Alan Lomax’s Southern Journeys

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 01.27.11 in Spotlights

At the height of the Great Depression, folklorist John Lomax and his 18-year-old son, Alan Lomax, spent the summer of 1933 driving through the South together, recording ballads, blues, shape-singers, chanteys, hillbilly instrumentals and prison work songs on a wind-up Ediphone cylinder recorder. They fought fevers and argued politics along the way (Alan was a life-long lefty), ending up in Washington D.C., where they donated hundreds of cylinders to the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song.

Alan, who would go on to become a renowned folklorist/ethnomusicologist, producer and occasional impresario until his death in 2002, experienced the first of many musical epiphanies while recording a laundress in Terrell, Texas. “The voice of the skinny little black woman,” he wrote nearly two decades later, “was as full of shakes and quavers as a Southern river is full of bends and bayous.” The trip confirmed Alan’s suspicion that folk music’s very sound was inseparable from the lives and conditions of the black and white people who carried it along like a river of song. Lomax heard music as part of the fabric of everyday life and struggle. He maintained that folk music was more than entertainment, and yet “The Southern Negro folk singer,” he wrote, “stands at the center of American popular culture.”

After spending most of the 1950s in Europe, where he fled after being blacklisted as an alleged subversive, Lomax received the rare opportunity to redo his first Southern recording odyssey – and with better equipment. Funded by Atlantic Records, Lomax and his girlfriend Shirley Collins, a young British folksinger, hit the road in August 1959 with an Ampex stereo tape recorder. After they returned the following year, Atlantic released seven albums cherry-picked from their 70 hours ‘of recordings. Then the Prestige label went even deeper, releasing 12 more albums collectively titled “Southern Journey.” Fifty years later, the Alan Lomax Archive, via its new Global Jukebox label, has distilled these records into five remastered volumes – with plenty of previously unreleased tracks – that shake, quaver, rattle, and roll. Their titles – Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea; Worried Now, Won’t Be Worried Long; I’ll Meet You on That Other Shore; I’ll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down; and I’m Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die – are as resonantly human as the music they contain.

Lomax’s journey was in large part a reaction to the ’50s folk revival (such as the Kingston Trio’s very slick and very white hit single “Tom Dooley”) his earlier anthologies of European and American folk music had in large part inspired. “Chilly Winds,” the unadorned Wade Ward banjo solo that opens Wave the Ocean, is a far cry from the young bearded Cambridge boys up north. And what did the emerging youth culture have in common with songs like “I’ll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down” and “Dollar Mamie,” as sung by the unpaid black prison work gangs Lomax recorded at Louisiana’s infamous Parchman Farm and at the Mississippi State Penitentiary? This music (collected on Negro Prison Blues and Songs) recorded under those conditions, demonstrated to Lomax that slavery had yet to be abolished completely.

Considering the degree to which Lomax and Collins relied on serendipity, the resultant recordings display a wide range of styles. They include stately shape-note singers captured at the United Sacred Harp Convention, Georgia Sea Island ring shouts, the dire prophesies of E. C. Ball, radio DJ Daddy Cool’s hep account of a Ruso-American summit meeting, Arkansas ballad singer Almeda “Granny” Riddle’s dust-dry songs of loss, the Bright Light Quartet of gospel-singing fishermen, the first recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, who would become an increasingly well-known blues artist thanks to Lomax, and dozens of other uniquely American characters carrying the last vestiges of orally transmitted vernacular music.

John Szwed exhaustively recounts the song collector’s tireless, obsessive, passionate, and ultimately rewarding life in his ear-opening biography, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World. Lomax also conducted marathon recording sessions in Haiti (check out the massive 10-disk Alan Lomax in Haiti), Britain, Italy, Spain, and the Caribbean (don’t miss Caribbean Voyage: East Indian Music in the West Indies). “He took on more than was humanly possible and paid for it in frustration over his own incomplete projects,” writes Szwed. “His was a life not easy to live.” Lomax’s resurrection couldn’t be more timely, however: His dream of a “global jukebox” has been fulfilled by the Internet, a new generation of listeners has come to appreciate the joys of acoustic vernacular music, and hard times have unfortunately come again once more.