Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Alan Lomax Popular Songbook (1933-59)



The field recordings of the great and vital folklorist Alan Lomax are among the most important documents of the real America, the birth of the undercurrent of always-scattering culture you could catch wisps of all through the twentieth century. We can still detect it here and there, underneath all the noise. This compilation serves as a brief but intriguing explanation of how Lomax's field recordings and discoveries impacted the broader frame of recorded pop music. That's hardly the most compelling reason for these songs' existence, but there's no such thing as a bad reason to bear witness to Mississippi Fred McDowell's haunting "Motherless Children," the riveting Woody Guthrie performance of "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad," and the stunningly beautiful Cleveland Simmons "Sloop John B." You get a few recordings already quite famous on their own, too; Leadbelly's "Irene Goodnight" and Kely Pace's "Rock Island Line" are as stirring as ever, Macbeth the Great's "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" and Duke of Iron's "Ugly Woman" just as maddeningly stupid.

The only problem with this collection is the clear effect Moby's Play had on it, basing some of its song choices on the material used as the basis for several songs on that then-insanely popular record. One doubts that "John Lee's Rock" by Boy Blue and "Sometimes" by Bessie Jones would've made their way here without "Find My Baby" and "Honey" respectively, though they along with the great-in-any-context "Trouble So Hard" by Vera Hall Ward serve to prove how little Moby had to do in order to fashion these chestnuts into dance music.

At its best, Popular Songbook will fill you with the glee of discovery and make you long to hear more of Lomax's recordings. I'm experiencing that myself, and I have a feeling there are many pleasures richer yet to be found.

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