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East Texas Harmonica Players and Black Texicans (April 2014)

East Texas Harmonica Players and Black Texicans
By Jeff Campbell

I have always had a love for American roots music whether it is bluegrass, folk or the blues. Recently our museum curator, knowing I have an affinity for this type of music, brought in a few CDs from his collection to share with the staff. The collection included "Hallelujah Jubilee- East Texas Black Harmonica Players and their Songs", "Black Cowboy Blues and Church Songs" and "Black Texicans: Balladeers and Songsters". Listening to these recordings was quite an experience.

"Hallelujah Jubilee- East Texas Black Harmonica Players and their Songs" is an amazing recording, featuring harmonica songs that most people would recognize. The familiar songs on this recording include "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", "When the Saints Go Marching In", "Banjo on My Knee", "She'll Be Coming around the Mountain", "Listen to the Mockingbird" and "Amazing Grace". The 47 track album was recorded and produced by Alan Govenor.

The CD package includes extensive liner notes by Paul Oliver which provide an extensive account of the harmonica's history in East Texas. The East Texas African American harmonica players featured on this CD are John T. Samples Sr. from Kilgore, Virginia Peoples born in Gimer, Robert Berry of Tyler, Jack Wilson of Longview and Cleveland Walters Jr. The harmonica was not only a strong presence in East Texas African American culture; it has also had a huge influence on Western/Cowboy music.

Blues Harmonica King Gary Allegretto is one of top western musicians in America today. In American Cowboy magazine Gary talked about his love for blues influenced harmonica playing; "I listen to old, old, stuff that goes back to Alan and John Lomax' recordings-that's my strongest influence. That's the real cowboy stuff because it came from the very roots of the music. And a lot of that comes from a blues-roots influence. Cowboy music was started when the harmonica was introduced to the West around 1860. As many as a third of the drovers driving cattle north from Texas were black guys. And they were playing on the plantations-which was the blues."[1]

This influence is heard on both, "Black Cowboy Blues and Church Songs" and "Black Texicans: Balladeers and Songsters". "Black Cowboy Blues and Church Songs" is performed by Alfred "Snuff Johnson and "Black Texicans: Balladeers and Songsters" is a compilation of various artists and part of the "Deep River of Song" series of recordings from the Alan Lomax Collection. The album includes such artists as Moses "Clear Rock" Platt, the Legendary Huddie William "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, James "Iron Head" Baker, Henry Truvillon, Uncle Billy McCrea and Moses "Clear Rock" Platt.

Many of the songs on these two albums would be considered standards and a part of the Great American songbook. Some of these classic songs are "Western Cowboy", "Jack of Diamonds", and "The Old Chisolm Trail", "Pick a Bale of Cotton", "Boll Weevil", "Motherless Child" and "Old Time Religion".

Taken as a whole, these three CDs reveal not only the African American influence on Cowboy/Western music but also American music in general. However this music is not an artifact locked in a frozen past, there are contemporary artists continuing and adding to this musical tradition. I would suggest exploring the Andy Hedges CD, "Cowboy Songster"; an excellent example of the African American influence on Cowboy/Western music and "Allegretto / Espinoza" by Gary Allegretto and Ian Espinoza; an award winning Western album that prominently features Gary Allegretto's blues influenced harmonica. To further explore the history of African American Texas Cowboys I would suggest the book "Black Cowboys of Texas", written by Sara R. Massey and published by Texas A&M Press.