The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture
Rounder CD 1512
The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture
Rounder CD 1513
Although these two handsome CDs are consecutive volumes in Rounder's reissue of the Library of Congress series Folk Music of the United States, they were not consecutive, nor even close, releases in that series. The contents of 1512 first appeared, as AFS (Archive of Folk Song) L28, in 1952, a full decade after the material on 1513 was first issued as a set of five 78s, the fourth album in the original series. This is of interest because the justification offered for releasing them with both recordings and commentary substantially unaltered is that 'the original releases have by now acquired a historical value as publications'. The justification is necessary because the result is a series of full-price CDs which are very short by the current standard of CD reissues. 1512 is barely forty minutes long, and 1513 is only six minutes longer. Moreover, some of the recordings included (arguably, most of those with general appeal) are available elsewhere.
Everything on these albums was recorded during the 'thirties or 'forties, mostly by John Lomax, with or without various colleagues. Most of 1512 was recorded by Lomax alone, during 1942 (the year in which 1513 was first published). Of all seventy-one releases in the original series, this collection of Texan cowboy material was surely John Lomax's own pet project. Though born in Mississippi, he was a proud and loyal Texan, and spent his childhood 'beside a branch of the old Chisholm Trail', where, by his own account, he soon developed a fascination with cowboy song. He made his name, in the first place, as a champion of cowboy 'literature'; his first two books, prior to his collaborations with his son Alan, were collections of cowboy songs.
In his memoir 'Adventures of a Ballad Hunter' (1947), Lomax tells us of his failure, in those early days, to persuade his cowboy informants to sing in to the big horn of his acoustic cylinder recorder. It's fair to assume that whatever sound recordings he did manage to obtain would have been unfit for commercial release. So these 1940s recordings represent something of a mopping-up operation; Lomax revisiting the most co-operative, perhaps the best, of his surviving sources, and capturing once and for all what he considered the authentic performances of the songs which had made his own reputation. In the meantime, of course, those songs had become very well known indeed (if they weren't already), and had been recorded, some of them many times, by professional performers, some of whom had also been cowboys.
The album opens with Colley's Run-I-0, sung by L Parker Temple in 1946, and recorded by Rae Korson. The song has nothing to do with Texas or cowboys, but is a Pennsylvania version of Canada-I-0, a lumberjack song attributed to Ephraim Braley of Maine, and based on the English sea song of the same name. The reason for its inclusion here is that it in turn was the basis of The Buffalo Skinners, which follows, sung in 1941 by John Lomax himself. This is 'most appropriate', according to Duncan Emrich, who edited this collection and presumably wrote the accompanying notes, as the song 'was first discovered by John A. Lomax' and 'was one of Mr. Lomax's favourite songs, and one which he sang very frequently for his own pleasure'. He clearly did enjoy singing it; and, if there ever was a place for such a posthumous acknowledgment, this surely is it. His performance turns out to be largely unobjectionable (nicely relaxed or somewhat ponderous - take your pick), though it hardly justifies the lavish praise for his own singing, which he chose to quote at some length in his memoir.
One of Lomax's more improbable stories concerned an encounter with an unnamed 'Old Buffalo Hunter' who claimed to have led the very gang of skinners who, 'in the year of 'seventy-three', went to 'spend one summer pleasantly on the range of the buffalo'. According to the old sharpshooter, they had blithely made up the song together, sitting round a camp fire on their way home from murdering their employer. Lomax didn't record the old man's performance of the song, which he described as nasal and monotonous, and he collated his published text from many versions collected subsequently. Perhaps he never did record anyone else's singing of it.
The third track is in quite another class, both as a performance and as a curiosity of folksong collection. It is one of two instances on this album, in which Lomax claimed to have discovered the original sources, the individual composers, of seemingly traditional songs. Except that, in the case of Goodbye, Old Paint by Jess Morris, Lomax may not have made any such claim. He wrote to Morris that he had 'the best tune that exists to Goodbye, Old Paint', and that he was anxious to record it as Morris performed it. He wrote later that when Oscar Fox published a version of the song, he used Morris's tune as sung by John A Lomax.
