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August 29, 2007

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Harold

"Banty Rooster" (AFS 232-B2) Performed by Blind Pete, vocal and fiddle; George Ryan, guitar. Recorded by John A. Lomax in Little Rock Arkansas, September 27, 1934.

"Soldier's Joy" (AFS 6109-B2) Nashville Washboard Band; James Kelly, banjo-mandolin; Theopolis Stokes, washboard; Thomas Carol, tin can bull fiddle; Frank Dalton, guitar, unknown additional vocalist.Recorded by Alan Lomax in Nashville Tennessee, July 15, 1942.

"Old Joe" (AFS 6109-B4) Nashville Washboard Band; James Kelly, banjo-mandolin; Theopolis Stokes, washboard; Thomas Carol, tin can bull fiddle; Frank Dalton, guitar, unknown additional vocalist.Recorded by Alan Lomax in Nashville Tennessee, July 15, 1942.

"John Henry" (AFS 6673-A6) Sid Hemphill, fiddle and vocal; Lucius Smith, banjo; Will Head, bass drum; Alec Askew, guitar. Recorded by Alan Lomax near Sledge Mississippi, August 15, 1942.

"Arkansas Traveler" (AFS 6671-B1) Sid Hemphill, fiddle and vocal; Lucius Smith, banjo; Will Head, bass drum; Alec Askew, guitar. Recorded by Alan Lomax near Sledge Mississippi, August 15, 1942.

"The Eighth of January" (AFS 6670-A1) Sid Hemphill, fiddle and vocal; Lucius Smith, banjo; Will Head, bass drum; Alec Askew, guitar. Recorded by Alan Lomax near Sledge Mississippi, August 15, 1942.

"Skillet Good and Greasy" (AFS 6673-B1) Sid Hemphill, fiddle and vocal; Lucius Smith, banjo; Will Head, bass drum; Alec Askew, guitar. Recorded by Alan Lomax near Sledge Mississippi, August 15, 1942.


"The earliest records of slavery in Virginia show the importance of black fiddlers, dance callers, and banjo players in the musical life of the South. They helped to create the square dance music of the Southern frontier, to develop new styles for the fiddle, banjo, and guitar, and to lay the basis for modern country music." --Alan Lomax, liner notes to CD, Deep River of Song: Black Appalachia, String Bands, Songsters and Hoedowns, Rounder 11661-1823-2 (1999)

Yuval Taylor

Thanks for this. These are indeed exactly the kinds of songs I was writing about. John Lomax recorded only one of them, I see. Alan Lomax put aside the preconceptions that informed his father's work quite early in his own career. The existence of these tracks makes me wonder what the compilers of the Beacon Press CD were thinking when they excluded this kind of material from their Sounds of Slavery collection.

I plan to write more about slave songs in the near future.

Harold

I myself don't know that John A. Lomax didn't record other black fiddlers besides this one. This just happens to be one that I am aware of. I do seem to have heard that by the 1930s they were getting rare, though they had previously been plentiful, and that folklorists of the day (including, presumably, John A. Lomax) bemoaned this.

I would be curious to see any corroborative evidence you may have for your statement (from which you now seem to have changed your mind and have exempted Alan Lomax) that, in your words: "if they heard any black fiddle music, it probably didn't strike them as black enough."

John and Ruby Lomax recorded many many African-Americans playing guitar, harmonica, and accordion. Are guitar, harmonica, and accordion more "black" than fiddle, and if so, why?

Incidentally, didn't John A. Lomax collect his most celebrated cowboy songs including "Home on the Range" from black singers, making a point of emphasizing their provenance in order to show the African-American contribution to American music as a whole?

Yuval Taylor

First off, I didn't "exempt" Alan Lomax. When John and Alan Lomax worked together they had an entirely different modus operandum than when Alan Lomax worked without his father. Nowhere have I ever imputed otherwise. Second, it's well known that John and Alan Lomax (when they worked together) favored a cappella songs over instrumental numbers. They were explicitly searching for songs as far removed from white influence as possible, so favoring a cappella numbers was natural. Slaves, on the other hand, were not far removed from white influence at all.

