Long before Tennessee digitized a collection of traditional folk songs and storytelling, a small group of trained researchers had to collect those recordings in the field. That started in earnest in state parks in 1979.
The process often led the folklorists to visit people in their rural homes. And that’s where Linnie Johnson, of DeKalb County, said she did her singing while carrying out housework.
“I was singing my blues away — trying to,” she told interviewer Betsy Peterson in 1981. “It was whatever crossed my mind.”
Johnson shared several unaccompanied ballads and told stories of ghosts, hangings, and murders that state archivists considered important parts of Upper Cumberland social history.
Folklorists treasured those like Johnson for saving lesser-known music that might otherwise have been lost. Capturing those moments sometimes required gentle coaxing from an interviewer like Peterson.
“Well, can you remember a couple verses?” she asks at one point.
“They’re too crazy, honey, some of them,” Johnson says. “There’s so many songs, you know, you can hear a lot and then not hear ‘em all.”
Johnson downplays her singing, but did offer several rare tunes, including “Sixty Bright Guineas.” That’s a song about marrying the wrong boy that Johnson learned from her father and committed to tape. Only in the past year has it become available online through the state archives.