The Transcript

A Cemetery Angel

AIDS and end-of-life care in Arkansas

October 17, 2019

Segment 1

Ruth Coker Burks—Cemetery Angel

<< theme music >>

SARA A. LEWIS, HOST:

Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. Today’s episode features a performance by Los Texmaniacs live from Fayetteville Roots Festival and an adaptation of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Three Encounters” read by MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger. First, the story of Ruth Coker Burks, a pioneering AIDS activist, advocate, and ally known as Arkansas’s “cemetery angel.”

LEWIS [Field] :

Walking up to the cemetery right now. The gate's actually closed. We’re gonna see if I can get in.

<< sound of gate unlatching and squeaking open >>

LEWIS:

If you happened upon Files Cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas, you wouldn’t notice anything unique about it. The entire cemetery is about the size of a corner store lot. It sits at the bend of a narrow road, the back lined by trees, the entrance caddy corner to a residential street.

Near a larger headstone, reading COKER. There are a few rows of white and pink artificial flowers, no names.

LEWIS [Field]:

Looks like people have left stones here, crystals.

LEWIS:

I came to Files Cemetery because it’s the final resting place for over forty men who died during the HIV / AIDS epidemic. Many of these men were abandoned by their families and one woman, Ruth Coker Burks, took care of them, burying them next to her own family members.

RUTH COKER BURKS:

No one up here knows me; I’m just me. I’m anonymous in Arkansas.

LEWIS:

So you’re not Ruth Coker Burks?

BURKS:

Mm-m, I’m just Ruth Burks.

LEWIS:

A few months ago I met Ruth at her home in Rogers, Arkansas. Her feelings of anonymity were surprising to me. She’s been featured on the Today Show, recognized by humanitarian organizations across the country and internationally. Her home in Arkansas is unassuming. It’s part of a development of similar looking houses, though Ruth lets her garden grow a little wild. And according to Ruth, this makes her a target for the HOA.

Being a rebel, a kind of misfit is an identity that Ruth’s seems to have grown into. She didn’t grow up thinking that she’d be anything special.

BURKS:

I didn't even see my high school counselor until the second semester of my senior year and I asked her, I said, “Well, how do I find the forms? I want to go to college.” And she said, “Honey, you’re not college material.”

And I was 20 when I got married.

I did the whole wife thing. I was just going to have a very vanilla life.

LEWIS:

But Ruth’s life took a dramatic turn in 1984. She was visiting her friend at the hospital.

BURKS:

I was just up there with a friend who was having cancer surgery.

LEWIS:

Her friend needed several surgeries and Ruth spent a lot of time up at the hospital.

BURKS:

You know, we got to know the nurses and I’d bake cookies and bring them up and they would bring stuff. And so we got to be really good friends, I thought.

laugh

LEWIS:

Then Ruth noticed that those same nurses were hesitant to enter a nearby room.

BURKS:

I looked out and the nurses were drawing straws to see who would go in and check on, you know, Room 514 or whatever it was, just right down the hall. And I had noticed that his dinner trays were, um, styrofoam and I’d never seen styrofoam, they didn’t do that back then.

[music]

BURKS:

I was aware that there was a disease out there that was killing gay men

AUDIO OF ARCHIVAL NEWSCAST:

[1] Scientists at the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta have released the results of a study which shows the lifestyles of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer.

[2] Others get an infection known as pneumocystis pneumonia. Researchers know of 413 people who have contracted the condition in the past year. One third have died and none have been cured.

BURKS:

They never went in to see if he was dead or alive. And I just couldn’t take it.

And one day I just walked in.

LEWIS: This is when she met Jimmy, the young man who changed the course of her life.

BURKS:

And you could tell that he was near death and I walked up to his bed and I took his hand and I put my hand on his arm and you know, kind of rubbed it. And I asked him if there was anything that he needed, anything that I could do for him. And he said that he wanted his mama and it was just real weak and real—you know what you would imagine somebody dying, how weak they would be. And I thought to myself, “Oh good, I can do that. She just doesn’t know he’s up here. And she doesn't know the shape he's in and she doesn’t know that they're being mean to him. And so I’ll tell her and she'll come up and she’ll take care of this and I'll be, you know, back to my normal life.”

BURKS:

I, uh, went out to the nurses’ station and I said, you know, “Is there any way that we could call his mother to come?” And they go, “You didn’t go in that room down there, did you?” And I go, “Well yeah. He needs his mother.”

After a little back and forth, I said, well, if you’ll let me have his mother’s number, then I’ll call her myself. Somebody slipped it across to me. So, I reached to pick up the phone at the nurses’ station and she slammed her hand down and she goes, “The payphone’s down the hall.” And I said, “Oh, okay, that’s fine.” So I went back down the hall and I called his mother and I told her who I was, but that she didn't know me but her son—she goes, “I don’t have a son and don’t call me back.”

So, um, I called her back and I said, if you hang up on me one more time, I will put your son’s obituary in your hometown newspaper and I will list his cause of death. And I had her complete attention. And I said you know he’s up here, he’s very sick, and he needs you to come up here.

And she said, “I don’t have a son. My son was a sinner and he died years ago and I don't know what, what you’ve got up there, but don’t call me back.”

And I wasn’t about to let those nurses know that that phone call didn't go the way I wanted it to, not at all. And I, you know, says, “Gosh, she was very nice!”

<>

So I went back down there. I walked up to his bed and took his hand again and he looked up at me and he said, “Oh, Mama, I knew you’d come.”

<>

And so I said, “Well, honey, I’m here now.” And I pulled up a chair and I sat with him, you know, for 13 hours while he died. I would read to him and I would talk to him and take a washcloth and wash his face and you know, his hair and his arms and his feet. And you know just preparing him to, you know, preparing to take him to whatever heaven he was going to.

<>

DR. JENNIFER BRIER:

To imagine what Jimmy looked like in those last 13 hours of his life is pretty important to get a handle on.

LEWIS:

Dr. Jennifer Brier is a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She studies political reactions to the AIDS epidemic. I asked Dr. Brier about Ruth’s decision to care for Jimmy when no one else would.

BRIER:

He may have been very gaunt, his cheeks would have been gone. He could have had active, uh, Karposi Sarcoma, active purple-ish splotches all over his body.

He could have been going blind from from opportunistic infections related to AIDS. He could've been, cognitively, in some form of dementia. So I think it’s just really important to understand what she was confronted with at that moment and how she decided to act in response to that when other people around her are telling her that she’s making you know a life-altering mistake.

People were dying and they were really being abandoned. There was a profound fear and the fear wasn’t just though a fear of some unknown disease, which it was at some fundamental level, but it was also about a fear of gay people, people who use drugs...

AUDIO OF ARCHIVAL NEWSCAST:

[1] Gays are being called a dangerous and violent group that corrupts children and infects the community with AIDS. The gay people are giving their blood knowing that it is contaminating people…

[2] Quarantine will be applied where necessary, in order to prevent the spread of the disease

[3] Fear of the AIDS epidemic is causing a decrease in blood supplies in a number of cities. A Red Cross spokesman says that a misconception that AIDS can be contracted by giving blood may force the cancellation of elective surgery in Pennsylvania and New York unless blood supplies increase

BRIER:

The fear heightens everything. It makes people more afraid that touch is a way that HIV or AIDS in that case or GRID gay related immunodeficiency, which is what AIDS is sort of called in 1981 / 1982. They’re afraid that it will rub off, that you will touch somebody with AIDS and you will become sick. That you will share a glass with somebody. That you will use the same toilet seat. That you will swim in the same pool.

LEWIS:

We can’t separate the response to HIV/AIDS from homophobia. Gay men were shamed and blamed for contracting it.

AUDIO OF ARCHIVAL NEWSCAST:

[1] When you got AIDS, did it make you think again about being gay? Did it make you rethink that lifestyle? Did it make you regret anything that you’ve done?

Interviewee: No, I have absolutely no regrets. I do not feel guilty about anything that I’ve done.

[2] It was California Republican William Dannemeyer who recently declared on the House floor God’s plan for man was “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”

[3] What they’re doing is abnormal in the sense that that they’re these people they’re not fit, they’re not human beings, they have emotional problems.

