Thomas Hart Benton
The Sources of Country Music is currently on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame Rotunda and is part of the exhibit tour.
On January 18, 1975, in his carriage-house studio in Kansas City, Thomas Hart Benton put the last brushstrokes on his painting The Sources of Country Music. The mural had been commissioned the year before by Nashville's Country Music Foundation to be displayed in the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum. Its completion, in less than a year, by an eighty-five year-old-artist, was an impressive physical achievement.
The task might have exhausted a much younger painter, for the canvas measures six by ten feet and contains seventeen nearly life-sized figures. But Tom Benton took on the project because the subject was very dear to him. Tom's interest in country music was that of a man actively involved with it; he was himself a gifted musician, as well as a collector of American folk tunes. In The Sources of Country Music he distilled the study and hard work of a lifetime.
"I remember from my childhood," Tom remarked of country music, shortly after he was commissioned to make the Nashville mural. "I was raised down in southwest Missouri, and the only music we had was country music.So I was pretty familiar with it.I was familiar with the songs and with a good deal of literature on the subject."
Tom's maternal grandfather, Pappy Wise, of Waxahachie, Texas, was a violin maker and musician, who used to get up in the early hours of the morning and play country fiddle tunes. His mother was a serious pianist. Despite this exposure to music, however, Tom did not take up an instrument himself until 1931, when he was forty-one years old. One day he picked up a child's harmonica that someone had given to his son T.P. and began to make noises. After some experiment, he learned to play a scale and became so excited that he ran home from his studio to show his new skill to his wife, Rita.
Tunes were too much for him, however, so he went out and purchased some music books. For weeks he did nothing but play children's songs and elementary folk tunes. After his playing improved, he purchased a more expensive harmonica that allowed him to play half-notes and make key changes. He and Rita began playing the guitar and harmonica together in the evenings.
For a while Tom was more interested in the harmonica than in painting. Thanks to his enthusiasm, a few of his students became interested as well and began meeting at his home on Monday evenings for musicales.
To make it easier for the novice, Tom devised a new form of musical notation, which was later picked up, and is still used by commercial music publishers. Rather than indicating the position of a note on the scale, this system indicated numerically which hole to blow through, and had an up or down arrow indicating whether to inhale or exhale.
For five years, playing the harmonica occupied much of Tom's time. He began taking it with him on his summer travels and would perform in farmhouses and at country dances. As his ear improved, he began collecting American folk tunes. Helen Lieban, who visited Tom in 1934, observed:
Music, next to painting dominates the Benton ménage. Mrs. Benton sings the songs of her native Lombardy to her own guitar accompaniment, while Benton puffs lustily on his harmonica, showing special partiality for such early American folk tunes as "Old Joe Clark," "My Horses Ain't Hungry," and "Buffalo Gals." Of later years he has gone in relentlessly for Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, making up in fire what he lacks in virtuosity.
During the 1930s, Benton sketched and befriended country fiddlers like Uncle Lawrence and Dudley Vance (both of whom are mentioned in An Artist in America, Tom's colorful autobiography); made portraits of modern composers such as Edgar Varese and Carl Ruggles; and befriended the musicologist Charles Seeger, an early collector of American folk songs. Seeger's son, the folk singer Pete Seeger, has recalled that he first heard the song "John Henry" when Benton performed it for him.
Many of Benton's best paintings of the 1930s-Frankie and Johnny, The Jealous Lover of the Lone Green Valley, and The Engineer's Dream, for example-were directly inspired by folk songs. In the mural panels he created for the Whitney Museum in New York in 1932, Tom included a likeness of Wilbur Leverett, from Galena, Missouri, playing the guitar; Dudley Vance, from Bluff City, Tennessee, playing the fiddle; and his pupil Jackson Pollock playing the harmonica.
Indeed, Benton probably tried to create visual styles which correlated with the various types of music that he loved. The Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, for example, evokes the sadness of a country fiddle tune; whereas Lonesome Road, a likeness of a black man with a mule and a ramshackle cart, has the seriocomic mood and the jerky, unexpected rhythms of the blues.
In 1941 Benton even flirted with a career as a harmonica virtuoso. In that year he cut a three-record album, released by Decca, titled Saturday Night at Tom Benton's (Decca 331). In it he tooted out tunes on his harmonica, backed by an orchestra of professional musicians.
As a consequence of his musical interests, Tom Benton did not need much persuading when he was first approached by the Country Music Foundation. In January, 1973, when Norman Worrell, director of the Tennessee Arts Commission, and Tex Ritter, the famed cowboy singer, visited him in Kansas City, Tom warmed up almost immediately to Tex's suggestion that he create a large visual summary of the roots of country music.
While he and Tex sipped Jack Daniel's together, Tom repeated, "The sources of country music-that's it." He then elaborated: "No one should be recognizable. It should show the roots of the music-the sources-before there were records and stars."
Benton later commented:
I'd had considerable interest in folk music of the United States in various times in my life. So I didn't have to do any research-I knew all that stuff. The problem was merely to get it together, in my own mind, about how I could represent these things in the canvas.
Now a great deal of this folk song originally came from the countries where the early settlers came from, and in our own the most of 'em are English and Scotch-Irish; but they, naturally, were modified in the American environment and took on their particular character and their particular content.
Now this is an interesting thing about country music. Until very lately they used no percussion, not even a banjo or a guitar. Everything was either fiddle or singing. The singing was sometimes part singing-two and three, generally three parts; but there was no kind of percussion instrument, say like a banjo, which has some of the attack that a percussion instrument would have. They were not used. I don't remember any guitar-playing in my youth in the Ozark country at all, in my early youth. The only banjos that were ever played were those in the old minstrel shows.
