Somewhere Along the Trail
Lotus Dickey grew up in rural Orange County, Indiana, in a one-room log house on Grease Gravy Road. The youngest of five children, Lotus often described himself as the last of the "older generation", a participant in the rural, traditional way of life still common in southern Indiana at the turn of the century. He grew up close to nature; throughout his life he turned to the wonders of the changing seasons, the fields at harvest time, the sight of the moon, for personal and musical inspiration. Although the Dickey family had few material possessions, they were all familiar with the great works of literature. At night, Lotus's father read to the children from the Bible, from anthologies of poetry, and from novels, such as Les Miserables, in their entirety.
Lotus and his siblings also learned the rudiments of music. Lotus sang traditional ballads and popular songs with his parents and siblings. He learned about keys and elementary harmony from playing chords on the family pump organ and taking the tenor and bass parts while singing church hymns. His brother Cyprian taught him to play the fiddle (ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalog). A few years later Cyprian gave Lotus a guitar and a chord book, and Lotus taught himself whatever chords he needed at the time. He began to play for local dances and house parties, favorite pastimes in Orange County during the 1920s and 1930s.
From the early 1930s through the rest of his life, Lotus composed his own tunes and songs, drawing from the traditions he had learned from his family and community and also from the country singers and fiddlers that he heard on the radio. Lotus wrote hundreds of songs: love songs, Bible story-songs, ballads, and humorous songs. Although he longed to share his music with a larger community, he was too busy working to support his own family of eight children to spend any time in musical self-promotion. It was not until the late 1970s, after he had retired, that Lotus was "discovered" by Indiana University folklorists and featured in a documentary film, Water from Another Time, by Dillon Bustin and Richard Kane.
From 1981 until his death in 1989, Lotus's musical life flourished. He performed at major folk festivals around the US, including the Pinewoods Camp, the Augusta Heritage Festival, the Battleground Festival, and the 1984 National Folk Festival. He was twice awarded Indiana Arts Commission Awards for the recording of three cassettes, The Pride of Glencoe, The Very First Time, and Got Someone I'm Wild About (now all available as CDs). He was declared an Indiana State Treasure. He also reached Hoosiers through his performances in the Indiana State Parks and public schools. Wherever Lotus went, people of all ages wanted to learn his songs.
One of Lotus' strong desires was to compile a Lotus Dickey songbook, a volume that would perpetuate his own compositions and convey a sense of the traditions that had nurtured them. The first edition of this songbook, edited by Nancy McEntire, Grey Larsen, and Janne Henshaw, was published by Lotus Dickey Music and Indiana University Press in 1995. The second edition, expanded with more original and traditional songs, was published in 2005.
Lotus on Lotus
My father and mother sang old ballads and traditional songs, many more of them than I learned. My father would, from little up, take us on his knee and sing to us. He could read music somewhat, and taught us the rudiments of music. When work was done, we'd gather around the fireside, especially on winter nights when we had more time, and somebody would start singing. We weren't compelled to, but just wanted to. Little by little I grew into the music, always had an ear for harmony and melody.
I have had a flare for poetry all my life. Liked Tennyson and Byron and Longfellow and a lot of those. I wrote a little poetry myself. And then, having some musical ability, I began to make up tunes of my own. When an idea hit me, I'd work with it. I don't know that I had any goal when I started; composing was sort of an obsession.
Poetry is a means of making a sentiment more vivid. And poetry together with music maybe is set apart a little more. But I never considered myself outstanding at all. If there is any value in the songs I've produced on my own, then I say it's a gift from God. And if it's not a gift it's of no real value anyway.