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Music and Literature

The essence of the Black Belt lies not just in its natural area and historic and cultural sites, but in its arts- its rich stories; its many musical genres which relect the various interests of the region's residents; its artwork and photography.

White Alabama folklorist Ruby Pickens Tartt and African American folksinger Dock Reed exemplify how the power of art brings people together in the Black Belt. At the death of ethnomusicologist John Lomax in January 1984, both Tartt and Reed lost a mentor and benefactor. Both had recieved artistic encouragement and monetary support from Lomax. In a letter to Ruby Terrill Lomax, Tartt said she and Reed stood in the middle of the road and wept over Lomax's death. A few days later, Reed entered the public library and asked Tartt to write Lomax's wife to ask for a picture of Lomax from him.

Looking for a way to console Reed, Tartt remembered that in his autobiography, The Adventure of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax paid tribute to Reed. The last page of the autobiography recorded a spiritual sung by Reed to Lomax. When Tartt reached Reed's farm, she explained that she had a message from Lomax for Reed. Although Reed was first bewildered as to how Tartt could have a message from Lomax after his death, he allowed Tartt to continue speaking.

Since her friend could not read, Tartt read the words of the spiritual to him: As Tartt read, Reed hummed and then sang. "Angel flew from the bottom of the pit, Gathered the sun all in her fist, Gathered the moon all 'round her waist, Cryin, Holy Lord, Cryin, Holy Lord. Cryin, Holy my Lord, Cryin, Holy! Weep like a willow, moan like a dove, You can't get to Heaven 'thout you go by love." Finally, Reed said, "I's pacified, Miss Ruby. Glory, glory." (Library of Congress, RPT to RTL February 12, 1948)

This powerful story sounds a familiar theme among Black Belt residents and even for visitors to the region who find a connection to the area through its music, literature, and images. For it is the music of artists such as Willie King, Vera Hall, and Hand Williams that have led people to journey to the Black Belt to hear the music that has touched their souls. As a result, scholars and music lovers alink can find more than 800 songs, from spiritual to blues, housed at the United States Library of Congress, documenting the rich musical heritage of the area. In current venues such as the Freedon Creek Festival and the live Sucarnachee Revue radio show, the music of today's artists continues to be cultivated and enjoyed.

Stories, too, stir the imagination and passion of both visitiors and Black Belt residents. As early as the 1850's, tales from writers such as James Baldwin in Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi created vivid images of the area. To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most powerful books written in the twentieth century, was created by the Black Belt's own Harper Lee. Thousands of visitors each year make the pilgrimage to Monroeville, the Literary Captial of Alabama, to see scenes from this book performed live each spring on the Courthouse Square as part of the annual Alabama Writers' Symposium. In addition, an author is honored annually with the coveted Harper Lee Award.

But Lee's words are not the only ones that challenge readers to stop and think about the world in which they live. Native sons and daughters such as William Cobb, Tom Franklin, Mary Ward Brown, Marlin Barton, Donald Stone, Norman McMillan, and Martha Young discovered that the landscapes added a richness to the stories that their characters inhabited. Even visitor F. Scott Fitzgerald found his creative muse, Zelda, in the Black Belt.

In the twentieth and in to the twenty-first century, photographic images from the Black Belt have made their way across the nation. The book, Let us Now Praise Famous Men, with its haunting images, continues to be familiar to a large audience. For more than 40 years, the photography of William Christenberry has documented the region with images not easily forgotten once one leaves the gallary or closes the cover of his books. It is in these images, words, and songs that these artist discover ways in which to unravel the complexities of the Black Belt and share it with the world.