By Jim Schutze
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Wavy gray hair and translucent-rimmed glasses restore the aura of an archivist to Tary Owens. His soft, raspy voice and deliberate words temporarily hush as he closes his eyes to catch the music, the vision of that first prison experience:
It is again the summer of 1963. Owens turns his car down rural lanes past mounted, rifle-toting guards overseeing the inmates working the endless rows of cotton and crops that made the Texas prison system self-supporting.
In an earlier time these prison farms might have been called plantations. And indeed, the black men working those fields often sang the same songs as the slaves who came before them.
Owens has come to the prison units to harvest that musical heritage of the past. His tools are a bulky Roberts reel-to-reel tape recorder, microphone, and mike stand. Owens runs the security gauntlet of puzzled guards with a letter from then-governor John Connally, giving him carte blanche to access the inmates.
After uncrating his equipment in sterile prison offices, he waits while guards escort in the so-called broke-dick inmates clad in crisp white correctional uniforms. They are the ones too aged or crippled to pull their shifts in the fields. But they still find their voices for this 21-year-old stranger.
In the stark surroundings, prisoners entertain him with their "toasts," rhyming boasts that are the forerunners of modern rap. They give their haunting renditions of the same songs done by slaves more than a century earlier. "Death Is Slow But Death Is Sure," they sing. The revolving tape reels collect harmonies that, on the low end, resonate eerily as if they were bagpipes. On the hottest August days Owens would feel chills from the profane and poignant lyrics.
At the end of that summer, the young folklore archivist for the University of Texas filed away more than 60 hours of tapes. When that work was rediscovered in recent years, Owens gained acclaim for preserving early music history for the state.
But this is no story of decades of academic devotion or even a career of scholarly sacrifice. Owens shuts his eyes again to sense his other image of music and prison -- of his own making.
Owens was instrumental in saving the musical heritage of Texas. He even rescued some of the state's greatest music legends from obscurity. However, the man who captured the painful ballads of inmates was himself imprisoned to heroin and inflicted intense pain on himself and others for almost 20 years. To get one fix, he even stole the guitar of friend and mentor Mance Lipscomb, the great bluesman.
In the end, Owens would save this music -- and rescue himself in the process.
Tary Owens awoke early in life to the rare musical heritage of the state. It was not long after his parents moved from Toledo, Ohio, to the thriving swamp-pop and rhythm-and-blues scene of Beaumont-Port Arthur of the '50s.
"When I was 11 or 12 years old, I heard Chuck Berry do 'Maybellene' [on the radio]," says Owens, "and it was like a bolt of lightning. It touched me deep in my soul. It moved me." That music crossed racial lines and moved his circle of friends, including one talented but troubled high school friend named Janis Joplin.
They developed a strong interest in the blues and folk roots music of fellow Texans Huddie William Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, and Mance Lipscomb. In 1962 Owens moved to Austin, not long after Joplin had relocated there.
"We all wanted to be beatniks," says Owens. He describes his relationship with Joplin as sort of "brother-sister," although he does recall "necking" with her once in the back seat of a car.
After Owens married and had a child, Joplin occasionally handled baby-sitting duties. The highlight of the week was usually the Wednesday-night trip to Kenneth Threadgill's icehouse on North Lamar for its burgeoning jam sessions.
Guitar pickers such as the Waller Creek Boys and country bluesman Bill Neely would take their turns at the single microphone passed around the circular table in the middle of the bar. Over the din of clanking beer bottles, participants would belt out renditions ranging from Appalachian ballads to the blues of Bessie Smith.
Highlighting the evening would be Threadgill's performance. He'd step out from behind the bar and entertain the crowd with the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.
"It was just an incredible scene," Owens says.
While he developed his own skills as a musician, Owens delved deeper and deeper into the roots of this Texas heritage. He enrolled at the University of Texas to study folklore under Dr. Americo Paredes. The professor was the first director of UT's Mexican-American Studies program and founder of the Center for International Studies of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Owens credits Paredes, who died last year, and Mance Lipscomb as changing the course of his life.
"They taught me a willingness to take chances," says Owens. The main risk he took was abandoning the security of a middle-class existence to follow his heart and his musical interests.
Paredes helped him with that goal, getting a $500 Lomax grant for the student in 1963. Owens used the funding to record the so-called river songs of black Texas prison inmates, songs that had been handed down from the time of slavery. He bought the Roberts tape recorder and an AKG microphone and obtained the letter from the governor allowing him access to the prisoners.