LEWIS:

I asked Ruth why she wasn’t afraid of the disease. Like many other straight people. She says she can’t explain it. She just wasn’t.

When Ruth took care of Jimmy, the epidemic was just beginning. He would be the first of dozens of men she’d provide end-of-life care for, but their need for a caretaker extended beyond hospice.

BURKS:

One Saturday afternoon I was sitting at home on my sofa and the postman comes to the door with a cardboard box and it was Jimmy. And so I had to bury him.

At the city cemetery in uh, Hot Springs, I went to see about you know getting some spaces and he said, “I don’t want all that AIDS juice down in my cemetery. I don’t want, what do you think those other families going to think about that AIDS juice seeping into their mama’s casket.”

BRIER:

Funeral homes would not bury people who died of AIDS. They just would not do it. They thought it was too risky. They thought, um, they could become infected. They refused to do it.

<>

LEWIS:

Incredibly, this was another way that Ruth could help Jimmy. In the midst of a family feud, Ruth’s mother had bought up hundreds of plots in Files cemetery.

BURKS:

And so, you know, I had all those grave spaces and I thought, well, why not? But I thought Jimmy would be the only one. I didn’t think I would ever need to do that again. Because I thought surely somebody’s coming.

I thought there were people that were doctors and nurses studying this and trying to find a cure for it or keep it from spreading like they did polio and tuberculosis. And little did I know that there was no one.

LEWIS:

Like most places in America, the Arkansas public health system responded passively to the epidemic. According to Dr. Brier, official responses at the state level tended toward monitoring outbreaks instead of treating patients or understanding the disease’s pathology.

BRIER:

In smaller towns and in some Southern states how the state public health infrastructure addresses AIDS is primarily through surveillance versus care delivery. To track and literally try and find all of the people who are infected as if somehow knowing who they are will help you as a public health entity contain AIDS. And while some of that may in fact be true, it is far from sufficient for dealing with the reality of AIDS. And that’s where someone like Ruth comes into the picture.

LEWIS:

For patients already dying as a result of the disease, surveillance did nothing to ease their pain. In fact, monitoring outbreaks further isolated marginalized communities by stigmatizing those with an HIV positive status.

As the epidemic progressed, Ruth started getting phone calls from people desperately searching for help. For end of life care. For a place to be buried.

BURKS:

It's like my name was magically all over. Just a star that you pluck out of the sky and go, “Oh, I need to call her.”

The AIDS patients just started coming to me and coming to me and coming to me and they, they didn’t stop.

BRIER:

Especially in small towns and in places where there wasn’t a large municipal network, it’s those ordinary people who are really filling the gap of care that people who are dying need. It’s being willing to be in proximity to people who are dying.

There’s a significant number of women straight and queer, lesbian, bisexual who—they really provide some of the most critical care in those early years, especially before the development of the sort of AIDS service organizations that we may know today.

There were no drugs. There was nothing that you could take that could make you better.

Ronald Reagan did not talk about AIDS until 1985 at the earliest—publicly. So, what would it mean for something to be happening to you and other people like you and not have anyone see it and name it as something that mattered?

LEWIS:

The government did not seem to be taking the HIV/AIDS epidemic seriously.

AUDIO OF ARCHIVAL NEWSCAST:

[1] Even the federal government is being accused of discrimination by lack of funding for research.

[2] History will recall, Reagan and Bush did nothing at allHistory will recall, Reagan and Bush did nothing at allHistory will recall, Reagan and Bush did nothing at all

LEWIS:

Here’s president Reagan’s press secretary responding to a question about the epidemic.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO:

I don’t have it do you? Are you? Do you?

Well you don’t have it. Well I’m relieved to hear that, Larry

Do you? Do you? You didn’t answer my question. How do you know?

In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke.

I don’t know anything about this Lester.

Does the President? Does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic,

Larry?

I don’t think so. There’s been no personal experience here, Lester.

BURKS:

I heard that on the evening news and, uh, I couldn’t believe it. And people were just dying and dying and dying.