So Duncan Emrich was probably expressing, in 1952, his own exaggerated view, when he wrote that Morris claimed to be the composer, and ought, 'in terms of the folk tradition', to be considered so. He then quoted at length from Morris's own detailed written account, in which he clearly states that he learned the song as a child, from a black ranchhand called Charley Willis, who had learned the song himself on a cattledrive around 1871. Later, Morris arranged the song, accompanying himself on the fiddle (tuned DADD for the purpose). Is that how composition is defined, 'in terms of the folk tradition'?
Emrich was right when he wrote that 'Morris's brand on Old Paint is clear and unmistakable', for the tune probably is the best, and Morris's performance of the song is surely the greatest on record. I hesitate to use the term 'definitive', for fear of overstating the case, Emrich-style. Can there be a definitive performance of a traditional song? Whatever, this performance is marvellous. It's flamboyant, abandoned, and intense; it has something of the quality of Fiddlin' John Carson, or Davie Stewart; it's the sort of thing that provokes a grin and a tear, at the same time. This is the one item on this album that everyone should hear. As has been mentioned already in these pages, it is also included in Stephen Wade's excellent A treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500).
Incidentally, this album states that Jess Morris was recorded at Dalhart, Texas (his home town) in 1942. Stephen Wade is more specific and, presumably, more reliable when he writes that the recording was made in Dallas on 3rd May, after the 1942 meeting of the Texas Folklore Society. It hardly matters, but that sort of discrepancy makes one wonder how much of the information given here can be relied upon. Stephen Wade states, for instance, that there are eighty-six (not seventy-one) titles in the Folk Music of the United States series.
Sloan Matthews, of Alpine, Texas, evidently was considered an important source, perhaps because of a large repertoire; he sings four of the eleven western songs here, including another version of Old Paint, which has substantially different words, and is inevitably an anti-climax after Jess Morris's tour de force. He also contributes The Texas Rangers, The Dying Cowboy and The Cowboy's Life is a Very Dreary Life. Sloan Matthews probably didn't consider himself a singer; he sang in a restrained, slightly hurried way, he was clearly out of practice, and frequently forgot his words. Of The Dying Cowboy, Duncan Emrich remarks 'Mr. Matthews' broken text … is, from the folklorist's point of view, an excellent example of the folk process of the transmission of material …' No, it isn't. Singers may well make do with nonsense (some take perverse pride in it: 'This line makes no sense and doesn't rhyme, but that's the way good old Charlie sang it …'), but no-one who is in the habit of singing would be satisfied with mumbling or simply marking time through gaps in a song's text.
In addition to his four songs, Sloan Matthews is featured in an item titled Cattle Calls. Anyone who's heard the wonderful Library of Congress recordings of Willie McTell, in 1940, will have formed an impression of John Lomax's personality. It's hard to credit the crass insensitivity of a white Texan who couldn't understand why a lone, blind, black man he'd only just met wouldn't admit knowing any 'complaining songs'. Those of us amused by such things have another opportunity to jeer at Lomax's persistent effort to persuade Mr Matthews (at least these informants, being white, get to be addressed as 'Mister') to demonstrate the sounds he had made to control cattle. Mr Matthews is obviously embarrassed and very reluctant, but finally manages to squeeze out a few whoops & hollers, together with some moderately interesting remarks. He demonstrates the sort of sounds that might be uttered in order to get cattle started, and to calm them at night, and finishes by referring to, but declining to imitate, a call he has heard 'from boys, and some men' during stampedes; a sound he describes as 'taking hysterics'. What this item, the second Congest on the album, amounts to is that cowboys make whatever sounds they find effective, and are likely to get excited in the event of stampede. We should be grateful for Lomax's dogged determination.
Johnny Prude, recorded by Lomax at Fort Davis in 1942, is represented by two sentimental songs of death, The Streets of Laredo and a remarkably full version of The Dying Ranger. The latter is sung in a relaxed, careful but unaffected manner, in a high, pleasant voice. The Streets of Laredo is pitched lower, and rather rushed, but it is that recording, being one of the most famous cowboy songs, that is included in the New World anthology Back in the Saddle Again, which is pretty good general survey of cowboy song on record.