Benton began planning the Nashville painting in the fall of 1973. In December he wrote to William Ivey, executive director of the Country Music Foundation, urging that "people should express their opinions and preferences," and suggesting that the painting might include "pioneer fiddlers and square or play party dancers-hymn singers, (white spirituals) -ballad singers (maybe with dulcimer), blues singers-(negro with banjo, maybe on the river below Memphis)-Cowboy singers-etc., etc." By the first of January 1974, Benton had submitted an initial sketch to the Board of the Foundation.>
Several of these scenes were closely related to Tom's earlier paintings and prints. For example, the group of dancers brings to mind an illustration he made in 1954 for the play Green Grow the Lilacs (from which the musical Oklahoma! was derived). The church comes right out of the Arts of the South panel of 1932 for the Whitney Museum, and reappeared later in his 1937 canvas Susannah and the Elders.
In late January, when the board met to discuss the sketch, they unanimously voted to dedicate the mural to Tex Ritter, who had died just a short while before. They also made a number of suggestions. They felt that Benton's sketch emphasized the square dance tradition a little too much and noted that it left out the train-an important theme in country music.
On January 28, 1974, Benton replied to a letter from Bill Ivey. "I go for the idea that the mural should in some way be a tribute to Tex Ritter. Why don't we symbolize Tex in the cowboy singer?" He also noted, "I greatly thank whoever brought up the significance of the railroad train for our subject. How could I have overlooked it? Though a late theme I agree that it is too important to ignore."
In February, Benton left on a three-week "sailing jaunt about the Bahamas." After his return, however, he set to work revising his design, and in March 1974 he submitted a revised sketch for the board to consider. In this drawing he eliminated the moldings in the earlier sketch and placed all the figures in a unified pictorial space. He replaced the cowboy on horseback with a rather generalized portrait of Tex Ritter, and added a train, to suggest the importance of railroad songs. In addition, on his own inspiration, he put in a steamboat to suggest the significance of river music. The final design contained scenes of a riverboat, a train, church singing, barn dancing, a black banjo player, and a singing cowboy.
The Board of the Country Music Foundation enthusiastically approved his revised conception, and over the summer Benton worked on enlarging and perfecting it. As was his custom, he made elaborate studies before beginning work on the final canvas. He constructed a painted plasticine model of the whole composition, made oil studies in both black and white and color, and drew careful pencil studies of the instruments and each of the figure.
Over the summer he worked from models close at hand, using his daughter Jessie's friends and other acquaintances. Benton was not satisfied, however, with a painting based only on friends and professional models. Eager to capture the authentic spirit of country music, he went out to the Ozarks to locate some surviving country musicians. "I guess I could use the face of an actor," Benton commented, "but sometimes what people do for a long time in their life-their occupations-shows in their faces. Or is suggested. That might be true in a musician. The emotions he has experienced might show. I don't know. I just have to see the face."
In the course of a few days, Benton did a number of portrait studies, each about three inches square, which took about twenty minutes apiece to complete. After half a day of searching, Tom located Raymond Bruffet, a local fiddler, who lived in a cabin deep in the woods, surrounded by a dozen or so junked cars. He also hunted down old Nick Nickens, a left-handed fiddler, and Chick Allen, whose instrument was the jawbone of a mule (Allen would hang the dried bone around his neck on a thong and wrap it with sticks). A young woman at the School of the Ozarks posed with her mouth open, as if singing. Benton later drew on his sketch of her for several members of the church choir.
Tom was equally careful about the instruments, costumes, and background details of the painting.
One of the elements which caused him most concern was the train. The image of a train appears in country music in many well known songs, such as "The Wreck of the Old 97," "The Wabash Cannonball," and "Casey Jones." Benton was particularly concerned that the train be represented accurately. He decided to use as his model Engine No. 382, the "Cannonball Express," the train in which Casey Jones perished in his famous wreck, a fast passenger train which ran from Chicago to New Orleans. As late as December of 1974 he was still doing research on this question. He asked his friend Lyle S. Woodcock in St. Louis to help him out, and on December 19, 1975, Woodcock wrote back:
According to the Transport Museum records, and the Norfolk and Western Railroad (successor to the Illinois Central), Engine No. 382, the one driven by Casey Jones, was scrapped many years ago. The Museum of Transport in St. Louis has an engine which they say is identical to No. 382. It is a "Ten Wheeler" with a wooden cab, and is No. 635. It was a Missouri Pacific Engine, built by Baldwin Locomotive Co. in 1889. This engine is easily accessible in St. Louis.
The railroad museum in Jackson, Tennessee is the home of Casey Jones. They have an engine like the one in St. Louis and have numbered it 282 although it is not the original engine of which Casey Jones was engineer.
In closing, Woodcock enclosed photographs of the St. Louis engine. Tom was dissatisfied with the first set of photographs, so Woodcock went back to take detailed photographs of the working gears.
Benton based the train in his painting on these photographs, and finished the canvas on January 18, a little bit ahead of his schedule. On the afternoon of January 19, when he had drinks with his young friend John Callison, he suggested that they should drive to St. Louis together someday soon to look at the actual train. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to make this trip.
That same evening after dinner, Tom walked out to his studio, wearing the same old hat John Callison had posed in while turning a windlass for the 1972 mural of "Turn of the Century Joplin." (Located in the Municipal Building of Joplin, Missouri.) He announced to his wife, Rita, that he wanted to look over his mural; if he decided it was completed he was going to sign it.
Around 8:30 Rita went out to fetch him, and chide him for staying out so late. She found Tom lying on the floor with his spectacles on, directly in front of the Nashville mural, which was still unsigned. Stricken by a massive heart attack, he had fallen on his wristwatch, which stopped at the exact moment of his death: five minutes past seven o'clock.
The Cannonball Express had reached its destination.
Professor of American Art
Case Western Reserve University