LEWIS:

While Ruth felt that she was alone in Hot Springs, there were other AIDS care workers working alone or in small groups around the state of Arkansas. In the early nineties Larry Dearman and his husband Steve Miller, started doing AIDS prevention and care work in Little Rock.

LARRY DEARMON:

One of the biggest challenges, uh, in those very, very early days was to get the word out where you could get help.

LEWIS:

The epidemic had been spreading in Arkansas for nearly a decade. In Little Rock, people like Larry and Steve took AIDS prevention work into their own hands, into their own community.

DEARMON:

Steve and I would be invited to a uh gay man’s home. And they would invite their friends and they would cook dinner for everybody. And then afterwards we would just sit around and talk about how to be safe or how not to spread this disease if you already had it.

LEWIS:

In addition to going into people’s homes, Larry and others shared what information they had at local gay bars. Gay bars took on many roles during the epidemic. They became like community centers, places to get medical advice, to grieve, to try to escape. Larry went to bars like Discovery and Back Street in Little Rock to spread the word about AIDS prevention and care.

DEARMON:

And I remember being in the gay bars at midnight, one o’clock, uh, setting up a table, talking to people about safer sex, passing out information, telling where they could find more information. OK. Uh, passing out, uh, condoms. The gay bars were crucial in helping to spread the word about prevention and staying uninfected. Or if you were already infected where you could find treatment, find medicine, find help.

LEWIS:

This is how Ruth's number had gotten around. Word of mouth. And as the 90s began, grassroots AIDS organizations in Arkansas gained support. Larry was part of RAIN, the regional AIDS and interfaith network. The group’s care teams, made up of members from churches and synagogues across the state, would sponsor people living with HIV/AIDS, cleaning their houses, cooking for them, taking them to the doctor.

DEARMON: And they formed well over, uh, I say almost 200 care teams. and, uh, these good people helped a lot of people.

I might be a retired army officer, but I’m a big softy.

<>

DEARMON:

I’ve lost three long term partners to HIV and AIDS and so many friends and acquaintances, I’ve lost count. I used to send out a couple hundred Christmas cards every year and invariably some of them would come back with a nasty word scribbled across it: “Deceased.” Almost instantly knew why they were deceased. It takes a toll and you often hear, uh, about survivor guilt. Why am I still here? Uh I guess you have to just think you were here for purpose. You survive for a purpose. I think Steve and I both did, so we could do the AIDS work we did at the very crucial time we did it.

LEWIS:

An estimated 3000 Arkansans have died as a result of HIV/AIDS. That’s since the first diagnosis in Arkansas in 1983. And that number is probably a low estimate. Many families hid the cause of death. Others weren’t counted.

I asked Ruth how many people she helped lay to rest in Files Cemetery.

BURKS:

I really don’t know how many people are out there because I would get phone calls from people that said, “I have my lover’s ashes and I’m sick, and can I spread them?” And I would just tell people, go out to the cemetery and walk around and wherever you feel spread them.

<>

You know I’ve thought so often about the parents and just about the people and whose children I took care of because they threw them away. And I’ve often wondered if it was because they were gay or if they even knew what AIDS was.

The men that I buried would be 60 years old today if they had lived, and they’re all dead. There’s no one to tell their stories.

LEWIS:

Ruth says she kept the same P.O. box and phone number all these years in case someone is looking for her, but no family member has ever contacted Ruth asking for information about a son or brother, wanting to know about his last days or where he’s buried.

When we first started reporting this story, I hoped to talk to a family member of someone buried in this cemetery, to tell the story of a young man—to give him as much attention as we’ve given Ruth. I was shocked that no one had come calling in all those years. But the people closest to this work didn’t share in that surprise. Everyone I spoke with was clear that we still have a long way to go.

BRIER:

We haven’t solved the underlying problems that also drive AIDS, which are poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia. We haven’t solved those yet. And so we haven’t in fact gotten everywhere we need to be yet.

We all live with HIV / AIDS. Some of us live with it inside our bodies and some of us live with it outside of our bodies.

The reality is that some communities have benefited tremendously from the kinds of advances in treatment and prevention that have happened over the last 20 or 30 years. And some communities have not.

There is a significant number of men and women of color who are infected with and will die from AIDS. And so I guess I would wonder how race and racism function in this story.

