The Alan Lomax Popular Songbook

Various Performers

Rounder SACD 1863 Super Audio CD

Joe Lee's Rock - 1959; Boy Blue; Joe Lee; Darnell Walker.  Do Re Mi - 1940; Woody Guthrie.  Jesus on the Mainline - 1959; James Shorty; Viola James and congregation.  Midnight Special - 1934; Leadbelly.  Stagolee - 1947; Memphis Slim.  Trouble So Hard - 1959; Vera Hall Ward.  Motherless Children - 1959; Felix Dukes; Missisippi Fred McDowell.  Sometimes - 1959; Bessie Jones; Group of Children.  Black Betty - 1933; James 'Iron Head' Baker & Group.  Take a Whiff on Me - 1934; Leadbelly.  Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby - 1959; Mrs - Sidney Lee Carter.  Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad - 1940; Woody Guthrie.  Rock Island Line - 1934; Kelly Pace & Group.  Join the Band - 1959; John Davis; The Georgia Sea Island Singers.  Sloop John B (Histe Up the John B's Sails) - 1935; Cleveland Simmons & Group.  Man Smart, Woman Smarter - 1946; Macbeth The Great (Patrick MacDonald).  Ugly Woman (If You Wanna Be Happy) - 1946; Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson).  Gallows Pole - 1938; Leadbelly.  Rosie - 1947; C B & Axe Gang.  Alborada de Vigo - 1952; Josť Maria Rodriguez.  House of the Rising Sun, The (Rising Sun Blues) - 1937; Georgia Turner.  Irene Goodnight (Goodnight Irene) - 1934; Leadbelly.   Playing time 58'39"
'Almost any line you could draw through the whole field of popular musical culture would have [Lomax] somewhere on it - probably in several places. Without Lomax, itís possible that there would have been no blues explosion, no R&B movement, no Beatles, no Stones, and no Velvet Undergound'.  Brian Eno. Quoted in the CD booklet)

I never thought it would happen but Iím beginning to wonder if the Alan Lomax bandwagon will ever run out of steam.  That doesnít mean Iíve finally tired of Vera Hall Ward and Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and all the good people who grace this publication.  Itís just that most of the material has been packaged and repackaged so often that Iím starting to feel buried in the stuff.  Anyway, the object of this CD and booklet - there is no book - is to present traditional songs, collected by Lomax, which were covered by the popular music industry.  Cover pictureWell, for present purposes, the definition of popular music embraces Ry Cooder, Nina Simone, The Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Miles Davis in his pre-jazz rock days.  Also, the song versions used here are not always the ones which lent inspiration to our confreres in other musical spheres.  Finally, I doubt that the facts of history support Brian Enoís statement above, for I feel that the music trends he mentions would have taken place with or without Lomax.  But even when these factors are weighed in the balance, there is no doubt that his impact on the pop world was considerable.

But whatís this got to do with Musical Traditions readers; that small coterie of musical nutcases, who have been collecting Lomax field recordings for years, and who regard traditional music as their domain?  Most of us will have a large proportion of these tracks already, and I doubt there will be many who are interested in what does and does not go in pop music.

Let me therefore ask you to imagine that you are a fan of Moby, or of the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?; that you have seen the name of Alan Lomax, and would like to know more.  The first thing you will notice is that, although the disc spans most of Lomaxís collecting career, it is heavily weighted towards his 1959 Southern Folk Heritage/Southern Journey trip.  That is doubtless because the materials from that expedition are the ones which have been most heavily plundered by the hit parade.  Thus, fans of Moby and Little Feat may pick up on Trouble So Hard and Join The Band.  However, anyone who has seen the opening sequence of O Brother may wonder why James Carter's Lazarus was left out, or why one of the other Lomax-collected versions of that song could not have been used.  Given that the disc includes Mrs Sidney Carterís Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby, sung in the film by Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch, this seems a strange omission.

It is not the only one.  Eighteen of the discís twenty two tracks are from the USA, and there are three from the Caribbean, plus a single contribution from Spain which sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.  There is nothing from Italy or Britain or Ireland.  Given the projectís terms of reference, that may be understandable.  Even so, remembering that Whiskey in the Jar has been a long-standing hit with the heavy metal fraternity, I would have thought SeŠmus Ennisís 1951 recording of that piece merited an inclusion.  Also, that solitary Iberian contribution, Josť Maria Rodriguezís Alborada de Vigo, is there because Miles Davis used the tune in his Sketches of Spain LP.  However, it is not the only Lomax field recording which Davis adapted for that suite.  Remembering that the playing time of this disc is less than 60 minutes, one wonders why the concise and wonderful Saeta, from the Easter parade at Seville, could not have been squeezed on also.

