Before going to the University of Pennsylvania to “folklore school” in the fall of 1980 and after receiving (and properly spending) my N.E.. Folk Arts Grant in 1978, I found myself at loose ends. An unexpected phone call put an end to that for a while, for my caller was Alan Lomax. To hear from the doyen of folkloric field-workers was a surprise and he was calling to see if I’d work with him on a little project down in Washington, DC. He said that it should only take a couple of months and that I would be paid (a famous first at that point in time!) through Columbia University. I went down to NYC to talk with him, to see if we could stand one another… seemed OK. He also came up to my house one time and I played him some of “my” work, and impressing him with a few items! Not having anything major lined up at that point, I took the job, thus beginning “My Year With Alan”.
The idea seemed simple enough – to listen to all the African American field recordings held by the Archive of Folk Song (as it was then known) at The Library of Congress. Our task was to cull the best performances and to collect them for LP release by persons unknown at that point in time. A former student of mine, Kat Frost, lived in Alexandria and said that I could camp at her place for a couple of months. Alan would stay with his sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, then-head of the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts. I overstayed my welcome, having to move (and loosing a friend) into a basement apartment elsewhere as the work dragged on. Our efforts took some ten months: We worked six days a week with brief time off for major holidays like Thanksgiving and Xmas. I think that we worked from 8 – 6 each day… whatever it was, it was arduous work over a long and intense period of time.
Now, many of you out there may be saying to yourself, “Now, hold on, what could be better than that?” In part, you’d be correct, but this wasn’t just a casual listening experience, but evaluating, accepting or rejecting each piece, collating them in some semblance of order, determining their sound quality, and many other judgment calls. It took serious concentration, and, while the music was great, it was exhausting in the long run. Each day we’d meet in a small room that the Library of Congress made available to us – two chairs, a large table, and a tape recorder with two headsets – and listen carefully. It was not leisure listening at all!
At the beginning, Alan seemed to have no organizational format in mind for the collections, feeling that it would be organically revealed as time went by. Since my own research has been regional in its approach, I thought that it would be a good place to begin. We batted ideas around and ended up with one main category and one smaller one. The larger one was to make each album representative of what had been collected in a particular southern state. The second, smaller one was by occupation, a continuing Lomaxian preoccupation (no pun intended). . Most of the over a dozen LPs would be by state, with a couple that were not. As time progressed, Alan decided to include some of the Bahamian material as well, since there was a musical link with the coastal Southeast. With these boundaries in mind we went to work day after day, week after week.
Many people from the Library’s Archive staff were most helpful during this time, even though we disrupted the normal day-to-day workings a bit. People like Joe Hickerson, Peter Bartis, and the late Gerry Parsons (who dubbed Alan “The Ayatollah” for his sometimes dictatorial mien!) were great. The person who may have done the most was John Howell, an engineer in the Sound Laboratory at The Library. He was the one to try different shapes of stylus on the discs to obtain the best possible sound quality, for many of the aluminum ones had been badly worn from playing over time. In fact, Alan had been one of the main offenders back in the day, but who knew then! The later glass-based acetate discs supplied even more difficult problems in some cases, with the acetate drying out over time and flaking off the disc! John was still able to go “into” the disc’s groove and find parts that had not been worn down by the steel needles of yore. Lomax remarked that he hadn’t heard certain selections that clearly since they were first recorded (he was on most of the collecting trips).
There is, of course, massive amounts of material in that Archive and Alan’s estimate of “a couple of months” was well off the mark! For me, one of the benefits of working there with Alan was his reputation. After going North for the Xmas holiday, I returned with all my field tapes (over 200 reels of tape; around 1600 musical selections) in order that they be duplicated for the Archive. They felt, with Alan about, it was an offer that they couldn’t refuse and so there are full copies of all of them in their holdings (with strict usage controls attached). Since this used up much of their duplication budget for the year, it was done grudgingly, but it was fortunately done. Probably half of the Black material from the Southeast in that archive then was from my tapes!(1) I took them back home at the beginning of the Easter holiday.
Once we were done listening, the lab was done dubbing, and Alan and I had determined the programming sequence of each prospective LP, we parted company and left D.C. We spent nearly a year in very close quarters and were speaking to each other! I took the master dubs home to my place in “upstate” New York, spending a couple of months in my home studio editing and assembling each LP master tape, one side at a time. I made cassette copies of each album and drove it all down to NYC and handed them over to Alan. He planned on shopping the idea around to possible record labels.
Alan had warned me at the start of our endeavor that he was great at starting new projects, but less so in finishing them. This was the case with this one. Other projects came up, like filming for his “American Patchwork” series of films (now available from Vassapol Productions from Stephan Grossman). I went first into academe for a decade and then into family life and the LPs never came out – probably nearer to twenty. Until recently, of course, for you have probably guessed that this was the basis for the “Deep River of Song” portion of the vast ALAN LOMAX COLLECTION of CDs coming from Rounder Records. They have been expanded upon and altered (more “space” on a CD!), but the essence of our paired labors is intact and all our choices are there. Alan and I worked like the proverbial dogs for that year and I am proud to have been a part of this present project, thanks to Alan’s sister and daughter. There are second acts in America after all!!
- (1.) This is not to brag, but to indicate how little work was done through that region before the 70s. It’s still under-represented in the literature, save for Bastin and I.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
Since that was written, Alan has died; the series grows slowly, but surely, with nothing but high quality music being made available to all. My last contact with Alan was from here in Australia after his strokes. I called his daughter, Anna, to speak of a few matters and she put Alan on the phone with me. He seemed to know who I was and sounded quite glad to hear from me. Then he wanted me to sing with him – being singing-impaired, I wasn’t so sure, but wotthehell, wotthehell, as mehitabel was wont to say. So we “sang” a few of his favorites… badly. It was moving as hell and I ended up with tears after I hung up with him. Loved or hated, Alan Lomax was a one-off and we owe one hell of a lot to him for music that we’d probably have no idea existed had he not been around doing what he had been doing. Vale.