How you amplify the silence matters or even just naming it as a silence matters and it doesn’t undercut the amazing work that Ruth did and continues to do and her role and her place in this historical narrative. But if we can’t talk about how race matters to this story, we’re really missing something profound.

LEWIS:

The difficulty quantifying the number of people Ruth buried, or helped bury, or the number of people who’ve died as a result of AIDS; these are indicators that the most vulnerable people in our communities were and are disappearing. And that erasure compounds the tragedy of AIDS.

A disease that hasn’t been cured or eradicated and disproportionately affects queer communities and communities of color.

Ruth Coker Burks was not celebrated for her work in Hot Springs. In fact, she claims that people blamed her for bringing AIDS into the community.

BURKS:

I never thought that there, you know, I just did what was right. That’s all I did.

LEWIS:

She eventually left and she now lives nearly four hours away from Files Cemetery.

LEWIS [FIELD]:

There’s not anything here that would signal to anybody who is buried here or why this place might be important.

LEWIS:

There’s something about the silence and the serene and simple beauty of Files Cemetery. It feels like a fitting final resting place, but then you look at the rows of pink and white plastic flowers competing with the weeds around them. No headstones, no markers, no names, and it’s too silent.

[music]

There are plans to bring in some kind of statue, an historic reminder of the true toll of AIDS and of the men buried in Hot Springs and the work that Ruth Coker Burks did. But there’s no Memorial there right now. It’s a place you’d have to look for to find.

LEWIS:

After the break, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Three encounters” by MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger.

Segment 2

MAXWELL GEORGE: And now, M.C. Taylor reads “Three Encounters” by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

TAYLOR:

Half a mile from our house there’s a little gas market, run by friendly Russians—Siberians, a few of them—whose presence in southeastern North Carolina remains inexplicable to me, and seemingly to them many days. Men in three neighborhoods make needless stops for glimpses of the register girls. The place stocks maybe sixty flavors of blunt, and a lot of dusty off-brand merchandise. One often has encounters there, or witnesses little scenes. On that morning, as I stood in front of the coolers on the far wall, choosing a ginger-ale brand, a girl walked in. Had there been a vinyl record playing, it would have scratched to a stop. Wearing jean shorts and a white tank-top undershirt, bone structure pure Scandinavian huntress, pale lank hair hanging. While the few of us already in there stared, a different creature sort of materialized in the sunlit door behind her. A shirtless man, in his prematurely aged fifties, with a beach-burnt face caved in on itself from toothlessness and wrong choices. Wearing a Gilligan-style hat and track-suit bottoms, flapping penguin-like in sandals, almost a Gabby Hayes aspect. Was he following her? No … they were together. As she got closer, I saw bruises on her limbs, and something off about her eyes. She seemed to stare at nothing. Messed up. They came and stood beside me. “God dammit!” the man hollered, as if addressing the entire store. “What’s the matter, daddy?” she said. Her slurred drawl verged on a purr. This person was not her father. I was looking through a brief window onto some vastly dark trailer-park-pimp scenario. “They ain’t got no goddamn Fanta is what’s wrong!” he cried. They left quickly.

Walking home from the market—not that day, but another day the same summer—I had a second meeting, this time with a man who looked every bit of eighty. Dark brown skin, almost black, with a steel-gray beard, no shirt, wearing a shapeless cap of some kind. He stood beside a bicycle and was cursing at it, picking it up just a half-inch from the road and slamming it down. The chain was hanging, touching the pavement. The bike had fishing gear all over it in plastic bags. I drew up even with him and asked if I could help. “Yeah,” he said, “do something about that goddamn devil.” Not pointing at or indicating anything in particular, only this world, which even the Bible says is Satan’s to run. As I walked away he called out, “I wish the devil was a man, so I could chop him up and use him for shrimp bait!”

