Thursday, April 24, 2014

Association for Cultural Equity's Alan Lomax Archives (Why I Love Folk Blues)

Good morning!

Do you or do you not love when you haphazardly rediscover a really good resource you should have been availing yourself to every day of your life, that you'd effectively forgotten about? As luck would have it, I do, because that's exactly how I feel about the Association for Cultural Equity's Alan Lomax Archives, which has been enriching my life x 1,000,000 in the last week or so as I've been piping it through my earphones at my desk. I'd heard about it months ago, but have just now gotten down to really immersing myself in the website. Listening to the likes of Leadbelly, Bessie Jones, and Bukka White, I've 'scaped the confines of my cubicle, and slipped the surly bounds of earth to fly high above the delta, circa 1930-1960, crazy in love with these free streaming historical songs. I now want the albums; I now want to listen to nothing else all day. 17,000 tracks to choose from! For free! ((eyes continue to goggle out of head))

Brother, have you heard the good word about Alan Lomax's folk recordings?

Lomax looking uncharacteristically like Dirk Bogarde, 1940's
Alan Lomax was essentially born into the profession he would spend most of the twentieth century pursuing. His father, John Lomax, held a lifelong interest in vernacular song, springing from his 1870's boyhood on a Texas farm and a chance friendship with an African-American farm hand well versed in lyrics, music, and dance of the (still wild) American West. While pursuing an academic career, the senior Lomax championed the historical relevance of folk song and regional music, collecting and transcribing lyrics from an until-that-point exclusively oral tradition into the 1910 publication Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. In 1932, a seventeen year old Alan Lomax joined his father on the road collecting folk music for the Library of Congress. They spent the next year traveling throughout the American South, grappling with the expensive, cumbersome recording devices of the day to capture some of the most unique and significant entries in the blues and folk cannon, and discovering artists who would later become familiar names to music connossieurs throughout the world.

Snapshots from field recordings, 1940 (above); trunk of the Lomaxes traveling car with recording equipment (below)

From a Guardian article on the Lomaxes:
One hot July day in 1933, a Ford sedan turned off Louisiana's Highway 66 to the gates of the notorious Angola state penitentiary. The car was carrying folklorist John Lomax and his 18-year-old son Alan – both crucial and controversial figures in the history of American roots music – as well as a [315 pound] portable recording machine paid for by the Library of Congress that could only be accommodated by ripping out the back seat. Inside, they recorded 12-string guitar player Huddie Ledbetter, who was serving time for attempted homicide. The pair were dumbstruck by his singing and playing, and when the 48-year-old Leadbelly (as all knew him) was released a year later, he became Lomax Sr's driver and assistant. 
It's hard for me to even wrap my head around the idea of going into a room and hearing Leadbelly for the first time, bold as life, in person. Also, please tote this one up under the column, "Dream Jobs- Lisa" in my High Fidelity like list of jobs I will never have. In 1935, the younger Lomax collected field recordings with Zora Neale Hurston (who I think would have been working on her seminal folklore collection Mules and Men at the time?). I CANNOT CONTROL MY JEALOUSY.

While there is controversy over the implied cultural colonialism of "discovering" something people had been doing for a long time, just fine, without any input from the majority culture...I sure am glad these recordings allowed future generations like me to view, as an insect in amber, music unfettered by outside influence. Influenced by their own past sure-- African rhythm structures blending with English folk lyrics tuned to instruments created in the South and picking styles invented by who knows who during who knows when, but that's an organic, rather than synthetic, mix of influences. I might have talked to you before about how the idea of a regional dialect being strictly regional in the pre-radio days is one of the most bolt-of-lightning thoughts I've ever been exposed to-- before there was radio, tv, or the movies, there was no "standard" for the way people sound and no outside influence over the way people talk. At the turn of the century, unless you traveled to another region, or heard someone from another region who had traveled to yours, you would have no way of knowing a Boston accent from a Georgia one if you weren't, respectively, born in Massachusetts or the Peach state. Each vernacular dialect would exist completely independent of one another, and each would be exponentially thicker than their modern day equivalents due to the lack of a pervasive diluting  "mid Atlantic" standard. Essentially, there's no one on the tv or radio to make you start to question the difference between "ought to", "oughta", and "oughter", not to MENTION the alternative word choice of "should". You talked like your mom talked, and she like her mom, and she like her mom, with maybe a foreign influence of country of origin thrown in for spice.

Gabriel Brown and Rochelle French, Eatonville, Florida (hear Brown playing that guitar here)
Now imagine that as applied to music. This music isn't influenced by any grander ambition than playing music; none of these singers are trying to wholeheartedly ape some recording they heard on the radio because in many cases there was no radio. Mind blown, right? And nobody's trying to make a million dollars playing music-- one of my all-time favorite blues recordings, "Dark Road Blues" by Willie Lofton, was one of eight sides Lofton made in the 1920's before spending the rest of his life as a dentist. When there was a neo-blues revival in the roots-music loving sixties', one record collector named Tom Hoskins tracked Mississippi John Hurt down from the lyrics of a recording  he had cut in 1928. "Avalon, my home town, always on my mind," led Hoskins to Avalon, Mississippi, where the aforementioned Hurt was doing what he'd been doing since he made those records in the late twenties'-- farming! I fell in love but hard with Hurt's music through his sweet, soft singing voice and low-key guitar work over lyrics like these from "Ain't No Tellin":
Don't you let my good girl catch you here.
Don't you let my good girl catch you here.
She might shoot you, may cut ya and starve you too.
Ain't no tellin, what, she might do.

My favorite new thing I've listened to so far on the ACE streaming archives is this recording of Big Bill Broonzy (above, right, with guitar) that Alan Lomax made in Paris in 1952. The musical performances are top drawer, as I could have told you from other recordings from the forties' I have in my collection, but what I really loved were the dialogues Broonzy gets into on such diverse subjects as race relations, Parisian people, where his songs come from, and classically trained musicians. The cadence of his voice, and his Southern accent and word choice, remind me more of my mom's dad, my granddaddy, than I could tell you. When Broonzy talks about something he's very adamant about, he sounds almost angry...and when he IS angry, he sounds like he could come right across the speakers and stomp you where you stand. Listen to the Paris recordings here, or watch the man himself in action a few years later below:

Lomax's career didn't end with American field recordings-- over the next sixty years, he would travel to all corners of the world recording regional music. But for me, these blues, gospel, and folk recordings from the deep South are the real dealmakers here. I could listen ALL. DAY. I'm so excited to get a chance to hear some songs I haven't heard before, and FOR FREE. What was I waiting for?

Enough about me, though, how about you? Are you a blues or folk music aficionado? What is it about particular kinds of music that really sets the wheels of your imagination spinning? What have you been listening to lately? 

Gotta get back to work, but I will see you tomorrow for Photo Friday! Have a great Thursday, and we'll talk then! Ciao for now!


  1. 17,000 free songs! Wow-eee. Thanks for the heads-up on what looks like a surefire treasure trove.

    1. Right? Tell me what you like after you listen and we can compare notes!! :D

  2. oh my gosh this post is gold. absolutely awesome! this is what i love, right here. thank you SO SO VERY MUCH for bringing this to my attention, how i enjoyed reading it!!!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...