Carlos “Bookmiller” Shannon, born on Cow Mountain, Jan. 16, 1908, played the five-string banjo with fellow Stone County native Jimmie “Driftwood” Morris, among others in the area. In October 1959 in Timbo, Shannon recorded several banjo solos for Alan Lomax.
The sessions were coordinated with the help of Driftwood; Driftwood’s father, Neal Morris, and folklorist John Quincy Adams. Lomax also recorded folk performers in Landis and Herpel. Driftwood’s father also gathered players, performed himself and offered this commentary — courtesy of his own Arkansas father, also a teacher: “Dad [said] music had no end. That you could learn all the other guy learned, and after you got that down, then something else would crop up … that’s why music advanced … that it would fit the time in which they lived. They said music grew like the grapevine that is never pruned, that each year it put on a little bit more.”
“Bookmiller” Shannon was the only performer recorded during the North Arkansas sessions not born in the 19th century, but he still pulled out some good examples of what was becoming popular in the United States as “folk music.”
The song “Buffalo Gals,” recorded by Shannon and endemic enough in American culture to be prominently featured in the 1947 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” dates to minstrel days. The wonderfully titled “Down in Arkansas Among the Sticks” was later immortalized on the long-running country music TV show “Hee-Haw.”
The origins of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” are murky. It’s a dance, a song — and may have been a real person. And what does it mean to be “cotton-eyed”?
The “Cotton-Eyed Joe” has been used in both black and white square dance halls for many decades.
Some say “The Eighth of January” was composed to commemorate the War of 1812; others say the tune may have already been in existence and merely renamed for the U.S. victory over Britain.
“Bookmiller” Shannon recorded his banjo version of “The Eighth of January,” but the tune has special meaning for Jimmie Driftwood, as he took the basic melody and crafted it into his “Battle of New Orleans.”
Coincidentally, Driftwood’s song was a hit the same year Lomax’s ancient-sounding field recordings were made.
“In the dark and tangled hills of the state of Arkansas,” Lomax wrote after making his recordings, “the approved mode of conduct was nonconformism, whether this meant a life of train robbing like Jesse James or simply of reciting songs and bawdy stories.”
But “Bookmiller” Shannon let his banjo tell his stories. He died June 28, 1985, his five-string banjo techniques studied and lauded across America.
There’s more about “Bookmiller” Shannon on this week’s “Arkansongs,” heard Fridays at 6:40 a.m and 6:20 p.m. on KUAR-FM, 89.1 in Little Rock. E-mail: