Contributions of African-Americans to Louisiana Folklore Research

By Rebecca T. Cureau


Among the many African-Americans who made important contributions towards the documentation of the history and culture of Louisiana are four individuals whose work in the 1920s and 1930s is especially significant. A history of folkloristics and culture in Louisiana is incomplete without knowledge of the documented contributions of Willis Laurence James, a researcher and collector of Negro folk music; James B. Cade, a pioneer in collecting oral history; Camille Nickerson, for her study and collection of Creole folk songs; and Marcus Christian, a prominent figure in the Louisiana Writers Project.1

Willis Laurence James (1900-1966) began collecting folk songs shortly after coming to Louisiana in 1923 as the neophite teacher and founder of the music department of Leland College, when the school relocated to Baker from New Orleans where it opened in 1870 as Louisiana's first institution of higher learning for Negroes (Blassingame 1973:124; Lee 1974:3). Though only twenty-three years of age, James was hardly a newcomer to Negro folk music. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 18, 1900, he moved with his mother as a young child to Florida, where he grew up in Jacksonville in an environment still steeped in black oral traditions. He attributed his love of Negro folk songs to his mother, who, as he wrote, "Sang to me before my ears knew the sounds"(James 1945: Dedication). Among recollections of the culture of his childhood were memories of calls and cries of street vendors, workers in the fields, and longshoremen on Jacksonville's water-front; a song "sung by a neighbor boy at the top of his lungs each morning as he took his goats to pasture" made a vivid and lasting impression (James 1945: 167, 220). This early exposure formed the backdrop for his lifelong interest in Negro folk culture—an interest that was reinforced and encouraged in his college years. Printed programs of this period document his early activities as collector and arranger of Negro folk songs.2 Trained in music at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, James excelled as a violinist and tenor singer. He performed as a violin recitalist and as a member of a string quartet until the late 1930s and taught violin throughout his career. However, his lasting contribution would be the preservation of Negro folksong as folklorist and as arranger of Negro folksong (Cureau 1980:18-19; 1982).

Leland students were ready sources for James' interest in collecting Negro folklore. He encouraged them to share the songs and other oral traditions practiced by older members of their families and in their communities, and taught them to appreciate their cultural heritage (Carter, Huggins, Powell, E., Powell, I.S., 1979). Others at the college were also sources for gleaning folklore: one song in his collection of this period was "sung for me [by a professor from North Louisiana] one cold winter night as we sat around a contrary oil stove;" another religious song "of strange melancholy was sung for me by 'Miss Emma' one morning while she cooked in the school kitchen" (James 1945: 219, 346). James began to practice in this early period of his long career as music educator and folklorist his belief that folk songs were best preserved through performance. He taught many of his collected songs to his Leland students and included them on programs of the Leland Choir, which he directed, some in arrangements for mixed voices (James Papers).

James also collected in the surrounding areas of the college, throughout parts of Southeast Louisiana, and along the banks of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, notating the music in manuscript. Fascinated with songs associated with the river from his childhood in Jacksonville, James noted the calls and cries of Louisiana's stevedores and levee workers along the Mississippi River. These "peculiarly Negroid oral manifestations" doubtlessly figured in his later thesis on the genesis of Negro folk song, "The Romance of the Negro Folk Cry in America" (1955). James met and became friendly with a white folklorist, James Edward Halligan (1878-1965), a New Englander who worked as a soil chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and was also associated with Louisiana State University (Who's Who in America, 1922-23). Their work together as collectors and collaborators is documented in voluminous correspondence from Halligan to James, between 1926 and 1927 (James Papers). James' correspondence to Halligan, and some of his collected folksongs which he passed along to him have not been found.3 In 1927 a recording of Negro folksongs resulting from their collaboration, with James as tenor soloist and arranger, was released by the Paramount Record Company of Chicago (Baton Rouge State Times 1927). However, their relationship ended shortly after the record's release, doubtlessly because James felt that Halligan's was a romanticized interest in Negro folklore, which conflicted with his own serious approach to this culture (Theodora James 1982)—a perception borne out in Halligan's correspondence and poetry.4 While his letters contain interesting insights into some aspects of life in Louisiana during the period, a knowledge of local history, and anecdotes regarding current events (he comments on their excursion to collect songs from workers shoring up the Mississippi levees during the floods of 1927), Halligan seemed to regard conditions of slavery as benign, as is evident in some of his comments to James.5 James' tenure in Louisiana ended in 1928 (Cureau 1987: 144-50).

Subsequent tenures in black colleges served as the base for James' life-long work as a folklorist: in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1928 to 1933; and in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1933 to 1966.6 In these posts he recorded songs and other folklore collected from his students, and made forays into the surrounding communities. In 1939 he did intensive field work in several areas of the Deep South on a fellowship from the General Education Board. His findings resulted in a treatise on Negro folk music, "Stars in De Elements: A Study of Negro Folk Music"(1945); the unpublished manuscript contains over two hundred collected songs. In later periods he did fieldwork in the Georgia Sea Islands, where he studied Gullah speech and folklore. His interest in work songs led him to do collecting among longshoremen in Savannah, and in the mining areas near Birmingham. In 1941 he co-founded the Fort Valley College Folk Music Festival, an important regional folk festival that continued to the mid-1950s. The 1942 Festival caught the attention of Benjamin Botkin, then head of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress. James, along with two other folklorists, recorded the 1943 Festival on equipment loaned by Botkin; these field recordings, and folk music of the 1944 Festival, are included in the Library's field collections, some of which was released on a commercial album, Fort Valley Blues (1973). A respected authority on Negro folk music, blues, and jazz, James was a regular lecturer, panelist, and commentator at the Newport Jazz Festivals and the Newport Folk Music Festivals, and was a founding member and member of the faculty of the Institute for Jazz Studies. His theory on the Negro folk-cry received wide-spread attention long after its 1955 publication (Dorson 1959:196; Courlander 1963: 202-03; Hayakawa 1959, 1971a, 1971b; Dundes 1973: 430-434; Hendricks, 1973). Though he was not known to do later fieldwork in the state, his early experiences as a folklorist in Louisiana had made a lasting impression. A work song based on a series of musical cries, "sung for me by an old cabin boy in the Louisiana lowlands from the days of the Mississippi River steamboats," was published in 1942 as "Cabin Boy Call." He used these calls and cries first heard in Louisiana in lectures and demonstrations until the end of his life. James died in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 27, 1966.

Camille Lucie Nickerson (1888-1982) was an important contributor to the collection and interpretation of Louisiana Creole folk songs. She was born in New Orleans on March 30, 1888, into a musically gifted family (Southern 1982b:420; Borders 1988:23). She attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, from which she received both the bachelor's and the master's degrees in music. She taught in New Orleans (in her father's music school) from 1916 to 1926; in 1926 she joined the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C.; here she remained until her retirement in 1962. Always interested in folksong, she felt that the songs that she knew as a child and which were part of her Creole heritage were fast disappearing. She spent many summers collecting Creole folk songs in rural Louisiana towns, where the music was still sung. A fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation in 1931 enabled her to take a leave from her teaching duties and to collect and record Creole folk songs and street cries. Her collection of more than one hundred songs, fifty of which she arranged, became the basis of her master's thesis, titled "Afro-Creole Music in Louisiana: A Thesis on the Plantation Songs Created by the Creole Negroes of Louisiana" (1932). She notes the use of patois (a corrupted form of French) and the themes of gaiety, romance, ridicule, and satire as distinguishing features of these songs, in contrast to other Negro folk songs of the period of slavery (Nickerson 1952; 54-55). Many of the arrangements of her songs were subsequently published (Southern 1982b: 420).

Dickerson gave lecture recitals of the songs and street cries all over the country from the 1930s to the 1950s as "The Louisiana Lady," wearing antebellum Creole dress. An accomplished pianist, Nickerson sang to her own piano accompaniment. Her 1944 Town Hall debut as a mezzo-soprano received favorable critical acclaims, and she performed at a number of major concert halls, and at colleges and universities (Southern 1982a:288). In 1954 she toured France under the sponsorship of the United States Information Agency. She died in Washington, D.C., in 1982.

Until recent decades, scholars relied primarily on written documents as the sources for the interpretation of history. However, as early as the 1920s historians felt the need for new sources of information regarding slavery. Believing that the history of slavery could best be told by those who had lived it, black historians, in particular, pushed for a new kind of historiography to balance the written documents of literate people who wrote their own versions of the history of slavery relying on plantation records, papers, diaries, and traveler's accounts as primary sources. Recognizing the inherent value of first-person testimony and realizing the potential for gathering first-hand information from those who knew the institution of slavery best, scholars moved away from the historian's commitment to the documented written word and looked to the records of these illiterate and semi-literate people as found in their oral traditions (Fry 1975:16). Because time was a critical factor as the emancipated slaves moved away from their years in bondage, massive efforts were made during the decade between 1929 and 1939 to collect reminiscences from ex-slaves. While the largest project would be that undertaken by the Works Project Administration, an historian in Louisiana, James Brother Cade (1894-1970), is believed to be one of the first to turn to living ex-slaves as a source on which to draw for writing a social history of American slavery (Fry 1975:17). Born in Elberton, Georgia, on October 19, 1894, Cade received the bachelor's degree from Atlanta University, and the master's degree in history from the University of Chicago. He lived in Louisiana and was associated with Southern University in various capacities in tenures from 1922 to 1929 and from 1938 to 1968 (Conrad 1988:139). As head of Southern's Extension Department and director of teacher education during the earlier tenure, Cade's duties took him off the campus every Saturday morning during the school year and into centers in rural areas around the state. In 1929, while teaching the topic of slavery in a class in United States History, Cade "conceived the idea of securing views of the institution of slavery from ex-slaves and ex-slave owners" (Cade 1935:295). He asked all of his students, most of whom were teachers, to interview as many of these persons as they could, seeking information regarding housing, food, clothing, working conditions, family life, religious practices, amusements, educational opportunities, and punishments. According to Cade, "Every member of the class entered enthusiastically into the project, and thirty-six reported interviews totaling eighty-two." Cade's findings were published in 1935 in a journal article titled "Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves." His use of oral testimony as the basis for historical documentation became a basic tool for historians in later decades.7 While a modest project in size, it is nevertheless noteworthy that one of the early efforts to gather first-hand testimony from ex-slaves was done in Louisiana in such places as St. Joseph, Monroe, Bastrop, Minden, and Ruston (Cade 1935:295)—led by a former Georgian who spent most of his productive years in Louisiana. Cade died in Jackson on January 30, 1970, and is interred in Baton Rouge.

The largest and most ambitious effort to collect testimonies such as those collected by Cade's students was undertaken as part of the Federal Writers Project—developed as a means of providing work for the unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, the Louisiana Writers Project concentrated less on reminiscences of ex-slaves than did some other states, its major thrust being three main publications, Louisiana: A Guide to the State, The New Orleans City Guide, and Gumbo Ya-Ya. (The Louisiana Writers Project and the three publications are discussed elsewhere in this section). Because of the large number of applications received from black writers from the outset of the Project, Lyle Saxon, the director of the Louisiana Writers Project, developed a writers' project for Blacks in Louisiana; the project was called the Dillard Writers' Project because of its location at Dillard University (Clayton 1978:328). Because of the perceived need for a history of the Negro in Louisiana, compilation of such data was the major thrust of the Dillard Project, although the writers also gathered information that was included in the other publications. Saxon chose Marcus Christian, at the time a librarian at Dillard, as the director of the Dillard Project.

Marcus Christian was born in 1900 in Mechanicsville, now annexed to Houma, and there he received "all of my degrees in my father's primary school; I was very fortunate to have the father I had" (Peterson 1970). His father, Emmanuel Banks Christian, was the village schoolmaster in Mechanicsville and instilled in his son a love for poetry, for learning, and for books. Though he never attained degrees through formal education, Christian, through self-education, gained recognition as a poet and historian. His poems were published in major anthologies and journals; his historical works were published in major journals (Logsdon n.d.). In 1972 he published Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718-1900, regarded as "a valuable original contribution not only to Louisiana history but to Negro history" (Ward-Steiman 1972). The work provides a reference source on the Negro's contribution to the architectural beauty of New Orleans, as well as information regarding inventions by slaves, while also fulfilling Christian's goal of documenting the contributions of black Louisianans to the unique culture of the state.

