Archive for the ‘John Lomax’ Category

Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country

June 6, 2015


During the last few decades of the twentieth century,
it became fashionable in some circles to belittle the
work of Alan and John Lomax. As is often the fate of
intellectuals who reach beyond academia to a broader
public, they were considered somehow suspect, and
their work came to be misunderstood, neglected, and
often ignored by many scholars who would otherwise
be interested in traditional music.
Often, the two very different people—and very different thinkers—
were combined into one conglomerate Lomax, a sort of
golem that came to symbolize old-fashioned approaches
to folk music.
To the detriment of the study of American vernacular music,
however, misgivings about the Lomaxes and their missions
bled over into and contributed to a monumental failure to address the bulk
of their extensive collections. And while many famous
performers whose legacies were intertwined with the
Lomaxes became icons of American roots music (Lead
belly, for instance, or Muddy Waters), the broad scope of
even their earliest field collections largely overwhelmed
the assembled academic and archival apparatuses of the
twentieth century.
In this century, however, things have changed with
respect to such collections and to the role of early field
collections in general. The gears of the old machine
have been oiled up, so to speak, and things seem to be
getting rolling again. There are a number of reasons
for this: first, technology increasingly provides more
efficient access to the media they collected.

No More Cane on the Brazos

August 24, 2014

A 1902 political cartoon depicts an attempt by Cuban farmers to export sugar cane to the United States via a reciprocity agreement, rebuffed by tariff-wielding sugar growers. Though the gate to reciprocity is blocked, the doors to annexation swing open, and Puerto Rico, symbolized on the far right, has entered through them. / Udo J. Keppler, Library of Congress.

Excerpt from Ground Down to Molasses: The Making of an American Folk Song by David Byrne (

The Brazos River flows from Texas’s northern tier, at the confluence of the Salt Fork and Double Mountain Fork. It then flows south for 840 miles through east central Texas before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The story of “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” is a tale of confluence as well, with a mystifying series of tributaries. As it mutates, the song can be located at certain way stations, but the origin of “Ain’t No More Cane” is a grand vanishing act.

Here it is, 1933, almost 200 years to the day since the Molasses Act was passed. John and Alan Lomax are lugging their 315-pound disk recorder around Texas, talking their way onto prison plantations and making the first recordings of Texas work songs. The earliest known performance of “Ain’t No More Cane” is attributed to a group of prisoners at Central Unit on the Brazos—Ernest Williams, Iron Head Baker, and anonymous “others.”

But it ain’t no more cane on the Brazos
yeah yeah yeah
they done grind it all in molasses
oh, oh, oh.

This is generally regarded as the lyrical model for the versions to come, but it cannot be considered by itself. Another work gang singing the song “Go Down, Old Hannah” complicates things. There is no Brazos in it, but it is essential to understanding later renditions of “Ain’t No More Cane.”

As Alan Lomax wrote eloquently, “Go Down, Old Hannah” is strident and apocalyptic, a choral fury aimed upward at the unrelenting Texas sun—old Hannah—and downward at the circumstances that could trap a man in the hell of Brazoria County. You could force yourself to cut cane all day under the spell of this terrifying song. You could sing it, too, while driving a rusted stake into your oppressor’s heart. Here are the opening lyrics, with the choral phrases emphasized:

old Hannah / well, well, well / you’re turning red / you’re turning red / well I looked at old Hannah / it was turning red / well I looked at my partner / well, well, well / he was almost dead / he was almost dead.

Scores of online folklorists and living-room strummers attribute “Ain’t No More Cane” to Huddie Ledbetter—one gentleman sings a jumped-up version at Ledbetter’s gravesite—but Ledbetter never recorded it. What he did record was “Go Down, Old Hannah.” Ledbetter is associated more closely with Louisiana’s Angola prison, but he had also done time at Central State, the same Brazos prison farm where Iron Head Baker and Ernest Williams were locked up. He starts his version with the usual invocation of the sun:

Don’t you rise no more / and if you rise in the morning / bring judgment sure / it was soon one morning / when the sun did rise / and I was thinking ’bout my good-looking baby / I would hang my head and cry / go down old Hannah / please don’t rise no more / and if you do rise in the morning / set the world on fire.

Ledbetter is well into the song before the Brazos, unnamed, appears: “If you had been on the river / somewhere in 1910 / they was driving the woman / just as hard as they do the men.”

When Ledbetter is finished singing, the recording continues. Someone, I presume it is John Lomax, says to Ledbetter: “First time I ever heard you sing that many verses.” And Ledbetter replies, “Well, you can just put, you know, just make ’em right on up, you know.”

