Alan Lomax can solidly be likened to the Lewis & Clark of music exploration, since his travels - seemingly always with tape recorder in hand - helped to expose the South's rich musical heritage to the rest of the United States, and ultimately to the world. This two-CD collection gathers up tracks from all the various albums he created between 1934 and 1978, and also throws in a number of previously unreleased recordings just for good measure. Its main focus is on the blues, but there's plenty of musical variety here - even within such a superficially narrow genre definition. Alan's father, John A. Lomax, preceded him by exploring more folk-oriented music forms, and while their stylistic choices may have been different, they each still centered in on finding extraordinary sounds, which were created by seemingly average folks. So you might say Alan Lomax's mission was the discovery folk music - only with a better beat.
In the CD notes, Kings Langley calls the work of Alan Lomax a statement "of the enduring spirit of a music born out of repression and misery that has overcome such obstacles in its evolution and stands as an affirmation of both its vital character and its great champion, Alan Lomax." Indeed, Lomax's journey took him to poor farms, dirty city streets and even inside the walls of prisons, to capture the enduring spirit of this music. And he was a champion, because he championed art that was derived from the most unlikely of sources.
Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy may represent the familiar post World War II electric Chicago sound with their performance of Life is Like That here, but such is only one small example of blues music. The wide spectrum of the style is touched upon from the holler (and no musical accompaniment) of Tangle Eye Blues by Walter "Tangle Eye" Jackson, to the sad prison-bound vocalizing of I Been a Bad Girl (Prisoner Blues) by Ozella Jones and with the jazzy Kokomo by The Memphis Jug Band. There's also some wonderful boogie piano on Roll 'Em by Pete Johnson, and barrelhouse piano plunking from Albert Ammons on Sweet Patootie Blues. And it's not all "black" music either, due primarily to the inclusion of Country Blues by Dock Boggs, who was a white coal miner by day, and night soulful banjo-playing blues man by night.
It's simply amazing to ponder all of the significant artists Lomax discovered during his historic quest to chronicle American music traditions. He stumbled upon Lead Belly in prison, and later took him on the road; he helped make household names out of folks like Fred McDowell, Blind Willie McTell and Sonny Terry; and perhaps, most important of all, he captured many of these performers in their natural elements - right in their hometowns. And thankfully, he did not try to spit-shine them in an attempt to make them more acceptable to the general populace. This album represents the straight stuff, with no sweetening or additives whatsoever.
The folks at Rounder should also be saluted for pulling together such an entertaining overview. It may have been a temptation for the compilers to only include artists with marquee value, yet these Rounder folks resisted such an idea. Surprisingly, some of this album's greatest delights are come from a few of its relatively unknown artists. Cecil Augusta plays highly skilled acoustic guitar and sings with deeply felt passion on Stop All the Buses. He may not be listed in music history books as an inspiration to rock & rollers, such as the Rolling Stones, as so many of these participants are known, but he stands tall here - even among these other musical giants.
Blues Songbook is as educational as it is entertaining. The booklet included with these two CDs breaks down each song, by each performer, with a full paragraph of useful information. Additionally, director Martin Scorsese has added a written reminiscence that details his own first exposures to the blues, and John Cowley, Ph.D. provides an informative introduction.
Calling this album Blues Songbook doesn't give it justice. A better title might have been Blues Storybook, since it helps to tell the story of black America, in the most musically delightful way.
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