Thomas Hart Benton & Old-Time Music

Portrait by fellow artist Harry Sternberg, 1944.

The life and work of Thomas Hart Benton is filled with contradictions – a regional, almost naive painter who spent much of his time in Europe and New York and was a teacher of Jackson Pollock, the first artist to be on the cover of Time magazine – he was raised around traditional music (his maternal grandfather was an old-time fiddler) and was a collector and performer, even inventing a notation for the harmonica which he loved. His last work, fittingly, was a mural for the Country Music Hall of Fame, though he died in his studio, uncertain as to whether it was finished. Both praised and dismissed by the art world, he marched to his own drummer and was the subject of a Ken Burns documentary. Little known is his lifelong treatment of folk music and musicians. In his autobiography he lamented, “The old music cannot last much longer, I count it a great privilege to have heard it in the sad twang of mountain voices before it died”

Here are some examples of literal illustrations of songs.

Jesse James, 1936.
Wreck of the Ol' '97, 1944
Coming 'Round the Mountain, 1931.
Frankie and Johnnie. 1936.
I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain, 1938.
Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, 1934. (A rare variant of Pretty Polly.) Jackson Pollock plays the harmonica!
Benton even recorded a 1941 album for Decca, entitled "Saturday Night at Tom Benton's," though much more profesional than this gathering.
He painted his daughter, "Jessie with Guitar," in 1957.
"The Hymn Singer/Burl Ives," is from 1950.
"The Music Lesson," 1944, shows his friend, folksinger and musicologist, E. Gale Huntington and his daughter. They recorded selections from Huntington's book, "Songs the Whalemen Sang," entitled "Folksongs From Martha's Vineyard," with Benton on harmonica.

Some of his musicians are literal, even named.

"Missouri Musicians," 1931, portrays Neville Oatman with cousins Wilbur and Homer Leverett, who appear in other Benton paintings.
Arts of the West, 1932
Lord Heal the Child/Holy Roller Meeting, 1934.

Others more abstract.

Swing Your Partner, 1945.
Youth Music, 1974. His son-in law was the model for the guitarist.
"The Sources of Country Music," 1975, with Tex Ritter on the right. Appropriately, his last work.

As an appendix, friend and fellow artist, Bernard Steffen, recorded three songs for the Library of Congress in 1939 with dulcimer accompaniment. It is noted that Benton also had and played dulcimer. This is Steffen’s lithograph, “Dulcimer and Discord.”

Dulcimer and Discord, 1939.

The first American classical composer most of us would connect with genre painters like Benton would be Aaron Copland but I would like to remind you of another, who shared his Midwestern roots, Virgil Thomson, especially his Pulitzer Prize winning, “Acadian Songs and Dances,” for Robert Flaherty’s 1948 film, “Louisiana Story.”