We should run from the notion of seminal documents in such settings. What we can say is that one recording introduces the disappearance of cane from the Brazos, one song laments the sun, one song laments the sun on the Brazos, and another introduces the Brazos in a lament of the sun. None of these recordings comes close to the original: they just happened to be what was voiced on particular days by particular men when happenstance arrived with a recording machine. Before that, and forever after, Old Rattler is shit out of luck: the trail is too old.

The origins of the specific words disappear along with the songs. Lomax continues the conversation with Ledbetter:

‘Old Hannah is the sun?’

‘Yeah, they call it Old Hannah ’cause it was hot, they just give it a name. . . . Boys talking about Old Hannah. I kept looking and I didn’t see no Hannah . . . but they looked up, said, that’s the sun, that’s all.’

The ancestors of slaves might have known where the name came from. In Hausa, a language widely spoken in areas of West Africa where the slave trade was common, the word for “sun” is “raanaa.”

That African music and oral tradition shaped this music is a truism. It is possible, though, that the language along the Brazos during these years maintained especially close ties to its African roots when compared to what was spoken in areas of the American South that had complied with restrictions on the slave trade.


Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana

June 12, 2014

Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings
by Joshua Clegg Caffery, foreword by Barry Jean Ancelet (Louisiana State University Press, 424 pages)


Alan Lomax’s prolific sixty-four-year career as a folklorist and musicologist began with a trip across the South and into the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country during the height of the Great Depression. In 1934, his father John, then curator of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, took an eighteen-year-old Alan and a 300-pound aluminum disk recorder into the rice fields of Jennings, along the waterways of New Iberia, and behind the gates of Angola State Penitentiary to collect vestiges of African American and Acadian musical tradition. These recordings now serve as the foundational document of indigenous Louisiana music.

Although widely recognized by scholars as a key artifact in the understanding of American vernacular music, most of the recordings by John and Alan Lomax during their expedition across the central-southern fringe of Louisiana were never transcribed or translated, much less studied in depth. This volume presents, for the first time, a comprehensive examination of the1934 corpus and unveils a multifaceted story of traditional song in one of the country’s most culturally dynamic regions.

Through his textual and comparative study of the songs contained in the Lomax collection, Joshua Clegg Caffery provides a musical history of Louisiana that extends beyond Cajun music and zydeco to the rural blues, Irish and English folk songs, play-party songs, slave spirituals, and traditional French folk songs that thrived at the time of these recordings.

Intimate in its presentation of Louisiana folklife and broad in its historical scope, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana honors the legacy of John and Alan Lomax by retrieving these musical relics from obscurity and ensuring their understanding and appreciation for generations to come.


• Complete transcriptions of the 1934 Lomax Field Recordings in southwestern Louisiana

• Side-by-side translations from French to English

• Photographs from the 1934 field trip and biographical details about the performers

Santa Anna and The Yellow Rose of Texas

January 6, 2013


“The Yellow Rose of Texas” took on a new and entirely different meaning in 1961 when the song was first publicly linked to an anecdote about the battle of San Jacinto. This anecdote, recorded by Englishman William Bollaert during a trip to Texas (1842–44), stated that the 1836 battle was lost to the Mexicans because a mulatto girl named Emily, who belonged to Col. James Morgan, was closeted in Santa Anna’s tent at the time the battle commenced.

According to this account, Emily detained Santa Anna so long that he was unable to restore order as the Texans attacked the Mexican camp. The story would have been unknown today except that Bollaert’s papers from his Texas trip, including the anecdote buried in an unpublished essay, were acquired by the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1911.

The story was discovered from those papers and initially appeared in print as a footnote by Joe Frantz in his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Texas (1946) and subsequently in the published version of his dissertation, entitled Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation (1951). W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth Lapham Butler, in William Bollaert’s Texas (1956), transcribed Bollaert’s papers and mentioned the story again, also in a footnote.

The mulatto girl, known in this anecdote only as “Emily” who belonged to James Morgan, was referred to during the 1960s and 1970s as Emily Morgan under the belief she was Morgan’s slave, but a passport record in the Texas State Library in Austin, first associated with Emily’s story in 1976, and an employment contract found in 1991 in a private collection and held since 2004 at the University of Texas at Arlington Library Special Collections, substantiated that she was a free woman named Emily D. West. She was hired by Morgan in New York City in 1835 to work for him for one year at his place called New Washington (now Morgan’s Point). Both names are often conflated today, as evidenced by the inaptly-named Emily Morgan Hotel which opened in 1985 across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio.

In the late 1950s R. Henderson Shuffler, head of the Texas A&M office of information and publication and subsequently the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures, was bothered that this “unsung” heroine of Texas was not better-known or appreciated. Shuffler was determined to associate her with a song and initially felt that Emily should be connected with “Will You Come to the Bower?”—a bawdy tune that was played at the battle of San Jacinto.

