Amplifying Little Voices
By Karl Pallmeyer
Almost 40 years ago, folklorist Alan Lomax embarked on two journeys
Deep South. Armed with then-state-of-the-art recording equipment, he sought
of civilization that were still untouched -- or at least unaffected -- by the
influence of mass media. And he found them.
Lomax discovered people who, when they wanted music, pulled a fiddle down
the shelf or dragged a guitar out from under the bed instead of turning on a
He found folks playing songs that had been passed down from generation to
He found musicians who could hold their own against the best Chicago bluesmen
the hottest pickers in Nashville. Most of all, he found true folk music, not
commercialized tunes being sung by the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio,
any of the other groups that were in vogue at the time.
Lomax recorded more than 80 hours of folk, blues, country, and
music on his trips through Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi,
Carolina, Tennessee, and the Georgia Sea Islands. Some of that music was
1959 on a 12-LP set by the Prestige label, but now the bulk of that material
been remastered and is being released as The Alan Lomax Collection:
a 13-volume set from Rounder Records. At present, the first six CDs in the
plus a sampler disc of the entire collection, are available.
But the Southern Journey series is just the tip of the Alan
iceberg. During his career, Lomax made several trips throughout the United
Great Britain, Europe, and Asia, capturing the indigenous music of native
In what is perhaps the most ambitious reissue program ever attempted, Rounder
be releasing almost all of that material over the next five years. All told,
Alan Lomax Collection will number some 100 compact discs.
"We couldn't put them out all at once, because it would be
says Bill Nowlin, co-founder of Rounder. "It would be pretty
not too many people could afford to buy them all. That's probably going to be
over the years, too. But if we put out 10 to 20 over the year, it might be a
easier for people to handle. My guess is that within the first five years,
see most of them out. But it's pretty hard to know when it's going to stop
they keep finding new things."
A Family Affair
The first key figure in documenting American folk music was Alan's father,
Avery Lomax. As a child, growing up in the tiny Central Texas town of
Lomax began writing down the words to the songs he heard the cowboys sing as
drove their cattle along the nearby Chisholm Trail. Later as an academician,
Lomax launched a nationwide search for folk songs.
"Actually, with father, it started out to be the poetry," says
Lomax Hawes, Alan's sister. "He thought about the songs -- as most
of his day did -- as the words being more important than the music.... He was
of a populist all his life and he felt that ordinary people had poetic
to make. He thought that this material was very interesting, very worthwhile,
very beautiful. As he went along, he began to appreciate the music more. Then
became possible to record the music."
John Lomax realized that these songs were more than just words -- they
music to bring them to life. And while traditional musical notation could be
to represent the melody, there was more in the way these songs were performed
could be captured on a five-line staff.
To alleviate this problem and to preserve the performance as well as the
John Lomax began recording his subjects in the field as early as 1907, first
wax recording cylinders and later wax or acetate discs. Alan Lomax began
his father on these trips in 1933. The Lomaxes were the first to record
while he was serving time in a Louisiana prison, and according to the legend,
his release. Alan took up the mantle himself, recording several historical
with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of
in the late Thirties and early Forties. During a 1941 trip to the Mississippi
in an attempt to record Robert Johnson, who it turns out had died three years
Alan Lomax discovered Muddy Waters and Son House.
"We tried to find a way to let people who didn't have very big voices
their ideas out and get them spread around -- let them say what they wanted
says Hawes, who helped popularize folk music during the Forties as a member
Almanac Singers, which also included Guthrie and Pete Seeger. "[My
and I] worked rather differently, but I think all three of us had the same
goal.... Music always happens in connection with important things. People are
trying to squash it, trying to silence it, particularly in political
There have been many attempts to outlaw this or that kind of music. For that
alone, you have to think about how important music must be."
Alan Lomax had a great ear for a good song and a knack for finding
artists. As the recordings testify, he also had a proclivity to draw the best
out of a musician.
"Alan has a way of persuading musicians that he is listening to them
no one ever listened to them before," says Hawes. "He has always
capacity to make musicians feel good. A lot of time, recorders are trying to
the way they told you to be in anthropology classes. That's not what a
A musician wants somebody to say, `Hooray. Oh God, isn't that beautiful.'
what Alan would do ... he came on like a real human being to these musicians
they really liked singing for him. If you go into the Library of Congress and
to recordings done by other people, I just don't think they have the joy and
that many of Alan's recordings have."
"My father just got down to where the people were," says Anna
Chairetakis, co-producer of the series. "He drank with them, he sat with
he went in their boats and recorded them. He was interested in everything
and asked all kinds of questions. He just made people feel good."
Chairetakis says her father didn't begin a song-gathering trip without a
"It wasn't like he was wandering along and picking flowers on a country
Chairetakis says. "He usually had a purpose, and as his career went on,
purpose became more and more meaty -- or juicy if you will. When he first
collecting with his father, they were trying to identify a body of music
in the South that they felt was uniquely theirs -- that they had developed
been recognized, but yet it was part of the American folk song tradition.
one purpose they had, but as he went on, he began looking for more and more
According to Chairetakis, being recorded inspired many of the musicians to
more introspective about their songs and their place in history. She says
used the opportunity to reach out to the world in a time when communication
"They felt like they were connecting from their places of relative
Chairetakis says. "Alan talks about how one of the people he recorded
the microphone and started talking directly to President Roosevelt, saying,
this is how things are for us down here and we're really happy we can talk to
because Alan was coming from the Library of Congress."
