I Hear America Singing: The Roots of American Music

By Wood, Allan | American Visions, February-March 1994 | Go to article overview
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I Hear America Singing: The Roots of American Music

Wood, Allan, American Visions

The Roots of American Music

Alan Lomax was on Beale Street one night, drinking and talking music with a few Memphis musicians, when suddenly he was interrupted by policemen's flashlights and drawn pistols. He was working for the Library of Congress, recording folk and blues songs, but to these Southern lawmen he was just "a white tramp with a couple of nigger vagrants." The unfriendly reception was not unusual for Lomax, who was traveling through the South during the 1940s and '50s. For such offenses as calling a black man "mister" or shaking his hand in public, Lomax was lectured, humiliated, arrested, even shot at.

Lomax learned his trade in the 1930s, while traveling with his father, the pioneering folklorist John A. Lomax, making seminal recordings of Southern musicians, such as Leadbelly, in backwoods and penitentiaries. Alan Lomax spent the summer of 1935 with Zora Neale Hurston, collecting oral histories of Southern blacks, and in 1941, he cut the first discs of McKinley Morganfield before the 26-year-old Mississippi sharecropper took the name Muddy Waters and hopped a train to Chicago.

Lomax has since spent a lifetime writing about and recording the world's folk music, traveling to Spain, Haiti, Scotland, Germany, Ireland and Africa. At age 79, he is one of the world's top musicologists. Music critic and author Stanley Crouch, who is currently writing a biography of Charlie Parker, calls Lomax "a major figure in American culture. Through his work we get a real sense of the American identity as it expresses itself in music."

By 1959, Lomax was determined to fully document the Southern folk tradition. As he crisscrossed the southern United States, his ear for true musicianship enabled him to locate music buried under poverty and marginalized by racism. Lomax was well aware of the racial terrain he was negotiating. The harassment he suffered, as a white man associating with blacks during Jim Crow, often cemented his credibility and helped him win the trust of musicians. Yet, even with the difficulties, Lomax's color allowed him to document African-American music in a way no black man would have been able to do at the time.

His compilation of 105 songs - black and white spirituals, bluegrass, blues, mountain fiddle bands, the work chants of ax gangs and African-based dance rhythms augmented by cane fifes and panpipes - were culled from 80 hours of recordings and originally released as the seven-volume Southern Heritage Folk Series; they are now available in the four-CD box set Sounds of the South (Atlantic 82496).

The field recordings made during Lomax's 1959 trip South were the first ever made with stereo equipment. Fortunately, subsequent CD remastering hasn't diluted the powerful emotional content of these songs. The unvarnished quality may take some getting used to, but even ears accustomed to crystal-clear digital recordings will find a lot to enjoy.

And though sitting in your living room and listening to a Memphis congregation cannot match the emotional high of actually being in that rocking church, the immediacy of these performances narrows the sterile distance between performer and audience that recording studios often create. In fact, after hearing Johnny Lee Moore lead 12 Mississippi Penitentiary convicts through the work song "Eighteen Hammers," voices and pickaxes keeping perfect time, you may want to slap the dust off your pants.

"The importance of hearing this music now is that it gives us a much-needed sense of how rich the roots of American music are," says Crouch. "So much American music today is influenced and dominated by the electronic cliches developed through studio technology over the last 30 years. And to hear American voices functioning in a musical environment without any electronic hanky-panky allows us to hear nuances of passion that are lacking in much contemporary music."

The four discs of Sounds of the South are classified by region and musical style: fiddle and hillbilly music from the Blue Ridge Mountains: acoustic and electric blues and its African roots from Mississippi and Arkansas; black and white spirituals from Virginia, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee; and children's folk and game songs from throughout the South.

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