Making Pictures: Three for a Dime and Arkansas At 78 Rpm: Corn Dodgers & Hoss Hair Pullers
Making Pictures: Three for a Dime
Deep in depression-era Arkansas, a woman named Mancy Massengill observed the Saturday action at a photo booth in Batesville. She also noted the camera brand as well as the business opportunity making photos for weekend revelers might provide for a mother of three in a place in time where work and money were scarce. She sold hens and sent the cash away for a lens, and from that point on, she and her husband, and later their extended family, pulled a trailer-turned-photo-studio around rural Arkansas on weekends and made pictures for anyone who was interested. Three for a dime. A nickel extra for tinting.
This story, with a bit more detail, is told twice - by photographer Philip March Jones, and again by Mancy's son Lance - in a book and companion CD that together give a sense of the playfulness, the sorrow, the ragged isolation and the importance of community found in rural Arkansas in the years leading up to the depression, as well as those immediately after, when the recording industry's ability and desire to record hardcore rural string music died a death brought on by a lack of resources and a change of tastes, something the industry itself helped to usher in. But the story of how the photos in Making Pictures, all made by members of the Massengill family, found their way into an archival release that so easily elevates them from snapped mementos to fine art belongs to Arkansas photographer Maxine Payne. It was a reconnection with a dear friend, Sondra Massengill, granddaughter of Mancy, some 70 years after many of these photos were taken, that allowed for someone with an artist's eye to recognize their continued importance and ultimately land them in this Dust to Digital release.
Divided into sections, the book collects writing from Payne, the aforementioned Jones and Lance Massengill, as well as diary entries from Mancy's other son Lawrence and his wife Thelma Bullard, that record the events of the day in brief run on sentences, usually ending with a dollar and cents amount of the money made from selling photos. The book also houses a few examples of photo albums.
Yet, it's mostly given over to 120 pages of individual picture plates, mostly of the Massengill extended family, which are elevated to a sudden importance once the reader/observer understands why they are gathered here. But no explanation is needed to bear witness to and wonder about the many people young an old who Dust to Digital have decided deserve their own pages in a gorgeous hardcover book. Seeing these faces now, ideally while listening to the CD of musicians who were the contemporaries of many of the folks forever captured by this family's makeshift photo studio, is to realize that time is truly able to stand still.
A. E. Ward & His Plow Boys
The CD, aside from containing even more of the Massengill's photos, collects the crème of the Ozark old time string bands that were able to record commercially when such labels as Okeh, Victor, and Columbia saw interest. A.E. Ward and his Plow Boys, Fiddlin' Bob Larkan, Pope's Arkansas Mountaineers and the Morrison Twin Brothers String Band, all of whom have been heard on the County Records collections Echoes of the Ozarks, are here once again.
Ashley's Melody Men
In typical Dust to Digital fashion, these 26 sides have been rendered as clean as possible without completely rendering the rawness and drive that made this stuff so potent when it was cranked from Victrolas by its original owners. Reaves White County Ramblers rip through a fiddle-sticks driven version of “The Drunkard's Hiccups,” the Morris Twins give the definitive version of the DDAD-tuned Ozark fiddle classic “Dry and Dusty,” Ashley's Melody Men mash down hard on “Searcy County Rag.” These fiddle-fueled tunes offer fantastic examples of full throttle mountain breakdowns at their finest. But as this collection finds musicians who recorded into the thirties - as what was yet to be referred to as “country” music was changing - we are also treated to a nearly Hawaiian, steel guitar-driven harmony vocal track, “Ozark Mountain Rose,” performed by the duo of Bonnie Dodd and Murray Lucas in 1937.
Lonnie Glosson, who recorded his two sides here in 1936, gives one example of the Chris Bouchillon- inspired talking blues with “Arkansas Hard Luck Blues” and then ends the collection with a solo harmonica workout on “The Fox Chase” not to topped! Other oddities include the Wonder State Harmonists, who supposedly included a cello, and their obviously minstrel-inspired 1928 take on “Turnip Greens.” By itself, Corn Dodgers would be a great collection for the old time freak who doesn't already own the County collections, but together, as it should be, with the book, it still takes an out-of-time, almost ethereal quality, but is also given a much deserved face. - Bruce Miller
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