Posts Tagged ‘Alan Lomax’

Barbary Ellen

July 24, 2012

 from Charles Seeger’s notes to “Versions and Variants of the Tunes of ‘Barbara Allen'”(AFS L 54) and Alan Lomax’s “Folk Songs of North America”:

A girl refuses a man who says he is dying for love of her.  He expires when she turns from him; then she, too, dies of remorse.  Barbara is glad to see her Willie dying because of a small misunderstanding which could have been cleared up in a moment.  Her remorselessness and Willie’s extraordinary demise are not really explained, but represent an undercurrent of powerful feelings which it is assumed the audience understands.  In fact, the song is the vehicle for the fantasies of woman and the frustrations of men, of which both the ballad singers and their listeners are unconsciously aware.

To investigate the problem of the identity of the ballad tune, it is necessary to select a ballad for which there is available for exam­ination a large number of specimens that are representative of the main stream of oral transmission as well in the British Isles as in North America.    For as far as this kind of material is concerned, the two areas have formed one sing­ing community for more than three centuries, maintained since 1620 by con­stant westward migration and now, by the eastward migration of the folk­ music revival movement.    The ballad of “Barbara Allen,” as it is known in the United States, seems to fulfill the conditions set forth above. Folk­lorists have frequently attested to the fact of its being the best and most widely known of all the “Child” ballads on both sides of the Atlantic.

The holdings of the Archive of American Folk Song (AAFS) in the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. are eminently suited to use for such a purpose. Of the total of seventy-six dubbings made available for the present study, most were recorded at or near the residences of the informants during the years 1933 to 1940 with what must be considered, at this writing, primitive equipment. For the most part, recording was made on aluminum blanks. Collectors were rarely experienced in field collection and few had had special training.    Few could make the adjustments and repairs of the machines inci­dent to wear and tear, rough handling, variation of electrical current, and obsolescence.    Some of the original discs show blemishes of such basic cha­racter that subsequent sound-engineering could not modify them without loss of essential features of the singing.    In spite of these hazards, some of the sound-tracks still project a luminous quality through the veil of imperfections. Recordings not only of exceptionally talented but even of ordinary carriers of the tradition often possess this quality, though to varying degrees.

Listen to Bill Cornett sing “Barbara Allen” in previous post.


The Last Mississippi Fifer?: Sharde Thomas

June 4, 2012
Sharde Thomas, center, is believed to be the last living link to America’s fife and drum blues music. She plays the fife at an annual party on her family’s farm in northern Mississippi, a tradition started by the late Otha Turner, her grandfather. (photo by Mark Borthwick)

Blues Travelers

By ADAM FISHER | May 17, 2012 (

“You Yankees,” says my fellow concertgoer Matthew Tamke, wrapping his powerful arms around my head as though it were a football that he was about to rush into the end zone. “We’re not the Mississippi you think we are.” Tamke and I are at the annual Otha Turner Family Picnic, a legendary jam session that takes place every summer behind a tumbledown sharecropper’s shack deep in Mississippi’s hill country. The interracial crowd is a few hundred strong and drawn from nearly every stratum of local life — bikers, college kids, workingmen, toughs, gentlemen farmers. And then there are a couple dozen like me: urban cosmopolites eager to hear the deepest roots of the blues. Tamke calls himself “a redneck,” and he’s attacked me because I’m from The New York Times.

Shouting into my ear over the music, Tamke makes me his megaphone for what he wants the outside world to know: “Our races have melded together, we share everything,” he says, voice trembling. “We love each other.” He’s squeezing my skull so hard it feels like it might pop, and it’s clear that he’s under the influence of something very powerful. The moonshine or the music, I don’t know. Finally, when it seems something is about to crack — my neck, or Tamke’s tenuous hold on sanity, or both — he lets me go. “It’s sacred,” he says, choking up. “It’s ancient, man.”

“It” is fife and drum, an African take on colonial English marching songs, and one of the oldest forms of distinctly American music, played by the slaves of Jefferson’s Monticello and still played today — by one family, once a year, at this, one of the last of the traditional farm picnics celebrating the end of the growing season. I first met Tamke earlier in the day, before the sun had gone down, when the party was still getting going. He sat beside me on a hay bale, friendly-like, and struck up a conversation. He introduced me to his father, John, who sat nearby in a wheelchair, his left leg amputated above the knee due to the ravages of Agent Orange (and who has since died). After coming home from Vietnam, Tamke Sr. became a local judge. Back in those days, he told me, it was a point of family pride to “take care of the minorities,” and he reminisced about his grandfather bringing him outside, 50 or 60 years ago, to hear the drum call the field hands to the picnic.