Lomax took care to get the best recording he could, sometimes under
conditions. When traveling the South during the age of segregation, he was
hauled off to the police station and told he shouldn't be associating with
Some feared he was stirring up trouble among the blacks, while others didn't
to admit that African-American culture was something worthy of study.
Chairetakis, Lomax encountered little suspicion from the African Americans he
"Blacks were really happy that somebody was interested in their story
who they were and what they had to offer," explains Chairetakis.
in it in terms of making money like the race record companies and exploiting
but really interested in documenting this and incorporating that into a
understanding the music they were performing."
By the People,
For the People
Much of the music Alan Lomax recorded has been made available previously.
of his Library of Congress Recordings of Woody Guthrie and others have been
on various labels since the Forties and are currently available on Rounder.
of the Southern Journey material has been available before as well;
worked with Columbia Records in the Fifties to produce a 40-volume set of
although only 18 albums were actually released. He produced several radio
this music and collaborated with his father to publish several books of folk
The Lomaxes weren't content to merely collect songs, though; they wanted to
that those songs were sung.
"They popularized this music, to some extent, as opposed to just
it," Nowlin says. "I think there was probably a concern that if it
simply hauled away into an archive, it would become archived and protected,
wouldn't actually get out to the people. I think that was the reason a more
oriented -- not that we're Sony Records or anything -- but a more
outfit would be a better place [than a museum or university]."
Chairetakis says her father is pleased with Rounder's commitment to
of the material and keep the discs in print. Lomax suffered a stroke last
has been unable to direct the project, but has final approval.
"He believed that this music was our patrimony for the whole human
Chairetakis says. "We needed to keep it alive and we needed to know
and if possible, keep it alive through living musicians. One reason he was so
on popularizing and getting things out in the media is because he felt it was
of feedback to the people whose music this was -- that they would be
continue with it."
On the Alan Lomax Collection Sampler, Lomax tells interviewer
"... when you could play this material back to people, it changed
for them. They realized that their stuff and they were just as good as
That statement is proven time and again throughout the first six discs of the
Volume 1, Voices From the South, features "blues, ballads,
reels, shouts, chanteys, and work songs." Highlights include Sid
the quills, a form of panpipes slaves brought over from Africa during the
an instrument thought to have been extinct. Volume 2, Ballads and
focuses on music from the Blue Ridge Mountains and features many great
classic story songs, like "John Henry," "Old Joe Clark,"
"Poor Ellen Smith." Lomax's recording of Texas Gladden lulling her
to sleep with "Whole Heap of Pretty Horses" is especially touching.
recorded in 1959, much of the blues on Volume 3, 61 Highway
styles that date back decades earlier. Volume 3 has been perhaps the most
disc in the series.
Volume 4, Brethren, We Meet Again, is a trek through Southern white
complete with spirituals, sermons, and the bizarre harmonies of Sacred Harp
Anyone raised in the somewhat staid Protestant tradition might be taken aback
the religious fervor of these backwoods congregations. For a contrast in
matter, Volume 5, Bad Man Ballads, is a collection of songs about
murderers, desperadoes, and tragic heroes, many of which are sung by outlaws
murderers who Lomax recorded on trips through Southern prisons. This disc
appetite for future volumes of prison songs. Volume 6, Sheep, Sheep,
Know the Road?, brings sacred and secular traditions together,
duality of Southern life by alternating the sweet sounds of gospel tunes with
about lives turned to sin.
The sound quality on each disc is impeccable, since Lomax was one of the
to use stereo magnetic tape. Oddly enough, this material was originally
in mono, so those who have the old Prestige collection have another reason,
to dozens of previously unreleased tracks, to pick up the new release.
A Living Document
Much of this music might have been lost forever had it not been recorded.
the most part, music is not being handed down from generation to generation
it once was. If you were to visit the most remote areas of the Deep South
your chances of finding a kid with a guitar trying to play the licks he
watching Nirvana on MTV would be much greater than meeting someone playing
he learned from his granddaddy or the old black man who lived down the road.
social, and political forces have changed America to the point where many of
cultural differences that separated the urban and the rural no longer exist.
and radio now reaches into every nook and cranny of the country, often
regional musical styles in favor of the latest flavors being promoted by
dollar entertainment conglomerates.
Aside from being packed with fantastic music, The Alan Lomax
is a vital historical document, not only because it preserves our musical
because it can provide the foundation for the future. Lomax's recordings of
Guthrie were a touchstone for Bob Dylan's career. When Miles Davis was
material for his landmark Sketches of Spain album, he turned to
of Spanish folk songs. Music Lomax recorded has influenced and inspired the
of the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and
influence and inspiration are still being felt today. Even Nirvana has
Musicians faced with a lack of inspiration often talk about getting back
roots. Well, those roots are here, they run very deep, and they're capable of