"Through these field recordings we hear those crackling localities, places on the American map where we can find a beautiful music all around us." Stephen Wade--musician, writer and folklore contributor to NPR’s
All Things Considered--is a lucky man; lucky to have this incredible material to work with: the history, the back stories, of the Library of Congress folk music recordings.
As a child, I grew up with some of these recordings on 78-rpm records. One I played over and over was “Rock Island Line” by someone named Lead Belly, a black man whose real name was William Huddie Ledbetter. The story of an engineer trying to sneak a train loaded with pig iron onto the Rock Island Line railroad fascinated and amused me. This book chronicles the evolution of that song through many versions, and the evolution of the singer. Alan Lomax, son of folklorist John Lomax, was only 18 when he first met the immortal Lead Belly, inside the walls of a prison. Later, as Alan, a known leftist, gained entry to other prisons in the South to record the “field hollers” of prisoners at work, he was told by prison officials, “If you begin any labor trouble, we’ll finish it,” leaving no doubt as to their meaning. Lead Belly, who was convicted of everything from possession of a firearm to murder, spent a relatively productive life outside of jail once discovered by the Lomaxes. He was already an accomplished instrumentalist and singer who played the red light districts. He wrote several songs, including “The Titanic,” which depicted, incorrectly, black prizefighter Jack Johnson being refused a ticket on the ship’s maiden and final voyage. He was famous for his renditions of “Rock Island Line” and “Irene” and even recorded children’s songs. Drifting in and out of trouble, he broke with the elder Lomax but not with the audience that Lomax had introduced him to, the folkie intelligentsia. Truly a self-made and remade man.
Many of the work songs in the Library collection were recorded within the confines of Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. Local writer David Cohn put it this way: “Crime in Mississippi is expiated to music, and these Negro convicts on the state prison penal farm at Parchman sing at their work until they are released or die.” At Parchman, weevils in the beans were celebrated as “meat,” and in order to get water, men would drink the sweat from their upper lips. Charlie Butler was a criminal serving hard time at Parchman who composed a song called “Diamond Joe” about “a rich old jay with lots of cowboys in his pay.” The hollers were said to be “just made-up things” composed on the spot, repetitive and highly rhythmic to keep the men working in synch.
Not all of the singers and instrumentalists in the collection lived outside the law. Texan Jess Morris, who developed the fiddle version of “Goodbye Old Paint,” was the son of a rancher and learned the song from its composer, former slave turned cowboy Charley Willis. What distinguishes the performers
(and this is obvious in the accompanying CD) is the ancient and purely original style of their singing and playing. They convey the music and lyrics in a simple, unselfconscious way that modern players still seek to imitate. The Library collection keeps that sound alive for future generations; it is a fascinating piece of American lore and we are blessed to have it. One “unknown” singer whose voice was recorded was Vera Hall (“Another Man Done Gone”), who said of her traditional repertoire, “These old timey songs I just heard people sing was something that just followed us.”
As Wade eloquently states,
On a personal level, most of the singers and players returned to their lives with little contact again with the Library or its records. But wherever those albums went, with their luminous examples of ‘best, representative American Folk Music,’ by then these individuals had made a difference. One by one they show us what a single person can do in a democracy.”