That was around the time Alan Lomax first recorded the music. In 1942, and on subsequent trips in 1959 and 1978, the eminent ethnomusicologist found what he came to regard as his greatest discovery, a veritable Jurassic Park of fife and drum in the Mississippi hills: the Young Brothers, Napolian Strickland and Sid and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Late in life Lomax wrote a book, “The Land Where the Blues Began,” which made the case that fife and drum is “an outcropping of African music in North America.” The instruments were clearly colonial, but in the syncopation of the beats, in the interplay between the band and the audience, and in the fife itself, Lomax saw and heard a sub-Saharan tradition — the dance and music of the pygmy tribes, specifically. It was an extraordinary claim.

After Lomax published his book, in 1993, blues aficionados began making their way south to hear the sound for themselves. Most of the musicians Lomax found had died, and one of the last known places to hear it was at the farm owned by Othar Turner, known as “Otha,” in Gravel Springs, Miss.

Read entire article here.

Lomax, Skiffle, and the British Invasion

May 1, 2012

John Lennon and skiffle band

In the 1950s in Britain, commercial and field recordings of southern American music were extremely popular, including those of John and Alan Lomax. Skiffle bands proliferated, usually using homemade or improvised instruments such as the washboard, tea chest bass, kazoo, cigar-box fiddle, musical saw, comb and paper, and so forth, as well as more conventional instruments such as acoustic guitar and banjo. The Lomax’s 1934 recording of Kelly Pace’s “Rock Island Line” inspired Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 British  skiffle hit (via Leadbelly) which  sold an unprecedented 3 million copies, shooting into the British and American top ten.

The trajectory from skiffle to the British (rock) Invasion is described below, from “The Man Who Recorded the World.” (Alan Lomax’s biography, see previous post)

By the late 1950s….John Lennon’s skiffle band the Quarrymen was beginning its evolution into what would become the Beatles;  Mick Jagger, a member of the Chris Barber-Ken Colyer Skiffle Band, would soon meet Keith Richards…. Graham Nash and Alan Clarke, the core of the Hollies, had both started as a skiffle band called the Two Teens;  guitarist Jimmy Page worked in a skiffle band long before he would become part of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin; and Van Morrison started his musical career in the skiffle group called the Sputniks.

Hobart Smith and Georgia Sea Island Singers

April 27, 2012

Ed Young and Hobart Smith

by Nathan Salsburg
Alan Lomax’s “Southern Journey” field recording trip ended in October of 1959, but by April of the next year Alan was back recording in the South, this time in the capacity of music supervisor to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s film, Music of Williamsburg. The aim was to recreate the sound of African American music as it might have been heard in Colonial Williamsburg, and, according to a strikingly progressive 1962 press release from the Foundation, “to portray the important contributions of the Negro race to the nation’s heritage.”

Lomax assembled a novel cast, comprised of many musicians he’d recorded several months earlier, and drawn from disparate locales. Ed Young came north from Como, Mississippi, to provide the necessary fife-blowing. Hobart Smith traveled east from Saltville, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with his four-string banjo and a clawhammer technique learned, in part, from an African American. Nat Rahmings, a Bahamian drummer and drum-maker, was brought in from Miami. And the Georgia Sea Island Singers were the vocal group at the ensemble’s core.

After filming was completed, Lomax wrote, the “musicians stayed on for what turned out to be a day of extraordinary music-making and musical cross-fertilization.” Alan had turned up this tune years before, having gone looking for the oldest published black dance songs in Virginia—-its references to the drinking gourd evince its slavery-time origin—-and he taught it to the group. “I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed material,” Lomax continued. “But the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.”

Hobart Smith, Bessie Jones, Ed Young, Nate Rahmings, and others play “Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rollin’ Under”(1960):

“Ain’t Men Sharp?”

April 23, 2012

Wade Ward and Alan Lomax


from “Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997,” edited by Ronald Cohen (Routledge, 2003):

Our dusty car and our recording equipment have seen strange places in our travels.  We have recorded songs in lumber camps, in the huts of share croppers, on ships smelling of tar and brine, among workers in cotton fields, and in automobile factories in crowded cities.  Often in prisons, we cut our records in the hospital because it is quiet there.  And once I even remember being solemnly ushered into the execution chamber, because it was the only sound-proofed room in the prison.  The only chair in the room — and somehow we all avoided it– was the execution chair.  That setting didn’t seem to bring out the best in a song.

