To open with a cliché, a picture paints a thousand words. In Thomas Hart Benton’s case, his final painting not only spoke a thousand words, but also captured country music’s spirit and its history.
Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, but art was not what his father had in mind for him. Benton was the unfortunate product of a father who tried grooming his son to be something he ultimately wasn’t. He wished to enhance his art skills, something his mother supported. After all, she was a pianist. She understood the arts even if it was of a different kind. Her father was a violin maker and musician.
Thankfully, Benton’s mother prevailed in her wishes to see her son’s dream come true. He got his chance to pursue his dream as a teenager when he was hired to work as a cartoonist for the Joplin American newspaper in Joplin, Missouri. In 1907, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago to further his studies. It was here he learned how to paint.
On a more humorous (meaning less serious) note, Benton may have even just been the first “outlaw” associated with country music. He was coming up during a time of revolutionary art forms. All of a sudden then you had Benton who painted pictures that reflected American life and more importantly, people doing hard work. Some of these were too progressive for their time or misunderstood, and Benton didn’t meet with initial critical acclaim.
Still, this didn’t mean he didn’t have his fans. While living in New York City, Benton started his first set of murals titled The American Historical Epic. It showed his interest in pioneer life.
Benton finally broke through to the general public in 1932 when the state of Indiana commissioned him to create a mural for the Indiana Pavilion at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Since this was the time of the Depression, Benton sought to relate to the working class with his mural.
Really, this isn’t that different from being another kind of artist (a singer). Benton had a message, just as true artists do, and he used whatever means necessary to reach his audience.
Benton actually took up the harmonica in 1931. He was just fiddling around with it at first, but eventually he learned how to play a scale, something that excited him like a kid walking into a candy store.
At first he played little more than children’s songs, but after awhile he upgraded to a better harmonica. Him and his wife Rita were known to play guitar and harmonica together in their home during the evenings.
Benton improved so much actually that he devised a new form of musical notation, which was later picked up, and is still used by commercial music publishers. According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, “rather than indicating the position of a note on the scale, this system indicated numerically which hole to blow through, and had an up or down arrow indicating whether to inhale or exhale.”
In 1941, Benton recorded a three-record album through Decca Records titled Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s. Of course, Benton was a painter first and foremost, but it was his love for music that caught the eye of the Country Music Foundation.
In 1973, cowboy singer Tex Ritter and director of the Tennessee Arts Commission Norman Worrell visited Benton in Kansas City. Benton at the time was eighty-four and retired. It was Ritter’s suggestion to Benton that he should create a painting summarizing the roots of country music that planted the seeds for what would be Benton’s final painting.
How could Benton resist? It was one more chance at celebrating American traditions, and of all genres of music, country music made the most sense for this kind of painting.
Dubbed The Sources of Country Music, despite this painting depicting people doing things all at the same time, there’s still a series of overlapping vignettes depicting their cultural contexts. The woman on the left is playing a mountain dulcimer while barefoot in the grass (it’s hard to tell on first glance). Behind her we have a conductor leading a group singing a cappella from a hymnal. This is assumed to be a tent revival.
There’s two men playing fiddles for the dancing couples near them. Of course, they also have moonshine near them. An African-American man is playing the banjo claw hammer-style in denim overalls. The cowboy just may be the most interesting character of all too, with his belt, boots, spurs, gun and one foot in what’s assumed to be the Southwestern desert with the other foot on his saddle. You can also picture someone like Jimmie Rodgers riding that train back there.
And of course, that’s the earliest stages of country music (which, if we’re going by the “latest” musical addition of this picture of the cowboy means that “country” had ceased to exist as a term for what we call the music today). There’s no steel guitar, no mandolin, no electric guitar, no piano and no orchestral strings.
By January 1974, Benton submitted his first sketch to the Board of the Foundation. The mural was ultimately dedicated to Ritter as he died a short while before it was completed. It was him after all who inspired Benton to craft one final piece. I’m pretty sure there’s a reason the cowboy is overemphasized in this painting (the train and the cowboy weren’t even in his initial sketch he presented to the board).
He finished the canvas on January 18, a little ahead of schedule. That night after dinner, Benton told his wife that he wanted to look over the mural one last time. If he decided it was complete, he was going to sign it. He was ultimately still trying to perfect the train after so many attempts, and how he wanted to look is something we’ll never know.
Around 8:30 p.m., Rita went out to fetch him seeing as how he had been out there so late. She found him lying on the floor with his spectacles on, directly in front of the Nashville mural. He had suffered a heart attack and had fallen on his wristwatch, which stopped at the exact moment of his death: five minutes past seven o’clock. The painting remains unsigned. Now worth $1 million dollars, the painting sits proudly in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Benton Profile by PBS (Ken Burns). Retrieved here <https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/benton/benton/>
- The Sources of Country Music, 1975. PDF. Retrieved here <https://picturingamerica.neh.gov/downloads/pdfs/Resource_Guide_Chapters/PictAmer_Resource_Book_Chapter_18A.pdf>
- Thomas Hart Benton Biography. Retrieved here <http://benton.truman.edu/artist.html>
- Thomas Hart Benton by The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Retrieved here <https://countrymusichalloffame.org/inductees/thomas-hart-benton1>
- Thomas Hart Benton’s Final Gift. Retrieved here <https://www.arts.gov/about/40th-anniversary-highlights/thomas-hart-bentons-final-gift>
- Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash (2006).