My research on John Lomax, to whom we devoted a great deal of space in our book, was based primarily on Nolan Porterfield's biography of Lomax and on his own autobiography, neither of which I have in my possession at the moment, or else I'd cite you chapter and verse.

Harold

If they did not regard black instrumental music as authentic, how do you account for their many recordings of black guitar, accordion, and harmonica players?

When did Alan stop recording with his father?

Yuval Taylor

In 1934, John and Alan Lomax visited a number of penitentiaries in order to record black singers, and this is the work that I have focused on in my research. This was how they discovered Leadbelly. They also visited remote black communities, Mississippi Delta plantations, and lumber camps. They focused all their attention on places where blacks lived with very few whites around. Many of the recordings they made on these trips were of unaccompanied singers, but they also recorded some instrumental musicians.

In 1939, John Lomax, now accompanied by his new wife Ruby, made another extensive field recording trip, and this time he wasn't as focused on getting at what he considered "authentic" black music. The variety of songs he recorded on this trip was much wider.

As for Alan Lomax, he recorded with Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elisabeth Barnicle in 1935. He was already taking a very different approach from that of his father at that point.

Neither of the Lomaxes were in the least bit dogmatic. Almost anything you can say about them you can find exceptions to. In our book the picture that emerges of John Lomax is that of a patronizing and racist lover of primitive black music, a man who misused his power over Leadbelly and perpetuated myths about the nature of African American musical accomplishment. This is certainly the impression his 1947 autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, gives rise to. But I am certain that there were many moments in this man's life when he abandoned his racist preconceptions and embraced African Americans, their lives, their traditions, and their music for what they really were. As for Alan Lomax, I can easily excuse him for being young, impressionable, and under his father's thumb in 1934. His entire life's work can be seen in some ways as an attempt to refute his father's ideas. Certainly by 1940 he had moved far beyond his father's conception of folk music. He continued to be patronizing at times--I'm not a big fan of his book The Land Where Blues Began because of this--but there's little else to link his ideas with those of his father's.

Harold

Well, Alan Lomax was born in 1915 and therefore, in 1934 would have been nineteen. So in 1935;, at twenty, according to you, he was already taking a different approach.

John A. Lomax, on the other had was born in 1867, so many of his attitudes (Romantic primitivism) were of the previous century - and maybe, you hint, a little advanced of it.
My own impression of their approach in recording is that they both aimed to document a wide variety of genres. Sacred, secular, and work songs. Work songs tended to be a capella, since it is hard to chop cotton or while playing an instrument. Sacred songs tended to be a capella (among both whites and blacks in the South) because instrumental music was associated with dancing which and forbidden by the Baptist and other hardline churches.

Catholic Louisiana (home of jazz) did not have a prejudice against instrumental music.

Leadbelly didn't sing a capella, did he?

Harold

John A. Lomax began recording for the Library of Congress in 1933, at the age of 66. Alan recorded with his father for perhaps two years or so, assuming he wasn't in school some of that time.

Yuval Taylor

Right. Alan was very young, which is why I excuse him altogether from the faults of his father.

I think you're wrong about the a cappella tradition in African American music. Work songs were a cappella, of course, but sacred songs were often accompanied by guitar (think of Gary Davis, Blind Willie Johnson, etc.), and by the time the Lomaxes came around, most of the a cappella vocal groups that had been so popular earlier (e.g. The Southern Negro Quartette) were defunct. The really popular music among African Americans in the 1930s was jazz and blues, and the Lomaxes tried to avoid those as much as possible (John in particular was vehement in his hatred of jazz). There has been a lot written about what the Lomaxes chose to record in their 1934 expedition and what they chose not to, and the evidence is clear--they were looking for songs that sounded to their ears more primitive, older, traditional, and authentically Negro. They were interested in recording a variety of genres, as you say, but they were also interested in excluding a variety of genres that African Americans were performing at the time too--and that includes blues, jazz, old-time music, fiddle music, dance music, and minstrel songs. Of course there are exceptions, and again, I'm only talking about the 1934 stuff here, not John and Ruby's later expedition.