It is always a dramatic moment for anyone when his own voice comes back to him undistorted from the black mouth of a loud-speaker.  Our old hard-bitten Mexican vaquero in the mesquite country of southwest Texas, when the song was played to him unexpectedly, said with soft amazement, “Madre de Dios!” then after a time, “Muy Hombre!”

A mountaineer, when asked if he would like to hear his record played back, said: “I reckon so.  Anything I’ll do oncet, I’ll do hit twicet.”

“Ain’t men sharp?” he added, when the record was finished.

Calypso at Midnight

April 7, 2012


Learning that Town Hall (in NYC) could be rented cheaply after regular theater hours, Alan Lomax produced a late-night concert series called The Midnight Special, which was thematically organized as Blues At Midnight, Ballads At Midnight, etc., and sponsored by the People’s Songs Collective.  A live recording was made of “Calypso At Midnight,” a concert held at Town Hall on December 21, 1946. The calypso concert recordings, made at Lomax’s request and later found by chance in a closet by Bess Lomax Hawes, may be the only extant record of this series. “This concert is a fascinating document of an American presentation of Trinidadian calypso at a time when interest in the genre was spreading from New York City into the mainstream of popular music in the United States” (Donald R. Hill and John H. Cowley, Calypso At Midnight [Rounder 1840]).

This material (newly available online) from Alan Lomax’s independent archive (over 17,400 digital audio files), begun in 1946, which has been digitized and preserved by the Association for Cultural Equity, is distinct from the thousands of earlier recordings on acetate and aluminum discs he made from 1933 to 1942 under the auspices of the Library of Congress.  Attempts are being made, however, to digitize some of this rarer material, such as the Haitian recordings, and to make it available in the Sound Recordings catalog. Please check in periodically for updates.



Lomax’ Global Jukebox

February 1, 2012

by Larry Richter, from

The folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was a prodigious collector of traditional music from all over the world and a tireless missionary for that cause. Long before the Internet existed, he envisioned a “global jukebox” to disseminate and analyze the material he had gathered during decades of fieldwork.

A decade after his death technology has finally caught up to Lomax’s imagination. Just as he dreamed, his vast archive — some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts, much of it tucked away in forgotten or inaccessible corners — is being digitized so that the collection can be accessed online. About 17,000 music tracks will be available for free streaming by the end of February, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads.

Read entire article here.

Announcement from


Thousands of hours of international field recordings housed in the Alan Lomax Archive will now reach audiences through Global Jukebox, the Archive’s first independent music imprint. Global Jukebox will produce LPs, CDs and digital albums in partnership with other folkloric institutions, record labels, university presses, along with the global reach of the digital distributor IODA. These releases will engage and inspire audiences around the world with the ever-vital work that Alan Lomax documented, and help fulfill Lomax’s mission of “cultural equity,” the right of every culture to express and develop its distinctive heritage of songs, dances and stories.

Global Jukebox’s first releases commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lomax’s “Southern Journey” in the American South, the first stereo field recordings made of traditional music. The inaugural releases are: “Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea”; “Worried Now, Won’t Be Worried Long”; “I’ll Meet You On That Other Shore”; “I’ll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down”; and “I’m Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die.” Compiled and annotated by Nathan Salsburg, the albums draw on new transfers of the original tapes, and include considerable previously unreleased material and extensive booklets of photos and notes.

Forthcoming releases include: Lomax’s debut recordings of bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell; a companion album to the new John Szwed biography Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World; a hardback book and two-CD set dedicated to Lomax’s trip through Asturias, Spain – “the land at the end of everything”; and the launch of a series of artist-curated compilations, for which guest musicians “Play the Global Jukebox,” including an exclusive recording of their own.

The Man Who Recorded the World

September 8, 2011

“The Man Who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax” by John Szwed

It may be hard, almost half a century later, to imagine the emotional turbulence experienced by a white, middle-class English schoolboy while listening intently to a recording of four black prisoners at the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, swinging their axes and intoning the overlapping lines of a work song with hoarse, urgent voices. But from such moments – the revelation of a new world of feeling, at once distant and exotic yet seeming more immediately relevant than anything the boy had absorbed from the voices of his own culture – a revolution, of sorts, would be made.

Alan Lomax was the man who made that particular moment possible when, in 1948, he persuaded the Parchman authorities to allow him to lug a cumbersome tape recorder to the place where the inmates were chopping timber. (from

See publisher info