SPRINGFIELD — Songs called Max Hunter to the hills.
From the 1950s through the late ’70s or early ’80s, Hunter visited far-flung corners of the region, recording ballads and folk tunes. It began with the Springfield salesman’s desire to play music himself while on the road. It grew into an effort to capture songs — often centuries-old and passed down through generations — while those who knew them could still sing.
Many of those voices have been silenced, and Hunter himself is long gone. His notoriety was so great that The New York Times featured an article on his death in 1999.
Nearly 25 years later, online access has allowed the songs to stay relevant — from the Ozarks to the east coast and even across the pond in the United Kingdom.
It was the tunes themselves that drew folk musician Sarah Jane Nelson, and later led her to write “Ballad Hunting With Max Hunter,” a biography about the legendary collector published in 2023.
In recent months, the songs also captured the attention of Mick McLaughlin, himself a budding musician, who now plays tunes for his music group in the United Kingdom.
The continued relevance of his recordings is what Hunter would have wanted.
“I don’t mind one way or the other,” Hunter told a Springfield News-Leader reporter in 1998 regarding his selection for a Missouri Arts Award, which was said to be the highest cultural award in the state.
“Oh, sure, it’s an honor, but to me, this (work) is what makes it important,” he continued. “That people can use it. That people can get their hands on it.”
Hunter’s route to recording
Born in 1921, Hunter grew up in Springfield. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and came home to the Queen City where he worked in sales and service.
His route took him through the region and to many evenings in motels — and a decision to record musicians so he could practice playing. At that point, though, his purpose wasn’t preservation. In those days, he actually erased most of his tape so it could be reused.
But after meeting famed folklorist Vance Randolph, that practice changed — allowing Hunter to amass a collection of more than 2,200 songs, 1,000 expressions, stories and jokes on tape.
“What you find in something like this is the lifestyle of people, the way they lived, what they did,” Hunter said to another News-Leader reporter in 1987. “And you break that down into how they built houses, how they cooked, the various aspects of their religion. It probably gives you a better understanding of who you are if you know where you came from. Why do so many psychiatrists go back into your childhood to see what happened to affect you now? Folklore does the same thing.”
In the latter years of his career, he worked with Silver Dollar City to organize its Mountain Music festivals and led the revitalization of the Ozark Folk Festival in Eureka Springs.
While some of Hunter’s work ended up in places like the Library of Congress, he ultimately opted to donate his original collection of recordings to the Springfield-Greene County Library District. Reels were initially converted to tapes, and later digitized through a partnership with Missouri State University and made available online.
Finding Hunter via the internet
The net is where Nelson first learned of Hunter. A folk musician herself, Nelson was planning for a few upcoming gigs in the summer of 2015 and wanted to add a few new songs to her repertoire. In response, a friend suggested she check out Hunter’s collection.
“She said to me, ‘Look at the Max Hunter Collection. It’s really extensive and wonderful.’ I just found the online, digitized version of his collection, and just started listening,” recalls Nelson by phone from her home state of Massachusetts. “I was up to like three in the morning just falling in love with everything I heard, and just going deeper and deeper into listening to all the different people on it.”
The discovery ultimately led Nelson to learn and add several songs Hunter collected. (Even today, a favorite is Rosemary and Thyme — “It’s like, ‘If you’re in a relationship, these are all the things you’re doing in that relationship’ — it’s all work, and then it’s all negotiation. It’s not all romance. It’s a very earthy song to me. It’s very real. And I sing that a lot. I love it.”)
It also ignited an interest for Nelson in Hunter himself.
“I just got really curious about who was this person who brought all these voices together,” Nelson said. “I just started looking into that, and just sort of was drawn into this story of a regular businessman who did something really extraordinary.
“But it all began with me just trying to find the next set of songs that I wanted to perform.”
‘I wanted to follow every tributary’
As she learned more about Hunter, Nelson — who is a professional writer, yet without any connections to Hunter or the Ozarks — realized that a book was in her future.
“It became clear to me this was not just another feature-article-length project, this was going to be a lot more,” she said. “I think the thing that kind of went off in my head is it wasn’t just about Max Hunter. It was about all the people around him. It was this whole broad community, and I wanted to really follow every tributary.”
Over years of work and two trips to the Ozarks, Nelson wrote more than 200 pages about Hunter, his work and the people he featured. There was time spent in Columbia at the State Historical Society of Missouri, where the bulk of Hunter’s papers are housed. There were connections with Springfield and Hunter’s family. There was also research with other institutions to help create a complete picture.
