Gordon McCann spent decades of his life recording Ozarks music parties. Today, his collection is an invaluable part of the area’s cultural history.
When Gordon McCann first toted a tape recorder to Ozarks music parties, he wasn’t trying to preserve history (or attempting to sell recordings, as at least one old-timer suspected of the citified outsider). Instead, he simply wanted to record the songs so he could practice them on his guitar at home.
“They thought it was odd — ‘Why would you want to record stuff?’” recalls McCann of attitudes years ago. “Back then, recording was looked upon as kind of an odd thing. Kind of like how I look at a computer now.”
Over time, McCann became a friend and fixture at parties throughout the rural Ozarks. And while the aspiring musician’s primary goal was met — he indeed taught himself to play the old tunes — he also did something else.
He gave everyone else the opportunity to learn of an Ozarks long gone.
After all, the moments he captured are irreplaceable. There were the songs and talk of local folk; moments of laughter and stories that prompted it. Thanks to McCann, those slices of life are frozen in time through around 3,000 hours of tape.
His legacy, however, isn’t limited to recordings. An enthusiastic reader, McCann has collected more than 2,500 books, the vast majority featuring the Ozarks. He has created dozens of scrapbooks on local musicians, and even more transcribing his recordings. He has dedicated countless hours to advising local, state and national boards and organizations for cultural preservation. He even collaborated with famed folklorist Vance Randolph, a relationship that forever tied the duo through a book they authored together.
Looking back, it began for McCann with a trip to Emmanuel Wood’s Ozark Opry in the 1970s. That first visit, where he listened to old-time musicians at the weekly party in Christian County, was all it took to start McCann’s legacy as the Ozarks’ premiere preservationist.
However, while McCann’s start as a preservationist began with that trip to the opry, his roots in the region’s history actually go much deeper.
A multi-generational Ozarker, McCann was born in 1931 in Joplin. His parents were actually residents of Springfield, having relocated from the Joplin the year before to begin today’s Springfield Blueprint Company. For some reason — of which he is unsure — they returned to Joplin for McCann’s birth, prompting a fact he used to avoid.
“I never did say it when I was in high school,” says McCann. “Joplin and Springfield, they were big rivals then.”
He became involved in his family’s business at an early age. During his teenage years, however, he took breaks to work at Springfield’s first drive-in theater and as an usher at the Landers Theatre.
“In fact, in those days, I was the usher in the black section,” says McCann. “Up on the second balcony.”
Upon graduation from high school, McCann began classes at then-Southwest Missouri State College. He planned to be a teacher, and work in linguistics.
“I majored in Spanish, minored in French and almost had a minor in German,” says McCann, who even planned to obtain a second degree. Life started changing his plans, however, when he met his future wife, Mona.
“First time I met her dad, he was sitting in the living room with a shotgun on his lap,” recalls McCann. “She said, ‘Oh, he’s been quail hunting,’ or was going to go. But I do remember him sitting there with a shotgun and thought, ‘Well, that’s a warning.’”
The warning turned into a promise. “Our 65th wedding anniversary is next month,” says McCann.
As their family started growing, McCann decided to skip the second degree despite accumulating many hours of classwork. “I always wanted to sell those extra hours to somebody else,” he remarks.
He then returned to Springfield Blueprint, and “that’s where I’ve been ever since,” he says.
Moving into music
Even in those early years, McCann loved music. A fan of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, he piddled with a guitar and knew a few songs, but didn’t do a great deal of playing.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, when a short article in the newspaper — advertising the aforementioned Ozark Opry — was destined to change that forever.
“They had a little article in the paper, so I just told Mona, ‘Let’s go down and see what’s going on,’” says McCann of the weekly music party, which gathered old-time musicians on the Ozark square regularly on Saturdays.
When the couple arrived on that 1970s night, they were greeted with quite a sight: The building seemed to be on the brink of collapse, supported by the structures on either side of it.
“I remember that big, plate-glass window — what had been a display area — was cracked and patched with duct tape,” says McCann. “When I went there years later, I always thought, ‘I hope they don’t stomp too loud.’”