Harold

In the 1920s Howard Odum and other folklorists (including some members of the Harlem renaissance, I think) had recommended recording in prisons as a rich source of older material. Odum had collected folksongs himeself there - transcriptions not audio recordings (according to Ted Gioia's book on work songs -- don't have the book in front of me ). Lomax wrote a grant proposal to do this and obtained the grant that paid for his "portable" recording machine. (Recorded minstrel and blues were already widely available. One was unlikely to get a grant to record what was already easily available commerically.)

According to wikipedia, Reverend Gary Davis converted and became a religious performer in 1935 after the Lomax 1934 trip. Sacred harp (both black and white) and primitive Baptist (both black and white) denominations shunned instruments. That is a fact, Reverend Davis's popularity notwithstanding.

Many writers write many things, copying each other, often. What they write is frequently inaccurate. Did John A. Lomax actually say in any of his writings that he "excluded" instrumental music as "inauthentically negro"?? If he did, then why did he make so many recordings of Leadbelly?
The guitar is certainly inauthentic as a slave instrument, since it was an importation from Mexico that became popular only in the twentieth century.
Again, according to the internet, the harmonica replaced the fiddle in blues recordings in the 1920s (it was cheaper). This had nothing to do with the Lomaxes. There is a list on the library of congress website of the fiddle music they recorded -- but no indication of whether the players are black or white. A diligent scholar could find this out, I suppose.

Harold

Another thought. John A. Lomax had paternalistic attitudes that were regrettably typical of his day. His politics were by our standards reactionary. However, he did aspire to the scholarly method in his collecting, and this is ackowledged by (some would say all) writers on the subject. He collaborated with Carl Sandburg, Stith Thompson, Zora Neale Huston, Lyman Kittredge, and many others who had divergent political attitudes, but who agreed about folklore studies and methods.

I don't see any evidence that Alan Lomax broke with his father on methods of collecting as opposed to politics, since the two men continued to publish jointly until the elder Lomax's death in the late 1940s. Your imputation that collecting more cappella material than instrumental material is indicative of racist attitudes does not stand up to scrutiny and can be explained by other, less sensational causes. Also arguing against your theory is the fact that Lead Belly, whom Lomax recorded during his first trip for the library of congress did not sing a cappella, but played the twelve-string guitar (a Mexican instrument) and recorded many blues songs commercially during his brief professional association with John A. Lomax, who served, I believe, as Lead Belly's manager for some three months in 1935.

Yuval Taylor

You're beginning to convince me you're right. Thanks--this is all very interesting.

Have you read either our treatment of John Lomax in Faking It, his own autobiography, or Nolan Porterfield's biography of him?

GoldFalcon

As to slave-fiddling Alan Lomax seems to have been much more aware of it (and the diversity and cross cultural influences of black American music) than you give him credit for. From his book The Land Where the Blues Began:

[discussing Sid Hemphill]
"He bore down heavily with his fiddle bow in the noisy, heavily syncopated style that the slaves introduced into Southern fiddling. The song goes back a hundred and fifty years to the days of the beaver trappers."(pg. 334)

"Everywhere in the New World, slaves and lower-caste black freedmen absorbed the instrumental traditions of their local European overlords and created their own dance orchestras, and improvised head arrangements of the tangos, sambas, rumbas, meringues, fox-trots, cakewalks, and numerous other regional dance styles that dance-mad American Creoles invented as they courted across race and language lines."(pg. 338)

[Interviewing bluesman Sam Chatman]
"AL:'Did your father work as a house servant or did he work in the field?'
SC:'He worked in the field awhile, but he played music in slavery times...Yeah, he was a fiddler in slavery times'" (pg. 382)

As to why they did not record more black fiddle players than they did, this may well be the explanation:
[in an interview discussing the role of the fiddle in blues]
"LUCIUS SMITH:"Well, I don't know, I couldn't tell you. But [the fiddle is] the leader. If anybody can play um. But that's the question now, can't nobody play um. All the fiddle and banjo pickers about gone. And you young folks ain't studied 'bout um."(pg. 338)

One more on fiddling and what Lomax recorded:

"When we recorded this blues in 1942, Muddy [Waters] was a devoted member of the Son Simms Four, a string band of the kind [W.C.] Handy had heard in the area earlier. Veteran SOn Simms...played a jazzy fiddle in the lead; Louis Ford seconded on mandolin, with Percy Thomas on second guitar; while Muddy played lead guitar and did most of the singing."(pg. 415)

The Lomax's understanding of, and interest in, what they recorded was far more informed and nuanced than you give them credit for. The explanation for why they focused on what they did and who they did is far more easily explained by the fact that they were folklorists and historians looking for the still existing examples of rural music rather than racists.

They had no need to record black artists singing popular white songs of the day, or playing in the European style; that could be heard almost anywhere, and with the burgeoning popularity of Jazz in 1933, surely must have not seemed to them in any danger of dying out any time soon.

In short, I think you might need to read some of Alan Lomax's books, because, quite frankly, calling the man a racist moves beyond the absurd into the area of highly offensive.

Yuval Taylor

Alan Lomax was not a racist and I never said he was. John Lomax was a racist. There was a world of difference between them. I also never implied that Alan Lomax was unaware of the fiddling traditions of African Americans--of course he was. I'm sure his father was too--any folklorist would have been.

If you would go back and read my original post you'd see that I said absolutely none of the statements you attribute to me.

If you read John and Alan Lomax's 1934 grant application, you'll find the following statement: "The Negro in the South is the target for such complex influences that it is hard to find genuine folk singing. . . . We propose to go where these influences are not yet dominant; where Negroes are almost entirely isolated from the whites, dependent upon the resources of their own group for amusement; where they are not only preserving a great body of traditional songs but also creating new songs in the same idiom." It's very clear from this that they were looking for sung songs, not dance tunes--and not fiddle music--and that they considered these sung songs more authentically black. That's all I was trying to say.

As for your comment on jazz as "playing in the European style," that's absolute nonsense--jazz is just as authentically black American as spirituals, despite what John A. Lomax thought. Or were you referring to something else? I'm completely mystified by your words "playing in the European style; that could be heard almost anywhere." If you mean major-scale tonality, European instruments, and European rhythms, those had been part and parcel of African American music for well over two centuries by 1934; if you mean operatic vocal techniques and symphonic orchestration, those certainly weren't "almost anywhere."

Harold

Yuval wrote: "The Lomaxes were looking for the most authentic black music they could find, and if they heard any black fiddle music, it probably didn't strike them as black enough.
In general, John Lomax preferred unaccompanied singing because it struck him as more African."

The first sentence makes no distinction between the elder and younger Lomax contrary to what Yuval later states.

Yuval also said that black fiddle music "probably struck them as not black enough."

"Them" to most readers, implies both Lomaxes, not just John A.

The facts argue against this supposition. They did indeed both record black fiddle music. They also recorded lots of black guitar music (from Lead Belly). Alan wrote eloquently and at length about black fiddle music. John A. Lomax nowhere wrote that black fiddle music was "not black enough."

John A. Lomax was a folklorist looking for traditional folk music. In 1933, jazz was a relatively new genre, not a traditional one. John A.'s musical sensibilities were formed before 1900. Like many of us, he liked the music of his youth, which would have been the 1870s, 80s, and 90s. He didn't like jazz. Does this ipso facto make him a racist? And is it really so deplorable that he didn't like jazz?

The fact is that he probably would have liked the jug band track Yuval links to, since it is stylistically identical in style to the kind of music on his Library of Congress List of folk music available on Commercial Recordings prepared under his direction in 1942, which was the basis for Harry Smith's remarkable anthology.

In his grant application he says he is looking for traditional folk music not contaminated by commercial white pop music (in which nineteenth century musical conventions, of European origin, predominate), European style in other words.

