Robert W. Gordon was the first man to undertake field-recording trips in an attempt to capture ethnic folk music. Using fragile, but potable, cylinder recording equipment he visited Georgia and North Carolina between 1926 and 1928. In 1928 the Library of Congress decided to establish the Archive of Folk Song and it was these recordings, many by black men and woman, that were the first in what has become the greatest repository of a nation’s folk music anywhere in the world.
By 1932, funding for the project had run out and things looked bleak for the archive, as Gordon could no longer be employed. It was around this time John Avery Lomax suggested to a New York publisher that he produce an anthology of ‘American Ballads and Folk Songs’, an idea that was taken up. An enthused Lomax arranged a field-recording trip to add to his collection of folk material using recording equipment provided by The Library of Congress. In June 1933 John, accompanied by his son Alan, made his first trip in Texas.
Born in Goodman, Mississippi in 1867, John grew up on the Texas frontier, just north of Meridian. After teaching at a University in Texas John went to Harvard as a graduate student, returning to Texas in 1909, around the same time he co-founded the Texas Folklore Society. In 1910 he published his first book, ‘Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads’. He returned to teaching at University, while continuing to pursue his hobby. In 1930 John’s wife died and his fortunes were at something of a low ebb, he had been bedridden in early 1932 and as a result lost his job, which gave him the impetus to embark upon his trip. Alan, one of four children, was born in 1915 and was about to enter his first year of college, when aged 17, he set off with his Father on their recording trip.
In his book, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, John writes, “Stored in the rear of the car were two cots and bedding, a cooking outfit, provisions, a change of clothing, an infinite number of “etceteras” which will manage to encumber any traveller. Later, as a crown to our discomfort, we also carried a 350-pound recording machine–a cumbersome pile of wire and iron and steel–built into the rear of the Ford, two batteries weighing 75-pounds each, a microphone, a complicated machine of delicate adjustments, coils of wire, numerous gadgets, besides scores of blank aluminium and celluloid disks, and finally, a multitude of extra parts.”
In 1933 they covered 16,000 miles collecting songs that were integral to the lives of Americans, both black and white. John managed to convince the academic establishment that they should not just be collecting folk songs of European origin. He wanted to collect vernacular material from every ethnic background, and in particular from Black people. Many of their recordings were made in State Penitentiaries and on Prison farms, this has proved to be so valuable in furthering our knowledge of slave songs, and in particular gang work songs. The Prison work gangs used songs as a way of keeping time and alleviating the back breaking work, just as the slaves working in the fields had done.
It was in 1933 that the Lomaxes met Lead Belly in Angola Prison, and assisted in his release. Lead Belly wound up chauffeuring them, as well as helping to persuade prisoners to record. Lead Belly made recordings in various correctional establishments to demonstrate what the father and son song hunters were looking for. By 1934 John remarried, his new wife got involved in song collecting, while The Library employed Alan full time to work on the project. Field trips were made during the remainder of the 1930s throughout the Southern States, along with specific events and artists were recorded in some northern cities.
The Lomaxes were not just interested in obscure musicians; they recorded material with some of the key people from 20th-century music. W.C. Handy told of his life as well as sang and Jelly Roll Morton made 51 recordings for the Library on which he both spoke and played. Sometimes they recorded musicians who had also recorded commercially, among them Son House.
They recorded Bukka White who had apparently shot a man, and he had been sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm. In 1939, while he was in Parchman, John Lomax recorded two songs with White, noting him on the recording sheets as Washington (Barrelhouse) White.
David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards learned guitar from listening to both Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway, but it is through his association with Robert Johnson for which he is best remembered. Edwards travelled with Johnson as well as Big Joe Williams, Big Walter Horton and Yank Rachell. In 1942 Edwards was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in Clarksdale, Missisppi.
It was on this same trip to the Clarksdale that they returned to Stovall Plantation to record McKinley Morganfield. The year earlier, on 22 August 1941 Lomax had recorded Morganfield with Henry ‘Son’ Sims playing fiddle they recorded ‘Country Blues’, ‘I Be Troubled’ and ‘Burr Clover Blues’.
Morganfield would later become the ‘King of Chicago Blues’ as Muddy Waters. He had learned the guitar and harmonica and began playing in juke joints and at parties and dances in and around the Clarksdale, Mississippi area from about 1935 onwards. According to Howard Stovall whose family owned the plantation on which Muddy lived and worked, “Muddy was the burr clover man and was also, one of the first guys to drive a tractor at our plantation, wasn’t the most contented tractor driver in the world and he couldn’t wait to get out of farming and into a life as an entertainer.” Muddy worked one more season on the farm and then hopped a train and headed for Chicago and a life that few could have dreamed of having started out as the Burr Clover Man, “Man it was hard” sang Muddy.
Among the one-off recording sessions was one with the legendary blues and boogie-woogie pianists James P Johnson, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons at Havers Studio in New York City on Christmas Eve 1938. A little over a year later Ammons and Lewis would make a series of recording for Alfred Lion in New York City and these would become the first releases of Blue Note Records.
By 1939, Alan had his own radio show and when his father retired in early 1940 Alan took over as curator of the collection, funding by now was provided by the Carnegie Foundation. After working for the Army during the war Alan got a job with Decca Records, as well as continuing to collect songs. John died, aged 80, on 26 January 1948, but Alan continued to collect well into the 1950s, as well as working on diverse musical projects.
The work of the Lomax family has been pivotal in furthering our knowledge of the Blues and it’s black cultural offshoots and antecedents. As Alan Lomax later wrote, we “Added the voice of the common man to the written history of America”.
Follow the A Voice to the Voiceless playlist for more early influential blues recordings.