Wednesday, April 02, 2014
More books from my music shelves, today. I've been fascinated by the Lomaxes for some time now and have stumbled across a few of their books locally over the past two decades. John A. Lomax was born in Mississippi in 1867 and was raised in Texas, and his first book contained many of the cowboy songs he collected all over the west (I don't have a copy of that, sadly). He went on to collect folksongs for the Library of Congress. Often his son Alan Lomax helped, and Alan became a song collector and musicologist in his own right. Their work is catalogued at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and many of their recordings are available on about a hundred different cds from Rounder. The first two books I have for show and tell today are:
John A. Lomax's memoir Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (Macmillan 1947) and Alan Lomax's biography Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz" (Duell, Sloan and Pearce 1950). About a decade ago I bought these hardcovers from a local secondhand book shop (no longer open) for fifteen bucks each. I also bought the following, from the same shop:
The outside is a little scuffed and worn around the edges. But. It's really nice. And I will tell you that when I had my own open shop and was actually making decent money for a few years there, I would occasionally buy myself something really nice. I coveted this particular book for a while, then gave in and spent over a hundred bucks on it. Because I wanted to read it and own it, and also because of this:
But let me return to Adventures of a Ballad Hunter for a minute (I just finished reading it, and haven't read the Jelly Roll Morton book yet). At one point John Lomax is living in Chicago and hanging out with some newspaper reporters and music lovers, one of whom is his friend Alfred MacArthur. (Another is Carl Sandburg, but I will save that story for a future post.) MacArthur later writes to Lomax and recalls their time together (pp. 90-91):
"'The time was ripe.... Here were we in a modern metropolis, all farm boys or small-town boys, and all getting a little sick of the efficiency, the mechanism, the culture of the big industrial cities of the 1920s. A lot of people were turning to folk songs, too, at that time. A few years later, and the radio and phonograph began the rage for cowboy songs, rural songs, mountain music, hill-billy ballads, all representing an escape from the complexities of a civilization which was over-scientific, over-capitalized, over-mechanized.... (We) had had our fill of sophisticated programs and artists. We were ready for realism, for the genuine folk music, and it seemed important, seemed nostalgic and natural when you sang it.'"
It still does. Surely this is the main reason many of these songs became standards, and are still known and sung today. And we need them more than ever! That shock of authenticity is like a splash of cold water that wakes the open-hearted listener up to what is real. In a word, it's an antidote. Because in spite of the folderol of contemporary life - with all its gadgets and difficulties and distractions - the basics sure haven't changed much. At bottom we are still concerned and preoccupied with the same old stuff as ever, aren't we. The timelessness of love and tragedy. Like the Blues, which Alan Lomax calls at the end of his father's book (Adventures of a Ballad Hunter p.297):
"...by folk definition, simply 'a good man feelin' bad' or 'trouble on a po' gal's mind' or 'the achin' heart disease.'"
Folk and roots music seems to undergo a more or less constant string of revivals, and in recent decades I've loved hearing new songs that sound old, and old songs that sound new. One more book today:
Another big hardcover. This one has a very shabby exterior, so here is the fine title page instead, of the Lomaxes' popular ballad compendium Folk Song U.S.A (Duell, Sloan and Pearce 1947), with piano arrangements by Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, father and step-mother of Pete Seeger. I've only browsed in it a little, but it's on my stack of books to read next.