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How A Music Scholar Finally Completed 'The Blues Come To Texas'

The Lone Star Hotel, seen here in 1960, provided lodging for black patrons in Terrell, Texas. From the cover of Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick's new book, "The Blues Come to Texas."
The Lone Star Hotel, seen here in 1960, provided lodging for black patrons in Terrell, Texas. From the cover of Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick's new book, "The Blues Come to Texas."

From Texas Standard:

Many people have strong opinions about Texas music, but few are true experts on the subject. Alan Govenar is one of those experts. He's studied Texas blues, and has written award-winning books. His latest work is the completion of a long-awaited project started by two musicologists more than half a century ago.  

Musicologists Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick had planned to write the definitive book on Texas blues, but they had to abandon the project in the 1970s. Govenar and his colleague, Kip Lornell, revived it, using Oliver's and McCormick's work as a foundation, and they finally released "The Blues Come to Texas" this year. 

Govenar says blues lovers where looking for such a book as far back as the 1960s, back when he first became interested in the musical genre. So, it seemed ideal when Oliver, a British architecture historian, and McCormick, a record collector, started working on it years ago. 

"At that point in time, blues and jazz were considered as inextricably linked, in almost an evolutionary way," Govenar says. "The blues was seen as an antecedent to jazz."

Govenar says Oliver and McCormick learned through their research that blues actually had its own evolution, separate from jazz. To dive into its history, they looked at "greater Texas" – an area that extends into Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. 

"Paul and Mack, particularly Paul, saw this deep East Texas as being the crucible of the blues," Govenar says. 

East Texas blues is rooted in slavery; the slave trade continued in that region until the 1830s, Govenar says. That meant that blues developed directly from the musical traditions of people brought over from Africa as slaves. 

"In 1867, when they were registering newly freed African Americans to vote in deep East Texas – more than 200 people – when asked their place of birth, [they] said, 'Africa,'" Govenar says.

And when music researchers came to Texas during the 1930s to collect songs and study African American musical traditions, Govenar says they found references to banjos and fiddles.

"The descriptions of these instruments were very much the kinds of instruments found in West Africa," Govenar says. "[There] was an area of deep East Texas that people referred to as 'Little Senegal.'"

When he began working on "The Blues Come to Texas," Govenar was surprised by the amount and quality of the research material already completed by Oliver and McCormick. He says McCormick exhaustively researched the music and musicians he wanted to write about, including interviews with family members and friends. And both authors had found the origins of different strands of blues music in different parts of the state. 

"If you listen to the music, you really get a sense of the life and the times," Govenar says. "But it also makes it easier to connect to the present."

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

David D. Brown is executive producer and host of the award-winning cultural journalism program Texas Music Matters at NPR affiliate KUT-FM in Austin. He is former anchor of the award-winning public radio business program Marketplace, and a veteran public radio journalist. He has reported national and international affairs for Monitor Radio from bases in Atlanta, Boston, London, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
David Brown
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.