MURFREESBORO, TENNESSEE —
Today you can find almost any obscure song or historical recording online, but that wasn’t always the case.
Traditional American music - bluegrass, Country, folk songs, blues - was being lost when the performers who knew the oldest songs died.. This loss prompted Congress to pass the American Folklife Preservation Act in 1976.
One of the first to take up the challenge of preserving old songs from the hills and remote Appalachian communities was a young Tennessee park ranger named Bobby Fulcher.
The thousands of recordings, photographs and lyric sheets he assembled now comprise the Tennessee Folklife Collection. They are stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled vault in Nashville. Stacked atop each other, the materials in the collection would reach the height of a 14-story building.
Fulcher is a child of the folk-music era who grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, but the tunes he heard as a young ranger traveling the Tennessee hills seemed somehow more compelling.
“There’s a difference between hearing someone sing a song that doesn’t really believe that there are ghosts and [lost souls] and ghost lovers, and someone who believes they’re real,” Fulcher said as he played a song about murdered lovers. “It sounds different to me when I hear them sing it.”
Fulcher began spending all his spare time tracking down folk artists and recording their songs. One of his biggest finds was a man named Dee Hicks, who had committed more than 100 centuries-old songs to memory. But getting to him wasn’t easy.
“I had my banjo in my hand,” he said. “So, when I walked up to the door, oh, there were dogs chained up, and it was good that they were chained, you know. They were pulling on the chain and snarling”.
But that didn't stop him.
“I knocked on the door and they let me in and we started talking about music and I recorded some banjo tunes right there.”
Each folk artist Fulcher met introduced him to still more musicians he wanted to record. To get to them faster, Fulcher hired graduate students using federal arts grants.
Betsey Patterson was one of those early interns. She says Fulcher taught her that to connect with hill people, you have to move at their pace.
“You have to learn to sort of step back and wait for the other individual to reveal themselves and reveal what they want to tell you,” she said.
Peterson, now director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, sees Fulcher's collection as a work of love.
"He did fall in love with the people,” she said. “He loves being around people, he loves just hearing what they have to say and drawing out the best in people. He's very good at that."
Clyde Davenport and his handmade fiddle, March 20, 2013 (Courtesy: Bobby Fulcher)
One of the artists Fulcher got closest to is fiddler Clyde Davenport, who was named a national treasure by the National Endowment for the Arts. Davenport is now in his 90s. His fiddling has slowed and he sometimes forgets how a song starts, but once on the bow, his fingers come alive.
Seeing the end of his Park Service career on the horizon, Fulcher is now focused on sharing the music that’s become his passion. He helped launch a record label to ensure Tennessee’s traditional music reaches a wider audience.
SandRockRecordings.com has released nine albums of traditional music so far. Six more are in the works. Fulcher now manages one of Tennessee’s newest state parks and continues to add to the Folklife collection.