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OCTOBER 13, 1997: 

The American Patchwork Series

The Land Where Blues Began: Appalachian Journey
Jazz Parades: Feet Don't Fail Me Now
Cajun Country: Lache Pas La Patate!
D. Alan Lomax, 1990

With his impish grin, lopsided beard, and ill-fitting wardrobe, the on-screen Alan Lomax cuts a benign and frumpy figure indeed -- a pot-bellied prophet for the Arhoolie set. And to many folklorists there is no greater pleasure than listening to him lean back and wax historical on the source and soul of American roots music. The rest of us, too, would do well to take notice, because as his father did before him, there are few commentators as insightful and passionate about American music as Alan Lomax.

Imagine a history of the Delta blues without mention of Charlie Patton or Robert Johnson, a look at mountain music without a lick of Bill Monroe. That's what you'll find in Lomax's American Patchwork Series about American regional musics. In these documentaries, Lomax largely ignores the giants of folk music and explores instead the cultures that produced them, exposing in the process the true front-porch roots of American music. A finer ride I can't imagine.

The Land Where Blues Began has a solid down-home Delta feel, with a full hour of plaintive guitar, heartbroken song, and hot hazy days in the unforgiving fields. With an eye fixed on the contemporary Delta, Lomax traces the emergence of the blues from African tradition, American influence, and black field culture. Along the way he unearths some gems: the electrifying vocal soul of an unknown ex-convict named Joe Savage, a hell-fired sermon from a Reverend Caesar Smith, a classic toast of the signifyin' monkey at a tarpaper juke joint, and a delightfully dirty ditty from the late, great Sam Chatman ("This Was Your Last Time Shakin' It in the Bed With Me"). While Lomax does interview some established players -- Chatman, Lonnie Pitchford, R.L. Burnside (before he got famous) -- his talks with retired railroaders, muleskinners, and roustabouts dig deeper into the Delta soul, making it clear that the local blues did not just belong to, or come from, its professional musicians.

"I'm proud to be a mountain man, and I'm proud to be a banjer picker. I don't care what you say about it." So says Ray Fairchild, one of Lomax's subjects in Appalachian Journey, a stroll through mountain lore from the mouthbow and moonshiners to the worksong and the whammydiddle. Lomax traces mountain music back to its roots in white settlement, noting the changes to traditional Scottish and British fiddle tunes wrought by African syncopation and the introduction of the banjo. Here again, Lomax strays fruitfully from the musical path, gleaning a hearty yarn from seven-foot storyteller Ray Hicks and a few more frightening tales from coal miner and union organizer Nimrod Workman. He also delves into the legend of Tom Dooley (as in "Hang down your head" fame): a newspaper account reveals that a certain Tom Dula caught syphilis from his mistress Laura Foster and passed it on to his good ol' gal Ann Melton (who was Foster's first cousin, natch); when Melton found out, she asked Dula to kill Foster, which he did. Ol' Tom's been hangin' his head ever since: At the intersection of legend and history lies the murderous mountain ballad. Journey also includes some of the smokin'est flatfoot dancing this side of the Pisgah (courtesy of one Burton Edwards), as well as a look at flatfoot's more sophisticated cousin, precision clogging. And of course, there's plenty of great music to go around.

Jazz Parades: Feet Don't Fail Me Now is essentially a love song to New Orleans, which Lomax rightfully calls a "Caribbean city." With the birth, growth, and preservation of Louisiana jazz as his backdrop, Lomax explores the exuberant jazz parades and the black New Orleans that fosters them. He drops in on the Zulu Social and Pleasure Club, The Young Olympians Social Club, and the Pretty White Eagles, recounting their shuffle-step growth from freedmen's mutual aid societies to latter-day hotspots for pickin' 'em up and puttin' 'em down (without losing the ken for mutual aid). He examines the role of cabarets, funerals, and whorehouses in nurturing the brass band tradition, and draws an intriguing link between modern-day black Indian marches and a visit to New Orleans by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the 1880s. Clearly, there is a fascinating history here of a vibrant and creative black culture, but even Lomax has a hard time keeping his feet still long enough to tell it. As veteran parade man Norman Dixon explains, "Once that band do that number `boomp-de-boomp,' why, you gonna get out there and `doop-de-doop.'" And `doop-de-doop' they do.

If Eunice, Mamou, and Ville Platte mean anything to you (or Doucet, Delafose, and Balfa for that matter), you'd do poorly to miss Cajun Country. Lomax does a workmanlike job relating Cajun history, briefly assessing the Acadian expulsion from Nova Scotia and following with the standard creation tale of Cajun culture (that is, the Frenchies got mixed up with all the other craziness in Southwestern Louisiana, with blessed results). The best stretches in Cajun Country, as in the other pieces, come when Lomax wanders the historical sideroads. He tells, for instance, of the rootless wandering and brutal murder of musical pioneer Amadie Ardoin, whose story surely rivals that of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. He provides an unflinching take on the lives of the mistreated and unappreciated women of classic Cajun culture. He offers a few less-than-polite Cajun tunes ("Your father looks like an elephant/ and your mother looks like an automobile"), and suggests that the hi-yi-tippy-yi-yi-yo of Texas cattle culture might be Cajun in origin. He ends with a look at mid-century threats to Cajun culture and music's role in their reversal. It is a fitting end to a film that is subtitled Lache Pas La Patate! -- a local euphemism which translates as "Don't Drop the Potato." Or, as one Cajun explains, don't lose what's most important to you: your culture.

"America has a patchwork culture of the dreams and songs of all its people." Lomax opens each chapter with these words, and with each he shows it to be true.

As he navigates the patchwork, his focus is not on the music that he so obviously loves, but on the land and people that bore it and bear it on still. From each emerges a powerful spirit told in faces, places, and song. His is a celebration not only of American musics, but of American cultures. Lache pas la patate. -- Jay Hardwig

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