The only cowboy singer here who was not recorded by Lomax is J M Waddell of Kermit, Texas, recorded in 1948 by Duncan Emrich. He gives an unremarkable performance of a full version of The Zebra Dun.
Which leaves the other singer who is celebrated as a composer. Harry Stephens clearly did fancy himself a singer, and employed a whining style complete with seemingly random whooping. After recording The Dreary Black Hills in 1942, he answered Lomax's questions about how cowboys sang to entertain one another, explaining that singing was generally solo because everyone had a different tune to any song. There was also, he claimed, a good deal of recitation by people who couldn't manage any kind of tune: 'they'd heard others say it in other places. They'd probably hit a little bit of a tune, but it wouldn't be much of one'. Harry Stephens was in fact a half-hearted student of Lomax's, who corresponded with his old teacher after returning to his preferred life of herding cattle and horses. Around 1910, he sent Lomax The Night Herding Song, which he had composed. 'Well, I had all night to myself,' he explains on the recording, 'So I went ahead and put this song together after several nights trying'. There seems no reason to doubt his claim, even though Lomax quoted from this very song when recounting his own first experience of cowboy singing, when he 'couldn't have been more that four years old'.
Old West enthusiasts won't need any encouragement to buy this CD. It's 'the real thing' all right - except that all the singers are more or less Anglo-Saxon; that's one obvious difference between the period in which the songs were made, and that in which they were recorded. Music lovers will find greater pleasure in commercial records. It isn't hard, these days, to find such recordings of these mostly familiar songs. For the classic performances of coherent versions, seek out Jules Allen, the Cartwright Brothers, and the great Harry McClintock.
Although recorded largely by John Lomax, the other CD under review bears the mark of his son Alan, for whom the blues had become as intense a personal interest as cowboy song was for his father. Afro-American Blues and Game Songs was one of six albums released in 1942 to launch the Folk Music of the United States series, five of which were edited by the younger Lomax. Its companion volume was called Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs and Ballads. Other volumes in the set have been reviewed already in Musical Traditions.
Those first six albums were transferred directly to LP in 1956. In the mid-sixties they were re-mastered from the original recordings, at which point a few recordings were replaced with other takes, and excepts with complete versions. Apparently, even that process was not thought to justify any revision of the accompanying text (of 1942), which had to wait for Rounder's reissue of 1978 - of which the CDs are a reissue. Only then were the song transcriptions revised, supposedly to correspond to the expanded content of the recordings. Only then was there any addition at all to Alan Lomax's own account of that content.
Personally, I'm grateful for Wayne D Shirley's introductory essay - which provided all the technical information here - but, since it is now over twenty years old, some further historical reflection on these recordings (given their supposed historical significance) surely would have been appropriate. So would any attempt at objectivity concerning the Lomaxes' role. Wayne Shirley admitted that the revision of transcriptions had been tentative and partial: 'We have even hesitated to change transcriptions when our ears hear something different than did those of the original transcriber … After all, Alan Lomax heard most of these people in person and singing many songs, while we only hear them for a single song and on a record'. That assumes, apart from anything else, that Lomax was personally responsible for the transcriptions, and bothered to check them. However that may be, they certainly do contain questionable renderings, and some even remain incomplete.
No-one can reasonably deny that the Lomaxes and their associates made many of the most important blues and blues-related recordings of the '30s and early '40s. They managed to capture on record many of the greatest blues singers and songsters then active; some of them were their own 'discoveries', others were artists whose greatness was already established, and who also enjoyed commercial recording careers. It is easy (and just the sort of thing blues fans like to do) to imagine the perfect deluxe CD anthology of blues and similar material collected for The Library of Congress during the period. This, needless to say, is not it.
Wayne D Shirley expounds at some length on the considerations affecting the selection of recordings for publication. One of them - apparently, though not officially, a matter of policy - was the passing over of material which had commercial potential and could be licensed for release by existing record companies. Hence, no Leadbelly and no Willie McTell. Also, in this set at least, no Son House and no Booker White. It is ironic, then, that this album happens to include two of the very best known bluesmen of all.
