SFC Spotlight: Mother Maybelle talks autoharp at Earl Scrugg’s House in 1962

Once again a researcher pointed the way to a fascinating item in the Southern Folklife Collection. While most of our attention has been on the fiddle as of late, I happily shifted focus to the autoharp (which we recently learned is also known as the “Idiot Zither”) when I digitized a tape recorded interview of Maybelle Carter, FT11829 from the Betty Blackley Collection (#20282).  Conducted September 9 and 10, 1962 by autoharp expert A. Doyle Moore and Archie Green at the home of Earl and Louise Scruggs Madison, TN, the interview offers an in-depth history of the Carter Family’s use of the autoharp and Mother Maybelle’s performance style on the instrument. In the following three clips, she describes her first encounters with the autoharp:

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The conversation continues, reflecting on her career, and eventually to her performance style. After locating the appropriate pick and finding an instrument with the correct tuning, she demonstrates with examples played on one of the multiple autoharps apparently always on hand in Earl and Louise Scruggs’s living room at any given time.  The first two clips lead up to the third, which is a wonderfully wobbly and vibrating version of “Gathering Flowers from the Hillside.” She goes on to demonstrate many other songs on side 2 of the tape. Definitely a treat on this gloomy Thursday afternoon. 

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Robert Pete Williams at the University of Illinois Campus Folksong Club

Robert Pete Williams

From the early 1960s until the early 1970s a student group known as the Campus Folksong  Club, under the leadership of faculty advisor Archie Green, brought folk musicians from all over the country to perform on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over the years, the Folksong Club hosted performances by the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Doc Watson, and in 1965, Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams.

The story of Robert Pete Williams is well known; while serving a life sentence for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the late 1950s, Williams’ songs and stories were recorded by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Harry Oster.  Under considerable pressure from Oster and others in the academic community, Williams’ sentence was commuted, and by 1964 he was released from the terms of his parole and allowed to tour outside Louisiana for the first time. We are fortunate that some of these early performances were captured on tape, including the Campus Folksong Club concert featured here, tape number FT-4189/FT-4190 in the SFC’s Archie Green Collection.

Listen to a clip of Robert Pete Williams performing “I’ve Grown So Ugly”, live at the University of Illinois, Feb.12, 1965:

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Hold The Date!

The SFC is happy to announce three events on our Fall 2009 schedule. More details to follow. We hope you’ll be able to join us.

mickmoloney

Mick Moloney

Mick Moloney Lecture
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Reception at 5:00pm, Talk at 6pm
Pleasants Family Assembly Room, 2nd Floor, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
Lecture by folklorist and Irish musician Mick Moloney on the connections between Jewish and Irish musicians and lyricists in Tin Pan Alley.

We are co-sponsoring the event with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South, American Studies Dept., Carolina Center for Jewish Studies, and the Friends of the Library.

George Stoney Film Screening

George Stoney

George Stoney

Friday, October 16, 2009
Location Stone Center Theater, Stone Center, UNC-Chapel Hill.
Reception at 5:00pm, Talk at 6pm
Film Screening and Q&A with documentary filmmaker George Stoney.

Event co-sponsored with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and the Friends of the Library.

Archie Green Memorial Symposium

Archie Green with Dock Walsh, 1963

Archie Green with Dock Walsh, 1963

Saturday November 21, 2009
9am-5pm
Pleasants Family Assembly Room, 2nd Floor, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.
A symposium in honor of folklorist Archie Green. The event will include panel discussions, reminiscences and performances.

Event co-sponsored with UNC-Chapel Hill Folklore Program, American Studies Dept.