One Camp Street
Cambridge, Mass. 02140
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Ed Cray
Ken Goldstein, Moe Asch, and Alan Lomax. Those of us old enough, which is to say mid-century and beyond, who were caught up in the folk song revival first heard "the folk" on records they produced. A lot of the music was difficult to grasp, a lot poorly recorded or pressed (particularly by Asch), but it was ear-opening and finally enormously rewarding stuff.
Goldstein was the scholar, publishing not books but 33 1/3 LPs. He sold enough albums to stay for long periods at Riverside and Prestige, and produce a body of works by revival singers that remain models for others to emulate. Asch was the producer, bootstrapping Folkways through the years, robbing Peter to pay Paul, never making much money even with his "best selling" Pete Seeger records. Asch had his own label -- though he was spectacularly unconcerned with the quality of any particular release. And Lomax was the field collector, first with his father, John Avery Lomax, then on his own, traveling the southern and western United States, then recording in the British Isles, in Italy, in Spain, and the Caribbean. Lacking an academic affiliation, Lomax had to hustle. Lacking Goldstein's long term affiliation or Asch's personal record company, Lomax necessarily moved from company to company. This was the life of the freelancer, always precarious. Still, "...once the field recording habit takes hold of you, it is hard to break," Lomax explained in a 1960 retrospective for _Hi-Fi and Stereo Review._
Lomax's anthologies of field recordings appeared on any number of long defunct labels or series: Prestige, and its International sub-set, Westminster, Columbia and Tradition. For all that, he managed to produce a number of exceptional LPs, notably his unprecedented "Southern Journey" series of 12 recordings on Prestige, and the two records of prison songs recorded at Parchman Farm, Mississippi, released on Tradition. There were also notable recordings of ethnic music for Columbia -- thanks to its then president Goddard Lieberson, a good and decent man with exceptionally wide musical interests. The Italian and Spanish remain vivid, these three decades later. In time, all of these recordings went out of print. Bootlegged tapes circulated among knowledgeable folkies -- I made a few myself for friends -- but for all intents and purposes, the material was no longer available. Now redoubtable Rounder Records has undertaken to reissue all those records and further selections from the Lomax archive on an apparently indefinite number of compact discs. This is an important undertaking, even if it is a labor of love or respect for Lomax rather than sound commercial reasons.
Just how large the Alan Lomax Collection will be remains to be seen. But we are promised the magnificent "Southern Journey" series of 19 discs, the two Parchman recordings, the Columbia world series, and a promising set of musical "Portraits" of noted singers and instrumentalists whom Lomax recorded at length. (They include Scots singer Jeannie Robertson, Appalachia's Hobart Smith and Texas Gladden, Mississippi bluesmen Fred McDowell and Son House, and more.
) Many of these are represented on the introductory sampler, a collection of no less than 38 cuts that leaps from Indonesia (one fragment of a wayong kulit), to Italy (five tracks, including the stunning polyphonic "La Partenza," sung by Genoese fishermen, which impressed me so vividly when it was first released, circa 1955), to Spain (four cuts, with the spine-tingling "Saeta" that Miles Davis and Gil Evans later adapted for their _Sketches of Spain_ LP), to the British Isles, to the United States. As with all samplers, the juxtapositions are sometimes jarring. As with all samplers, one wishes there were a few more of this and a few more of that, or less of this and less of that. The sections on this CD devoted to the southern U.S., to Spain, etc., cannot survey, but merely sample.
But these are cavils of an old man who remembers so well the release of the original LPs. Today's younger listeners, much more familiar with "world music," much less the "Rollo" so despised by Charles Ives, will take the jumps between cultures and music traditions rather easily, their ears more attuned than these old ones. Or maybe these old ears just recall how valuable the original recordings were, for home and school, for scholar and/or folk music fan. Rounder does us all good and valuable service in restoring these recordings to the music store.
Edited by David Schultz