But by July 1959 he focused his attention on “The Yellow Rose of Texas” instead. He wrote to folklore singer John A. Lomax, Jr., the oldest son of famed folklorist John A. Lomax, seeking confirmation of his latest “hunch” that this song “grew up around the stories of Emily.” Shuffler later wrote Lomax in February 1960: “if there is not, as I still suspect, a remote connection between the story of Emily and the original folk song version of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ there should be.” (more…)

John Lomax Radio Show

July 26, 2012


“One hundred years ago, a Texan named John Lomax published a collection of songs that introduced Americans to a musical patrimony that would influence popular song for decades to come. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads was the product of years of collecting by Lomax who early in the 20th century searched far-flung ranches, and dusty back alleys of Western towns in search of songs that were born on the frontier.

Living as we do in a time when you can tune in and share music from all over the world with the click of a mouse…it’s difficult to appreciate the importance of Lomax’s work. In his day, songs were local. They varied from town to town, and people in the big cities never heard the songs sung along the backroads and byways. American classics such as ‘Home on the Range’, ‘Git Along Little Dogies’, and later, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Midnight Special’…were unknown until John Lomax collected and published them for the rest of America to enjoy. He was the first folklorist to pay attention to songs that chronicled the American experience; other folklorists of his time focused almost exclusively on the great European epics and folksongs. The publication of Cowboy Songs in 1910 was a landmark in the history of America’s interest in its own folk culture, and it made Lomax a national figure. In addition to cowboy songs, Lomax had a lifelong fascination with African American folk songs, particularly the blues. These two passions drove Lomax to what many consider his greatest achievement, the collection of more than 10,000 recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.”

Steve Zeitlin, City Lore

In this radio journey, narrated by folklorist Hal Cannon, we retrace those back roads of Texas and Louisiana to discover why the folk music that John Lomax documented in the early 20th century still resonates with us today. Join Cannon as he follows Lomax’s path, listening to the original recordings he made, visiting some of the places where Lomax recorded, and talking with the grandchildren of those he recorded. With the help of cultural observers, folklorists and historians, Cannon demonstrates how the simple act of acknowledging the lives and music of ordinary working people changed history. From the Fort Worth Stockyards in Texas to Angola Prison in Louisiana this is a musical journey to the roots of popular music worldwide.

Listen here.

Our Singing Country

July 4, 2012

“These are the people who still sing the work songs, the cowboy songs, the sea songs, the lumberjack songs, the bad-man ballads, and other songs that have no occupation or special group to keep them alive.  These are the people who go courting with their guitars, who make the music for their own dances, who make their songs for their own religion.  These are the story-tellers, because they are they are the people who are watching when things happen.  These are the great laughers and the great liars, because they now that life is so much more ridiculous than anyone can ever hope to tell.  These are the people who understand death, because it has been close to them all their lives.

These people have been wanderers, walking and riding alone into the wilderness, past the mountains and the broad rivers, down the railroad lines, down the highways.  Like all wanderers, they have been lonely and unencumbered by respect for the conventions of life beyond them.  Remembering the old songs in their loneliness, throwing up their voices against prairie and forest track, along new rivers, they followed the instincts and the old songs were changed so as to belong to their life in the new country.”

John and Alan Lomax,  from “Our Singing Country,” 1941.

Adventures of a Ballad Hunter

May 20, 2012

“Adventures of a Ballad Hunter,” by John Lomax (Macmillan, 1947)

August 22, 1933

At last over in Kentucky we found him — the blind bard, with a good voice, for whom we had been looking since we left Texas. Near Harlan, Kentucky, where feuds are still active, he lived in a rocky gorge in a typical mountain home, and there he sang for us until our records were filled.  Alan put the microphone and the singer out under a shade tree in the yard where he sat leaning forward in a rocking chair, playing softly on his fiddle as he sang ballads  — blood-stirring ballads of love and life in the mountains.

His name was James Howard.  He was kindly, keenly intelligent, without formal education.  His handsome face would light with pleasure as Alan played back for him the recorded songs, executed almost as perfectly as if sung in a soundproof room under ideal conditions.  Lying around in the grass, as attentive and shy and observant as little animals, were a lot of mountain children, while the smiling wife peered from the doorway.  The experience was unforgettable.

The day before as we recorded in precisely the same way before another cabin, Alan whispered to me. “Look at that beauty in the door.”  There she was — starry blue eyes, very fair, with wavy hair,neatly dressed, seventeen, a mountain rose just emerging from the bud.  It was all over for Alan!  That afternoon he disappeared and again that night.

Blind James Howard plays ” The Little Carpenter”: