Peter B Lowry on the prime doyen of folklore and field recording
Alan Lomax… what a concept! The person without whom there would probably be no Songlines. And that is not attempted hyperbole, merely the truth. With a six decade career documenting the musics of the world’s folk, the possibilities are nearly endless regarding available recorded material. Beginning his field recording in 1933 in the southern US assisting his father, he was a single-minded cultural polymath who amassed a huge collection. A behemoth, in more ways than one, Alan was later the vanguard of 1940s-50s folk revivals, first in the US, then later in England, Ireland and Scotland.
How many people do you know of that are one degree of alliterative separation from Moby, Muddy Waters, and Miles Davis? Not to mention the likes of Leadbelly, Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger, The Copper Family, Woody Guthrie, Hamish Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Seamus Ennis, Son House… the list goes on and on. He felt compelled to document the musics of many a world culture – nobody could do or know it all, of course, but he came as close as was humanly possible. But the proof is in the recordings that he was involved with, directly or indirectly, during his many decades of field activity.
Born January 31 , 1913 in Austin, Texas, Alan’s father (John A Lomax) was a university professor and later also the field recorder-director for the US Library of Congress (then) Folk Song Archive. The earliest material (including Leadbelly) was recorded by John and Alan during the early to mid-30s for the Library and helped infect him with a life-long interest in folk cultures, especially singing. Those early sessions were cut on aluminium discs on a vaguely portable disc-cutter stored in their car boot; glass-based acetate discs were used by the 1940s when Alan was the youngest ever archive director. During the later McCarthy era, Alan had to depart DC, going to England and Europe for a most useful spell, during which he left his footprint in the Scottish, English and Irish folk sand – not to mention Spain and Italy.
He returned to the US later in the 1940s, putting together LP collections of “folk and primitive music” for Columbia Records and doing some location recording with his first tape recorder. In the late 1950s, the gift of a stereo machine from the Erteguns (executives of Atlantic Records) gave rise to Lomax’s fabled ‘Southern Journey’ that has been the source for Moby’s Play and the Tangle Eye remixes. There were occasional forays ‘into the field’ after that, mainly filmic, but that slowed up as he became diverted by other cultural interests.
His latter years (until his death in 2002) were spent gathering all that he had done into many broad-brush possibilities, including his concept of the ‘Global Jukebox’ (in advance of the internet). There had never been such a ‘complete’ individual before Alan and will never be another such after him – a single individual with such broad curiosity and knowledge about the musics of the world – it’s just not humanly possible. While difficult to pick specific recommendations out of the literally hundreds of great CDs available, below are five points of entry. After that, you’re on your own… enjoy.
A single CD that is just what it says it is, from ‘Southern Journey’ through ‘The English, Scottish & Irish Recordings’ to ’The Ballad Operas’ taking in Caribbean, Spanish, and Italian as well as older Library of Congress material. It will either whet or dry your appetite for more possibilities. If the former, go to www.rounder.com and dive in. It’s all good.
A single CD compilation of material ‘that became famous as pop, rock, R&B and jazz hits’ is how it’s described. Only a slight stretch but full of fine performances of songs that may be familiar to you in some form or another: ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, ‘Black Betty’, ‘Sloop John B’, ‘The Gallows Pole’, ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Alborada de Vigo’, ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby’ amongst them… just ask The Animals, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Lonnie Donegan, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, or T-Bone Burnette and Gillian Welch (not to mention the cast of Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou!).
Alan produced this overview of African-American music for a Library of Congress concert in 1940. While something of a curate’s egg, it’s an interesting period piece nonetheless and a view of how certain people in the US viewed historical ‘Negro’ cultural expressions at that point in time.
One of the most incredible packages, this is the beginnings of directly recorded oral history (ie not taken down stenographicaily) documenting the history of early jazz. Morton talks and plays on seven of the eight CDs, and this is a must for those interested in early jazz and American music in general.
Alan Lomax, the American folklorist, ethnomusicologist and filmmaker spent his life travelling the world making field recordings. He is best known for his work in the prisons, farms and plantations of the American South and the Caribbean. It is these recordings that Canadian banjo player and composer Jayme Stone sought to bring back to life with various collaborators on this awe-inspiring piece of work. At the centenary of Lomax’s birth, Stone revisits 19 songs and tunes from Lomax’s body of work: sea shanties, Scots ballads, gospels, West Indian love songs, work tunes, eastern Appalachian fiddle tunes. The album comes with extensive notes and artwork celebrating both Lomax’s life and the making of this album.
Outstanding among the tracks are ‘Shenandoah’, a heart-breaking sea shanty sung by the ethereal-voiced Margaret Glaspy, and ‘I Want to Hear Somebody Pray’, a rousing Caribbean gospel sung by a glorious vocal chorus. Stone accompanies the latter with his banjo, fitted with a deadening piece of foam to emulate the West African ngoni sound in order to reinforce the song’s African roots. ‘Julie and Joe’ are two conjoined Appalachian tunes, with fast-beating fiddles and banjo bearing the energy of the region’s signature sound. As in all the tracks, the banjo is understated. Stone’s quiet influence speaks not just through the sensitive contributions of his instrument but also through the research, coordination and care he has taken with this groundbreaking piece of work.
Photo: Alan Lomax (left) and Raphael Hurtault, La Plaine, Dominica, Caribbean, 1962. (Alan Lomax Collection; American Folklife Center; Library of Congress/Courtesy of Alan Lomax estate)
This article originally appeared in Songlines #39. For more information about how to subscribe to Songlines, visit: www.songlines.co.uk/subs