Sonny Terry (billed here as Sanders Terry) must have inspired more blues harpers, and would-be blues harpers, than anyone. His long partnership with Brownie McGhee provided several generations of listeners outside their community (and especially outside the USA) with their first, most regular, and most accessible experience of blues. He has the two longest tracks on this album: Lost John and an astonishing five and a half minutes of Fox Chase. They are completely characteristic solo instrumental showcases, and as much harmonica wizardry as you could ever want; perhaps, several minutes more than you could ever want, unless you happen to be a student of the blues harmonica. (There are more of them than a clean-living citizen might suppose; Clarence Gatemouth Brown claims that he gave up playing harmonica on stage, because every time he did so, a portion of the audience immediately whipped out their own trusted harps, and huffed along with him.) Even when these records were made, Sonny Terry was not unknown. Alan Lomax states that he recorded him in New York in 1938. Stephen Wade, who included Lost John in his Treasury, adds that it was December 24th, the day after Terry took part in John Hammond's concert From Spirituals to Swing at Carnegie Hall - which puts a rather different complexion on the concept 'field recording'.
The other star here really was unknown at the time, and readily acknowledged his 'discovery' by Alan Lomax. Here we have the first recordings of any kind ever made of McKinley Morganfield, 'a shy, handsome young Negro' known to his neighbours, even then, as Muddy Waters. It was on first hearing these very recordings that the twenty-six-year-old Morganfield came to the joyful realization, "Man, this boy can sing the blues!" Blues enthusiasts will be drawn to this CD by its front cover, which features John Work's revealing photograph of Muddy Waters sitting on a porch with fiddler Henry 'Son' Sims. The caption is surprisingly specific, and surely incorrect, stating that the picture was taken on June 20th 1942. Presumably, it was actually a month later, when Lomax and Work made their second visit to Stovall's plantation, and most of their recordings of Muddy Waters, including those with the Son Sims Four. The tracks included in this album are the archetypal blues solos obtained the previous summer: Country Blues, a version of Sons House's Walking Blues (which alerted Lomax to House's existence and pre-eminence); and I Be's Troubled. In 1948, in Chicago, Muddy Waters recorded both songs again, and they were issued on the same disc, as I Feel Like Going Home and I can't Be Satisfied.
Alan Lomax was understandably enthusiastic about Muddy Waters, and said that he included both songs because he simply couldn't choose between them. There is no question that they are very important recordings, and exactly the right choice to demonstrate what Muddy Waters brought to the post-war Chicago renaissance - the Mississippi style of lone, bottleneck guitar blues, in the Son House / Robert Johnson vein, which has since come to be regarded as the very essence of the blues. Those with a real appetite for the same will want to know, or will know already, that everything McKinley Morganfield recorded for the Library of Congress is available on a mid-price CD, The Complete Plantation Recordings (MCD 09344), a good compilation marred only by a total lack of proofreading.
The other guitarists here were recorded earlier, in Texas prisons, by John and Ruby Lomax, and performed in more established styles. 'Little Brother' (and an unidentified makeshift percussionist), recorded at Huntsville in 1934, offers a prison lament of floating verses subtitled Up and Down Building the KC Line. Smith Casey sang and played, at Brazoria in 1939, in the manner of Lemon Jefferson: a faithful rendering of the Texan standard Two White Horses, a splendidly mournful Shorty George, and a good instrumental, East Texas Rag, which Wade also has.
The remainder of the material is unaccompanied, apart from some clapping and other bodily rhythm making. The album opens with three field hollers recorded by John Lomax at prison farms. They are all good examples, but the best (and the best recorded, as it happens) is the beautiful Diamond Joe sung by Charlie Butler at Parchman in 1937. Not surprisingly, Stephen Wade chose this, too.
John and Ruby Lomax made several productive visits to the home of Ruby Pickens Tartt, at Livingston, Alabama, where Mrs Tartt introduced them to a fine array of local performers. Here we have a handful of gems from their 1940 visit. Hettie Godfrey sings the game song All Hid?; Aunt Harriet McClintock, who was born a slave, offers a cotton-picking song Poor Little Johnny, and a practical demonstration of the lullaby Go To Sleep. The McDonald family sing and clap two lively ring games, Rosey and Gon' Knock John Booker to the Low Ground. Best known of Mrs Tartt's proteges was the domestic worker Vera Hall. What Alan Lomax later called Boll Weevil Holler is here called Boll Weevil Blues. By the time Alan Lomax recorded it in 1959, the song had acquired a more coherent form; she had licked it into shape with more frequent performance, and I imagine that it no longer varied much. Both the song and her singing of it matured in the interim, and were improved, but it is still a pleasure to have the first version; her voice, twenty years younger, was slightly hesitant by comparison, and perhaps even sweeter.
