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(b Neosho, MO, 15 April 1889; d Kansas City, MO, 19 Jan 1975). American painter, muralist, illustrator, folklorist, harmonica player. Widely known as a Regionalist painter, Benton repeatedly captures in his art American musicians and scenes of music-making, both urban and rural. As a folklorist, he observed during his sketching trips rural vocal and instrumental traditions of black and white musicians, describing them vividly through word and image in his autobiography, An Artist in America (1937; rev. 4/1983).

Benton created portraits of musicians and composers he knew, among others Missouri Musicians (1931), The Sun Treader (Portrait of Carl Ruggles) (1934), Edgard Varèse (c. 1934), The Music Lesson (1943) [Gale Huntington (1902–93)], Portrait of David Mannes (1949), and The Hymn Singer (The Minstrel) (1950) [Burl Ives]. His Portrait of a Musician (1949) shows a black jazz bassist. His Flute Player (1945) and Jessie with Guitar (1957) depict, respectively, his son Thomas Piacenza (‘T.P.’) Benton (1926–2010), a professional flutist, and his daughter Jessie Benton (b 1939), a folk singer and guitarist. Benton also produced images named after folksongs and ballads, among others Coming 'Round the Mountain (1931), The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley (1934), and Jesse James (1936).

Besides painting Americana, Benton collected folksongs and fiddle tunes, of which he compiled over 120 in a manuscript anthology for voice, harmonica, and piano. He notated this music in his self-invented numbers-and-arrows tablature for harmonica, a method adopted by publishers. In 1942 Benton discussed with John Lomax and Alan Lomax his interest in recording Ozark fiddlers for the Library of Congress, a project that did not materialize.

Throughout his career, Benton, self-taught in music, performed folk and classical genres on harmonica. Joining T.P. Benton (recorder, flute), his wife Rita Piacenza Benton (1896–1975; guitar), and occasionally Jessie Benton (piano), he also hosted musical gatherings attended by Henry Cowell, Gale Huntington, Frank Luther (1905–80), Carson Robison, Carl Ruggles, Charles Seeger, and members of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra in New York, Kansas City, and on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

In New York Benton introduced Charles Seeger to American folk music and performed with him for the unveiling of his America Today mural (1930–31) at the New School for Social Research. He also taught the song ‘John Henry’ to Pete Seeger. Benton led the Harmonica Rascals (harmonicas, banjo, guitar), which included the young Jackson Pollock (1912–56), in performances in Greenwich Village.

Benton’s musical activities culminated in Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s (Decca, 1942), an album of folksong arrangements by Daniel Harrison (1917–65) and Kenneth Winstead and folk-inspired classical pieces by Edward Robinson (1905–?). Commemorating his musical soirees, this recording features Benton (harmonica), T.P. (flute), Robinson (harpsichord), the Frank Luther Singers, and an orchestra consisting of oboe, banjo, two violins, viola, and cello. In the liner notes, Benton delineates the history of his musical life.

Benton created numerous transcriptions for diatonic and chromatic harmonica of English, French, German, and Italian 17th- and 18th-century chamber works, among them several for two melody instruments and continuo.

Writings

  • An Artist in America (New York, 1937; Columbia, MO, rev. 4/1983)

Bibliography

  • R. Lawless: ‘Thomas Hart Benton’s Jealous Lover and its Musical Background’, Register of the Museum of Art (University of Kansas), vol.2/6 (1961), 32–9
  • A. Green: ‘Thomas Hart Benton’s Folk Musicians’, John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly, vol.12/42 (1976), 74–90
  • A. Green: ‘A Suggested Museum Show’, John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly, vol.15 (1979), 157–65
  • A.C. Buechner: ‘Thomas Hart Benton and American Folk Music’, Thomas Hart Benton: Chronicler of America’s Folk Heritage, ed. L. Weintraub (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 1984), 68–77
  • A. Green: ‘Tom Benton’s Folk Depictions’, Thomas Hart Benton: Chronicler of America’s Folk Heritage, ed. L. Weintraub (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 1984), 32–67
  • K.A. Marling: Tom Benton and his Drawings: a Biographical Essay and a Collection of his Sketches, Studies, and Mural Cartoons (Columbia, MO, 1985)
  • V.G. Fryd: ‘“The Sad Twang of Mountain Voices”: Thomas Hart Benton’s Sources of Country Music’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol.94/1 (1995), 301–35
  • A.C. Richter: Fiddles, Harmonicas, and Banjos: Thomas Hart Benton and his Role in Constructing Popular Notions of American Folk Music and Musicians (diss., U. of Minnesota, 2008)
  • L. Mazow: Thomas Hart Benton and the American Sound (University Park, PA, 2012)