The Dillard Writers Project, unfortunately, was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and the history of the Negro in Louisiana that Christian hoped to write was never completed, though it was to occupy his attention for the rest of his life. However, materials collected by the Dillard Writers were included in the Guides and in Gumbo Ya-Ya, and Saxon cites these black contributors, as well as others not connected with the Project, in the Preface to Gumbo Ya-Ya (Saxon, Dreyer, Tallant 1945:vii). Christian, unfortunately, was plagued by adversities throughout his life, and, overcome by personal misfortunes, disappeared from the public for a number of years. Through efforts of Joseph Logsdon, a white historian at the University of New Orleans, and A.P. Tureaud and Charles Rousseve—two prominent black New Orleanians who also figure in Louisiana history and who had encouraged and supported Christian's writing and scholarship—he was found in 1967 and subsequently hired as a Writer-In-Residence at the University of New Orleans (Lipsich 1977). Christian gained the respect of a new generation of students and others in the city as a poet, and for his knowledge of black literature, history, and culture. This period—the last six years of his life-was a happy and productive one for him; he wrote and published poetry, Negro Ironworkers, a pamphlet on "Negro Soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans," and organized his papers and materials at UNO—including his collection of rare books, maps, correspondence, original music manuscripts of some of New Orleans' major black composers, and the sketch of a memoir of Lyle Saxon (Logsdon, n.d.). Christian was unsuccessful in his attempts to publish his manuscript, "A History of the Negro in Louisiana," however, and it "remains today an open monument to document the history of black Louisianans and to encourage further work and study" (Johnson 1979:115-16). Meantime, Christian's leadership of the Dillard Writers Project was in itself an important contribution to the history of research of black culture in Louisiana.

Editor's Note: See entries for Camile Nickerson and Marcus Christian in KnowLA: Encyclopedia of Louisiana. See Willis Laurence James's biography in the Library of Congress collection.


Blassingame, John. 1973. Black New Orleans: 1860-1880. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Borders, Florence. 1988. Centennial of Camille Nickerson. The Chicory Review. 1(1): 24.

Cade, James B. 1935. Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves. Journal of Negro History 20: 294-337.

Christian, Marcus. 1972. Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718-1900. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co.

Clayton, Ronnie. 1978. The Federal Writers' Project for Blacks in Louisiana. Louisiana History. 19: 327-335.

Conrad, Glenn R., ed. 1988. Dictionary of Louisiana Biography. Lafayette, LA: University of Southeastern Louisiana.

Courlander, Harold. 1963. Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Cureau, Rebecca T. 1980. Black Folklore, Musicology, and Willis James. Negro History Bulletin. 41:18-21.

_____. 1982. Willis Laurence James. Georgia Dictionary of Biography. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

_____. 1987. Willis Laurence James (1900-1966)—Musician, Music Educator, Folklorist: A Critical Study. Doctoral dissertation. Atlanta University.

Dorson, Richard. 1969. Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dundes, Alan. 1973. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fry, Gladys-Marie. 1975. Night Riders in Black Folk History. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

Hayakawa, H.I. 1971a. Blacks are Americans First. Sunday Herald Tribune September 19.

_____. 1971b. That Mystic Cry at the Heart of Jazz. San Francisco Examiner October 30.

Hendricks, Jon. 1973. Responding to the Blues: This Feeling of the Cry. San Francisco Chronicler.

James, Willis L. 1945. Stars in de Elements: A Study of Negro Folk Music. Unpublished manuscript.

_____. 1955. The Romance of the Negro Folk Cry in America. Phylon 16:15-31.

Johnson, Jerah. 1979. Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana. Louisiana History 20: 113-115.

Lee, Lionel. 1974. The Rise and Fall of Leland College. Master's Thesis, Southern University.

Lipsich, Jerry. 1977. Black Historian and Poet Marcus Christian (1900-1976) Still Waiting to be Discovered. Figaro March 2.

