Outstanding In His Field
By Matt Hanks
JULY 28, 1997:
am an American citizen," he muttered, glaring around. "These Memphis cops call me vagrant, but I'm a musician. These Southern laws don't recognize a man by his talents. They just think a ," he paused and brought his face close to mine. "You ain't from 'round here. You don't play no part in all this mess goin' 'round here. You don't know nothin about it, and I, Willie B., better known as 61, because I rambles 61 Highway from Chicago clean down to New Orleans with my guitar for my buddy, I am going to tell you."
B. spoke those words to Alan Lomax in 1942. At the time the two were holed up in an Arkansas juke after being shooed off Beale Street by "the Man." It was probably the whiskey talking, and Willie B. didn't know any better besides, but his assessment of Lomax was way off the mark. Lomax knew -- as well as a man of his complexion could -- about that mess goin' 'round there. That mess was his life.
Willie Lomax sits among a select group of artists -- along with the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, and very few others -- whose importance not just to popular music, but to popular culture can not be exaggerated. And make no mistake, he is an artist. He's also a producer, an author, and an academic. And now, at 82 years of age, he's the focus of one of the most ambitious reissue campaigns in the history of the CD format.
"My father wasn't just a collector," says Anna Lomax Chairetakis, "he was a man of ideas. He had very clear goals that he wanted to accomplish." Chairetakis heads up the Alan Lomax Archive in New York City, which houses some of those accomplishments -- over 5,000 hours of field recordings and 2,500 hours of film footage.
Some of those recordings date back as far as the '30s and are preserved on their original paper-backed tape reels. All of them are grist for Rounder Records' recently inaugurated Alan Lomax Collection. Over 100 titles are planned for the collection, but all parties involved agree that number could increase substantially by project's end.
The first offering from the collection is the 13-volume Southern Journey series. Originally released in 1960 as a 12-volume set by the Prestige label, the series documents all manner of rural Southern song -- from field hollers to lullabies, prison songs to prayer meetings -- that had previously existed in a vacuum of oral tradition.
But those are just numbers. It's the artists behind them that give the Lomax collection its context and its unquantifiable worth. Lomax's list of "discoveries" would put any A&R man to shame. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, and "Mississippi" Fred McDowell are just a few of the seminal artists who made their first recordings for him. A roster like that is the product of more than good timing. Lomax's own artistry lay in the exacting (and exhausting) techniques he applied to his field trips. He canvassed bars, churches, prisons, and homes to find what he called "the dreams and songs of the noble old."
His knowledge of the music he recorded was matched only by his empathy for its practitioners. "He learned as he went along," says Chairetakis. Sometimes, as in the case of Willie B., a stiff drink was all it took to convince an artist to perform. Other times, more delicate tactics were required.
Chairetakis continues, "If someone senses that you're a total ignoramus about a subject they're deeply familiar with -- namely their own lives and art forms -- like any other connoisseur, they'll be snobbish and give you a hard time. But the more you know, the more comfortable people will feel with you."
And comfortable they were. The real beauty of the Southern Journey series is the thorns-and-all candor Lomax captured in its performances. Some artists took the liberty of introducing their songs with a story. Others saw fit to stop and clear their throat in mid-performance. Even beyond the performances, the chirping crickets and barking dogs that Lomax captured create an aural panorama of a waning rural America, an America just as much in need of preservation as the songs it inspired.
Lomax made the majority of his field-recording trips during the middle decades of this century. The seismic shifts in thought, technology, and demographics that occurred during these years would change rural America, particularly the South, forever. At century's end, Lomax's recordings are some of the best-kept vestiges of a mode of American existence that has all but completely faded into history.
"The people [that my father recorded], white and black, felt a certain disconnection," Chairetakis says. "It wasn't an idyllic world out there, and they were so far removed from any centers of political decision-making or media or anything. That's where Alan really felt his mission lay. Helping to give a voice to people outside of the system; people who had developed these rich veins of human expression that stretched far back into time. They were the true voices of our collective roots."
The Willie B. quote is taken from Lomax's book The Land Where The Blues Began. The first six volumes of the Southern Journey series are now available from Rounder Records. The other seven volumes in the series will be released before the end of the year. For a free catalog from Rounder write to: 1 Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140.
Music Notesby Mark Jordan
Remembering the King
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