The shaman and his savior

Seven years later, Alan Govenar still speaks of the specter of Alex Moore, how it still haunts everything Govenar does. Such is the price the historians and folklorists have to pay, watching as the men and women they pluck from obscurity inevitably drop back into the anonymity from which they came.

Moore was a great Deep Ellum bluesman of the 1930s who never achieved the notoriety of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly"), and Robert Johnson; half a decade later, he was living in a rundown South Dallas apartment, a dime away from indigence.

Govenar met Moore in 1985 while working on his essential book, Meeting the Blues, an oral history that told the story of the Texas blues through those who witnessed the music's birth and nurtured it to adulthood. Moore was one of those musicians, a keeper of the country-moved-to-the-city blues flame even when his own began to diminish by the mid-1980s because of age and bad health.

Govenar, who is now putting the finishing touches on a musical and cultural history of Deep Ellum he will self-publish in the summer with co-author Jay Brakefield, resurrected Moore for a brief moment of glory when he nominated the guitarist and singer for the Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts--which Moore eventually received. Moore then went on to speak and perform around the Dallas Independent School District, letting young kids meet and hear the blues for the first time. Moore had lost some of his touch, his technique suffered greatly from the rust of old age, but he never lost his passion for the music.

Then, in 1989, Moore was found dead on a city bus--just another indigent slouched in his seat to be carted off by authorities to whom the name Alex Moore meant nothing. Medical reports indicated Moore's heart had failed him--and so, Alan Govenar believed, had he.

"It's a haunting influence," Govenar says of Moore's anonymous death on the bus. Govenar once thought he had rescued a would-be legend, but soon realized he had only prolonged the inevitable.

Alan Govenar's mission has always been a clearly defined one: to preserve and protect the folk music of the United States, even if its practitioners are not from this country. A closet in his office in a red-brick firehouse on Columbia Avenue, which has long housed Govenar's Documentary Arts organization, overflows with audio and video cassettes filled with the music of black cowboys and Vietnamese merchants, bluegrass old-timers and anonymous blues legends.

Since it was founded 11 years ago, Documentary Arts has been responsible for 15 releases, including those from the likes of Austin hepcat Lavada Durst, bluesman John Dee Holeman, local Vietnamese folk musicians (Songs of Departure was deemed one of the outstanding recordings of 1991 by the Library of Congress), spiritual singer Osceola Mays, and the revered Deep Ellum Blues collection. Such are the amassments of a man obsessed with preserving the past and bringing it into the future, Alex Moore included.

Govenar, who has also penned a couple of books on Texas blues and presented the 52-part radio series for public radio called "Masters of Traditional Folk Music" a decade ago, is intent on not letting Moore's fate befall other musicians who become part of Govenar's ongoing Documentary Arts projects.

Govenar's most recent release comes from a man from Portland, Oregon, named Boua Xou Mua--an 81-year-old Laotian shaman, clan chief, and former CIA-supported mercenary soldier who came to the U.S. in 1978 and who, like Moore, practices his ancient craft in seclusion, often as an outsider among his own people.

Titled The Music of the Hmong People of Laos, the CD is being co-released with the revered California-based folk preservation label Arhoolie. It's filled with a music that dates back literally thousands of years, to a time when the Hmong people ("a hill-tribes people," according to the liner notes) inhabited the mountains of Southeast Asia undisturbed; in fact, the Hmong (pronounced "mong")had no written language until 40 years ago. The CD contains, at the very least, the sort of music likely to sell in the hundreds and not the hundreds of thousands--filled with melodies so foreign and forgotten they first sound indecipherable and ancient and even a bit off-putting to Western ears.

Like the other releases from Documentary Arts--which is in so many ways the equivalent to the legendary Folkways label begun in 1947 by Moses Asch to preserve music from around the world--The Music of the Hmong People exists now as a document, a small piece of insurance that will safeguard against the disappearance of the dying art form.

Govenar first brought Mua, a recipient of the National Heritage Award in 1984, to Dallas five years ago as part of the Dallas Folk Festival, which was held at the Meyerson Symphony Center. The performance, which also included four other National Heritage Fellows, was held in honor of Moore. As Jan DeWeese writes in the liner notes for the disc, Mua also performed at a program for Asian refugees at the local Multicultural Community Center, where Mua was reunited with a long-lost relative he had not seen since 1976.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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