Inevitably, Stephen Wade decided to include Vera Hall, but chose her other piece here, the lovely prison song Another Man Done Gone. He informs us, as Alan Lomax does not, that this seeming precursor to a blues standard (Baby, Please Don't Go etc.) was never in fact offered as an unaccompanied 'holler'. It was a blues the Vera Hall's husband performed with guitar; but her husband wasn't that present at the time, and John Lomax persuaded Mrs Hall to sing it unaccompanied, which she had previously never done for an audience. This is an interesting example of a controversial role often played by collectors. In this case, it must be said, the outcome was a happy one.
Also recorded in Alabama, in 1934, is a group of unnamed schoolchildren who sing a one-verse game song:
Ring, ring the big bellThe tune is the same as the familiar Ain't Gonna Rain No More (as recorded by Gus Cannon, Fiddlin' John Carson, The Skillet Lickers, and Wendell Hall), and it is clearly in some sense the same song. Lomax explains that it's a celebration of emancipation, the bell being the plantation bell that called the slaves to work.
Ain't gonna ring no mo'
Fill me a pocket befo' I go
It ain't gonna ring no more.
There are other fine children's songs; Little Girl, Little Girl, Pullin' the Skiff and Shortenin' Bread are led by a charismatic school girl called Ora Dell Graham, recorded in Mississippi in 1940. Also in Mississippi, the year before, sisters Katherine and Christine Shipp recalled their playground songs in young adulthood, but sounded no older than the other children. Stephen Wade has their Sea Lion Woman, and two of Ora Dell's Songs.
The album closes with the earliest recording of all. At Sugarland, Texas in 1933, on one of their first prison visits, John and Alan Lomax recorded this alarming display of enthusiasm: Moses 'Clear Rock' Platt singing and clapping Run, Nigger, Run. The notes here tell us nothing of Clear Rock, who allegedly earned his nickname by killing three men - by throwing stones at them; a claim that seems somehow probable, in the light of the prodigious, relentless energy of his performance. Mercifully, it's less than a minute long. When you know that Mr Platt was seventy-one years old, it is truly amazing.
So, of the twenty-five items on Rounder 1513, seven are to be found in Wade's Treasury; and Muddy Waters fans won't be buying it for his two tracks. Obviously, that does not invalidate this release. There is nothing here of no interest, it's all good of its kind, and some of it is gorgeous. If you want a representative selection of the material, and forty-six minutes is as long as you think a record needs to be, anyway, you could do a lot worse than buy this album. Certainly, I'd rather this material was available in this form, than not available at all. As for the argument that the form itself constitutes a historical document, Wayne D Shirley wrote (in 1978, when 'they' were still LPs): "They are still as capable as ever of giving pleasure, instruction, and sustenance to the listener who comes to them for the music they contain. By now, however, they also serve as witness to the state of folkmusic collection in the 1930s … and to the manner in which this material was presented to the general public in the 1940s".
Those are matters in which many of us have an interest, and I think the principle is valid, applied to the six albums that launched the Folk Music of the United States series - though the first four should have been trimmed to fit two CDs. (The 'historical document' principle could justify the unmaking of additions made in the 'sixties, if necessary - though it would make more sense just to drop the odd Fox Chase).
There seems no good reason, in any case, to extend the principle to all subsequent releases in the series. Another revision is surely due. New compilations, preferably with a new historical commentary, are in order. Stephen Wade's Treasury, good as it is, can't be the last word on the subject. The best of the cowboy material, for example, might have been combined to good effect with other material - Texan fiddling, Texan blues, popular ballads, Mexican music, perhaps - to create a more enjoyable and, ultimately, truer impression of a cowboy's musical life. There's a job still to be done.
David Campbell - 24.7.99
|Top of page