Festival of American Folklife as part of the "Family Farming in the Heartland” program.

Track 4

La Guignolee
By Sainte Genevieve Guignolee Singers
From The Mississippi River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi

Located along the Mississippi River in the far northeastern edge of the Ozarks region, and founded in the mid-1700s by French traders, Sainte Genevieve, Missouri is the first permanent, documented European settlement west of the Mississippi. La Guignolé is a medieval French tradition analogous to English wassailing. According to the album’s liner notes “every New Year’s Eve, the descendants of Ste. Genevieve’s French settlers don bizarre and archaic costumes and wander from bar to bar, singing a begging song that harks back to the Middle Ages.” This track was recorded, appropriately, on December 31, 1995.

Track 5

The Battle of Pea Ridge
By Max Hunter
From Ozark Folksongs and Ballads

Mary Celestia Parler and Vance Randolph, two well-known documenters of Ozarks folklife and traditional culture, wrote the liner notes for this album. With regard to this track, they note that “Max learned this song from Mrs. Allie Long Parker, Pleasant Valley, Arkansas, on March 26, 1958. The fight at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, March 7, 1862 involved some 25,000 men, and was the most important Civil War engagement in the Ozark region. […] Several other ballads about the Pea Ridge battle are still remembered in Missouri and Arkansas.”

Track 6

Lady Margaret (Child 74)
By Max Hunter
From Ozark Folksongs and Ballads

The “Child” in the title of this track refers to Francis James Child who, in the mid-19th century, documented over 300 ballads from England and Scotland and their variants in North America. As recounted by Parler and Randolph, “a student from the University [of Arkansas] heard some children in Pocahontas, Arkansas singing “Hangman, Hangman, Hold Your Hand” (Child 95). The children said they had learned it from their “Grandma Brewer”. Max found Mrs. Pearl Brewer living on a farm about six miles from Pocahontas. It was there on November 12, 1958, that she sang “Lady Margaret.” Mrs. Brewer recorded fifty-nine old songs, including eight other Child ballads. She learned most of these songs from a blind uncle who lived in her home when she was a girl.”

Track 7

Joe Bowers
By Loman Cansler
From Missouri Folk Songs

Track 8

Joe Bowers
By Pete Seeger
From Frontier Ballads

Thousands of people from across North America and the world headed to California during the gold rush of the late 1840s/early 1850s to seek their fortunes. There were many Ozarkers among them. Cansler notes that “whether there lived a real 'Joe Bowers' who had the troubles encountered in this song, would be of interest to know; but if batches of clay spotted about the country-side could speak for only a moment, there is little doubt that the experience voiced in this song would not be authenticated.” There are a handful of versions of “Joe Bowers” in the Folkways collection including a version recorded by the legendary Pete Seeger in the mid-1950s.

Track 9

Kickin' Maude
By Loman Cansler
From Missouri Folk Songs

Cansler performed this song at the Ozark Folk Festival in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in October 1957. He notes that “Mr. Vance Randolph told me at that time that songs about mules were making the rounds in vaudeville shows around 1850.” Of the song’s content, Cansler offers that “while the artist exaggerates features to express a certain feeling, the poet in this case has played somewhat with the impossible in order to focus attention upon the taken for granted mule.”

Track 10

Pretty Polly Oliver
By Ollie Gilbert
From Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea: Alan Lomax’s "Southern Journey," 1959-1960

Not to be confused with a number of other “Pretty Polly” ballads, Almeda Riddle’s “Pretty Polly Oliver” was given the official title “Polly Oliver” (Laws N 14) by G. Malcolm Laws in his book American Ballads from British Broadsides. The ballad, which Lomax indicates is also called “Pretty Peggy-O,” is included in many folk song collections, including Henry Beldon’s 1955 publication Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-lore Society (p. 183), in which he identifies a pre-1921 version from the Ozarks. The story of a woman who dresses like a soldier to follow her true love is present in several other ballads. Among the interesting qualities in Ollie Gilbert’s version is that she generally starts each verse in a minor key and ends in a major key.

Track 11

The Drunkard's Wife
By Max Hunter
From Ozark Folksongs and Ballads

Writing about Hunter’s version of this traditional ballad, Parler and Randolph offer that “the lot of a wife on the frontier was hard enough, even when her husband was sober and industrious, what with children to care for, carding and spinning, and going to the spring. But when she was married to a lazy, drunken, gambler, it is no wonder that she wished to be a single girl again.”

Track 12

Rainbow Mid Life's Willows
By Almeda Riddle
From Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea: Alan Lomax’s "Southern Journey," 1959-1960

This appears to be Almeda Riddle’s title for an American ballad more widely known as “Locks and Bolts” (Laws M 13).  Among the many folk song collections that include this song is Vance Randolph’s Ozark Folksongs, in which the ballad is titled, “I Dreamed of My True Lover.”