“Max had wonderful virtues. He was so diligent in just capturing the songs as they were presented, not wrapping them in beautiful ribbons and lovely packing paper. I mean, he was just ‘This is the real song. This is how I received it, take it or leave it. I’m capturing this,’” Nelson said. “But he did not do in-depth interviews.”
That’s where resources like the Rackensack Oral History Collection at the University of Central Arkansas helped fill in gaps about the lives of people Hunter recorded.
“Those gave me insights into particularly Ollie Gilbert and her life that I got nowhere else,” she said of the famed folksinger from Arkansas featured in the book. “Those were wonderful materials. I can’t speak highly enough of those.”
Nelson found kinship with Hunter
Through her research, Nelson also found kinship with Hunter, discovered in similar cultural elements that transcended generations and geography.
“There were so many things that resonated with Max Hunter and me,” she said, referencing points such as folklore beliefs regarding weather, traditions and practices referenced in the material he collected. “We’re from totally different worlds. But on a personal level, there were just so many things that I found really interesting and cool. It really kept me going.”
Beyond that, Hunter’s personal dedication to bringing the collection into existence was something Nelson also found inspirational.
“I see it as very important obviously to the Ozarks and the history and the culture, but to me, there’s this universal piece of somebody so diligently just going at this for so many years, and not really thinking himself, at least early on, how important this work was beyond himself,” she said. “But having this empathy and understanding, really an intuitive understanding, that songs mean so much to people.”
Hunter’s collection inspires local musicians
In Bowen’s case, it was Hunter’s collection that she used when learning to sing folk songs on her Ozarks farm as a teenager. The young musician checked out cassette tapes from the library and took them home so she could listen and learn to play the tunes.
“I learned a lot of songs from his collection,” Bowen, now a musician for more than five decades, told Ozarks Alive in 2021. “So that’s really where most of my songs come from and the reason they’re from the Ozarks — they’re from his collection.”
A full-circle moment
In that interview, Bowen also pointed out that thanks to the internet, ballads have been given a new way to live. That’s obviously how Nelson first became acquainted with Hunter, but it’s also what provided the connection for the aforementioned Mick McLaughlin, who found appreciation for Hunter’s recordings online.
This time, the link was made from around 4,000 miles away, all the way from the United Kingdom.
Now retired, hobby musician McLaughlin was in search of songs to sing for a folk music club when he found the Hunter collection. Early in his days of music-making, McLaughlin was enamored by the “normalness” of the people Hunter recorded.
“There were quite a few repositories of folk songs, but a lot of English ones, Gaelic ones, both Scots and Irish. I don’t think my voice, such as it is, lends myself particularly to try and do those. I’m not a skilled singer,” McLaughlin said via Zoom. “But when I came across very nice, brave people who were recorded by Max singing in a style that I could manage, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is the way to go.’
“He has recordings of what I call ‘ordinary people.’”
The latter fact was enticing to McLaughlin, who felt less intimidated about learning the songs himself. He regularly performs songs for his folk club — “I then acquired the title ‘Missouri Mick’ because I always told them where it came from and always gave Max a bit of a plug,” he said — and plans to perform as many of Hunter’s songs as he can. Exceptions are tunes that are not considered acceptable today.
It’s a full-circle moment, as many Ozarks folk songs and ballads were brought over from Europe.
McLaughlin posts songs to YouTube channel
Beyond the music meetups, McLaughlin also regularly records Hunter’s collected songs and posts them on a dedicated YouTube channel.
An element McLaughlin mentions is that Hunter didn’t correct the people he recorded or prompt them to alter lyrics, giving unique versions of songs that vary a bit from place to place — a reality common in folk music. Hunter assuredly did not make that decision to help future musicians, but it has served McLaughlin well.
“One of the things I’ve read is Max didn’t like changing stuff. There are some obvious — I wouldn’t call them errors, but people got the wrong verse in the wrong place and what have you,” says McLaughlin. “But he refused to correct any of that because that’s what folk songs are about. They’re what people sing rather than a little manuscript.
“That’s what I also like — it allowed me to be a little more free-spirited with the ones I do rather than the disciple of making sure ‘Is this a tune that all these people in this room are expecting and have I got it right?’”
“Ballad Hunting with Max Hunter,” Nelson’s biography of Hunter is now available, and may be ordered here. To view McLaughlin’s YouTube channel, click here.
To listen to more of the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, click here.