“Neighborhood investigation shows him to be a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folk lore music, being very temperamental and ornery. …. He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner, and paying practically no attention to his personal appearance. … He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results.” (from the FBI file on Alan Lomax, 1940–1980)
I was delighted to learn recently from my co-workers that the recordings of Alan Lomax are now available for our listening pleasure on this amazing website. The library owns quite a few of his field recordings, but this site is available for anyone who can’t quite make it to the library. For the uninitiated, you might be asking yourself, “who is this Alan Lomax character?”
My short answer is he’s a cool dude, and not someone you’d want to mess with. The slightly longer answer is that he’s a dude who was one of the great field collectors of folk music of the 20th century, recording thousands of songs in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. An even longer answer would tell you about his recordings, as on that aforementioned site: “The Sound Recordings catalog comprises over 17,400 digital audio files, beginning with Lomax’s first recordings onto (newly invented) tape in 1946 and tracing his career into the 1990s. In addition to a wide spectrum of musical performances from around the world, it includes stories, jokes, sermons, personal narratives, [and] interviews.” For a really long answer you can check out the wonderful biography of him on that website, or check out a copy of the book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, which I haven’t read, but I’ve been assured is pretty great.
Of course, I wasn’t born knowing about the wonderful recordings of Alan Lomax—I have friends to thank for that. I had always scoffed at folk music, country music, sad songs and all that, until a very nice boyfriend (who had better taste in music than I) turned me on to The Anthology of American Folk Music in my early 20s, and I have been forever grateful since. The Anthology is a six-album compilation originally released in 1952, comprising eighty-four American folk, blues, and country music recordings that were originally made between 1927-32. The Anthology was compiled by the eccentric Harry Smith from his collection of 78s, and has been cited as a reason for the revival in folk music in the 1950-60s, making it something like the ultimate mix tape. Greil Marcus writes in his introduction to the collection, “the whole bizarre package made the familiar strange, the never known into the forgotten, and the forgotten into a collective memory that teased any listener’s conscious mind.” The Anthology was also, no doubt, part of the inspiration for Marcus’ The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, another book I’ve yet to get around to reading, but since Bob Dylan and I share a birthday I imagine it’s about time I did.
Until hearing these recordings, my relationship to folk and country music had been cagey at best. I was a bit of a punk living in the Bay Area in my early 20s, and spent a lot of time going to warehouse and house shows. Around the time I was handed The Anthology of American Folk Music though, I started to hear something different—some of the punks at those shows were pulling out banjos and playing the same kinds of tunes I was hearing on those albums, as well as gospel and old Hank Williams. My mind was blown. Until then I’d never made the connection! The old, weird America in those songs was not too different from a modern punk song, and not so different from what I’d grown up listening to in my rural, working-class upbringing.
The album I remember most from growing up is The Outlaws album from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson—an album I heard over and over while riding around with my Dad in his truck while he ran errands and such. If you were to play that album for me today I’d probably still know the lyrics to most of those songs. How funny that so many years later I find myself checking out a book called The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. Mr. Woodrell grew up in the Ozarks, and while that isn’t my territory, he writes wonderful stories about the working, rural poor. I can’t recommend his stories enough, even if you don’t come from his part of the country, as he creates deeply humane portraits of everyday people living in the cracks of rural America—not unlike Mr. Lomax’s recordings of Mississippi or other far off destinations and people who are largely hidden and forgotten through time and neglect. If you recognize Mr. Woodrell’s name it might be from his book Winter’s Bone, which became an Oscar-nominated film last year, and rightfully so. Who tells stories like this any more? The movie was well-done, and the book galvanizing. Do any of us living in modern cities ever think of what rural and wild life is like anymore?
I’ve always thought of myself as a city girl at heart, even if I grew up in a rural area, going on hunting and fishing trips (and always bringing a book along with me for comfort). How strange that so many years later I’m attracted to the music Alan Lomax recorded and Harry Smith anthologized. Growing up, my dad always smugly told me I would marry a man who liked country music, and I would roll my eyes. While that certainly hasn’t happened, something more unprecedented has: I’ve become a fan.
Keeping the Old, Weird America Alive,