European musical style means something more precise than simply "major-scale tonality, European instruments, and European rhythms" (Yuval's words).

What we now call 19th century musical conventions ("white" or European style) involves not merely the use of "a major and minor scale and European instruments", but specifically the predominance of a strict diatonic scale system with little room for expressive variation of intonation and reliance on harmonies overwhelmingly based on the interval of a third; with very smooth, monotonously regular rhythms. These conventions were indeed quite universal in the 19th and early 20th century in pop and light commercial music and were beginning to strike music lovers of all stripes as stereotypically predictable to the point of banality.

Traditional folk music (and especially a cappella music) still used the earlier, natural scales that had been the norm for millennia until replaced by the advent of musical tempering in the mid-eighteenth century.

American folk music used the older, wide intervals and the Gregorian harmonies of fourths, fifths, and octaves. Black music also featured, in addition, exciting polyrhythmic syncopation and flatted blue notes -- not to speak of call-and-response improvisation. Both black and European traditional musics used expressive irregular rhythms which unaccompanied singing facilitates (for obvious reasons). To those that like it, and I include myself, it is just the sort of thing they like. It is musically more interesting.

Yuval Taylor

Why do you insist on twisting my words to mean something other than what I plainly said? I don't understand the animosity behind this comment.

First, what I wrote is entirely accurate: both Lomaxes WERE looking for the most authentically black music they could find, and this is backed up by their own words. I saw no need to make a distinction between John and Alan as pertains to the recordings they made TOGETHER, especially since they cowrote their grant application and at least one book.

Second, as I stated earlier, their grant application clearly specifies that they were looking for sung songs, not instrumental numbers, precisely because these sung songs struck them as more authentically black. See the quote in my previous post. That's incontrovertible proof of my assertion that purely instrumental music struck them (yes, both of them, writing together) as less black.

Everybody knows that John A. Lomax was a racist, whether or not he liked jazz. I mean, this is the man who wrote that it was "pitiful" that "blacks are civilized"; who wrote about the "weird, almost uncanny suggestion of turgid, slow-moving rivers in African jungles" when he listened to black music; who expressed a desire to feel "carried across to Africa . . . as if I were listening to the tom-toms of savage blacks" back when the word "black" was derogatory; who wrote hundreds of pages about his visits to Southern penitentiaries yet devoted not one word to the mistreatment of the prisoners there in his autobiography; who gave in that book a number of examples of murderers who acknowledged their guilt and said not a word about those wrongly convicted (his son Alan joined him in writing, in the introduction to American Ballads and Folk Songs, "the men were well fed and their sleeping quarters looked comfortable . . . no case of cruelty was noted"--what?); who wrote "Leadbelly is a nigger to the core of his being. In addition he is a killer. He tells the truth only accidentally. . . . He is as sensual as a goat"; who described Leadbelly to reporters as "a 'natural,' who had no idea of money, law, or ethics and who was possessed of virtually no restraint" (needless to say, Leadbelly was usually a soft-spoken, gentle man who was well aware that his drunken murder attempts had been wrong and whose understanding of money, law, and ethics was strong). Comparing him to Harry Smith, who was intent on ERASING racial distinctions, is like comparing a snake to a bird.

Alan Lomax clearly did not share his father's ideas after 1934. Before that, he probably did--he was only a teenager, after all. To my knowledge, he never publicly repudiated them. That doesn't negate his fantastic contributions to our heritage, or make him a lifelong racist. As far as I know, after 1934 he was completely innocent of racism in every way.

As for European conventions, most folk music in America came from Europe. Music in the South was derived from a number of European folk traditions, including Irish, Scottish, English, French, German. These combined with African folk traditions to produce a wide variety of songs performed equally by whites and blacks. To suggest that American blacks performed outside the European tradition is to suggest they performed outside the American tradition. I have never understood European to mean "pop" as opposed to "folk."