Riddle appeared at the inaugural Festival of American Folklife in 1967 and again in 1983 as part of a Festival program dedicated to the then nascent National Heritage Fellowships program. Writing about Riddle in an article for the Festival program book, Bess Lomax Hawes describes Riddle as “the great lady of Ozark balladry. She once listed a hundred songs she could call to mind right then, and added that she could add another hundred to the list if she had the time. 'Granny,' as she prefers to be called, sings in the unaccompanied way of Southern ballad singers, and used a decorated singing style of great antiquity, frilled with falsetto leaps, breaks, and vocal ornamentation. Her repertoire is extraordinary; her singing impeccable.”

Track 13

Down in the Arkansas
By Jimmy Driftwood
From Down In The Arkansas

Track 14

Down in the Arkansas
By Art Thieme
From On the Wilderness Road

This song was written by George Evans and first recorded in 1921. Almeda Riddle recorded a version, but Driftwood’s is perhaps the most well-known. Like Riddle, Driftwood performed at the inaugural Festival of American Folklife in 1967 and again in 1970 as part of a Festival program focused on the state of Arkansas. In the liner notes to On The Wildnerness Road, Art Thieme offers that “Jimmy Driftwood sang many great songs about his Ozark Mountains and about Arkansas. This one is jammed full of funny little tales. Each verse is a gem.”

Track 15

What Is a Home Without Love
By Loman Cansler
From Missouri Folk Songs

Numerous popular recordings of this traditional song exist, including versions by the Louvin Brothers, the Monroe Brothers and Doc & Dawg (a collaboration between Doc Watson and David Grisman). About his rendering of the tune, Cansler recalls that this is “another song learned during my childhood from my parents, and one which I have not collected elsewhere. […] The song paints in two stanzas what constitutes the idea home."

Track 16

Carroll County Blues
By Bob Holt
From Got A Little Home To Go To

Track 17

Carroll County Blues
By Delaney Musicians
From Music From the Ozarks

Writing in Ozarks Fiddle Music, Beisswenger and McCann note that “this is one of [Bob] Holt’s most popular fiddle tunes, especially as a two-step on the dance floor. He heard Lonnie Robertson play it, and also heard an old 78 recording of the tune by [William T.] Narmour and [Shellie W.] Smith. From those sources, he worked out his own version.” Gordon McCann played on and co-produced Holt’s “Got A Little Home To Go To” (1998).

Hailing from Carroll County in central Mississippi about 125 miles south of Memphis, Narmour and Smith were a popular old-time string band in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They recorded over 40 tracks for the Okeh and Bluebird record labels during this time, with “Carroll County Blues” (1929) being their most popular. Given the popularity of Narmour and Smith’s version of the tune, it would likely have been well known to the musicians that Mangurian and Hill met on that hot summer day in Delaney, Arkansas in 1958. The version produced by the Delaney musicians is driven not by an acoustic fiddle, but by then 21-year-old John D. Mounce’s electric guitar. The result, notes Mangurian, “was an intermediary style somewhere between the old and the modern (basically old with modern influences—primarily amplification).”

Track 18

Ozark Mountain Blues
By The Missourians
From Stoppin' The Traffic

This early “Big Band” / “Ragtime” style track was recorded for RCA in 1929 and appears on a number of compilations including Folkways’ 1961 release A History of Jazz: the New York Scene. Jazz is not a musical genre that’s generally associated with the Ozarks, but during the mid-twentieth century the music thrived in the urban periphery of the region in cities like Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Muskogee. Clubs, tourist resorts and "show caves” in the Ozarks were serving as training grounds and woodshedding locations for touring jazz musicians at least as early as the 1920s, including a young Charlie Parker.

The Missourians got their start as a “territory band” working the central Midwest in the early 1920s. The majority of the ensembles’ early members grew up in St. Louis and Kansas City. During this time, territory bands were cover bands of a sort, often playing stock arrangements of other ensembles’ popular recordings. They are credited with bringing the popular music of the period—such as swing and jazz—to remote locations and communities that were off the beaten path of major touring artists such as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. The Missourians eventually migrated to New York City, where they performed regularly at the famed Cotton Club and eventually, became Cab Calloway’s backing band.

R.Q. Dickerson, one of the group’s trumpet players, is credited with composing “Ozark Mountain Blues.” The title is reflective of the group’s geographic origins and also indicates that the Ozarks, as a cultural region, was firmly situated in the popular imagination by the early twentieth century.

Track 19

Ozark Rag
By The East Texas Serenaders
From From East Texas Serenaders – Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order (1927-1937)

This track appears on a number of compilations including Folkways’ 1971 release, Ragtime #2: The Country - Mandolins, Fiddles, and Guitars and Classic Country Music: A Smithsonian Collection(1990).

