Musical anthropologist Alan Lomax first captured the voice of bluesman Fred McDowell on tape in Como, Mississippi, in 1959, three years after Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and five years before the British Invasion. Because the homogenizing effects of satellite dishes, video rentals and cable-television networks specializing in regional culture were decades in the future, relatively few city dwellers had heard music like his. Lomax took great pains to capture it in the most appropriate setting possible.
"We recorded outdoors, after dark, by flashlight," Lomax wrote about the session in a book called The Land Where the Blues Began. "No wind was blowing and the katydids were out of season, so we could take advantage of the living quiet of open air and the natural resonance of the earth and the trees." Equipped with the world's first portable stereo tape recorder, Lomax used a mixer and three microphones: one for McDowell's voice, one for his guitar and a neighbor's guitar, and one for McDowell's aunt, who played a comb wrapped in a piece of toilet paper. "The sound we captured," Lomax remembered, "made us deliriously happy."
In all, Lomax preserved eighty hours' worth of songs by McDowell and many other artists during late-Fifties excursions into the American South that were financed by Atlantic Records. His best material from the era was compiled as part of a seven-platter set issued under the "Southern Heritage" banner, and Rounder Records is making it available again. Thirteen volumes of the Southern Journeys series are planned, and the six digitally remastered CDs that reached stores earlier this year typify Lomax's encyclopedic approach to folk music. He recorded everything from sea chanteys to prison work songs, and the effect created by their juxtaposition is something akin to an audio time capsule. Some of the ditties are more interesting sociologically than musically, but with so much great blues and country on hand, the albums are of much more than purely academic interest. After all, Lomax was as much an impresario as a folklorist. He knew good music when he heard it.
The son of John Lomax, an English professor who was the country's preeminent collector of cowboy songs, Alan, who's now in his early eighties, grew up in Austin, Texas. When he was still in his teens, he began traveling with his father to record obscure performers using a primitive device (it weighed 500 pounds) that engraved a sound groove on an aluminum disc. Before long, his efforts became the sonic equivalent of Depression-era photography or WPA murals. Much influenced by the radical documentarism of the time, Lomax worked for the U.S. Library of Congress during the Thirties and Forties, scouring the South for folk artists. He is credited with introducing Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters to wider audiences. He was also something of a world-music pioneer thanks to recordings he made in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, the Near East and the British Isles--and he became an important figure in the Sixties folk revival, bringing bluegrass music to Carnegie Hall and writing articles for popular magazines like Esquire.
Lomax's eclecticism is captured well by the initial wave of Southern Journey releases. The first disc, Voices From the American South: Blues, Ballads, Hymns, Reels, Shouts, Chanteys and Work Songs, is described in its liner notes as a "kind of road map of the many artists and styles" he encountered over the course of his expedition. The next four volumes are organized according to types: ballads and breakdowns, Delta blues, spirituals and "bad man" songs, respectively. As for volume six, titled Sheep, Sheep Dont'cha Know the Road, it's an odd collection of gospel and profane music.
The various songs were recorded in locations such as Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and the Georgia Sea Islands. But two regions stand above the others--the Mississippi Delta, where a style of blues Lomax clearly loves is rooted, and the mountains of southwest Virginia, home to Ruby Vass, Estil C. Ball and Hobart Smith, who provide Southern Journey with some of its finest country music. On "The Old Gospel Ship," a tune that would have made a good theme song for the movie Contact, Vass sings and plays guitar in a sweet, Carter Family manner: "I'm going to take a trip on that old Gospel ship/I'm going far beyond the sky/I'm going to shout and sing 'til the heavens ring/'Til I bid this world good-bye." Guitarist/singer Ball displays his lovely, diffident baritone on two Appalachian murder ballads, "Poor Ellen Smith" and "Pretty Polly." (The Byrds covered the latter, though not nearly as well.) And multi-instrumentalist Smith, from the Virginia town of Bluefield, performs a rendition of the bad-man ballad "Railroad Bill" ("Whopped his mammy/Shot a round at his dad") that features a syncopated finger-picking style that is reminiscent of a slightly less accomplished Doc Watson.
Just as impressive is "Fly Around My Blue-Eye Gal," a reel that Smith improvised on the piano. Lomax's liner-note description of Smith's methodology is apt: "First he tries several chords until he finds the opening chord of his tune. This he presses down several times and tries to reassure himself, and then his fingers begin to fly as if he were picking a banjo instead of tickling the ivories." Another Smith number, "Graveyard Blues," proves that country did not develop in a vacuum. Smith told Lomax that he encountered his first guitar around the time of World War I, when a black construction gang came through Saltville, Virginia. It makes perfect sense, then, that Smith's guitar-playing on "Graveyard" should exhibit the feel of African-American blues.
Blues has been called the universal language of American music, inspiring the makers of jazz and swing as well as rock-and-rollers like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia, all of whom began as folk or blues revivalists. But its influence on country is often overlooked by many otherwise sophisticated listeners, even though the man considered to be the first country star, Mississippi's Jimmie Rodgers, was really a country blues singer who, like Elvis, introduced black music to a white audience. In the early years of his career, Rodgers actually performed in blackface, acknowledging his debt to the black minstrelsy that eventually stamped both blues and country music. (Minstrelsy was a product of the plantation system. By contrast, the blues developed after the Civil War during the transition from slavery to tenant farming--a system that virtually guaranteed increased debt and powerlessness for the tenant.)
In fact, the main difference between country blues pickers like Smith and Delta players like McDowell was McDowell's use of non-standard tunings and slide techniques. He wore a bottleneck on one finger of his left hand, leaving the other digits free for short runs and allowing him to pick with the fingers of his right hand. On "61 Highway Blues," "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" and "Soon One Morning," all of which can be found on volume three of Southern Journey (61 Highway Mississippi: Delta Country Blues, Spirituals, Work Songs and Dance Music), he achieves quiet, single-string effects by employing this tack.
Among those captivated by McDowell were the members of the Rolling Stones, who invited the bluesman to England in the Seventies and gave him a silver lame suit. In The Land Where the Blues Began, Lomax sourly points out that McDowell was buried in the outfit and suggests that his death may have been hastened by the high living he experienced in the wake of his newfound fame-by-association. Circa the Fifties, Lomax was a defender of rock and roll, even praising it in articles. But later in life, he could not suppress a certain resentment of white musicians who earned success playing blues licks without adequately re-creating the feeling of the Delta. To him, the blues was and always will be a response to disillusionment and hardship--an "aesthetic revolution" that profoundly changed the nature of American music. "We're so familiar with blues today that we take them for granted," he wrote. "We often forget that the blues is the only song form in English that allows the singer to pose problems, raise issues, make complaints, and then provide a cynical or satirical response. The blues has the magical property of allowing you to improvise a comment on life."
Of course, Lomax did not take advantage of these possibilities personally; he understood that he did his best work behind the scenes. But by giving a voice to the previously voiceless, as he does on Southern Journey, he made a statement of his own. And an eloquent one it was.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.