Perfect Sound Forever

A Man, A Mission, A Tape Recorder:
Alan Lomax and His Southern Journey

Alan Lomax

by Lang Thompson (July 1997)

By 1959, rock 'n' roll had come and very nearly gone. Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor's innovations were shooting through the jazz world. John Cassavettes and Stan Brakhage's films reinvented the idea of an American independent cinema. John Cage's muse led him into the wilds of unimagined sound. Rosa Parks had already triggered the civil rights movement.

1959 was also when folklorist Alan Lomax embarked on two years of recording tours throughout the South. In the decades since, numerous albums have been released of the music he collected. The earliest ones provided a deep resource for the folk revivalists who were mostly urban and unlikely to have encountered the songs otherwise. Atlantic put out the seven-LP Songs of the South which appeared in an impressive CD version in 1993. A good chunk of the rest was issued by Prestige and that's what now makes up--along with plenty of previously unreleased material--the thirteen-volume set Southern Journey (Rounder).

The first six discs (available individually) have just appeared, covering many sorts of blues, spirituals, fiddle tunes, ballads, outlaw stories and what have you. The next seven are due later this year. This are just the initial phases of Rounder's ambitious plan to reissue the bulk of Lomax's lifetime archive, a project expected to produce 100 CDs ranging from the American South to Spain to the Caribbean, from Christmas music to blues. And if you're still a bit hesitant there's a two-disc overview of the entire project called, obviously enough, The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler.

Encompassing variety isn't the concern of Southern Journey which instead limits itself to a portrait of the region's traditional music. You'd have to listen hard to find any indication that the music was made in 1959 and 1960, but that's the point. Timeless folk traditions are what's on display here and if that means the dates and serial numbers have to be filed off, then so be it.

Here, the performer is secondary to the tradition. The discs are organized roughly by style or subject; the songs aren't even grouped by performer. And of course the song title comes first--in bold type--while the performer's is next in standard type. That's true even of well-known names such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Hobart Smith, Vera Ward Hall.

The set isn't indifferent to the individuals, it's just that the emphasis is on an abstracted musical tradition where songs seem to be channelled from some encompassing source rather than being the deliberate, conscious work of numerous people. I say "the set" rather than Lomax (or the set's compilers) since even though his name is prominent, the set's emphasis isn't on his shaping process. In the field, he was looking for performances, not setting out to create albums. The attitude is that Lomax merely documented what was already there.

From Lomax's raw material, Southern Journey was compiled by Matthew Barton and Andrew L. Kaye; Barton also provided the extensive, though somewhat bland, liner notes. Which raises the question of why Lomax's original, intriguingly allusive notes weren't reprinted as well. Space limitations? Copyright problems?

Whether Lomax was aware of his mythologizing tendencies is to a large degree irrelevant. In no sense can he be considered a naive or ill-informed person, not with a career ranging from Harvard and Columbia to Jelly Roll Morton at the Library of Congress to European folk music. He even developed a highly technical (if somewhat dubious) attempt to notate ethnic musics called Chronometrics. After all, this approach to folk/traditional music where The People are more important than the people is well over a century old and still thriving. Lomax was firmly of that mind-set. If he'd run across Hasil Adkins in his travels, Lomax certainly wouldn't have wasted tape on him.

Which isn't a bad thing: there are far too many Adkins records as it is and Lomax allowed us to hear music that undoubtedly would have vanished but for him. Well, not "John Henry" or "Turkey in the Straw" or "Pretty Polly" but the remarkable performances here that give these songs life. Lomax's accomplishment was much more than allowing the connection of a few historical links. His intervention didn't just document this music but helped bring it into existence.

The first volume is intended to be an overview of the entire Southern Journey series but it's Volume 6: Sheep, Sheep Don'tcha Know the Road which really displays the series' strengths. Though organized around the concepts of sin and salvation, the album isn't a religious dissertation but a remarkably varied and compelling set. Almeda Riddle's "The House Carpenter" (an adapted Child ballad) catches an unwary listener short with its unexpected melodic jumps and twists. Willie Jones "& others" (that's how they're billed) kick up a John Lee Hooker groove on the rowdy "You Got Dimples in Your Jaws." During his satirical "Corn Dodgers," Neil Morris can barely keep from laughing. The wonderful harmonies on Estil C. Ball and Lacey Richardson's "Tribulations" could almost have come from the Louvin Brothers (it's no accident that the performers were regulars on radio).

Volume 6 certainly doesn't fit the usual pious and austere ideas concerning traditional music. The other Southern Journey volumes are even less house-broken. Murders, ship wrecks, fires, suffering and Hell itself fill many songs. Others delight in the rowdy joy of making music with people whooping it up on fiddle and guitar or singing like Heaven is already here; one tune is little more than a guy's animal imitations. Volume 2 focuses on ballads and breakdowns which should appeal to bluegrass fans. Volume 5 collects stories of "outlaws and desperadoes" while Volume 3's trip down down Mississippi's Highway 61 will especially captivate blues fans.

The mistaken idea most listeners bring to Southern Journey is that it features dead music; that Lomax caught these styles right before they vanished into a commercial maelstrom. But the music lives in various forms, often alongside the pop music that supposedly killed it. Numerous string bands and spiritual singers and dulcimer players and back-porch bluesmen still exist in the South. The music now is learned as much from records, print and even video as much as by direct contact and it clearly no longer occupies quite the central place in people's lives. But it's definitely here and doing quite well. Southern Journey isn't a lament for what we've lost but a celebration of the power of music that's all the more powerful if you hear it with fresh ears.

Here's the listing of the Southern Journey collections