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Short Stories, vol. 1

David Kirkland Garner
and Greg Stuart
2024 SR002
  1. No, sir, no 6:40

  2. Shine on 12:10

  3. Lost train 8:56

  4. All the way round 10:23

  5. Lost girl 8:37

  6. John Henry 11:57

David Kirkland Garner, composer & piano

Greg Stuart, percussion


recorded by Jeff Francis on Thursday, February 9, 2023

at the University of South Carolina

produced, mixed, and mastered by David Kirkland Garner


design by Dan Ruccia

Short Stories, vol. 1 is a tapestry of structured improvisation and through-composed music constructed around six field recordings made by John and Ruby Lomax during their 1939 Southern Mosaic trip, during which they documented hundreds of hours of folk songs and instrumentals from Texas to Virginia.


The recordings were made in Texas, Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas, and each one presents a unique window into southern music and life in 1939, while also existing as a precious sound object in itself. The distortion and static draws me closer and enchants me. I find myself wondering about who the musicians were, where they lived, how they lived, their family histories, and more. For me, then, each of these recordings feels like an unexplored story about a specific person in a specific place in a specific time. The title Short Stories also points towards the rich tradition of Southern Gothic literature with authors like Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison.


On one level, Short Stories is about the dialogue between recorded sound from 1939 and two live instrumentalists, the tension between the fixed tempo and temperament of the piano and vibraphone and the more fluid and human approach to pitch and rhythm heard in the voices and fiddles, and the tapestry of music against noise. The field recordings are at times heavily manipulated and contextualized and at other times clear and unadorned. The piano and percussion parts move between echoing the field recordings, providing context and support, and adding contrasting contrapuntal material. My hope is that, through these treatments, new details of the recordings come to the fore.


However, Short Stories is also about the dialogue between past and present, at times creating distance between the two while occasionally blurring the vast temporal gap. The music also explores concepts of nostalgia through these 84 year-old field recordings. Author Svetlana Boym writes about a few different types of nostalgia. The first is a “restorative” nostalgia that seeks to recreate the idealized past. The other type she called “reflective” nostalgia, which “dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. (Boym 2001)” Short Stories, vol. 1 is certainly investigating reflective nostalgia, but perhaps also a kind of critical nostalgia.


In the south, nostalgia and how we collectively remember the past is extremely complex and is itself a political act. There are some who might hear one of these field recordings and be swept into a nostalgia that seeks to restore the idealized bucolic past. However, the same recording can be heard as a reminder of incredible tragedy, erasure, discrimination, and loss. Many of Lomax’s recordings of Black musicians were made in coercive circumstances; in the state penitentiaries in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, for example, Lomax was known to have bribed prison officers to force inmates to perform (Stewart 2016).


6. John Henry sung by Arthur Bell, for example, was recorded at the Cummins State Farm in Arkansas. After the Civil War, the prison systems in the South continued many of the traditions of forced labor and slavery, albeit under new names and institutions, such as the “state farm” system and the convict leasing programs (Blackmon 2009; Mancini 1996). In one of many chilling examples, the first Governor-appointed superintendent of the Goree State Farm in Texas (one of the other prison camps in which the Lomaxes recorded on their 1939 trip) was T.J. Goree, who had once served as a Captain in the Confederate Army. Prisoners were treated with unimaginably brutal cruelty. Lomax provided a glimpse of these horrors in his field notes, relaying that the wife of the captain of the Cummins State Farm in Arkansas “complained that she was kept busy repairing the right armhole of his shirts, which tore loose when he flogged the boys in the field when they slackened work” (Lomax 1939). And indeed, these practices of incarceration, control, and labor, forged in slavery, continue to the present day (Alexander 2012).


Collectors like Alan and Ruby Lomax travelled to prisons in search of “pure” and “authentic” songs, untouched by the outside world, but as early as the late 1930s, John Lomax was bemoaning their disappearance, citing the radio and education as the primary causes. Lomax likely benefitted the most from the “discovery” and exploitation of influential Black musicians, such as Huddie William Ledbetter (Stewart 2016: Lomax 1939).


One looming question, then, is whether Short Stories continues the pattern of appropriation and exploitation by making music with and around recordings like Arthur Bell’s version of John Henry. I still do not have a clear answer, but I am a committed student of these recordings and histories and seek to create opportunities to engage with the south’s (and the country’s) often underrepresented past.


I hope to give forgotten voices another chance to be heard, histories to be told, and to highlight moments of particular beauty that might otherwise be overlooked. Embedded in every crackly field recording is a wealth of knowledge, experience, history, and humanity from which we can learn.


-DK Garner


  • Boym, S. (2001), The Future of Nostalgia, New York: Basic Books.

  • Alexander, M. (2012), The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press.

  • Blackmon, D. A. (2009), Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, New York: Anchor Books.

  • Lomax, J.A. (1939), “1939 Southern Recording Trip Fieldnotes,” American Folklife Center, AFC 1939/001: fn0001, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (accessed 4 February 2023).

  • Mancini, M.J. (1996), One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leading in the American South, 1886–1928, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

  • Stewart, C. A. (2016), Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  • John and Ruby Lomax 1939 southern states recording trip (AFC 1939/001), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

  • No, sir, no (after Grace Longino in Huntsville, Texas on May 13, 1939) Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, and Grace Longino. No, Sir, No. Huntsville, Texas, 1939. Audio.

  • Shine on (after Doris McMurray in Huntsville, Texas on May 14, 1939) Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, and Doris McMurray. Shine On. near Huntsville, Texas, 1939. Audio.

  • Lost train (after Glenn Carver and Fred Perry at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, Florida on June 4, 1939) Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, Glenn Carver, and Fred Perry. Lost Train Blues. Raiford, Florida, June 4, 1939. Audio.

  • All the way round (after Sims Tartt, Bettie Atmore, and Mandy Tartt in Livingston, Alabama on May 29, 1939) Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, Sims Tartt, Bettie Atmore, and Mandy Tartt. All the Way Round. Livingston, Alabama, 1939. Audio.

  • Lost girl (after Lake N. Porter in Falfurrias, Texas on April 29, 1939) Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, and Lake N Porter. Lost Girl, The. Falfurrias, Texas, 1939. Audio.

  • John Henry (after Arthur Bell at Cummins State Farm in Varner, Arkansas on May 20, 1939) Lomax, John A, Ruby T Lomax, and Arthur Bell. John Henry. near Varner, Arkansas, 1939. Audio.

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