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.
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).
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.
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.