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Owens spent his weekends taping the words and songs of black inmates at the Walls, Wynn, and Ramsey units of what was then the Texas Department of Corrections.
One of the groups of singers was led by an inmate by the name of Joseph Johnson, nicknamed "Chinaman" because of his slanted eyes and the light color of his skin. But Dave Tippen, a wiry white-haired man, touched Owens even more.
"Tippen's songs were so personal and so direct," says Owens. "You can hear the sincerity in his voice. You hear him catching his breath and making a note out of that."
The recording sessions took Owens back a century, with slavery-tinged songs such as "Stewball":
All you children, if you want to see some fun Bet your nickels, dimes and quarters, just to see that white horse run. It was trouble on the racetrack, all night long, long, long. It was trouble on the racetrack all night long. Says old Missus, she told master, "You be saving, oh while I'm gone. Don't you feed them niggers no biscuits. You just feed them that yellow corn."
Owens, in his work, discovered the inner conflicts bedeviling these classic blues artisans. Lead Belly, for example, did prison terms for crimes ranging from assault to murder. But Tippen despised him and called him a "white man's nigger." Lead Belly managed to win his freedom each time he was incarcerated. Owens points out that Tippen, who had been convicted of only assaults, stayed in prison until his death.
The young college researcher also mined more hidden lodes of cultural lore during his prison visits, when inmates introduced him to toasts.
"They used to be told not only in prison -- prison is where they got preserved -- but there was a time on every street corner, wherever black men gathered, they toast," he says.
One toast was "The Signifying Monkey," a twist on the old Brer Rabbit tale in which a monkey tricks a lion into giving him his freedom. "Titantic" was a balladlike toast to a black man who jumps off the sinking ship and swims around the world to safety in 30 minutes flat.
Owens says "Titantic" reportedly evolved over the years after Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champion, was denied passage on the luxury cruiser's catastrophic maiden voyage:
Captain, captain, don't you know, This big motherfucker is about to overflow. So he jumped overboard and begin to swim And there was a quite a few people looking at him. The rich man's daughter jumped up on the top deck With her drawers on the floor and dress around her neck. She said, "Come back, Shine, and save poor me, I'll make you as rich as a shine can be."
Shine said, "White folks, you must think I'm blind.
"First I got to save my black behind."
Owens also ventured into rural central Texas, where he recorded regional sounds from black fiddle players such as Teodar Jackson to bluegrass to early Tejano music. When he was finished, he cataloged his 60 hours of recordings and archived them and other tapes into the university vaults.
Owens spent three years as an archivist. He compares his collections to the carp, a fish not widely appreciated by most Americans but valued in other parts of the world.
"Much of the music I've recorded is like that," he says. "It's not going to make the Top 40. But it's music that is real and true and speaks to the human heart."
After his role as archivist, Owens' own heart spoke to him, he says. It told him to go west.
In 1967 the San Francisco music scene was going full tilt. Owens wanted to be a part of it. He loaded up his young wife and baby and a 20-year-old blues singer named Angela Strehli. They put together a band, The Southern Flyers, and headed for the wide-open vistas of northern California.
Strehli, who evolved into a standout blues artist, remembers stopping in Lubbock to get her parents' permission for the trip. She believes the only reason they said yes is that they were too shocked to say no.
Strehli initially wanted to be a bass and harmonica player. She says the goals didn't matter much because the band spent a lot of time rehearsing but landed very few gigs. The experience was worth the gamble, Strehli says.
"I mean, who wouldn't have wanted to go out there then?" says the singer. Strehli, who now lives in San Francisco, lasted only a couple of months on her first trip before returning to Austin to finish her degree in sociology. "But without Tary, I may never have gotten serious about music."
Owens stayed five years in California before some friends shipped him back home to Texas. By then he was a full-blown heroin addict. His old high school pal Joplin, herself a junkie, was appalled when she caught him shooting up. She urged him to quit. He didn't listen.
Back in Texas, Owens' drug problem only increased. He turned to his old mentor and grandfather figure, Mance Lipscomb. Owens stayed in the old man's home in Navasota, northwest of Houston, but soon found that his only allegiance was to his heroin habit. Needing $300 to make a score, he stole Lipscomb's guitar. Police charged Owens with theft and managed to retrieve the guitar.