Harold

Yuval: "The Lomax's were looking for the most black music that they could find" --

This is true. They found Lead Belly and produced a book of his songs: "Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly" (1936). Lead Belly was chosen as REPRESENTATIVE of black music. Lead Belly did not sing a cappella. He sang with accompaniment. I am getting a little tired of repeating this, but this is what the thread started as being about and Yuval has chosen to ignore it. It is Yuval who has projected the belief onto both Lomaxes that they must have deemed black a cappella music more "authentic" than instrumental music -- a supposition that reflects Yuval's own misconceptions and conceptual confusions.

The Lomaxes were looking for OLDER songs of historic interest. Having been isolated in the prisons, Lead Belly sang songs that were older and dated from a time when Negro music and white music had been MORE INTERRELATED than they were to be in the age of commercial recording (after 1920). In 1935, the ARC recording company declined to release Lead Belly's "white"- sounding songs and only released his blues songs, because it thought this was what the segmented black market would buy. Thus "Good Night Irene" was only released posthumously in 1950 after the deaths of both Lead Belly and John A. (ironically this was based on a commercial song by a black composer). According to Nolan Porterfield, Herzog, who did the musical arrangements for Negro Folk Songs, found much of Lead Belly's repetoire not "black" enough and considered it to contain too much of a mixture of white material. Thus the scholar Herzog exhibited the very same racial essentialism that Yuval erroneously attributes to the Lomaxes.

In point of fact, the precise contribution of the Lomaxes to folk song scholarship, consistently, ab initio, was its stress on the hybridity and continual dynamic interrelatedness of American music, both black and white. This is the conclusion of D. K. Wilgus's, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship since 1898 (1959, 1982).

John A. Lomax's language about Lead Belly, uttered during a quarrel with the latter, is deplorable and inexcusable (even for an era in which such language was relatively much more common than now) and Yuval's shocked and passionate indignation about it is completely justified, (even if it was 72 years ago.) The same goes for the embarassing reference to the "savage African with tom toms". The other quotes are taken from an interview given while Lomax was enraged because Lead Belly was standing him up for an appointment on their first morning in NYC, and from a private letter to his wife written during that week. Three months later, they parted forever and dissolved their partnership.

Yuval writes that Leadbelly "was usually a soft-spoken, gentle man who was well aware that his drunken murder attempts had been wrong." This is quite true. Also true is that fact that John A. Lomax's beef with Lead Belly was over the very issue of his drinking. Although Lead Belly may have "usually" been a soft spoken man who was famously good with children, he did undeniably have what we might call an "anger management" problem and spent six months in New York's Riker's Island jail for stabbing a man some 20 times c. 1938.

It is perfectly true that John A. Lomax believed in the Southern system of segregation and stubbornly closed his eyes to its abuses. He was a gradualist who thought that black people ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps before seeking equality and he thought Booker T. Washington was a great man.

He castigated his son for being appalled by the conditions of the prisoners and for feeling sorry for them (though later, in 1939, he and Ruby did write a letter to a Southern governor protesting the treatment of prisoners).

On the other hand there were many racists at that time who thought that black people had no art and no culture. John Lomax thought and said many times that the music and folk poetry of African Americans was equal to that of Greece, Rome, and the Italian Renaissance and (far from being "outside"it) was fully representative of America (and arguably the best it had to offer), a judgement with which history has tended to concur.

Lomax, like many Texans, was a creature of hyperbole. Without seeking to defend him, one is reminded of Lyndon Johnson who also used abusive racist epithets in private about Martin Luther King when the latter denounced the Vietnam War. Yet Johnson did quite a bit more for civil rights than any president before or since.

Contrary to what Yuval says, Alan Lomax did publicly disavow his father's political opinions and racial attitudes. In The Land Where the Blues Began, he also points out, ruefully, that unfortunately, his father's opinions and attitudes were more the norm than otherwise and were shared by most Americans.

The Lomaxes would have endorsed the first two sentences of Yuval's final paragraph about the origin of American folk music: As for European conventions, most folk music in America came from Europe. Music in the South was derived from a number of European folk traditions, including Irish, Scottish, English, French, German. These combined with African folk traditions to produce a wide variety of songs performed equally by whites and blacks."

