The Land Where The Blues Began
Paperback: 560 pages
Publisher: New Press; Book and CD edition ISBN: 1565847393
Article by Jeff Rabin, The Ecumenical Audiophile
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It may be odd to review a book that has been in print 10 years, but it has just been republished by New Press after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993, and if you have not come across this book before and are a fan of anything whatsoever having to do with the blues, in all its variants from field holler to church call and response, Alan Lomax's
The Land Where the Blues Began is indispensable reading.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that along with the Penguin Encyclopedia of Jazz, this work should have pride of place on any self-respecting fan of the peculiarly American traditions of Jazz and Blues. For what
The Land does is in one volume make the whole of this legacy comprehensible by bringing into vivid relief the deplorable social and cultural context from which these two musical traditions, themselves coincident with the rise of modern recording, issued forth.
Beatrice, she got a phonograph
and it won't say a lonesome word
And you've taken my lovin'
and give it to your other man
--Robert Johnson, Phonograph Blues
Knowing the background, at least in part, adds incomparably to understanding and appreciation of the music as there is no such musical tradition more steeped in the soil of its production than that which is surveyed here. Moreover, at US$21.95, it is also somewhat of a bargain in the rarified price world of Hi Fi, only perhaps to be beaten by the lowly FM signal.
I only wish the work were a little better written and a little better printed as it could really stand a new typesetting, and a judicious use of the editor's blue pencil. That said, as my own writing has been charitably described as discursive this may be a bit of the kettle calling the pot black.
Most are probably familiar with the pioneering work of the Lomax's (father and son) who under the auspices of the Library of Congress made an onsite audio record of the swiftly disappearing sounds of rural America. The project was a third anthropological, a third make-work beginning as it did in the years of the great depression which precipitated the collapse of the explosion of the commercial regional recording business, and a third the chance result of newly invented portable recording equipment that could not only be used on location but that would fit in the trunk of a car. Prior to the development of portable recording gear, lyric and song had to be transcribed into written notation, much of it incapable owing to its European origins of recording with any facility song with an African heritage.
Before the great depression, America had experienced an absolute explosion of local popular music recording concerns that issued in small numbers 78s to even smaller markets of even smaller regional musical styles. America became home to hundreds of labels. The post war years exuberant economy had made possible the purchase of wind up gramophones to many families and new mass pressing techniques brought down the costs of recorded media to a price level that many families could afford. (In the very early years of recorded music, the acoustic gramophone was the exclusive preserve of the very wealthy with original Carusos selling for
$4.00 in 1905 money and a decent horn gramophone for a couple of hundred.)
Many of the field recordings that the Lomax's made have appeared on CD and LP, most recently under the Smithsonian's Folkways label, but a lot more are at still at the library on acetate, wire and tape. A taste of the Folkways catalog comes with the 'bonus' CD with its four selections recordings. It would however have been better if the CD had been better co-coordinated with the text or been packaged with better liner notes. As is, it feels tacked on.
Nonetheless, these forgotten, raspy sounds still speak to us across the acetate across the years, recently finding themselves a new audience with T-Bone Burnett's soundtrack to
Oh Brother Where Art Thou, the re-release of a few years back on Harry Smith's
Anthology of American Folk Music, and Allison Krauss's recent releases that effectively de-square country music, even if Ms. Krauss on a particularly bad hair day cites Dolly Parton as a formative influence.
'The Blues Began' then, basically, recounts Lomax's travels through the Southern United States over three journeys, once with his father in the thirties, again in the forties and in the eighties with a PBS film crew, where they visited prisons, plantations, and work camps (often with little to differentiate them), churches, crap games and juke joints.
Lead Belly, nee Huddie William Ledbetter
For a short time even, the blues singer Lead Belly, who the Lomaxes had rescued from Angola State Farm Prison by intervening with the governor, even drove for them until, under somewhat murky circumstances involving a knife, it was mutually decided that they part ways. Lead Belly returned to New York City to record for Moses
My girl, my girl, don't lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night (come on and tell me baby)
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don't ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through
--Not Kurt Cobain
The genius of the Lomaxes, as ably recounted here, was their way of winning the confidence of people who could barely fathom why anyone would be interested in their stories, much less recording them, not for pecuniary gain, but posterity, and for the Lomaxes recognition then of what would soon be lost. Hindsight is famously 20:20 and it is only to be wondered what sounds of today we are now squandering.
Through the book Lomax recounts how he and his crew fought a rear-guard action with the local police, government officials, plantation owners and other busy-bodies who more often than not considered them to be northern agitators, which to a certain extent, and thankfully for us, they probably were if you consider preservation agitation. For without the
Lomaxes, the origins of the blues would not only be gone, but forgotten.
The post-bellum South, where the descendants of imported slaves had become sharecroppers with no real change in status or enjoyment of freedom except perhaps in the best case circumstance the loss of a beneficent plantation owner, was between recovering from the depression brought about by the end of the war war, but as well by the taming of the Mississippi by the manual, back breaking construction of levees by itinerant work gangs of 'mule skinners.' For the work gang foremen, the mules were more valuable than the men who worked them for you could always get another worker for the little pay they were offering. You had to pay for a mule.
The story of the taming of the Mississippi was not one I knew. And over a few short decades, without powered earth movers, the regularly flooding Mississippi was brought under control making available thousands of square miles to cotton cultivation. Needless to say, conditions in the work camps ranged from the barely tolerable to the absolutely horrendous and those who made the land available did not much enjoy the fruits of their backbreaking labor.
As such, the work camps, the churches, slums, street corners, juke joints and plantations proved an incredibly fertile ground, much like the reclaimed land of the Mississippi, for the development of a musical tradition of songs of work, lamentation and joy whose roots began in Africa, but was developed in the poverty, racism and injustice of the south. All this much the work makes clear.
The equipment geek in me would have liked to know more about the equipment employed - evolving from wire recorders, to acetate discs to tape - but that is really not what the book is about. My other complaint concerning the book is the style in which it is written. Lomax makes no bones of his differences from the subjects of his recordings and the privilege of his upbringing, education and the
color of his skin. But what jars is how the language of Lomax's subjects seeps into Lomax's own voice.
The problem is, Lomax just sounds funny being hip. Perhaps it is the academic in me, but I would wish the author was better able to separate his voice from that of his subjects. Nevertheless, for the price of a CD or two and a few evening's read, you will never listen to the blues in the same way again.