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Ch. 01: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music


By the early decades of the twentieth century, folk music from the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains and the delta region of the South had found their way to the surface by way of the recording and radio industry. The early efforts of hillbilly singers had evolved by the late 1920s into country music. The field hollers and blues songs of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas workers had been recorded by Robert Johnson and arranged into respectability by W.C. Handy. Spirituals were incorporated into gospel recordings made by religious groups.

Cowboy songs were being composed for and recorded by the talking movie stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Early jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke had found their way into the recording studios in Chicago and New York to create the first recorded sounds of jazz.

But not all of the early American roots music found its way across the chasm that separated rural from the refined. Although hillbilly, cowboy, spirituals, blues, and jazz had begun to be mainstreamed into America’s consciousness by the record player and then the radio, the sounds of raw voices remained unheard in the country’s heartland.

John Lomax & farm worker, 1939

At the end of the ’30s, through the efforts of John Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, the recording equipment was brought to the voices of the rural American people. Over the course of many trips, John Lomax recorded thousands of songs by hundreds of singers with the equipment loaded into the trunk of his car. Wherever he could find a worker in the field, mother or family on the porch, or chain gang in a prison yard that were willing to sing for him, he would set the needle on a fresh record and cut another testimony of the hard life of the era.

The economic collapse of the Depression combined with catastrophic weather conditions in the South, Midwest, and West to create the Dust Bowl era known as “The Dirty Thirties.” Particularly in the Midwest, where most of the economy depended on agriculture, Americans experienced hardship, heartache, and loss which cut across all cultural and racial boundaries.

Farmers in Oklahoma, Texas, and other states lost most of their crop and belongings to the dust storms and their property to the foreclosure notices from the banks. In an effort to survive, fathers and sons would leave families behind and ride the railroads or hitchhike to find a way to earn money for the family to live. These “hobos” or “bums” were not unemployed, homeless drifters by choice, but by necessity.

The experiences of the hobos on the rails, the families huddling to survive, and farm workers struggling to make a meager living were the basis for many of the folk songs of the ’30s and ’40s. As Woody Guthrie put it:

This bunch of songs ain’t about me, and I ain’t a going to write about me, ‘cause every time I start to do that, I run out of material. These are ‘Oakie songs, ‘Dust Bowl’ songs, ‘Migratious’ songs, about my folks and my relatives, about a jillion of ‘em, that got hit by the drouth, the dust, the wind, the banker, and the landlord, and the police, all at the same time…and it was these things all added up that caused us to pack our wife and kids into our little rattletrap jallopies, and light out down the Highway–in every direction, mostly west to California. (Guthrie, Bound for Glory).

John Lomax’s recording equipment in truck of his car

The recordings made by Lomax and other ethnomusicologists for the Library of Congress in the late ’30s through the ’40s were unrefined representations of the voices of the common folk. There was no pretense of quasi-professional self-consciousness with the singers on record. Many introduced themselves and their song and launched out into the sea of recorded posterity without as much as a throat-clearing hesitation. The singers rarely made any attempt to polish their performances with typical pop vocal technique, preferring instead to slide, scoop, and sometimes mumble their vocal lines.

With the disadvantage of 70 years of polished pop singing ringing in our ears, it is difficult to place these voices in their proper context. With the adjustments that come with the perspective of time, we can understand that these are voices which do not attempt to draw their beauty from crisp enunciation, precise pitches, or carefully rounded tones. Instead, their unique beauty is revealed in the heartfelt emotion that comes from surviving the circumstances and being victorious over the elements.

John Lomax, Leadbelly and prisoners

The goal of the performance for these singers was not in the accolades from the recognition of the beautiful, but in the genuine connection which comes from singer and listener knowing the same mutual truths about life. For them, music was, at times, the only wings lifting them up to a point where life had its best perspective. If we insist on listening to the farm worker or prison convict with the same ears that hear contemporary professional pop singers, we are limiting the scope of our musical depth to whatever the latest pop sound might be packaged for consumption by the masses.

The recordings made by John and Alan Lomax have preserved a slice of American culture. From these vinyl disks we have evidence of an era of unvarnished musical celebration. They are the unembellished and unselfish voices of despair, joy, heartache, love, and hope. Unencumbered by studio musicians and walls of equipment, they are the fractured, flawed, yet perfect representation of the spirit of the common American.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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