Friday, October 28, 2011

Billie Maxwell's Records Are the Oldest Made By an Arizonan-- and John Dixon Wants One

Billie Maxwell's "Cowboy's Wife" is one of those subtly powerful songs that leave you haunted and still.
Recorded in 1929, the track depicts the day-to-day toils of its protagonist, a woman living a tough life in the mountains of eastern Arizona.
Maxwell sings sorrowfully about a scene in which she prepares supper and waits for her cowboy husband to return home from a drive. She hears his familiar approach, saying she can "place every sound" while he dusts himself off and makes his way inside. Finally, he sees her after both of them have experienced a long, tiring day.
"I almost hold my breath / For in my heart I am hoping / That he'll notice my new jean dress / He comes, but his eyes wander past me / As he greets me with a kiss at the door / And I know that he's wanting his supper / For I've been through the whole thing before," she sings. "I place the hot supper before him / Oh, yes, I shall surely do my part / As I swallow my own disappointment / For I know that's the way to his heart."
It's sung in a minor key and with despairing and heartbreaking vocals that indicate deep convictions. Maxwell, singing in the voice of the title character, epitomized the Western woman — hardworking, strong, and independent but family-oriented and uncomplaining, to the point that she sacrificed her own happiness and contentment for some implicit greater good.
Remarkably, this beautifully dark song of swallowed discontent was recorded in the summer of 1929 — only nine years after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. It would be difficult to find other recordings from the era expressing the same sentiments — perhaps with the exception of protest songs written during the suffrage movement — and impossible to find one from the still-wild West.
So it's no wonder that John Dixon desperately wants an original copy of Maxwell's record. Dixon has been a career record collector (yes, there is such a thing) for 15 years, and is considered by the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame to be the "unofficial Arizona music historian." Dixon is in his mid-60s and tall, with grayish-white hair and a mustache and beard to match. He has a vault of vinyl and often dons record company T-shirts to wear with his jeans or shorts. He's always up for a good conversation, which he endearingly peppers with words like "kiddo."
Dixon is a pro, and when he seeks out an album, he likely will get his paws on it.
But Maxwell isn't your average "find" — she's the godmother of cowgirl music, the earliest recorded Arizona musician, and arguably one of the first feminist singers.
So her records are extremely obscure and extraordinarily important. And very elusive, even for a guy like Dixon. In seven years of searching, the closest Dixon came to getting a good copy came when he paid nearly $400, only to receive the disc cracked in the mail — a not uncommon fate for 78s, pre-vinyl discs meant to be played on the Victor Victrola.
Though the man known around town as "Johnny D" is an expert on Arizona music history, Maxwell isn't an artist he discovered on his own. Actually, he was turned on to her by longtime Tucson musician and KXCI community radio jock Al Perry. Perry, likewise, is on a hunt for Maxwell's record.
"I found [this] book Classic Country: Legends of Country Music at some sorta 'Friends of the Library' sell-off," Perry says. "It was only a dollar. I about popped a cork when I later read it and discovered the chapter on her."
As it turns out, few, including experts on Arizona's music history, had heard of Maxwell. Very little has been written about her, despite the fact that the few recordings she made in the late '20s are some of the most interesting artifacts in Arizona's cultural history.
What makes Maxwell's music, especially "Cowboy's Wife," so compelling is its outspoken, unpolished sound and lyrics that come from a blue-collar woman's point of view. Such a thing was unprecedented in the West.
"'Cowboy's Wife' is great because it's some sorta proto-feminist anthem," Perry says. "It's in a minor key, which is unusual, and her amateurish, quavery voice is pretty compelling. All those things make it a pretty unique record."
So who was the woman who recorded it?
Billie (sometimes spelled "Billy") was born in 1906 and named Willie Maxwell after her grandfather William Beatty Maxwell. It's unclear where she was born — this was, after all, six years before Arizona became a state. She grew up in a town called Nutrioso, in the White Mountains near Springerville. Her family worked as farmers and ranchers and also passed down a strong musical tradition.
Billie's niece, 76-year-old Pat Simpson, remembers her aunt's musical career well.
"The family was musical. It goes back three or four generations, to my great grandfather. He had 28 children, and every one of those children played a musical instrument," she says. "My father [Billie's brother Marion] played violin, banjo, guitar, ukulele, and mandolin. Aunt Willie played guitar, and piano, and so forth.