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Musical Roots

From prison songs to factory bands, a new exhibit brings the varied history of Virginia music to life.

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If there were an alphabetical index to this encyclopedic treatment of Virginia's roots music from 1865 to 1940, one would need only glance at the B's to appreciate the range of the selections gathered here. Sure, there are blues, ballads, bluegrass and a couple of beautiful banjos. But dig deeper and you'll discover the Ballard Branch Bogtrotters, recorded by the forefather of American field recordings John Lomax in Galax in 1936. Or listen to the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers, Blues Birdhead, the Bubbling-Over Five and the Bull Mountain Moonshiners at the 70-song listening center, and use the touch screen technology there to access deeper info about these little-known artists.

Babe Spangler, a colorful figure however you alphabetize him, was a prison guard who had to hang up his uniform because of congenital glaucoma. He took up music as a second career and became one of WRVA's stars on broadcasts that could be heard as far away as Seattle. Spangler is seen in one photo serenading Gov. Pollard and in another hanging out with relatives in Oregon Hill. He was the Virginia State Fiddle Champion of 1927 — we can behold his silver cup trophy for earning that title, along with his fiddle.

Just as the various branches of Virginia's roots music are spread far and wide, both musically and demographically, the Library of Virginia had to cast a wide net to gather and organize all these materials. As the exhibition's title suggests, there is a real focus here on the importance of the collector. As Janice Hathcock, public relations officer for the Library of Virginia, says plainly: "Without the collectors, a lot of the music wouldn't exist." The collectors' efforts documented and preserved the music — and allowed it to be handed down, so it lives, even today. Source material came from the Virginia Folklore Society, the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, the Library of Congress, Hampton University's archives, the collection of WRVA and many other places, both public and private.

For those who think of a library as a collection of books and other printed matter, this exhibition goes far beyond that. To fully document one set of historic recordings, original prison records, written out in longhand, complete with a column for escape dates, are displayed alongside archival photos and recordings from the Virginia State Prison in downtown Richmond and the Virginia State Prison Farm in Goochland County. One song from those recordings, available via headphones, is Jimmie Strother's "Keep Away From the Blood-Stained Bandits," recorded by Lomax in 1936. A blind inmate proficient in several styles, Strother was serving a 20-year sentence for the second-degree murder of his wife, Blanche. Nearby is a first edition of Lomax's autobiographical "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter," which referred to his landmark Virginia experience, and an article digging deeper into Strother's life and times. With such an encompassing approach, the music is not just a crackling recording from a bygone era. Here the history takes shape before you.

A world apart, but just a few exhibit cases away, is the documentation of the Tubize Royal Hawaiian Orchestra, one of several bands that the Hopewell rayon factory sponsored and used for marketing, outreach and goodwill purposes. While the listening center offers samples of their work, and photos illustrate the high society nature of this "factory band," the real gems of this display are artifacts like Elbert Coley's gleaming silver-plated 1928 National Tricone Resonator Guitar (Style 4). A grass hula skirt, worn by one of the orchestra's undulating dancers, also makes quite an impression. Who would have thought the history of Hopewell had such a Hawaiian tint? And who would have thought a rayon factory would be responsible for producing music that still sparkles and shines today? The rayon's long gone, but the song remains the same. S



The Library of Virginia's new exhibit, "Virginia Roots Music: Creating and Conserving Tradition," runs July 8 to March 22, 2003. Free. Park free in the library's underground parking lot. For info call 692-3592. Free lecture July 11 at noon on the song "The Wreck of the Old '97".



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