Logsdon, Joseph S. Spiritual Strivings of a Black Poet and Historian: The Papers of Marcus Christian. n.d. Tom Dent collection, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Louisiana.

New Type of Negro Song by Local Talent. 1927. State Times February 21.

Nickerson, Camille Lucie. 1932. Afro-Creole Music in Louisiana: A Thesis on the Plantation Songs Created by the Creole Negroes of Louisiana. Master's Thesis, Oberlin College.

_____. 1952. Creole Music. Music and Dance in the Southeastern United States, Sigmund Spaeth, ed. New York, NY: Bureau of Music Research.

Petersen, Betsy. 1970. Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet. Dixie January 18.

Southern, Eileen, ed. 1982a. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

_____. 1982b. The Music of Black Americans. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Ward-Steiman, Irving. 1972. Review of Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718-1900 by Marcus Christian. Natchitoches Times, October 19.

Who's Who In America, 12 (1922-23).


Fort Valley Blues: Library of Congress Field Recordings from Georgia. 1973. Gloustershire, England: Flyright-Matchbox.


Carter, Albert E. 1979. Personal interview by author. November 6-8.

Huggins, Noami Perkins. 1979. Personal interview by author. October 8.

James, Theodora Fisher. 1982. Personal interview by author. March 18.

Powell, Elise Smith. 1979. Telephone interview by author. November 5.

Powell, I.S. 1979. Telephone interview by author. November 4.


1. Terminologies used to describe people of African descent throughout the paper reflect both the historic usages, such as Negro, as well as other names used to describe this racial group during the course of this century, including "Creole."

2. The "Willis L. James Papers" are housed in the Archives of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and include James' unpublished manuscript, miscellaneous shorter writings, music manuscripts of his arrangements (for solo voice, women's voices, mixed voices), original compositions (piano; piano and violin), correspondence, programs (from college years, Leland College, Alabama State Teachers College, Spelman College [most extensive]), a violin, books, music scores, and ephemera.

3. James and Halligan communicated by letter frequently. He often alluded to James' folksong collecting and to materials either sent to him or given to him by James. An undated letter asks him to "send the song you mentioned hearing in the church near your College. I would like to include it in a book I plan to publish. . . ." A letter of April 23, 1927, says "Kindly accept my thanks for the folklore. Should you gather any more I know that you will pass it on to me."

4. Theodora Fisher James, who taught at Leland from 1926 to 1927, prior to her marriage to James [1928], indicated that James felt that Halligan had "exploited" him. Indeed, as letters indicate, Halligan had tried to "pressure" James into an association whereby Halligan would "manage his career." One undated letter [probably of early 1927] says that he is ". . . so thoroughly wrapped up in our work, and it is a work of enjoyment to me, for I feel fitted for negro or other lyric writing. . . With your musical beauty I do not believe that we can be beaten in creating. . . our association will inspire us to greater heights. . . We will give the world something worthwhile. . ." A letter of March 2, 1927, informs James that Halligan had filed in the Parish Courthouse with the Recorder, the original copy of a contract, which, in effect would "control" James's musical life: he would manage "Vaudeville, concert, recital and other public or private appearances...;" he would compose or sing no songs or lyrics other than those written by Halligan for any activity; record production, sheet music, recitals or any public or private entertainment or performance for the life of the contract - February 26, 1927, until January 1, 1932, "privilege of renewal or expiration if mutually agreed by both parties."

5. Halligan wrote in an undated letter that "On the sugar plantations of Louisiana the negro laborer lived a life of ease as far as worry was concerned. They were cared for and properlv housed and supplied with food and clothes and kept in good physical condition. . . ."

6. James taught at Alabama State Teachers College (now Alabama State University) from 1928 to1933; and at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1933 until his death in 1966.

7. Another more in-depth study was begun the same year by Ophelia Settle Egypt, a black sociologist, at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rebecca T. Cureau taught music and Chair of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Southern University in Baton Rouge. This article was first published in the 2012 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, but was commissioned initially in the 1990s as an addition to a then-planned new edition of Louisiana Folklife: A Guide to the State.