“Something Extramusical is Being Communicated Here”

by

lomax_final_web

by Amanda Petrusich (edited from http://www.oxfordamerican.org):

In his film “Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass,” Alan Lomax  corners poor old Roscoe Holcomb, who’s just finished singing, and demands “Where does it hurt you?”

Holcomb, a patriarch of Kentucky’s high lonesome sound (and, it turns out, eternally well-mannered), points to his lower throat. Lomax leans forward, a little too close, white-knuckling a microphone stand, and asks him if he’s ever had to cough (“Ever do that?”).

Lomax is a divisive character (there are complicated arguments to be made about cultural imperialism and nationalist pedagogy) but anyone with a pair of functional ears would be hard-pressed to feel anything but grateful for his work. He is singularly responsible for many of the thousands of hours of interviews and field recordings held by the Library of Congress, and he worked tirelessly to collect and preserve strains of vernacular music that might not have endured otherwise.

The Lomax-founded Association for Cultural Equity, which controls his archive, remains in the source material game even now, a decade after his death. Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass is an official commercial release, but the organization’s YouTube channel, maintained by its young, percipient curator, Nathan Salsburg, proffers a vibrant, sometimes staggering array of footage for aspiring visionaries to mine.

What Lomax and his peers accomplished is of historical and archival import, but what is in some ways more compelling is what it inspired and continues to inspire, what people who suddenly have [via youtube] access to Mississippi Fred McDowell’s propulsive grooves, or to polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), might do with that information.

Obviously, the machinery is in place for a generation of self-documenting American artists to build their own mythologies and to borrow freely and anonymously from ancient and emerging traditions. And yet: seeing Lomax flit about his apartment, or catching the Tennessee fiddler Fred Price giving the camera side-eye, or watching Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers shush the room, or hearing Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim lock into some intense, iniquitous rhythm, it’s hard not to feel like something vital, something extramusical, is being communicated here.

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