Inside, attendees seemingly sat in another time. A bare lightbulb illuminated a pot-belly stove, and the instruments held by musicians gathered to play. The floor on which they toe-tapped tunes was literally ready to bring down the house: Later McCann learned the musicians only played on one side of it from fear that it would fall through.
And McCann loved all of it.
“I came back the next Saturday, and then I got brave enough to take my guitar,” says McCann. “And I took my recorder so I could learn tunes.”
After all, at that point McCann didn’t know most of the songs folks were playing. “When I got home, I went to the basement, where I was banished anyway, and I would play along with those tapes to learn the tunes,” he says.
McCann met several folks at that Ozark Opry, but one of the most important for him was a white-haired fiddler named Art Galbraith. That musician would become McCann’s musical partner for nearly 20 years.
Galbraith, a fourth-generation fiddler, grew up east of Springfield near McGraw’s Ford on the James River. He was well connected in the music world, and quickly introduced McCann to new opportunities — starting with house parties.
Fiddler Art Galbraith and McCann were musical partners for nearly 20 years. They are likely pictured in the late 1980s. (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)
Now on the wane, house music parties were once very popular throughout the Ozarks. Locals would gather in the homes of their neighbors, and play the night away.
Looking back, McCann still remembers the first time he attended such gathering, held along the locally known “slaughterhouse road,” near Chadwick. Even 40 years later, details remain as crisp as the chilly November night.
“It had frosted, and the moon was full,” recalls McCann, mentally stepping back in time. “I remember getting out of that car, and I could smell the coffee coming out of that house.”
Upon entering the home on that moonlight night, he found male musicians ready to play in the living room, and women gossiping away in the connected kitchen. But the music of female chatter didn’t keep them from appreciating the actual songs picked by the menfolk.
“Those women, I’ll always remember, they’d be talking but they heard every tune we played,” says McCann. “‘Now play so-and-so!’ And they knew it — they knew what we’d been playing. Those people had grown up with it, you know.”
That frosty night was one of firsts for McCann, who became a regular face at house parties and other music sessions, frequently with guitar in one hand and tape recorder in another.
Those repeated appearances helped McCann’s recorder lose its novelty status. It was a good thing for preservation: He didn’t turn off the recorder in between tunes, giving a record of conversations, stories, jokes and sentiments.
McCann has more than house parties on his tapes, however. There were fiddle competitions, and specific musicians’ performances, including ones who were born in the late 1800s. He captured interviews and stories, as well as music performances in public places.
After meticulously labeling each tape, he filed them away in former blueprint cabinets. Over nearly 25 years, those one-night-at-a-time tapings wore out around eight recorders and turned into around 3,000 hours of history.
But simply recording those tapes wasn’t enough for McCann. He also captured video footage from many performances, and spent time compiling around 50 notebooks stuffed with information about the performances. Another 50 feature biographical compilations feature individual musicians who frequented Ozarks parties.
Those things — especially the cross-referenced details — make McCann’s collection stand out.
“There’s so many of these big collections, but no names, song titles, people. You’ve got good music, but there’s no documentation to it,” says McCann. “Whereas mine are all documented.”
McCann pulls “Pioneers of the Ozarks,” a pictorial history of long-ago Ozarkers, from his shelves.
However, those books aren’t the only ones McCann has collected. A great deal of his basement is dedicated to the storage of books and periodicals, as well as his map collection.
“My mother was a reader, and she kind of got me encouraged on the history, and then it got into Ozarks history,” says McCann.
Specially built shelves support complete runs of the now-defunct Ozarks Mountaineer and Bittersweet publications. He’s got vast numbers of National Geographic magazine from days gone by and Otto Rayburn’s guides for Ozarks tourists.
And then there are around 2,500 bound books, the vast majority featuring the Ozarks.
“I have some that you won’t find much of,” he says, pointing to a Schoolcraft book, one he found at a sale, as only one example.