He goes off track when he suggests that identifying and describing the elements that go into the making of the various folk (and classical and pop) traditions is the same as *prescribing* that people be stuck in (or excluded from) those traditions according to racial or national categories or origin.

Stylistic conventions are not passed along in totality like blood or genes. They are combinations of a myriad of behavioral traits that performers pick up from their surroundings or from their formal education in greater or lesser degrees. Thus if a song features wide intervals there is a statistical probability it may be from a certain area where those predominate in the local style. If it has a preponderance of thirds it may be Baroque or Nineteen Century European in origin (both pop and British folk) or learned in music school. If it has syncopation, polyrhthym or call-and-response (especially if it has a combination of the three) it may be of African origin. These are statistical probabilities and not racially foreordained.

A very large number of Harry Smith's selections for his anthology is taken from Lomax material and Harry Smith gave them full credit in his notes.

Harold

Yuval: "The Lomax's were looking for the most black music that they could find" --

This is true. They found Lead Belly and produced a book of his songs: "Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly" (1936). Lead Belly was chosen as REPRESENTATIVE of black music. Lead Belly did not sing a cappella. He sang with accompaniment. I am getting a little tired of repeating this, but this is what the thread started as being about and Yuval has chosen to ignore it. It is Yuval who has projected the belief onto both Lomaxes that they must have deemed black a cappella music more "authentic" than instrumental music -- a supposition that reflects Yuval's own misconceptions and conceptual confusions.

The Lomaxes were looking for OLDER songs of historic interest. Having been isolated in the prisons, Lead Belly sang songs that were older and dated from a time when Negro music and white music had been MORE INTERRELATED than they were to be in the age of commercial recording (after 1920). In 1935, the ARC recording company declined to release Lead Belly's "white"- sounding songs and only released his blues songs, because it thought this was what the segmented black market would buy. Thus "Good Night Irene" was only released posthumously in 1950 after the deaths of both Lead Belly and John A. (ironically this was based on a commercial song by a black composer). According to Nolan Porterfield, Herzog, who did the musical arrangements for Negro Folk Songs, found much of Lead Belly's repetoire not "black" enough and considered it to contain too much of a mixture of white material. Thus the scholar Herzog exhibited the very same racial essentialism that Yuval erroneously attributes to the Lomaxes.

In point of fact, the precise contribution of the Lomaxes to folk song scholarship, consistently, ab initio, was its stress on the hybridity and continual dynamic interrelatedness of American music, both black and white. This is the conclusion of D. K. Wilgus's, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship since 1898 (1959, 1982).

John A. Lomax's language about Lead Belly, uttered during a quarrel with the latter, is deplorable and inexcusable (even for an era in which such language was relatively much more common than now) and Yuval's shocked and passionate indignation about it is completely justified, (even if it was 72 years ago.) The same goes for the embarassing reference to the "savage African with tom toms". The other quotes are taken from an interview given while Lomax was enraged because Lead Belly was standing him up for an appointment on their first morning in NYC, and from a private letter to his wife written during that week. Three months later, they parted forever and dissolved their partnership.

Yuval writes that Leadbelly "was usually a soft-spoken, gentle man who was well aware that his drunken murder attempts had been wrong." This is quite true. Also true is that fact that John A. Lomax's beef with Lead Belly was over the very issue of his drinking. Although Lead Belly may have "usually" been a soft spoken man who was famously good with children, he did undeniably have what we might call an "anger management" problem and spent six months in New York's Riker's Island jail for stabbing a man some 20 times c. 1938.

It is perfectly true that John A. Lomax believed in the Southern system of segregation and stubbornly closed his eyes to its abuses. He was a gradualist who thought that black people ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps before seeking equality and he thought Booker T. Washington was a great man.

He castigated his son for being appalled by the conditions of the prisoners and for feeling sorry for them (though later, in 1939, he and Ruby did write a letter to a Southern governor protesting the treatment of prisoners).