Nevertheless, the pop fan gets a very tasty sample of some down home equivalents of his or her favourite listening fare.  He or she also gets a fairly substantial booklet, which makes some surprising statements.  For instance, I never knew before reading Jeffrey A Greenbergís introduction, that Lomax had recorded Bob Dylan.  I am intrigued by the claim.  If any Lomax/Dylan recordings exist, Iíd be interested to know where they have surfaced, and in what form.  Equally, while the author seems fairly at home discussing pop music, he appears rather less acquainted with folk song.  For example, I was puzzled over a claim, apparently originally made by Lomax, that the melody of House of the Rising Sun, resembles an 'arrangement of an English ballad from the 1600s called Matty Groves'.  Also, while Greenberg displays some familiarity with British pop music, no mention is made of Lonnie Doneganís hit parade success with Have A Drink On Me; his rewrite of Leadbellyís Take a Whiff on Me.  Elsewhere, I was surprised to see Donegan referred to as a blues and rock musician.  He was of course a traditional jazz banjo player with the Chris Barber band, before launching into a solo skiffle career.

The booklet also contains a fair amount of information on Lomaxís career, courtesy of Gideon Dí Arcangelo.  Here again though, the author sometimes seems on unfamiliar ground.  In particular, there is a comment to the effect that a radio programme of Lomaxís jump-started the folk music career of several performers including Aunt Molly Jackson.  Given the extraordinarily harsh circumstances of Aunt Mollyís life - and death - the idea that she enjoyed a career in folk music transgresses the boundaries of credulity.

Dí Arcangeloís contribution focuses principally on Lomaxís pioneering work with recording technology, and on the Cantometrics and Urban Strain projects.  This latter was an attempt to do for popular music what cantometrics had done with folksong.  That is, to correlate singing styles with the social cultures which they represent.  Unfortunately, the bookletís outline of the Urban Strain is too sketchy to make much sense of, and I can only observe that my reservations on the viability of cantometrics have been expressed in these pages.  From the little we are told of the Urban Strain methodology in the booklet, I would be surprised if this project was any more successful.

There was one other thing which disturbed me.  It is that while the notes detail the pop history of these songs, and there is much about Lomax, there is very little information on the people he recorded.  That is an all too familiar trait of the Alan Lomax Collection, and it was a failing of many aspects of Lomaxís exertions.  However, it seems particularly ironic when this release is aimed at an audience which habitually celebrates the artist, rather than the A&R man.

The disc comes in the new Super Audio CD format.  This is the first time I have listened to the system and it would clearly be unwise for me to judge it on a single release, especially one which includes some decidedly senescent field recordings.  All I will say is that the presence and clarity of even the oldest tracks on this set is truly astonishing.  If you want to hear Woody Guthrie or Vera Hall Ward singing in your living room, this is probably the nearest you will ever get.

And even for a musical Methuselah like me, there are some surprises.  For instance, this is the first time that Georgia Turnerís Rising Sun Blues has ever been commercially released; although I should point out that hers is not the version which was subsequently popularised by The Animals.  For that matter, the present recording of Leadbellyís Goodnight Irene, has never been issued on CD before, Super Audio or otherwise.  On a personal note, it is so long since I last heard the Kelly Pace groupís Rock Island Line, that I had forgotten what a stylish piece it is; and how sharply their acapella vocal contrasts with the brute force of Leadbellyís performance.  Also, there is a very fine Stagolee from Memphis Slim, with Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica and Big Bill Broonzy on string bass.  This comes from the Lomax produced radio programme, Blues in the Mississippi Night, and my cheap CD copy of that phenomenon has such awful sound that I frankly had never taken much notice of it.  Here it emerges as a very fine performance, with Memphis and Sonny Boy in full flight, and Big Bill slapping bass like ďthe doggone thing growed up on himĒ - as Louis Armstrong used to say of his own bass player. Yet Iím forced to conclude with the question I initially posed.  Whatís it got to do with us?  My answer is that, if this disc plugs any holes in your library, then you are better off seeking out the relevant volumes in Rounderís Alan Lomax Collection or Atlanticís Southern Folk Heritage.  For the mind expanding pop fan, it contains some great sounds, but the selection is far too unbalanced to give a clear picture of what Alan Lomax was about.

Fred McCormick - 12.11.03

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