One of the books on those shelves actually has McCann’s name on it — right alongside Vance Randolph, the famed Ozarks folklorist.
It wasn’t a collaboration McCann ever expected. In fact, before he met Randolph, he’d been told that an introduction wouldn’t be possible; that Randolph wouldn’t speak to visitors.
But McCann decided to take a chance. In the mid-1970s, he called the nursing home in Fayetteville, Ark., where Randolph was living, and chatted with his wife, Mary Parler.
“When I talked to her, I mentioned a couple of people (we knew in common), and he said, ‘Send him out here,’” recalls McCann. “I spent an hour and a half with them. We knew the same people, and the same things.”
Upon returning home from the visit, McCann went through his book collection. He soon wrote to Randolph, mentioning that he’d found around 70 titles that the folklorist had omitted from an annotated Ozarks bibliography he’d written.
“And it wasn’t two days later I got a letter from him,” says McCann. “I still have it.”
“Your list of titles is attending. Of your 69 items, I recognize only about 10 or 15,” wrote Randolph in April 1975. “Some of the rare items I shall not be able to get at all … If you are willing to trust me with any of these treasures, by all means send them to me ….”
That letter started a bond between the two men that would last the rest of Randolph’s life. At the time, Randolph had planned to publish a Volume 2 to accompany his first bibliography. However, his confinement to a nursing home stalled that project — that is, until McCann came along.
“I started out as his book runner,” says McCann. “And our business holdings in northwest Arkansas suddenly got more too, because I went down there a lot.”
McCann would check local libraries for newfound Ozarks titles, and bring them to Randolph in the nursing home to read. Through those 100 or so visits, McCann was afforded the chance to get to know the man who, to some, was stereotyped as coarse and bawdy. Those are words McCann wouldn’t use to describe him, though.
“I never heard him cuss or use vulgarities unless he was telling a story,” says McCann. “And even then it was toned down.”
That fact, however, didn’t mean Randolph lacked a sense of humor. McCann tells a story he heard back then, when Randolph was complaining about the nursing home’s food to a visiting minister.
“And (the minister) said, ‘Oh, Mr. Randolph, just think — it won’t be long before you’ll be having your meals with Jesus. And Vance said, ‘Oh, good. I always loved Jewish food,’” says McCann. “Now that’s typical Vance.”
As Randolph’s health declined, McCann became more involved in his follow-up bibliography. Eventually, after realizing that they had similar opinions on what should be written, Randolph made him a co-author.
“So he said, ‘Well, you’re my partner then. We’ll do this together,’” says McCann, who had to find creative times to work on his share. “That book was written at mostly 2 a.m. in the morning. That’s when most of the stuff was done. Late hours, you know. But it was a lot of fun.”
McCann ultimately saw Volume 2 published in 1987, seven years after Randolph’s death.
As time passed, McCann’s involvement in the local Ozarks scene only continued to crescendo.
He and Galbraith regularly performed throughout the Ozarks, especially in the 1980s when they were seen several times at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Yet while the vast majority of their preservation-through-playing took place in the Ozarks, the duo also took the region’s unique style to the rest of the country.
Over his years of collaboration with Galbraith, the duo performed at national folk festivals held in St. Louis, the New Orleans World’s Fair and the San Diego State College Festival. Others included the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, where they played on the National Mall in Washington D.C., and at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.
“And from there, we just went for years all over the country,” says McCann of the latter. “It was lots of fun.”
Those experiences further tied McCann to the Ozarks. He became a sought-after local expert for presentations and events, presenting and playing about the old ways and old days. Among many other endeavors, he was a charter member of the board that organized the now-defunct Ozarks Celebration Festival. He volunteered at the Greene County Archives, and was involved in the White River Valley Historical Society.
He served as president of the Missouri Folklore Society, and as a consultant to National Geographic when reporters worked on stories about the region. He advised the National Endowment for the Arts, where he helped award National Heritage Fellowships. In 1990, he was one of 11 participants (out of 90 who applied) who participated in the Smithsonian Folklore Summer Institute for Community Scholars. In 2002, he was recognized for his efforts by receiving the Missouri Arts Award from the Missouri Arts Council.
