Blogging the Wheel

Having been such a negative ion initially in the discussion of the digital scholar, I need to qualify and perhaps positively restate some of what I previously posted. Digital scholarship creates two (among other) roles that both honorable. One is the migration of information from hard copy or microfilmed copies to a digital format that can be shared broadly by internet services. These resources can be then indexed and made searchable. If this is a paradigm shift then there will be new understandings and a general re-definition as a result of this activity.

In my field, folklore, there is clearly an advantage to having as many comparable instances of an aesthetic production as possible. Both the dynamic and conservative character of the lifestyles, the use of language, material culture, narrative and problem solving all are informed by having available many variants both spatially and temporally.

One theoretical assumption in Folklore is that products of culture will display variation between communities, but will have greater similarities within a particular community. When the scholar lacks a clear provenance and chain-of-learning for the cultural products she is studying, these “artifacts” are said to be “Traditional”. There are many ways that a scholar can employ tradition to define the purposes of research and to explain the purposes of research. One unhappy use of this naming is when individual(s) who first synthesized the form is not known. Few contemporary folklorists would seriously suggest that communities create materials in tradition. The song, the story, the saying, or the chair, sled, or fiddle tune are the product of an act of creation at a particular time and place by individuals who are known within the community. The agency of individuals to create and others to modify is well-accepted within host communities and among scholars, but the act of creation is also distinct from the monetized work of writers and composers in written traditions governed by laws of copyright and conventions where the multiple components of ownership. When a cultural product lacks clear attribution and the formula of performance is shared within a community scholars will often describe the condition of unknown as “traditional”.

Now comes the “pedabyte age” and the rapid transfer from analog to digital products of multiple media and with the potential to search vast compilations of materials for character strings (I don’t know of sonic search devices). The most persistent problem is cluster analysis and character recognition.  Recognition of hand written sources of the past makes translation of historical texts at best difficult but often nearly impossible.  Google’s “good enough” approach may be a business model, but it isn’t satisfactory as a scholarly model.

The advances in access to the works of the past, when done commercially is principally to translate first the analog copies of printed works, or (less frequently) to directly digitize the published text. Individuals may digitize and transcript the text more completely, but the results still have scribal or recognition errors. Recently the use of crowd-sourcing, in which large numbers of researchers agree to participate in a transcription project for documents felt to have remarkable cultural significance.

Google’s well-known exploration of massive digitizing of published works, both books and newspapers shows the dangers of leaving the heritage protection to a commercial enterprise. Having created a vast (but hardly complete) newspaper collection within the United States, Google’s financial officers found that they could not create a revenue stream from offering the service and the expansion and functionality of the service was stopped.  Other for-profit enterprises offer digital searches to major newspapers or particular time periods. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress had a similar, if more limited digital goal in their program “Chronicling Historic America.” Through grants they have encouraged not-for-profit organizations to digitize important newspaper holdings, which is then shared with the Library of Congress and potentially used at the state level.

I use this resource frequently and recommend it to students, with the caveat that the search is machine made and cannot be assumed to be completely accurate either in the hits it finds, or that it has found all occurrences of a character string. I’m excited by the possibility and the realization that digitally recognized occurrences of cultural products of unknown authorship can be identified and potentially connect the known to the unknown, making the traditional attributable.

An example, in my recent experience, involves metrical verse of the western United States. The background is this: Having some time ago (1984) worked with the Folk Arts Coordinators in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming seeking men and women who wrote and recited poetry of the West, in preparation for the First Cowboy Poetry Gathering, I have an enduring interest in who, why and what the sources of material were. Brian Morris’ recitation of an unnamed poem that I have called “Tomorrow you may die” was not specifically Buckaroo related, neither was the awesome act of memory of Chuck Dougal of Jordan Valley, Oregon reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee” written by Robert Service.  While Brian’s source is not known, the verses are traceable in the United States to a World War I era (1918) book The Stag’s hornbook, with the title “Was it Really Worth the While?” John McClure is the editor of the book but like thousands of other compilations, the attribution of this poem is Anonymous. But with the poem’s wordiness and clever (if low art) images it is certainly from the mind of a single person, but the chain is broken and we don’t know who.

