Alan Lomax Revisited—in Performance!
Lovers of folk music discover Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002) in various ways. As a teenage folk junky in Toronto (still dutifully practicing classical piano), I treasured my 1975 volume of The Folk Songs of North America (Doubleday 1960), described on the cover in bold print as “the first complete paperback edition of the definitive book by the foremost authority on American folk music. Words, music and origins of over 300 songs, from ballads to spirituals, from every region of the country.” The book was so heavy that I couldn’t lift it with one hand.
In the decades since that early encounter, I discovered different dimensions of the Texas-born folklorist, ethnomusicologist, archivist, writer, scholar, political activist, oral historian, and film-maker. In fact, a couple of months ago I discovered a performance ensemble inspired by his work.
My first guides were liner notes that described how Alan Lomax assisted his father, John Lomax, in searching out long-ignored songs, song makers, and traditional performers. The pair captured American folk music in recordings, transcriptions and publications. I owed my prized vinyl of Leadbelly to their joint visits to Southern penitentiaries where they mined African-American work hollers and songs. With intense curiosity and growing admiration, I read how the younger Lomax followed the trail of black music of the Mississippi Delta, which he recounted in The Land Where the Blues Began (Pantheon, 1993). Some years later, Mr. Jelly Roll, his portrait of Jellyroll Morton, the pianist/composer who claimed to have invented jazz (Duell, Sloan and Pearce,1950, UC Press 1993, 2001 expanded version), conveyed to me Lomax’s perspective on how jazz took root in New Orleans and spread to Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Kansas City, and L.A. It would be more than 20 years before I listened to vinyls of the interviews he conducted with Morton at the Library of Congress. Only after the release of The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler about ten years ago did I find out that Alan Lomax’s interests went beyond Americana. He traveled and recorded extensively in the Caribbean and Western Europe. In tandem with his field work, he produced documentary films, hosted radio programs, and wrote and delivered scholarly papers. As a graduate student in ethnomusicology from 2012 to 2014, I encountered controversial issues that the work of this revered researcher raised in scholarly circles. But that is a discussion for another time. More significant is that in 2004 Lomax’s incredible output of over sixty years devoted to folk music found a home in the Library of Congress. Its American Folklife Center houses the Alan Lomax Collection and is accessible to the public.
Enter Jayme Stone, a (Toronto-born!) banjo player and musical explorer who conceived a project to bring many of Alan Lomax’s field recordings to life. Already the winner of two Juno Awards (Canadian Grammys) for folk albums, he was enthralled by the example of Lomax. In 2013, this prompted him to pour through the Lomax archives mentioned above and select songs that an ensemble of singers and musicians could interpret for today’s audiences. The “collaboratory,” as Stone calls the musicians involved in the Lomax Project, had its first public performance that same year and released an album, Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project in March, 2015.
I attended a performance of The Lomax Project at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium last April. Some of the songs were immediately familiar to me– Shenandoah, Sheep, Sheep Don’tcha Know the Road, Maids When You’re Young. Others seemed like they should have been familiar. I felt steeped in Americana and yet refreshed by what were clearly new readings of the songs Lomax recorded.
Before I attended that concert, I interviewed two of the current four Lomax Project performers. Because there wasn’t time to get together in person, we rigged up a phone interview while they heading south on I-5 in their van. Project leader Jayme Stone and renowned Vermont-born vocalist/composer Moira Smiley, who plays accordion and banjo in Project performances, were seated in the back. Driving the vehicle was (also Toronto-born) bassist and vocalist Joe Phillips. Sumaia Jackson, a fiddler/vocalist from Santa Cruz, was sitting with him up front. Although I addressed some questions to the whole group, the logistics of passing around the iPhone, driving duties, and possibly some shyness quickly narrowed the interview to the two in the back seat.
Cut to my phone conversation with Jayme Stone and Moira Smiley.
AC: I notice that of the artists mentioned on your first Lomax Project album, only you and Moira are part of the quartet performing in Pasadena. Is membership fluctuating?
JS: I think of the Lomax project as being a little community or family. We’ve had close to 20 musicians involved and we’ve recorded and toured in a lot of different constellations – Everything from trios to eight people. So there are about 50 musicians on the record. This is the latest steady version of the band (the four musicians in the van) and we’ve been going steady for about six months and this is kind of the primary line -up now. It sometimes changes, partly out of necessity and somewhat by design, but there’s a lot of different voices and people putting their own stamp on the music.
AC: Tell me about your relationship with Alan Lomax‘s work and how your project evolved.
JS: When I was 16, I used to listen to a lot of field recordings. And I read Alan Lomax’s book The Land Where the Blues Began. Field recordings have always been a touchstone in my various work projects. I made some of my own when I was in West Africa to prepare for an album I made called Africa to Appalachia. I have always used (field recordings) as a jumping off point. I like to go to the source when I do traditional music…I always kept circling back to the Lomax collection because it’s so vast and so diverse. A few years ago I read John Szwed’s book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, an extraordinary biography and it kind of brought to life all of the people he recorded, it told their story and, of course, his wild adventuring around the world. So I started listening more and digging into some of the more arcane corners of the collection. I also have a great love of collaboration – like Moira – and so I put all those things together and thought what if I got together with a bunch of my favorite musicians and we used the Lomax recordings as a start… The chemistry was so great and more people got involved and wanted to keep doing it and eventually we captured it on a recording.
AC: Is your musical objective, at least some of the time, to reproduce the manner in which songs were performed on these Lomax recordings?
JS: No, in fact. (The originals) were done so well that you can listen to these very alive, crackling recordings and there’s no reason to try to re-create them. So we try to come to each (song) fresh, see what it needs and hear where we can coax new things out of it, (find) subtext and suggested meanings in the lyrics, in the feel of the tune that we can bring out in different ways. So really every one is different. Some stay close to home whereas others are radically different.
AC: Give me an example of a song where you added elements and tell me why you added them.
MS: When you have an a cappella song and you add an instrument, it’s of course a big step. You add banjo and bass and fiddle. And then sometimes, when a tune is free rhythm, we add a metrical feel to it. And a third obvious thing is when something is faster and we slow it down and maybe take it out of the metrical field.
JS: There’s a song that we do that’s probably the most well-known song we do, Shenandoah, and the recording that we drew from was just somebody barking it into a microphone, an old retired captain. And we put together this lush arrangement that’ starts almost orchestrally. There’s a lot of harmonic development that doesn’t appear in the original at all.
MS: A lot of rich, modern chords.
AC: Shenandoah is a song that can take that.
MS: I love that you just said that because I think that’s what’s remarkable about the work of collecting song. It’s that you often find someone who wasn’t necessarily making a living at music but was just infused with music. You can see just how sturdy the structure of that song is. It can last for generations and generations.
JS: I always like to think that there is no platonic ideal of a song. There’s no song without the singer. So that every time somebody re-creates that song, they’re going to invariably put their own stamp on it… Some people call that the folk process.
AC: Are all the members of the project involved in song research?
MS: Some. I think Jayme spearheads the research and the choice of songs. But we all do look in the archive and find songs and contribute song ideas and stories about Lomax’s adventures. A greater proportion is Jayme.
Jayme Stone’s next frontier is a new album drawing on a larger folk music collection in the Library of Congress, the Archive of Folk Culture. While the CD will include some Lomax material, it will feature his ensemble’s interpretations of field recordings inspired by other folklorists who have sought out the sounds of Americana and beyond. Their current CD, Jayme Stone’s The Lomax Project is available from Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes and other album vendors.
Audrey Coleman is a journalist and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world musics in Southern California and beyond.