Mississippi’s folk culture has attracted interest from scholars since the early twentieth century. The state has provided ample opportunities for those studying traditional music, material culture traditions, folk belief, and many other areas of folk culture. A long line of folklorists and other cultural researchers have come to the state to conduct research, while homegrown scholars have helped to expand knowledge of the state’s folk culture.
Folklore research in Mississippi began in 1907 with Georgia native Howard Odum (who went on to become a prominent sociologist), a graduate student in classics at the University of Mississippi. Interested in studying the psychology of African Americans through an examination of their music, Odum utilized a relatively new piece of technology, the cylinder recorder. The young researcher traveled by horseback throughout Lafayette County, recording itinerant African American musicians in what is believed to have been one of the earliest field recording projects documenting African American traditional music. Odum’s recordings did not survive, but he referenced the work in later writings, most notably The Negro and His Songs (1925). The song titles and lyrics that he included in this work demonstrate strong connections to the earliest commercially recorded blues songs.
Folklore research within Mississippi began in earnest during the early 1920s. Two native researchers, Arthur Palmer Hudson and Newbell Niles Puckett, were among the first to publish information on Mississippi folk culture. Hudson was born in Attala County in 1892 and grew up on a farm there. He attended the University of Mississippi and by 1920 was a member of the school’s English faculty. While working on a master’s degree at the University of Chicago, he took a course on folk song and became captivated by the music. He returned to Mississippi and began teaching a course on English and Scottish ballads. When a student told him about relatives who were still singing these songs, Hudson visited with the singers and soon realized the potential for collecting folk songs in Mississippi. Hudson’s students helped him gather folk songs and ballad texts from singers living throughout the state, many of which he published in Folksongs of Mississippi and Their Background (1936). Hudson also gathered together a group of folklore enthusiasts in 1927 and established the Mississippi Folklore Society, which focused on supporting the collection and publication of the state’s folklore. The society published Hudson’s Specimens of Mississippi Folklore (1928) but became inactive when he left Oxford in 1930 to pursue doctoral work at the University of North Carolina.
Columbus native Newbell Niles Puckett was a contemporary of Hudson but focused on a different area of Mississippi culture. Born in 1897, Puckett earned a bachelor’s degree at Mississippi College and a doctorate from Yale University. Puckett had been exposed to African American culture through his interactions with the workers at his father’s brick factory, and at Yale he began researching African American folk beliefs. He conducted fieldwork during the early 1920s in and around Columbus as well as in other parts of the South, and his doctoral dissertation, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), received widespread acclaim in academic circles. Puckett’s book presents examples of African American belief in the Black Belt region of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, with detailed information on burial customs, voodoo, folk medicine cures, and omens. Puckett’s fieldwork was also notable for his use of photography, a documentation tool not used by many folklore scholars of the time. His images of river baptisms, brush arbor revivals, and grave decorations thus provide a unique record of the era’s practices.
The most prominent Mississippi-born folklorist of the early 1900s made his name as a folk song collector during the 1910s but did not conduct field research in the state until the early 1930s. John A. Lomax was born in Goodman in 1867 but grew up and spent most of his life in Texas. He first came to prominence in folk song circles with Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). Although he was well known for his song-collecting efforts, Lomax worked a variety of jobs to support his family. He conducted his first field research in Mississippi in 1933, recording traditional songs sung by prisoners at Parchman Penitentiary and Oakley Prison near Jackson. During his later recording expeditions through the South, Lomax regularly stopped at Parchman, conducting additional recording sessions there in 1936, 1939, and 1940 as part of his work for the Library of Congress. Lomax’s recordings from Mississippi and the other southern states became an important part of the library’s collection of folk music. Lomax also utilized these recordings as sources for his popular songbook collections, such as Folk Song U.S.A.
Other state and federal projects were also active in Mississippi during the 1930s. The Federal Writers’ Project and the Federal Music Project (both part of the depression-era Works Progress Administration) helped to launch various state-level folklore and folk music collection projects. The directors of the Mississippi office took this project seriously, and within months of beginning their work in 1936, the researchers had collected eighteen hundred folk songs from singers around the state. This office continued its work until 1941.
To more thoroughly document the singers whose songs were being collected by the state-level projects, the Works Progress Administration dispatched Herbert Halpert, a young folk song collector from New York, to the Southeast during the spring of 1939. Traveling in a converted ambulance outfitted with recording equipment, Halpert spent more than a month in Mississippi, filling 169 recording discs with ballads, children’s songs, work songs, sacred music, and traditional fiddling. Halpert’s discs were deposited in the Library of Congress but were not released to the public through commercial recordings until many years later.
