Home » Blog » George Vinton Graham – Early Outsider Music Recording, 1939

George Vinton Graham – Early Outsider Music Recording, 1939

Outsider Music is not a new phenomenon, but finding such an early example was a surprise. George Vinton loves to play music, but neither his voice nor his hands are on the same track when they perform a song. This is the godfather of ambitious musicians like The Shaggs or Y. Bhekhirst.

Graham, George Vinton – The Old willow tree, Cowell, Sidney Robertson, 1903-1995, collector.
Graham, George Vinton – Buffalo gals at Nome, Cowell, Sidney Robertson, 1903-1995, collector.
Graham, George Vinton – Hard times in Kansas, Cowell, Sidney Robertson, 1903-1995, collector.

Mr. G.’s guitar playing was as original as everything else about him. He spent a long time tuning the instrument to pitches never heard on land nor sea, and thereafter he strummed vigorously across the strings, occasionally even fingering a string here or there. There was absolutely no relationship in key nor pitch (except a rhythmic one as from a drum) against (literally) his equally vigorous singing. After this first session, I arranged the mike differently–nearer his mouth and farther from his fingers. Despite the cacaphony, he could not sing without the guitar: ‘Otherwise, what would I do with my hands?’

Sidney Robertson Cowell

All recordings of George Vinton are available for download on the website of the Library of Congress

About Sidney Robertson Cowell

Sidney Robertson Cowell with recording equipment, 1939
 Via Library of Congress

Cowell (1903–1995) was a pioneering ethnomusicologist and folklorist. It’s hard to say whether her work—recording folk music from many parts of the world, with particular attention to music from California and the Upper Midwest—has been overshadowed by her role as the collaborator with (and sometime musical inspiration for) her second husband, composer Henry Cowell. But, more than 20 years after her death, Sidney Robertson Cowell might be starting to get the attention her rich life, first-rate writing, and astoundingly broad work as an ethnomusicologist deserve.

Whether she was aiming to or not, Cowell documented the bubbling multiethnic diversity of 20th century America. She made notations of the songs of elderly Jews on the Lower East Side of New York City in the ’30s. She went on a trip making field recordings with John Lomax in the mountains of western North Carolina. On these expeditions, she lugged around heavy tape recording equipment. Over her career she helped record African-American chain gang workers in the Ozarks, cowboys of the West, Finnish lumberjacks in the Upper Midwest, and Portuguese fishermen in Massachusetts. In California she recorded Armenian singers; in Fresno, Mexican wedding music; at Shasta Dam, dam workers singing songs about famous fights; and in San Francisco, unaccompanied Icelandic singing. There was also a Sacred Harp shape-note choir at Stanford University in Palo Alto. And she found Serbian farm workers from the Central Valley who performed in a style that was thought to be “authentically Homeric,” harkening back to ancient Greek epic recitation, and scores of other varieties of folk songs performed by a range of ethnic groups across the state. Outside of the U.S., she recorded elderly singers off the western coast of Ireland; her work there produced more than 11 hours of recordings. She also documented musicians and singers in Thailand, Iran, Malaysia, and elsewhere, though very little has been written about her work in those places.