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Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore.

Francis Abernethy, Patrick Mullen, and Alan Govenar, eds. Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore. Denton: U of North Texas P, 1996. 364 pp. $29.95.

Juneteenth Texas is the latest in a long and sometimes distinguished line of publications from the Texas Folklore Society. This one features twenty articles, plus three appendices which provide information about photographic archives, museums, and other resources for the celebration, preservation, and study of African American life in Texas. Editors Patrick Mullen and Alan Govenar devote most of the space in their "Preface" to a very nervous acknowledgment of the "volatile nature of writing about race in the 1990s," and describe the assembled articles as ranging "from personal memoirs to scholarly treatises."

This is a fair characterization. At the scholarly end of the spectrum are two very strong studies drawn from the extensive interviews with ex-slaves in Texas accomplished under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration between 1937 and 1939. One is devoted to foodways--T. Lindsay Baker's "More Than Just 'Possum'n Taters: Texas African-American Foodways in the WPA Slave Narratives"--while the other--John Minton's "West African Fiddles in Deep East Texas"--examines evidence for the presence in African American musical tradition of one-string and gourd resonator fiddles derived from such West African instruments as the goge. Richard Allen Bums also refers to the WPA slave narratives in his "African American Blacksmithing in East Texas," but this informative study is based primarily upon interviews Burns conducted in the 1980s.

In the personal memoir category there are also several compelling pieces, including Jesse Truvillion's lovely portrait of his father, "Henry Truvillion of the Big Thicket: A Song Worth Singing." Truvillion's article is especially valuable for its account of the fieldwork of famed Texas collector John Lomax, as told from the point of view of the informant (and the informant's son). Other valuable memoir pieces are James Thomas Jackson's "Houston's Fourth Ward," Judge Donald R. Ross's "Black Sacred Harp Singing Remembered in East Texas," and Clyde E. Daniels's "Where the Cedars Grove," which includes several poems celebrating the community life of Cedar Grove. One highlight of these is a wonderful comic anecdote about a funeral eulogy for a famed church lady marred by the preacher's mention of her delinquent church dues. The woman was a model Christian and citizen--devout, law-abiding, and hard-working, a paragon of virtue. But it wasn't enough. The moral of the story is that it's one thing to be "Prayed Up" a nd quite another to be "Paid Up."

Between the poles of scholarly treatise and personal memoir, several other articles stand out as noteworthy on various counts. Prominent among these is Lorenzo Thomas's survey "From Gumbo to Grammys: The Development of Zydeco Music in Houston." Thomas, the only author of two articles in Juneteenth Texas, also contributes "The African-American Folktale and J. Mason Brewer," an appreciative study of the work of a great pioneering student of African American life in Texas. Thomas's analysis links Brewer's work with Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, notes his insistence on the growing significance of "John" tales in post-Emancipation folktale traditions, and singles out the 1956 Aunt Dicy Tales for particular praise.

As the many of the titles already cited make clear, the articles in Juneteenth Texas display a marked focus on subjects from East Texas generally and the Houston area specifically. This may seem unsurprising given the demographics of African American settlement in Texas, but it is remarkable nonetheless that the representation of the Dallas area, for example, is limited to Govenar's one-page description of its African American museum.

Generically, there is a similar strong emphasis upon music. To the pieces already mentioned one might add John Wheat's "Lightnin' Hopkins: Blues Bard of the Third Ward," Glyn Alyn's "Mance Lipscomb: Fight, Flight, or the Blues," and Mullen's portrait of Galveston street performer George Coleman, "'Bongo Joe': A Traditional Street Performer." Other pieces dealing with music from the East Texas/Houston area include Dave Oliphant's good piece "From Bebop to Hard Bop and Beyond: The Texas Jazz Connection," Jan Rosenberg's brief "Giving Honor to God, the Joy and Salvation in My Life: The Appreciation Service in Song," and Govenar's "Musical Traditions of Twentieth Century African-American Cowboys."

The remaining pieces--Abernethy's survey of "African-American Folklore in Texas and in the Texas Folklore Society," Trudier Harris's "'The Yellow Rose of Texas': A Different Cultural View," Alvia J. Wardlaw's "John Biggers--Artist: Traditional Folkways of the Black Community," and William H. Wiggins, Jr.'s "Juneteenth: A Red Spot Day on the Texas Calendar"--still pull toward the areas of the volume's greatest interest. Though Harris's primary interest lies in the various ways in which the song's "heroine," Emily D. West, has been subjected to exploitation and "erasure," her study nevertheless centers on a famous song. Wiggins's article, though it wastes space on lengthy transcriptions from various official pronouncements, also presents vivid portraits of Juneteenth celebrations in Houston (and Dallas, which thus gets a second mention). Wardlaw's piece is one of the volume's best, both a celebration of Biggers's work (mostly done in Houston) and a rich mine of information about it (though no article in the volume more cries out for illustrations).

All in all Juneteenth Texas presents what might be expected in such a collection, a very uneven mix of methodological and ideological perspectives, solid (even heavy) works of research cheek by jowl with lightweight reminiscences, well-crafted and closely argued presentations in company with haphazardly organized exercises in enthusiasm and spleen. My own nominees for the volume's strongest pieces would be the articles by Minton and Wardlaw, along with Thomas's piece on zydeco. But there should be something useful here for nearly everybody, a rich, unruly mix, like the Texas it examines and celebrates.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Cochran, Robert
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
Words:953
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