Filed Under Story

Jasper Recordings

In fall 1940, folklorist John A. Lomax and his wife Ruby visited Jasper where a friend introduced them to an elderly African American man they referred to as "Uncle Billy McCrea." Documented in most other records as Bill McCray, he had been interviewed three years earlier by the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) for the slave narrative project. Although McCray told the Lomaxes that he was either in his 80s or 117, he had told the FWP worker that he was born into slavery in 1851 in Sabine County, about 40 miles north of Jasper.

The Lomaxes first visited McCray at his farm on the east side of Jasper where he grew collard greens, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. He had a large home, but preferred to sleep in a log cabin which he showed to John. The Lomaxes interviewed and photographed McCray at his farm and also arranged for him to come to their hotel where they recorded over two nights. He shared his varied work experiences, like cooking on a steamboat and log rolling, and he discussed his memories of the "Yankee" presence after slavery ended. McCray told the Lomaxes that as a boy he was a "singer and a dancer and a patter," and he danced and sang for them, sometimes disturbing the recording equipment. The Lomaxes recorded several short songs, mostly "play tunes" McCray recalled from slavery and work songs associated with lumber and maritime labor, that were interspersed in his longer interviews.

While in the city of Jasper, the Lomaxes also recorded a group of African American students ranging from about five to ten years old. They identified the boys and girls by name and, according to census records, the children also lived on the east side of the city. They sang play songs like "Clap, Clap, Partner," "Sissy in the Barn" and "Walking on the Green Grass," and a version of the minstrel song "Jump Jim Crow."

Outside of the city, John and Ruby recorded an African American preacher they had met the year before in Merryville, Louisiana. John R. Gipson lived in Merryville but his church was located in Buna, Texas. The Lomaxes noted in 1939 that he sang "jazzed" spirituals and played piano as part of his sermons. In Jasper County, the pastor made at least a dozen recordings including two songs, "Old Ship of Zion" and "I'm Looking for the Man that Don't Know Jesus," which the Lomaxes had also recorded with him a year earlier.

West of Jasper, John and Ruby recorded white members of a church who performed sacred harp singing at the Beech Grove School. The congregation members, of whom six were identified by name, recorded four songs in the sacred harp or shaped note style, an early American a cappella tradition. The songs were referenced by their titles and also by their page number in the book "The Original Sacred Harp" published in 1911.


Bill McCray Interview Part I This recording of Bill McCray, or "Uncle Billy McCrea" the Lomaxes identified him, includes an interview and several songs. Both John and Ruby can be heard speaking on it. Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Bill McCray Interview Part II The second recording of Bill McCray, a former slave, focuses on his memories of the first years of freedom and his recollections of his master. Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Old Ship of Zion Pastor John R. Gipson recorded "Old Ship of Zion" twice for the Lomaxes, first in Merryville, Louisiana, in 1939 and then in Jasper in 1940. This recording is from the first session. Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress


Bill McCray Ruby T. Lomax took this photograph of Bill McCray at his farm in Jasper when her husband interviewed him in 1940. Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
John A. Lomax and Bill McCray Folklorist John A. Lomax (center) and his subject Bill McCray were photographed together during the Lomaxes' visit in 1940. Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Jasper Postcard This postcard, probably from the 1910s or 1920s, shows a bird's eye view of Jasper. Source: Stone Brothers Drug Store
Catalog Entry for "I Would See Jesus" This catalog card identifies the members of the church congregation who performed sacred harp singing but not their church. The note at the bottom indicates that "I Would See Jesus" was published on page 75 of "The Original Sacred Harp," a collection of songs in the sacred heart style. Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Catalog Entry for "Walking on the Green Grass" The catalog record for "Walking on the Green Grass" lists the names of the school children who performed the song but not the name of their school. Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress



Amy Bertsch, “Jasper Recordings,” East Texas History, accessed September 21, 2023,