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Up Beat Down South "Music With the Bark On" The SouthernJourneys ofJohn and Alan Lomax BY GAVIN JAMES CAMPBELL /was impressedagain thatthe South was stilla rich area, rich in antiquities andstill producing new sounds. Whateverthere remainedofcreativity in ourAmericanfolk tradition lay here, waitingfor a careless andsuccess-mad world to notice it. —Alan Ijimax, i960 The microphone never gets the same recognition as the breakdowns, ballads, and blues that it records. Yet with it, John and Alan Lomax preserved much of the South's musical diversity and created a national audience for traditional southern music. Between them the father-son team spent over fifty years recording southerners and their music in homes, churches, and fields. They carried their microphones over back roads, down rivers, and up hills, determined to collect the music in the places where it thrived, seekingwhat Alan Lomax called "music with the bark on." Their single-minded determination resulted in perhaps the most above: Alan Lomax (right) with Wade Ward, 19jy. Courtesy ofRounder Records. 114 complete sonic maps of the South ever compiled, and made the microphone one of the region's most important instruments. John A. Lomax was born in 1867 near Goodman, Mississippi, into what he later described as "the upper crust ofthe 'po' white trash'." In 1 869 John's father, looked down upon by a brother who married money, and having litde hope for advancement in an economy dominated by wealthy landowners, packed his family into a covered wagon and began the long journey to the wilds of Texas. The backbreaking labor required to work the farm held few attractions for youngJohn. Using the proceeds from a wheat crop he tended, and from the sale ofhis beloved pony, he enrolled in Granbury College in 1887 to obtain a teaching certificate. A few years later he entered the University of Texas where he became increasingly interested in collecting the cowboy songs he had heard as a young farmhand. A year ofgraduate studies at Harvard broughtJohn into contact with some of the nation's leading folksong scholars, who urged him to systematically collect the folksongs of die western range. By 1910 he was back in Texas, teaching at the state university and roaming catde-country with pencil, paper, and book contract in hand. The governor derided the project as unfit for a member of the university faculty, and even some of the cowboys proved truculent. When John sang a ballad to demonstrate the kind of songs he was after, one cowpoke arose and said, "Only a damn fool would spend his time tryin' to set 'em down." Despite these obstacles John persisted, collecting from both whites and blacks. The material was published in 1910 under the tide Cowboy Songs and OtherFrontierBallads, and it carried a warm endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt. Despite the book's positive reception,John struggled to cobble together a career that joined his interest in folksong and the necessities of providing for a growing family. A political fracas cost him a job at the University ofTexas, and a career as a bond salesman evaporated with the onset ofthe Great Depression. By 1932 he was out of work and desperate. At the very nadir of his crisis, however, he convinced Macmillan to offer him a book contract for a collection of American folksongs. It was then, he later remembered, that "I turned the corner to where a litde light was shining." To supplement material that he and others had already gathered,John and his seventeen-year-old son, Alan, decided to make a journey through the South. Folk music's vitality lies in its relationship to labor, worship, and recreation, but the lack of portable recording equipment had prevented collectors from recording the music in its context. The result was an accumulation of more paper than sound. Musical transcriptions, printed lyrics, and articles in folklore journals failed to convey the kind of immediacyJohn and Alan were after. So they commissioned a custom-built, portable recorder that they could take into the field. In return for depositing the recordings in its newly created Archive of American Folksong, the library of Congress agreed to finance the machine's construction. Up Beat Down South 1 1 5 JohnA...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 114-119
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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