The third memorable moment to happen within a one-block radius during those months involved something a little girl said one Sunday morning. There’s a federal military cemetery on the street that goes behind the market, with a long brick wall running around it, but a short wall you can hop up on and dance along if you’re six years old. The girl looked about that, in a Sunday dress. Her father stood in the street waiting for her. He wore shades, a pink shirt with a tie. Leaning against a gleaming SUV. Eating from an ice-cream cone with one hand while spinning his keys impatiently in the other. The girl was skipping along the wall, reading the names on the gravestones. She stopped at one, pointing. “Abigail,” she said. “That’s my name.” Many of the graves in the cemetery are husband-wife. She had seen the name of a veteran’s widow from the late-nineteenth century. “We have to go, honey,” her father said. She began climbing down. Just as I was about to pass, she said, in a voice loud enough for her father to hear but to herself, “Abigail … that means I’m already dead, and she’s still alive.” Her father looked at me with his mouth open, seeming not impressed but more like, What am I supposed to do with that? The girl was already singing a song as she climbed into the vehicle.

GEORGE:

That was M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Three Encounters,” produced by me, Maxwell George of the Oxford American, and Trey Pollard, with scoring by Trey at Spacebomb. “Three Encounters” was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Oxford American.

LEWIS:

Thanks to MC Taylor and Spacebomb. Stay tuned for Los Texmaniacs. Live from the Fayetteville Roots Festival

Segment 3

Los Texmaniacs Live at Roots

LEWIS VO: Welcome back. I’m here with Bernice and Bryan Hembree, also known as Smokey & the Mirror and the organizers of the Fayetteville Roots Festival.

BRYAN HEMBREE:

Hey, Sara.

BERNICE HEMBREE:

Hi.

LEWIS:

So we’re about to premiere the first segment of a recurring series in Points South produced in partnership with Roots Fest. What can we expect from you all in this series?

BERNICE:

You can expect to hear from artists that we are visiting either on the road or artists that are coming through town that have played the festival or playing here at the Roots HQ in Fayetteville. And we’re gonna dig into their music history and see what kind of roots music they’ve grown up with and what influences have what has made an impact on their musical life. And we want to know what's keeping them tickin’, what's keeping their hopin’ machine alive. And we want to know more about what they've had to give up in their life to pursue this art. And also what else they’re passionate about.

LEWIS:

So what's the hopin’ machine?

BERNICE:

Well, number one, it's a really good line in a Woody Guthrie song, or a Woody Guthrie poem? I think it’s called a note of hope. The first time I read that, it just blew me away, hit that line, hit me pretty intense being an open machine.

BRYAN:

Woody Guthrie he basically said humans just about all of humanity says hoping machine. And if you let go of that hope, then you've let go of what it means to be human and, um, you know, Woody’s take on. That to me, I think continues to be synthesized even into the 21st century. This notion that, um, even to be a musician and to, you know, continue to tour and continue to play music, uh, you gotta have hope that you’re headed somewhere and that’s what it means to me.

LEWIS:

So before I met y'all, I was the kind of person who would use the words roots and Americana interchangeably and you have disabused me of that habit. Can you tell us more about what roots means to you, and why that’s the designation you've chosen for your work?

BRYAN:

You know, sometimes, uh, you know, music tends to want to be put into genres or, or, or people want to put music into genres, right? And, and for me, when you say Americana, that means that it’s American. But if you look at most American musical art forms, they’re a blend, right? It really is world music at its core. There are so many blendings. And so when we say Americana, it seems like we’re limiting the overall scope. And when we talk about roots, it means that it’s rooted somewhere. And those roots may be blended, right? Like what we're going to hear about today from Los Texmaniacs, we’re going to hear the blending of multiple cultures that make their, uh, their version of roots music. And to me, that’s important to talk about. And I think that’s really a 21st century perspective on what music is.

BERNICE:

Yeah. I think of roots music as the melting pot and we all think we know so much about this melting pot, but we don’t think about the roots of what melted in the first place. And you know like, my grandpa was a Swiss yodeler. And I think that has influenced me in ways that I wouldn't be able to express necessarily.

BRYAN:

Swiss-icana.

BERNICE:

Swiss-icana. Yeah, so.

LEWIS:

Swoots.

BRYAN:

Swoots. Exactly, Sara

BERNICE:

The, the, the sounds we hear when we're young and infuses in to our musical brain in a way that is hard to comprehend, but it comes out as roots music. It’s these roots we’ve grown up with that.

