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The bounty of Alan Lomax

By Ted Drozdowski

JUNE 14, 1999:  The CD starts with a banjo picker burning on a hoedown called "Cripple Creek," progresses along a chain of mountain songs to "Arkansas Traveler," and rambles through to the Irish fiddler's favorite, "Devil's Dream." It's typical fare for a collection of field recordings from the '30s and '40s -- what a roots-conscious listener would expect from an album subtitled String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns. The twist is in the title -- Black Appalachia -- and in the sounds, which vividly illustrate how emancipated African-American culture and the European musical traditions of white America came together to form the cornerstones of what we've come to call bluegrass, country, and folk music.

Black Appalachia is among the bounty of recordings by Alan Lomax that Rounder Records has been reissuing. It's part of the "Deep River of Song" series, which focuses on field recordings from 1933 to 1946, when, according to the liner notes, "black singers of the South and Caribbean created a new musical language and thousands of brilliant songs that would captivate people from throughout the world." Together with Black Texicans: Balladeers and Songsters of the Texas Frontier, which documents African-American cowboy music, and Bahamas 1935, which features performances by fishing villagers on various islands, it documents an often forgotten area of black American music.

Lomax started field recording with his folklorist father, John, in the 1930s. Although his expeditions took him all over the world, these albums were part of a mission particularly close to his heart. "He was very interested in the whole black and white interchange that had taken place aesthetically in the United States, on a performance level and on a cultural level," explains Anna Lomax Chairetakis, Alan's daughter and now the curator of his body of work.

Black Appalachia and Black Texicans beautifully illustrate that interchange. Black Appalachia's opening "Cripple Creek" sounds like a staple of the white barn-dance repertoire save for the distinctly African-American voice of banjoist Jimmie Strothers. "Christmas Eve," performed by the trio of banjoist Murphy Gribble, fiddler John Lusk, and guitarist Albert York, introduces the African concept of counter-rhythms into what's essentially an early country number. "Black Bayou," cut by a fiddle-and-guitar duo in Little Rock, gives a black mountaineer ballad a Western ragtime feel.

The most important artist on Black Appalachia is actually from Mississippi's hill country. Sid Hemphill, the grandfather of contemporary blueswoman Jessie Mae Hemphill, was a skilled musician whose wide repertoire and mastery of fiddle, guitar, drums, flute, and five other instruments made him a popular entertainer at white balls and black plantation parties. At the former, he could spark a do-si-do with a piece like "Arkansas Traveler" or "Skillet Good and Greasy," which was recorded commercially by early Grand Ol' Opry star Uncle Dave Macon 19 years before Hemphill's quartet cut it for Lomax in 1942. At the latter, he might leave his string band behind and bring his fife-and-drum group. They'd play pieces like his trance-inducing rearrangement of "Devil's Dream" on snare drums and hard-carved African flute. Hemphill was a living nexus of America's black and white musical paths -- his string band adapting to the demands of the white audience to mix popular music with more overtly blues oriented refrains, his fife-and-drum group playing African flute melodies and polyrhythms on European-style martial drums.

The connections are as obvious in Black Texicans, which captures African-American cowboys at home on the range. The distance between James "Ironhead" Baker's "St. James Hospital," which was born of a plantation-era work song, and the moaning, yodeling tones associated with country music is slight. The gambler's ballad "Jack of Diamonds," which Pete Harris sings to his own slide guitar, cuts as quick to the heart of blues as it does to the Western trail. And fans of Bob Wills will note the familiarity of the whooping, crying punctuations Harris adds to his square-dance calls.

Bahamas 1935 comes at Lomax's quest from another direction. Many of the settlers of these islands arrived via the Carolinas in the 1800s, so these islanders spent more than 50 years removed from white American music. That gives their creations a distinctly African flavor, with group vocalizing, call-and-response singing, and melodies that shift pitch dramatically. Their exposure to white culture came from the sea and British colonialism. Hence their adaptations of chanteys and other sailors' songs. But a single listen to the Cleveland Simmons group singing "Histe Up the John B. Sail" on Cat Island in 1935 instantly conjures the Beach Boys' reading of the song 32 years later -- and makes the connection between American popular music and its African roots indelible.

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