Deep River of Song, the Alan Lomax Collection

various artists
Deep River of Song, the Alan Lomax Collection: Black Appalachia--String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns
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various artists
Deep River of Song, the Alan Lomax Collection: Black Texicans--Balladeers and Songsters of the Texas Frontier
Rounder

DETERMINED TO UNCOVER the way Anglo-Irish balladic poetry had been reconfigured by the pioneers of east Texas, John A. Lomax spent the bulk of 1933 with his son Alan, lugging cumbersome recording equipment from farm to penitentiary in search of the remnants of a vernacular American literature. Of course, actual experience tends to disabuse scholars of their obsessive fixation on texts. Though the Lomaxes did record such timeless lyrics as, "Hey, the matter with common sense/Throw them soapsuds over the fence," what they heard mostly were voices--lonesome, resonant, idiosyncratic, black voices. The Lomaxes may have set out to decipher the traces of a literary history, but the music featured on these exotic archival collections suggests they instead uncovered the presence of a then-contemporary vocal idiom.

Culling from material recorded throughout the '30s, Black Texicans celebrates the peculiar outlook of the black cowboy, whose experience on the frontier provided a freedom that slave-era spirituals could only imagine. This open-air liberty, however, is permeated by an audibly lonesome dread--an embrace of the void that is the inevitable result of spending long nights in the Western wilderness with no one to confide in but antelope and air. Compounding this overlay of emotions is the fact that most of these cowboy songs were performed by prison inmates. So whatever the lyrical variants and differing shades of delivery detectable in Leadbelly and Percy Ridge's versions of "Western Cowboy," the tracks are most remarkable for what they share--a sense that the roaming liberty the song once encapsulated has been lost to these two convicts for good.

Absolutely none of which accounts for the album's great sonic discovery: the bizarre "eephing" style, used most astoundingly on "Old Aunt Dinah" by a 13-year-old named Butterboy. The "eeph" was an otherworldly, monosyllabic squeak affixed to the end of each line that the Lomaxes were quick to suggest came out of Africa. But as Deep River annotator Paul Oliver writes, it's primarily a white style, descended from the nonsensical playground squeals of British schoolchildren.

Likewise, the polyrhythmic clatter of Black Appalachia cannot be definitively traced to some primordial West African origin. In fact, these black washboard-and-string-band musicians were innovators, while their white counterparts, intent on turning bluegrass into the most rhythmically stiff of American musical genres, were the traditionalists. The joyous washboard slapping of Theopolis Stokes shows more clear evidence of the Celtic pelvis-lock these black men learned from their pale neighbors--and valiantly attempted to loosen up with clamorous jamming--than it does of any talking drum ceremonies. The need to invent percussion instruments from tin plates, frying pans, and other available scrap does tend to compel innovation.

There's no better antidote to the romantic obfuscations of latter-day urban folkies (many of whom share the same biases Alan Lomax had to sweat away by crisscrossing the Texas highways) than field recordings of the folk music whose ideals they purport to uphold. History is always messier than the ideals that frame it. It is possible to listen to Deep River of Song and hear traces of a lost rural America slowly receding into an echo of the past. But it's more accurate (and useful) to hear human beings engaging with their material circumstances, and wailing, thumping, or plucking their way into the future.

 
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