Alan Lomax and the Global Jukebox

Friday, 04 February 2011 12:00 AM Written by 
The cover art for the second album in the Southern Journey series - "Worried Now, Won't Be Worried Long."
Many blues and folk music fans have no doubt heard of John Lomax and his son, Alan. Both were pioneers in the discovery and field recordings of folk music and musicians all over the world.

That's just a very brief summary of what they did (check the links to their names above for much more). They were both pioneers in their field, finding and recording thousands of songs that created a roadmap for the history of American folk music.

Alan Lomax, in particular, spent a lot of time in the South, recording the blend of music that combined influences ranging from church to field to family singing, all of which demonstrate how the richness of this music contributed to what we listen to today. And since BlueNotes pretends to be a blues blog, you'll find that a huge amount of Alan Lomax's work relates to the history of this music.

But the Lomaxes focused to a great extent on the fertile ground of American soil, where they found music from a variety of black and white cultures that reflected their origins in the history of their peoples. They sought out and recorded native musicians who performed country and gospel and blues, in places like Appalachia and southern plantations and prison work gangs.

One of Alan's most ambitious projects was the "Southern Journey," in which he traveled extensively throughout the South in 1959-60, recording music wherever he found it. It was not an especially friendly time for a white person to associate himself with blacks in the deep South, but that's what Lomax did, and the result was an impressive library of musical roots.

The music he recorded, until now, has been primarily relegated to personal and government archives. The Global Jukebox project hopes to change that, by making much of the music more accessible to the public through a system of digital downloads, bypassing the bulky process of recording, distributing and selling albums. The only problem with that is that you'll never see these in stores (much like the Veg-O-matic), so it's up to people like you and me to spread the word about this unique and powerful collection.

So far there have been five releases on the 50th anniversary of the Southern Journey, which, not incidentally, were the first stereo recordings of traditional music. They 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." The downloads include previously unreleased material and lots of interesting notes to read. (If you still own a turntable, this series is also available on vinyl through Mississippi Records).

I've been listening to the music for a couple of weeks now, and it's an treasure of powerful, primitive music. It's amazing how many talented  people were captured on these recordings, and how much their work can be heard in later, more popularized versions.

But there's more about this vast project, and Alan Lomax. A new biography, "The Man Who Recorded the World," examines his life and work. I have to confess that I have not read it, but here's a thorough review.

And if you want to sample some of this music, there's a great YouTube site - Alan Lomax Archive Channel. I've put a couple videos below.

Why have I written so much about this? I think it's hard to underestimate the value of this work, the music it makes available, and the importance of this music. It all speaks to the personal, emotional nature of a wide variety of American music, its roots in the human experience, and for blues lovers, a look at the raw power of the music.

Here's a summary of the music on these five albums, from the Global Jukebox web site:

Wave The Ocean, Wave The Sea (Catalog ID: GJ1001 / UPC: 847108063731), released on December 14, 2010, features recordings of Fred McDowell, Forrest City Joe and His Three Aces, Young Brothers' Mississippi Hill Country fife and drum ensemble, work songs and field hollers from Mississippi's Parchman Farm, the Silver Leaf Quartet from Virginia's Eastern Shores, Blue Ridge musical siblings Texas Gladden and Hobart Smith, Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, the 1959 United Sacred Harp Convention, and WEUP Huntsville's Daddy Cool.

Worried Now, Won't Be Worried Long (Catalog ID: GJ1002 / UPC: 847108077318), released on December 21, 2010, collects recordings of Blue Ridge fiddler Norman Edmonds; blueswoman Rosalie Hill performing on Fred McDowell's porch; electric gospel from Ishman Williams and the William Singers; the United Sacred Harp Convention in Fyffe, Alabama; fife and drum music of the Mississippi Hill Country; the Bright Light Quartet, a group of menhaden fishermen of the Eastern Shores of Virginia; and Almeda "Granny" Riddle, the great balladress of the Ozarks.

I'll Meet You On That Other Shore (Catalog ID: GJ1003 / UPC: 847108057211), released on December 28, 2010, presents recordings of John Davis and the Georgia Sea Island Singers; Tidewater Virginia's Union Choir of the Church of God and Saints of Christ; Old Regular Baptist lining hymns from Eastern Kentucky; Ozark balladeer Neal Morris; work songs from Parchman Farm (the Mississippi State Penitentiary); octogenarian Charles Barnett on vocal and washtub; fiddler Carlos "Bookmiller" Shannon's rendition of "The Eighth of January"; Hobart Smith's performance of "Railroad Bill" - a formative influence on the 1960s Folk Revival; and one of the debut recordings of bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell.

I'll Be So Glad When The Sun Goes Down (Catalog ID: GJ1004 / UPC: 847108076212), released on January 18, 2011, collects recordings of Blue Ridge banjo legend Wade Ward alongside eighty-one-year old fiddler Charlie Higgins; Mississippi Hill Country church singers James Shorter and Viola James; early bluegrass from Hillsville, Virginia's Mountain Ramblers; John Dudley's blues from the Parchman Farm dairy camp; shape-note singing from the United Sacred Harp Convention; St. Simons' Georgia Sea Island Singers; and one of the debut recordings of bluesman Fred McDowell.

I'm Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die (Catalog ID: GJ1005 / UPC: 847108024497), released on January 25, 2011, features Bluebird hillbilly recording artists J.E. Mainer and his Mountaineers; menhaden fishermen chanties of the Bright Light Quartet; Blue Ridge country gospel composer and bus driver E.C. Ball; Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers; Pentecostal Holiness congregational singing from Memphis; the Mississippi Hill Country dance music of the Pratcher brothers; and one of the debut recordings of bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Here's a video of Mississippi Fred Mcdowell's "Woke Up This Morning"

Here's Rosalie Hill's "Rolled and Tumbled"

Here's Raymond Spencer Moore, guitar and vocal; Roy Everett Blevins, mandolin, with "The Girl I Left Behind."

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