14 October 2020

A crossroads? Part 4: 'Swannanoa Tunnel'

The BIB editor continues his comments on items in Tatiana Hargreaves's 'An introductory resource list for understanding race and racism in old-time music' (Old Time News, issue 103, autumn 2020):

Rhiannon Giddens in her 2017 IBMA keynote address emphasised how much - despite many negative factors - the traditions of black and white music from the southern USA held in common:

It is important to what is going on RIGHT NOW to stress the musical brother- and sisterhood we have had for hundreds of years; for every act of cultural appropriation, of financial imbalance, of the erasure of names and faces, of the outside attempt to create artificial division and sow hatred, simply to keep us down so that the powers-that-be can continue to enjoy the fruits of our labour, there are generous acts of working-class cultural exchange taking place in the background.

Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey A. Keith, in their article ‘Somebody died, babe: a musical cover-up of racism, violence, & greed’ for the Bitter Southerner online magazine, present a darker picture from the past, based on eight years of research into the song 'Swannanoa Tunnel'. The tunnel itself was the last and longest in a series driven through the Blue Ridge to allow the railroad to link east and west North Carolina. Work on this link (1875-91) was borne primarily by black convict labourers, of whom several hundred died from harsh conditions, harsh treatment, and disease. None received any credit; and as a further indignity, their work song 'Swannanoa Tunnel' has been appropriated by white collectors and performers, undergoing radical and misleading change. The sole recording of the song by a black singer that Kehrberg and Keith found was a 1939 field recording, 'Asheville Junction' sung by James William Love, a Duke University employee whose own life epitomised the pressures that black workers had to bear. The recording is reproduced in their article.

In Hargreaves's words, the song 'went from a Black American work song depicting brutal convict worker conditions to a supposed English ballad collected by Cecil Sharp'. Both these two assertions - 'depicting brutal convict worker conditions' and 'a supposed English ballad collected by Cecil Sharp' - are misleading. The first follows Kehrberg and Keith, who write: 'in song, the tunnel is a site of bone-crushing tragedy'; hammer songs of this type 'became running commentaries on the trials and tribulations of forced labour under cruel conditions, an expression of lament, and a form of creative resistance'. But though Love sang 'Asheville Junction' unmistakably as a work song, the words he sang hardly convey these kinds of message any more clearly than the words Sharp took down from Buckner and Ford in 1916, though Love's do include the verses 'Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel, All caved in, babe, all caved in' and 'Hammer falling from my shoulder, All day long, babe, all day long.'*

Kehrberg and Keith write that their researches taught them that 'there’s a gulf between white perceptions and Black realities'. Whether for this reason or for others, the song 'Swannanoa Tunnel' has been performed and recorded in traditional, folk-revival, pop, old-timey, country, and bluegrass styles by white performers, many of whom clearly had little or no idea of the song's background and no desire to learn more. Part of ‘Somebody died, babe' is devoted to an overview of a number of these widely varying recordings, with an accompanying audio playlist culminating in thirty seconds of Bryan Sutton, playing it basically as an alternative 'Nine pound hammer'.

One paragraph from Kehrberg and Keith might be seen as capable of putting our views of old-time and bluegrass music into a different perspective from the hopeful 'Yes, we can' message of Rhiannon Giddens, quoted above. Writing of Bascom Lamar Lunsford (North Carolina folklorist, performer, and festival organiser, who did much to make the song 'Swannanoa Tunnel' widely known), they cite his commentary on a 1935 recording he made of the song:

Lunsford mentions 'Negroes' as the 'construction men' who built the tunnel and brought the song, but then emphasises that it 'has been influenced a great deal by mountain sentiment', explaining that 'where music is brought in, the mountaineer works it over and uses it to his own taste.' That is to say, Lunsford was defending the song’s shift in perspective from an incarcerated laborer in an unfamiliar place to a local wage worker or guard, a process that dramatically transformed it from a Black work song to a Southern Apartheid-era white, working-class anthem.

To me, this appears to imply clearly that this was a deplorable outcome. How is the average old-time music enthusiast, though, to react to the fact that practically all those we regard as Old Masters of old-time come within this regrettable category of 'Southern Apartheid-era white, working-class'?

One last point: Kehrberg and Keith write that in Lunsford's notes on 'Swannanoa Tunnel' for his 1953 Folkways album Smoky Mountain ballads, he 'specifically cites Sharp’s claim that "it is a variant of an old English song"', as if he had endorsed the claim. All Lunsford does, in fact, is say that that is what Sharp said (though in fact Sharp did not say that). In the comments he made about the song in 1949 for the Archive of American Folk Song, Lunsford had written: 'It’s been mentioned in some of the books that it is a variant of an old English song, but it’s definitely a work song.'

For those who can stand it, more on this point will follow in another instalment of 'A crossroads?'

Liner notes to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Ballads, banjo tunes, and sacred songs of western North Carolina, Smithsonian Folkways SFW40082

Ken Bigger, 'Swannanoa Tunnel', Sing Out!, 23 July 2012, 25 July 2012, 28 July 2012 (with another selection of different recorded versions)

*I have not seen the text of 'Swannanoa Town' that Sharp took down in autumn 1918 from Mrs Julie Boone in North Carolina (it's presumably in the 1932 edition of his Appalachian collections), but if the words are the same as those sung by Jeff Davis and Brian Peters in the presentation 'Sharp's Appalachian harvest' (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65aG9uJvcps, at 1h.13m), they give a stronger hint of killingly hard, prolonged labour than the words of 'Asheville Junction' do.

© Richard Hawkins

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At 12:37 pm, Blogger William D said...

Thanks again Richard - keep 'em coming !! Thought provoking , objective and independent as always. It's sad that it's necessary for you to point up these discrepancies in a debate which could get in the way of our music if left unchecked.


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