By the early 1940s John Lomax’s son, Alan, began visiting Mississippi to record musicians. The younger Lomax had begun working with his father as a teenager, accompanying him on his 1933 recording trip. Alan Lomax returned to Mississippi in the summer of 1941 as part of his work for the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Working in partnership with the traditional music scholar John Work and sociologist Lewis Jones, faculty members from Fisk University in Nashville, Lomax made two trips to Coahoma County between 1941 and 1942, recording many different examples of African American sacred and secular music, among them the first recordings of legendary Mississippi blues musicians Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) and David “Honeyboy” Edwards.
Alan Lomax went on to become one of the most prolific American researchers documenting traditional music. During his sixty-year career, he traveled all over the world to record the music of traditional cultures. Mississippi remained important in Lomax’s work. He returned several times, documenting important traditional musicians and releasing recordings that brought them wider attention. Lomax made his final trip to Mississippi in 1978, documenting a group of blues musicians (including Jack Owens and Sam Chatmon) for his film, The Land Where the Blues Began. In 1993 Lomax published a book by the same title, a memoir of his work with blues musicians.
The early 1960s brought a new generation of researchers interested in Mississippi’s blues performers from the 1920s and 1930s. Several young enthusiasts, among them photographer Dick Waterman, came to Mississippi to track down these musicians. Those found included Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Son House, and the attention helped them to relaunch their performing careers.
This era also saw the beginning of Mississippian William Ferris’s efforts to document the folk culture of his community. Born in 1942, Ferris grew up on a farm near Vicksburg and began recording church services and blues performers near his home while an undergraduate at Davidson College. He built on this work as a graduate student, traveling throughout the Mississippi Delta to interview and record blues musicians for his doctoral dissertation (later published as Blues from the Delta ). Ferris went on to teach at Jackson State University and at Yale University and remained active as a field researcher. He documented a wide range of Mississippi traditional artists, including blues musicians, storytellers, and embroidery artists, and featured their work in books, in films, and on record albums. These projects highlighted Mississippi artists’ ties to tradition as well as their individual visions.
With the growth of interest in documenting and studying the state’s folk culture, a group of academics and enthusiasts reactivated the Mississippi Folklore Society in December 1966. The group began holding an annual meeting at which members presented research on Mississippi folk culture and began publishing the Mississippi Folklore Register (later Mississippi Folklife), offering researchers a venue for articles on such topics as the origins of place-names and local dialect, the songs of railroad track workers, Sacred Harp singings, and many others. The group remained active until the early 1990s, while the journal was published until 2000.
By the 1970s, folklore research began to receive support from state and local institutions in Mississippi. The Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi was formed in 1973, while Mississippi was featured at the 1974 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian project brought a number of researchers from outside Mississippi into the state, including folklorist Worth Long and documentary photographer Roland Freeman, who traveled throughout the state in 1974, documenting musicians and craftspeople. The duo returned to Mississippi the following year to conduct an in-depth survey of African American folk culture in the southwestern corner of the state. Their findings were featured in a 1977 exhibition at the State Historical Museum.
The 1977 creation of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture helped to bring the study of folk culture into new prominence within the state’s university system. Ferris’s appointment as the center’s first director and his nearly twenty years leading the organization helped to ensure folklore’s place as a core subject of the center’s ongoing classes and projects.
Folklore penetrated another area of state government with the 1982 creation of the position of folk arts director at the Mississippi Arts Commission. The director was tasked with documenting traditional artists and recruiting them for the agency’s grants and other services. The folklorists who worked for the agency during the 1980s included Tom Rankin, who went on to do extensive documentation of African American religious life in the Delta (published in his book Sacred Space ) while teaching at Delta State University and the University of Mississippi.
The growing support for folk culture research also inspired more local documentation projects. Mississippi Cultural Crossroads, a community arts organization in Port Gibson, began working with local high school students in the early 1980s, teaching them photography and interviewing skills. The students then used those skills to document local history and community folk traditions, with their material presented in a journal (I Ain’t Lyin’), a series of original plays, and other programming.
As folk culture research begins its second century in Mississippi, some previously gathered materials are finding new use as part of a statewide tourism effort. The Mississippi Blues Commission began work on a statewide Mississippi Blues Trail in 2006, placing historical markers to commemorate notable blues musicians and venues. Within a decade, the number of markers had topped 150, and the popularity of this project and growing interest in promoting the state’s unique culture demonstrate that those documenting Mississippi’s folk culture will continue to find outlets for their work.
- William R. Ferris, Local Color: A Sense of Place in Folk Art (1982)
- Roland L. Freeman, A Communion of Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories (1996)
- Bonnie J. Krause, Mississippi Folklife (Fall 1999)
- Mississippi Blues Trail website, msbluestrail.org
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Made by Hand: Mississippi Folk Art (1980)
- Mississippi Folklife website, www.mississippifolklife.org
- John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel Adams, Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Folklore Study, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005)