The Rackensack Society is a folklore society which began in Stone County, Arkansas (Mountain View) in the early 1960’s. One of the founders who lived there and was a driving force in the organization was Jimmy Driftwood. He was a popular folk musician and song writer who wrote and sang several nationally recognized songs such as “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Tennessee Stud.” The purpose of The Rackensack was to preserve the folk music of the people of Arkansas, particularly people of the mountainous north central area. A year or so after the founding of the chapter in Mountain View, a second Rackensack chapter was started in Little Rock under the leadership of George Fischer, a well-known political cartoonist.
When I entered medical school in 1960 I was very proud of the Gibson J-45 guitar Pop had recently purchased for me. He was not a musician and definitely not interested in the folk music I loved to play and sing. I enjoyed bluegrass music and also the genre of folk music characterized by the Kingston Trio who had just become nationally popular. I learned to play the guitar in high school and by 1960 had at least four years of experience in playing and singing. Pop told me when he paid the exorbitant price of one hundred and twenty-five dollars for the Gibson, “I’m getting you this fancy guitar for use in a backup career in case you don’t make it as a doctor.”
It wasn’t long after school began when on a Saturday evening sitting and jamming with a few students in the lounge of the Jeff Banks Dormitory, I met a classmate from West Memphis named Burt Renager. Burt was a pretty good ukulele player, and we knew the lyrics of many of the same songs. He could sing melody, and I thought I could sing pretty good bluegrass tenor so we quickly became a duo. Our dorm rooms were so small they were not suitable for jamming, so when we decided to play we would go to the large lounge which had a piano and lots of comfortable chairs and couches. After one or two songs we could draw a crowd rather quickly. Neither Burt nor I were as good as we thought we were, but we had lots of fun, and our friends seemed to enjoy it. Burt loved bluegrass music as much as I, and we learned a bunch of Flatt and Scruggs’ songs from albums we owned. The following performance I’ll describe occurred in the fall of 1963 during my senior year.
Burt and I had heard about the folk music society Rackensack which met in the evening once a week at the Arkansas Art Center in MacArthur Park. We were told the program was open to anyone who loved to play and listen to folk music, and everyone was encouraged to bring their instruments and participate. That sounded like a venue in which we could showcase our much-heralded talents. Our greatest critics up to this point were mostly tone-deaf medical students.
The evening of the meeting we were greeted by several officials of the Rackensack, and when they saw we were carrying instruments told us we could be first on the program since none of the other participants had arrived. We took our place on stage and tuned our instruments awaiting the official opening. Burt announced our first number would be “Heaven”, and that was his only introductory remark. It was a song we had heard on the Flatt and Scruggs album pictured above and well suited for our playing and singing style. As I recall Burt did not play an instrument that night but we sang only to the accompaniment of my guitar. We did a good job remembering all the lyrics and the blending of our voices that evening was better than usual. I was pleased when we finished the song, and we received a hearty applause. I stepped back from the microphone to give Burt room to announce the next number when the program director made the following statement; “Since this is your first appearance, we ask the performers to give some background of their songs, such as the writer of the song and what inspired them to compose the number.” I was stunned thinking we would have to tell them we simply learned the song from a record album and had no idea about the origin. Burt was not the least bit phased and immediately launched into the following explanation:
“This song is almost a hundred years old having been written right after the Civil War—.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and thought at any moment Burt would say he was just kidding, but he continued his account. “The author is unknown but he was imprisoned in a Tennessee prison awaiting to be hanged for an unknown crime which could have been desertion from the army or horse theft. As he was thinking about his life and remembering what his dear old mother had taught him what heaven was like and how he would one day go there, he took a piece of coal off the floor of the prison and scribbled the words of this song. At some later time an unknown individual added the words on the prison wall to a melody, and thus was born the song we just performed” The members of the audience seemed to be nodding their heads in approval of Burt’s explanation, and I nodded right along with them.
That night I learned several things. Burt is never caught off-guard with the lack of a story and is certainly not intimidated by a crowd of strangers in his story-telling. I also learned to never perform in a venue until I have checked out what they are expecting. From this point forward Burt always introduced any songs we performed together, just in case an explanation of the song was required. We never performed again at the Rackensack and don’t think we were greatly missed.
PS: I think we had other songs prepared for that evening, but I can’t remember how Burt introduced them. I’m sure they were just as colorful and believable! We never returned to the Rackensack for a repeat performance.