Blues in the Mississippi Night/Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook

By Metil, Robert Carl | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Blues in the Mississippi Night/Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook


Metil, Robert Carl, Yearbook for Traditional Music


Blues in the Mississippi Night 2003. The Alan Lomax Collection. Rounder CD 82161-1860-2. Recorded by Alan Lomax. Annotated by Alan Lomax and Matthew Barton. Collection produced by Anna L. Chairetakis and Jeffrey A. Greenberg. 38 pp. of notes in English (including extended conversation between Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson). 7 b/w photographs, 3 illustrations. 1 compact disc, 19 tracks (55:41). Original recordings made March 1947.

Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook. 2003. Rounder 82161-1866-2. Recorded by Alan Lomax, John Lomax, and various assistants. Annotated by John Cowley and David Evans, preface by Martin Scorsese. Collection produced by Anna Lomax Chairetakis and Don Fleming. 38 pp. of notes in English. 18 b/w photographs. 26-item bibliography. 2 compact discs, 20 tracks (62:56) and 21 tracks (76:08).

Alan Lomax was the archetypal sort of folklorist who made doing fieldwork look easy, thanks partially to the training and ethnographic silver spoon he received from his father John. The CD notes remind us, however, that their paths were not always simple or easy. John alternated ethnography with English teaching and bond sales. Alan, despite his leftist values, was compelled to deal with the exigencies of the Jim Crow American South where he and his informants were born. In his riveting notes to the reissue of Blues in the Mississippi Night, Alan weaves his dilemma into a behind-the-scenes account of the original recordings and 1959 release.

Lomax recorded Blues in the Mississippi Night in one 1947 session in New York after "a couple of drinks" with "Socratic" Big Bill Broonzy (guitar/vocals), "humorous" Memphis Slim (piano/vocals), and "simple" Sonny Boy Williamson (harmonica/vocals). Because of their graphic descriptions of racial violence and exploitation which their music punctuates, they were-upon hearing a playback of the recordings-"terrified" of reprisals against their relatives in the South, and "begged" Lomax "never to tell anyone they had made them." Therefore, he did not disclose their identities or the recordings' location until years after their release. The recordings exhibit minimal evidence of editing, except for the interpolation of sacred, levee camp, and prison song field recordings "for illustrative purposes." Lomax's poignant notes and session transcript compliment excellent archival photographs and Tim Barton's engaging performer biographies. The recordings display inevitable defects that are more than compensated for by their content. Broonzy, Slim, and Williamson perform in solo, duo, and trio formations, and their varied repertoire includes the didactic "Life Is Like That," the instrumental "Fast Boogie," and the blues ballad "Stackalee." Ragtime blues fans will enjoy Broonzy's smooth guitar and vocals on a previously unreleased performance of "Black, White, and Brown Blues."

Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook is a two-CD anthology spanning the days of his 1930s fieldwork with his father to his 1978 work for the film and book The Land Where the Blues Began.

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