Situated stylistically and temporally somewhere between Narmour and Smith and The Missourians, The East Texas Serenaders are regularly pointed to as an early example of a musical genre that came to be known in the late 1920s and early 1930s as Western Swing. The Serenaders were a territory band of sorts, active from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s. They mostly played at dance halls and social events in the region around their home base of Lindale, Texas about 90 miles east of Dallas. The southwestern edge of the Ozarks is some 300 miles from Lindale, but it’s likely that the group visited and drew inspiration from the region for “Ozark Rag.”

Track 20

By Claude Williams
From Live At J's, Vol. 1

Track 21

Don't Get Around Much Anymore
By Claude Williams
From Live At J's, Vol. 2

Track 22

Fiddler's Dream
By Claude Williams
From Live At J's, Vol. 2

Claude “Fiddler” Williams was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1908, on the urban fringes of the Ozarks. He grew up in a musical household and played multiple string instruments, but he was most well known as a fiddle player. Williams moved to Kansas City in 1928 at the height of the swing era. He would go on to spend time in other cities, but Kansas City remained his primary base up until his death in 2004 at the age of 96. In 1982, Williams appeared as part of a Festival of American Folklife program focused on his home state of Oklahoma. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989, performed as part of inaugural events for President Bill Clinton in 1992, and was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1998. Writing in the liner notes for Live at J’s, Vol. 1 Jack Kleinsinger argues that “in the history of jazz, one can count the truly great violinists on the fingers of one hand—such figures as Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Ray Nance and Claude 'Fiddler' Williams.”

The recordings on both Live at J’s albums were made in New York City in 1989, when Williams was in his early 80s but still in fine musical form. Texarkana, a small city that straddles the Texas / Arkansas state line, was the birthplace of Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime.” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is an oft recorded Duke Ellington composition that has become a jazz standard. “Fiddler’s Dream” is one of Williams’ original compositions. Taken together, the three tracks give an overview of Williams’ skill as he works his way through blues, old-time, western swing, and jazz arrangements and rhythms.

Track 23

Delaney Boogie
By Delaney Musicians
From Music From the Ozarks

This short, rock-n-roll inflected, composition was recorded in an “old school house [… with] a small stage at one end and rows of school desks on the floor” during the morning of Mangurian and Hill’s day in Delaney. In describing the music recorded during this session, Mangurian notes that it “was an odd product of the influences of older members of the community and modern day country and western recording artists heard on radio and juke boxes.”

Track 24

Get Down, River
By The Bottle Rockets
From The Mississippi River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi

“Delaney Boogie” provides a bit of historical context for the type of electrified roots music that was emerging from the banks of the Mississippi River in the central Midwest in the early 1990s. Groups like Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco and The Bottle Rockets gained national popularity during this time playing a style of music that was equal parts punk, old time, blues, honky-tonk and “classic rock” of the 1960s and 70s. This track was recorded at the band’s “crash pad above the Hi Point Bar” in Festus, Missouri (an industrial town downriver from St. Louis and a bit upriver from Ste. Genevieve). Flooding along the Mississippi has inspired numerous classic folk and blues songs. “Get Down, River” is Bottle Rockets’ frontman Brian Henneman’s “testament to the Mississippi flood in the mid-1980s; the Hi Point, as befits its name, was one of the few places not inundated.”

Track 25

Bald Knob, Arkansas
By the Vern Williams Band
From Traditional Bluegrass

Singer and mandolinist Vern Williams was born and raised in the Arkansas Ozarks and started playing music as a teenager. In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, he was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps and stationed in San Diego. He eventually settled in Stockton in the Central Valley, about 90 miles east of San Francisco, and is credited with being instrumental in bringing bluegrass music to the West Coast of the United States.

In the early 1960s, Williams formed the duo Vern and Ray with fiddler Ray Park. The duo released one studio album called Sounds from the Ozarks under the Old Homestead label. Williams went on to form the Vern Williams Band. In addition to making their own recordings, the group served as Rose Maddox’s backing band during the latter part of her recording carrier.

“Bald Knob, Arkansas” showcases Williams’ mandolin skills and high tenor voice. Bald Knob is an actual town on the southeastern edge of the Ozarks about 150 miles from Williams’ homeplace in Johnson County. But, this song was written and recorded in the early 1950s by Nashville legends, the Alabama-born Louvin Brothers. It’s quite possible that the Louvins visited Bald Knob while living and working in Memphis in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The two towns are about 90 miles apart.

Track 26

The Fiddler
By Claude Williams
From Live At J's, Vol. 1

This is another Williams original and perhaps the liveliest track across both of the “Live at J’s” albums.

Learn more about the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program The Ozarks: Faces and Facets of Region here.