He helped with publications about Ozarks music, including “Ozarks Fiddle Music,” a book he co-authored with Drew Beisswenger. He turned the recorder on himself at times and produced record albums and CDs featuring Ozarks music. He even ended up at the White House during the Clinton administration in connection with his Ozarks work.
“In fact, Mona doesn’t like me to show it, but I’ve got a picture of me shaking hands with Hilary Clinton,” says the staunch Republican.
Now more than 40 years since his preservation efforts began, McCann is still excited about Ozarks culture and heritage.
A walk through his basement reveals his vast library of Ozarks books, as well as extensive map collection and binders stuffed full of information on local musicians and more.
What one won’t see, however, are his thousands of cassette tapes. In 2007, McCann donated the collection to Missouri State University.
“It was the initiative that MSU is showing now toward really getting its Ozarks studies curriculum going that I thought, ‘This is where these need to go,'” McCann told a Springfield News-Leader reporter back then.
Today, his tapes are in the process of being digitized and are gradually available on the Missouri State University Libraries YouTube channel.
Boxes filled with McCann’s tapes reside at MSU, where they’re being digitized.
“I hope someday, 100 years from now, some kid at that university will go, ‘I wonder what those people were like,'” says McCann, pointing to the tapes as a resource. “Out of 24,000 students, there’s bound to be some who are interested in this.”
That donation helped McCann finally got his second degree from the university: In 2010, an honorary doctorate was bestowed upon him for his preservation work.
As days fly by, life has slowed for McCann. Now 86 years old, he suffered a stroke around five years ago that has slowed his attendance at local music gatherings — to once or twice a week. When asked how many he used to attend, he slyly smiles and simply says, “I’m not gonna say.”
One of the places he’s regularly seen is in McClurg, Mo., where one of the region’s longstanding jams is held weekly. Not much has changed there, where some of the region’s most experienced musicians still gather to play every single Monday. But slowly, even the musicians who have played there for decades are disappearing.
McCann (second from right) plays at the McClurg Jam in July 2017.
It’s a reflection of the change McCann speaks of in the music scene. He’s seen once-popular jig and square dancing all but disappear. Many of the people he started playing with are gone. House parties aren’t nearly as common. The Ozarks, overall, is simply a different place.
“My generation, and a little bit below and a little bit above, we all agree: We lived at the last of the really good times in the Ozarks and in Springfield,” says McCann. “Because it’s changing so fast. It’s just a different world now. Traffic alone — good Lord.”
But other than one regret — that he didn’t get started sooner — McCann looks back on his decades in preservation with a smile.
“Oh, I could write a book on the stuff that happened,” he says. “But a lot of stuff I wouldn’t write — I wouldn’t want to get shot!”
“Archives offer Greene County treasure trove,” Traci Shurley, Springfield News-Leader, Feb. 12, 1998
“Fiddler wins elite prize,” Sara J. Bennett, Springfield News-Leader, May 28, 1999
“Historian to donate music to MSU,” Mike Brothers, Springfield News-Leader, Sept. 30, 2007
“McCann completes labor of love,” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, Nov. 1, 1987
“Missouri State to grant two honorary doctorates,” Springfield News-Leader, Dec. 28, 2009
“People of the Ozarks,” Springfield News-Leader, Aug. 7, 1990
“Recording history,” Diane Majeske, Springfield News-Leader, Feb. 11, 2002
“Renowned Ozarks fiddler dies at 83,” Traci Bauer, Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 5, 1993
“Thomas Arthur ‘Art’ Galbraith,” Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 5, 1993
“Saving the sad songs,” Vicki Cox, Springfield News-Leader, April 6, 1999
“Springfield musicians to play D.C.,” Kathy Oechsie, Springfield News-Leader, June 28, 1991
“When the sole pay is passion fulfilled,” Nina Rao, Springfield News-Leader, Sept. 6, 2003