MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

In the 1930s and '40s, John Lomax and his son, Alan, bounced along the back roads of America in a Ford weighed down by a 315-pound recording machine. They were searching for the music they believed defined us as Americans: folk music. And in Angelina County, Texas, they found plenty. In fact, they discovered a rich tradition of African-American quartet singing.

(Soundbite of song, "Wade in the Water")

STARS OF HARMONY (Singing quartet): (Singing) Wade in the water, good morning. Wade in the water too, oh wade...

KELLY: Quartets are still singing in rural East Texas, only now theyve gone electric, as we hear in our latest installment of Whats in a Song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELMO RAY SCOTT (Stars of Harmony): My name is Elmo Ray Scott and Im a member of the Stars of Harmony from Kemah, Texas.

(Soundbite of song)

STARS OF HARMONY: (Singing) Where I am, you brought me. And what I know, you taught me...

Mr. SCOTT: (Unintelligible) where I am, oh my God, you brought me. What I know, you taught me.

(Soundbite of song)

STARS OF HARMONY: (Singing) For all our lives, thank you.

Mr. SCOTT: Like I thank him for food. Thank him for my health, my strength, and that's a blessing. So once I see all the blessings that come from God, then I got to write(ph) to tell him thank you.

(Soundbite of song)

STARS OF HARMONY: (Singing) When I wake up in the morning, Lord, I say Lord, thank you. When I lay down at night, Lord, I tell God, thank you. When you put food on my table, Lord...

Mr. SCOTT: Oh, we started, oh I guess I was early in my teenage, and I'm like 73 now, so its been a long time.

(Soundbite of song)

STARS OF HARMONY: (Singing) When I look Lord, how he gave me to living.

Mr. SCOTT: Where we growed up, all we had was church. Couldnt stay out all night like a lot of people did. Mostly we be in church and in the evening they have different programs and things. That's where we got interested in singing. And we heard other groups sing. Like I say, we didnt sing it directly the way they sing it. And I always feel that you sing it one way, I can get out of Scripture, I can get my version of it and add something to it, and that's the way we do with a lot of our songs. But it's still (unintelligible) style.

(Soundbite of song)

STARS OF HARMONY: (Singing) I thank you Lord. Thank you, Jesus. I thank you Lord. Whoa thank you, Lord. I thank you, Lord. Youve been good to me. I thank you, Lord. Youve been good to me. I thank you Lord. Shoes for my feet. I thank you, Lord. Clothes on my back. I thank you, Lord.

Mr. SCOTT: It's amazing, when you just get into the spirit, just - youre floating. Feel good. When everybody's in that place...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah, it feels good.

(Soundbite of song)

STARS OF HARMONY: (Singing) Whoa, I tell the Lord, thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELLY: What's In A Song is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center in collaboration with City Lore.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon's back next week.

I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

(Soundbite of music)

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