A tale of unknowing of Cowboy Poetry returned to haunt me recently when a chain of telling led from the Old-Time Herald, a magazine devoted to southern music and many other things to the Library of Congress, American Folklife Center blog about categories of music use and American culture. The blog spoke of the context for Senator Gore Sr.’s recording of Soldier’s Joy in 1938, and gave a link to that recording from their collection. But it also linked to a recording of “The Darned Old Wheel” as recorded in the Arvin California Farm Security Administration Camp in August 1941 by Lum Wilson “Bill” Jackson. The American Folk Song Archive of the Library of Congress actually has a number of recordings of songs and recitations of this piece, The Massey Family The Westerners (Massey Family) “Gol-Darn Wheel” ARC 6-01-54(C 843-1) Chicago, IL, Wednesday 14, 1934 (Curt Massey f, Larry Wellington, ac, Allen Massey v/g, Milt Mabie, sb. Tony Russell, p. 610.)
recorded it in 1934 as did Johnny Horton a decade later—but its always “Anonymous.”

If you’ve been dying of wonder where the Pedabyte enters the story this is the place. Using the “Chronicling Historic America” site, searching thousands of newspapers across the United States, looking for hits on “Cowboy” and “Wheel” brought up the front page of the St. Johns’ Herald 14 March 1896, printing the stanzas to “The Cowboy and the Wheel.” But the tag line was “Gol Darned Wheel.” Just below the title was a bracketed source “[Recreation]” but no author. Well, Recreation, was the name of a sporting magazine published by G. O. Shields, as the publication of the American Canoist’s Association in 1896, in the February 1896 issue he published, “The Cowboy and the Wheel,” by James B Adams.  James B. Adams, better known as a poet and “paragrapher” for the Denver Post under his full name, James Barton Adams, is one of the well-known scribbler’s of Cowboy poetry and contributed a number of evergreens, particularly the “High-Toned Dance.” In 1899 he compiled a number of his poems into a book, Breezy Western Verse, printed by the Denver Post. But he didn’t include “The Cowboy and the Wheel” in that publication, and canoists and cowboys don’t party too often together. So a professional rhymer of the range was the source of this amusing bust-up that has been a valued part of our un-knowing for more than a century.

But by recognizing and attributing the author unveils and allows to shine more brightly the other facets of traditional that were and are always more important. Tradition proclaims the value and the respect with which performers have treated this metrical verse, molding its text, patching the forgotten phrases, singing it or saying it the piece has endured to become the fabric not only the fashion of cowboy poetry. The “pedabyte age” doesn’t destroy culture it frees it to connect with the roots while celebrating the enduring value of personal performance.

Some notes:
Jack Thorpe. Songs of the Cowboys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company (The Riverside Press, Cambridge), 1921. Pp. 71. “Mailed me by a friend from Marfa, Texas, who heard it sung by a cow-puncher named Hudspeth.” See the first edition, 1908.
Finger, Charles. Sailor Shanties and Cowboy Songs. Girard, Kansas: E. Haldeman-Julius, 1923.
Lee, Jack H., Cowboy Songs (Butte, Montana: McKee Printing Co, 1934) p. 40.
The Westerners (Massey Family) “Gol-Darn Wheel” ARC 6-01-54(C 843-1) Chicago, IL, Wednesday 14, 1934 (Curt Massey f, Larry Wellington, ac, Allen Massey v/g, Milt Mabie, sb. Tony Russell, p. 610.
Lomax, John A and Alan Lomax. Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads (Revised and enlarged edition. NYC: MacMillan, 1938. p. 269. In some case the earlier edition (NYC: Sturgis & Walton, 1910) is cited. “W. Bogel, a student at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, first sang this song to me in 1908.”
American Folklife Center. “Gol Darn Wheel” Recited by John A Lomax 5644B-1 LWO-3493 R29- A side broken) 1941 Falfurrias, Texas: “The gol darn wheel” Sung by Sterling Reason. October 1935. Fort Spunky, Texas LWO 4844, R47, side A.
Mailed me by a friend from Marfa, Texas, who heard it sung by a cow-puncher named Hudspeth.
Buck Lee. “The Gol Darned Wheel.” 11 July 1946, Clearview, Utah. Recorded by Austin and Alta Fife.
Johnny Horton 1956-1960 – Vol 3 #28 – The Gosh-Darn Wheel (CS 9940)LP 1970
Glenn Orhlin. “The Gol-Darn Wheel.” Mountain View, Arkansas on May 29, 1969. Missouri State University. Cat. #0732 (MFH #232)
G. Malcolm Laws, Native American Balladry. Appendix II “Native Ballads of doubtful currency in Tradition” page 260. cites, Lomax, “Cowboy Songs” 269, 26d couplets.
Hal Cannon, ed. Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering. Salt Lake City: Gibb Smith, 1985. Pp. 10.
Meade, Gus; Spottswood, Richard; Meade, Douglas. Country Music Sources. page 27 #26 “Gol Darn Wheel”. Two citations; 1 recording

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