Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Singing in Zion: Music and Song in the Life of an Arkansas Family

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Singing in Zion: Music and Song in the Life of an Arkansas Family

Article excerpt

Singing in Zion: Music and Song in the Life of an Arkansas Family. By Robert Cochran. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 274. Acknowledgements, prelude, coda, illustrations, appendices, notes, references for song annotations, index. $32.00.)

Robert Cochran's study began with a song collection that, by itself, he says, "may seem to the outsider's cold eye a dismaying melange of cliches, an impoverished aggregation of crude melodramas" (p. xiv). He advises readers that, as straightforward biographical narratives apart from the music, the lives of the singers might also seem unimpressive. It is the relationship between them that interests him, and that is what will interest readers who know that extraordinary insights often emerge from close observation of what appears, on the surface, to be quite ordinary.

What follows is an engaging portrait of the musical tradition of the Gilbert family of Washington County, Arkansas. First comes the author's narrative account of learning about the "place of music in the life of a family for whom music was of central importance," and about the family's role in its home communities, especially in Zion. The book does what it sets out to do, and that is to offer the reader a "heightened understanding and appreciation of the richer world and the deeper community a family of singers has created" (p. xiv).

Appendix One, which is really the second half of the book, is an annotated group of song texts, some with tune transcriptions, from the collection that initiated the study. Phydella Gilbert Hogan, a student in the author's folklore class at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, presented the texts to Cochran in 1988 as a collection of songs her family sang that she thought might interest him. A project for many years of Phydella and her sisters Helen and Alma, the songbook shows more breadth than depth, and that in itself is interesting to Cochran. As he points out, the collection is rich in songs offering differing viewpoints on a variety of subjects, and that variety is better suited to a group dialogue than as a representation of a single individual. …

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