BEGINNER’S GUIDE… Alan Lomax.
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, beginning in 1933 with his father, the possibilities are nearly endless regarding available recorded material. Alan also was literally the vanguard of 1940s/50s folk revivals, first in the USA, then later in England, Ireland, and Scotland. A behemoth in more ways than one, the width, breadth, and depth of his available recorded material is massive, for he was a single-minded cultural polymath of massive importance. (This may be the first piece under this Songlines! rubric to deal with something other than a single performing artist, an instrument, or a performance style/genre!)
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 McColl, Pete Seeger, The Copper Family, Woody Guthrie, Hamish Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Seamus Ennis, Son House… this list goes on and on and I’m too tired to type any more! 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 over those decades, directly or indirectly, during his many decades of hands on “in-the-field” activities.
Born 31 January, 1913 in Austin ,TX, it was nurture; Alan’s father (John A. Lomax) was a university professor, later “the” field-recorder/director for the US Library of Congress’ (then) Folk Song Archive… it was a US$1.00/year deal! The earliest material (including Leadbelly) was recorded by Alan and his father during the early/mid-thirties for the Library, and that 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 in his car boot; glass-based acetate discs being used by the 1940s when Alan became the youngest ever Archive director! Between his WW II conscription and the later McCarthy era, Alan had to depart DC, going to England and Europe for a most useful spell that left his footprint in the Scots, English, and Irish folk sand, not to mention Spain and Italy. He returned to the U.S. later in the 40s and did some on location recording with a then-new tape recorder; in the late fifties the “gift” of a stereo tape machine from the Erteguns (Atlantic Records) gave rise to his 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, but he became diverted by his other interests.
These lead to further unique “scholarly” approaches – for further info on them, see Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934 – 1997. Edited by Ronald G. Cohen. Routledge; NY (2003) [reviewed in these pages; Issue 23, Mar/Apr 2004]. His latter years (until his death in FL on 19 July, 2002) were spent collecting all that he had done over the decades into many broad-brush possibilities, including his concept of the “Global Jukebox” (in advance of the ‘net!). One major consolidation is huge , The Alan Lomax Collection of CDs from Rounder Records in the U.S…. and that leads us back to the music, the whole reason for all this preliminary verbiage! There had never been one such before Alan and never will be after him – a single individual with such broad curiosity and knowledge about the musics of the world… it’s just not humanly possible! It is difficult to pick specific recommendations out of the literally hundreds of great CDs available, and one’s purchases would depend upon on one’s personal tastes, but here are five points of entry, and one general recommendation to avoid! After that, you’re on your own… enjoy.
- The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. (Rounder 1997) – 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 http://www.rounder.com/series/lomax_alan/ and dive in. It’s all good.
- Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook. (Rounder 2003) – 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 that may be familiar to you in some form or another.
- Sounds of the South: a Musical Journey from the Georgia Sea Islands to the Mississippi Delta. (Atlantic 1993) – Four CDs encompassing the seven LPs released as the “Southern Folk Heritage Series” in 1961, the result of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun giving Alan his first stereo portable tape recorder… assisted by Shirley Collins during ‘59/’60. The first refusal cream of the legendary “Southern Journey” collection that deserves its reputation.
- Freedom: The Golden Gate Quartet & Josh White (1940). (Bridge 2002). Alan produced this over-view of African-American music for a Library of Congress concert. While something of a curate’s egg, it’s an interesting period-piece nonetheless and a view of how certain Blacks and Whites in the US viewed historical “Negro” cultural expressions at that point in time.
- Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax (1938). (Rounder) One of the most incredible packages, this is the beginnings of directly recorded oral history (i.e. – not taken down stenographically) documenting the history of early jazz. Morton talks and plays over seven of the eight CDs, and this is a “must” for those interested in early jazz and American music in general – it includes Alan’s book, Mr. Jelly Roll.
Anything that you don’t like! Additionally, while Alan loved good singing and had a whack at it himself a number of times, the best that can be said is that he was forceful and enthusiastic, if lacking in authenticity. I doubt that that sort of material will be re-released, but don’t bother with it, even if you run across an old LP at a car boot fair… some things are best left alone!!
PETER B. LOWRY
pub – SONGLINES! In the UK. Not sure of date,etc.