LEWIS:

That's why I love that Los Texmaniacs is this, the first artist right out of the gate. Listening to Max talk on stage about his music and the roots of his music was incredibly fascinating and informative. I’ve heard that music my whole life and never really thought about that convergence of Mexican and Czech and German influences that are coming together in conjunto.

BRYAN:

Right? What Max and the Los Texmaniacs to doing to, to both preserve that, uh, kind of original version, that original blending, but also then continue to push it forward. That’s compelling to me. And I think that's also what roots music is. It’s honoring a tradition but also then pushing it forward and continuing to create new music.

BRYAN:

Welcome Los Texmaniacs! [Applause]

LEWIS:

Max, why don’t you tell us a little bit about that song and the guitar you’re playing.

MAX BACA:

Okay, sure. The song “Mexico Americano” is a, it’s a song saying that we’re, uh, uh, Mexican Americans, uh, which was, uh, Por me madre, soy Mexicano. From my mother’s side, I’m Mexican and then by destiny, I’m American, ’cause I was born in the USA. So it’s a kind of the border, one of those border type songs and identifies, you know, who we are. We can speak in two different languages. And when it comes to the bajo sexto, which is the, uh, primary accompaniment instrument for the button accordion for this type of conjunto music that we play, Tex Mex music, uh, which, uh, uh, was influenced by the, around the turn of the century from the Germans and the Czechs and the Polish that settled in Texas around that time. They brought over the button accordion. And then we started hearing the Germans play and said, you know, we're going to pick up an accordion and play, too. And then just when this came in, we said, well, we want to be different. And we incorporated this, which is a bajo sexto, a 12 string guitar with bass strings and guitar strings. And it was designed to take the place of the left hand side of the accompanying part of the accordion. ’Cause uh, this instrument came from the Middle East into Spain [inaudible] and then from Spanish to Michoacan, Mexico. So this is the Mex. And this would be the Tex. [laughter] Tex and the Mex. So, um, uh, the Germans would accompaniment themselves and it would you know kinda like—

[PLAYS ACCORDIAN SAMPLE]

MAX:

It took the place of that—

[PLAYS BAJO SEXTO SAMPLE]

MAX:

And that’s where we created our own sound, our own style. And call it Tex Mex music. And conjunto music, pretty much “conjunto” means uh an ensemble really, a group. That name “conjunto” just kind of just stayed like that. It was campfire music, uh cantina music, you know, kind of a thing.

But it started with these two instruments, you know. And, and we’re just trying to... Part of our culture, you know, it's, uh, back in the days when the migrant farm workers were working in the fields, you know, and this was our means of entertainment, uh we'd have these barn dances at the end of the week, you know, or shindigs or pachanga. They, you know, move the furniture aside. And to just go for it and play.

JOSH BACA:

The music that we play, you know, it was, uh, it was our means of entertainment after working—like he explained earlier—after working the fields and, you know, it was, uh, it was a treat for our families, for our people, not just like barn dances, but at home. The pull--the brothers would pull up the button, the accordion the bajo sexto and play for the family at the end of the night. And, uh, you know, um, learn the different polkas and stuff, but it was a means of entertainment for us.

BRYAN:

Well thank you Los Texmaniacs! Thank you very much! [applause] You want to end on one more song?

MUSIC

BRYAN:

That was beautiful. Thank you guys. Thank you so much.

LEWIS:

This episode is supported by the Arkansas Humanities Council. It was produced by me, Monique Laborde, Hannah Saulters, Maxwell George, Trey Pollard, and Bernice and Bryan Hembree with Ryan Harris and Eliza Borné. Postproduction by Spacebomb. Thanks to Fayetteville Roots Festival, Greg Ferguson, UAMS, Andy and Somers Collins, and Spacebomb Group for making the show possible.

MAX:

So what I explained earlier, when when the Germans came and settled in, they brought over the button accordion, then we picked it up. Martinez was credited was with one of the first with Santiago Jimenez, Sr. and then we incorporated the bajo sexto. So this is what it sounded like way back then when there was no upright or drum set, whatever. One two three!

MUSIC