On the other hand there were many racists at that time who thought that black people had no art and no culture. John Lomax thought and said many times that the music and folk poetry of African Americans was equal to that of Greece, Rome, and the Italian Renaissance and (far from being "outside"it) was fully representative of America (and arguably the best it had to offer), a judgement with which history has tended to concur.

Lomax, like many Texans, was a creature of hyperbole. Without seeking to defend him, one is reminded of Lyndon Johnson who also used abusive racist epithets in private about Martin Luther King when the latter denounced the Vietnam War. Yet Johnson did quite a bit more for civil rights than any president before or since.

Contrary to what Yuval says, Alan Lomax did publicly disavow his father's political opinions and racial attitudes. In The Land Where the Blues Began, he also points out, ruefully, that unfortunately, his father's opinions and attitudes were more the norm than otherwise and were shared by most Americans.

The Lomaxes would have endorsed the first two sentences of Yuval's final paragraph about the origin of American folk music: As for European conventions, most folk music in America came from Europe. Music in the South was derived from a number of European folk traditions, including Irish, Scottish, English, French, German. These combined with African folk traditions to produce a wide variety of songs performed equally by whites and blacks."

He goes off track when he suggests that identifying and describing the elements that go into the making of the various folk (and classical and pop) traditions is the same as *prescribing* that people be stuck in (or excluded from) those traditions according to racial or national categories or origin.

Stylistic conventions are not passed along in totality like blood or genes. They are combinations of a myriad of behavioral traits that performers pick up from their surroundings or from their formal education in greater or lesser degrees. Thus if a song features wide intervals there is a statistical probability it may be from a certain area where those predominate in the local style. If it has a preponderance of thirds it may be Baroque or Nineteen Century European in origin (both pop and British folk) or learned in music school. If it has syncopation, polyrhthym or call-and-response (especially if it has a combination of the three) it may be of African origin. These are statistical probabilities and not racially foreordained.

A very large number of Harry Smith's selections for his anthology is taken from Lomax material and Harry Smith gave them full credit in his notes.

Yuval Taylor

I believe that by now you and I are mostly in agreement.

First, by “instrumental” music I have always understood music that had no words. Lead Belly’s songs have words. When I wrote “fiddle music” I meant what most people understand by that phrase, not a sung song accompanied by fiddles. The fact that Leadbelly played guitar made no difference to the Lomaxes as long as he was singing. If you look at the many instances of John Lomax’s praise for African American musical performance, you’ll find it almost completely confined to praise for African American singing, not instrumental capability. And he had no interest in recording purely instrumental numbers, which were very common at the time.

I agree with you 100% that black and white music had been more interrelated in the 19th and early 20th centuries than they were by 1934, and I too place the blame for this primarily on the record companies. John Lomax, however, failed to realize this interrelatedness until much later (if ever), and believed at the time he set out on his trip that he was recording primarily music of purely black origins. Certainly in his 1947 autobiography he stresses again and again the purely black origins of the songs he recorded.

I’m not familiar with Wilgus’s work, but I would be very surprised if he concluded specifically that John Lomax stressed the interrelatedness of black and white American music the way, say, that Harry Smith did later. The Lomaxes certainly segregated the two in American Folk Songs and Ballads. Perhaps Wilgus said that their recordings inadvertently stressed this interrelatedness, which is entirely true, or that Alan Lomax placed stress on this, which may well be true as well. John Lomax seemed to adhere to his death in his belief that black and whites lived and performed in separate worlds--and when they didn’t, that was lamentable.

I’m glad we agree about John Lomax’s racism, and I’m happy to be corrected about Alan Lomax’s repudiation of his father’s beliefs. Nor would I ever want to diminish or deny the scale and scope of both Lomaxes’ contribution to American music and its history.

I also think we agree about the last few things in your post. The last few paragraphs make sense to me.

Harold

I think we can safely say that John A. Lomax, with an academic background in English lit and no formal or informal instrumental training, did have a tendency to be "text oriented" -- to focus on song texts -- though his emphasis on accurate documentation of the auditory qualities of singing style was a genuine innovation in folk lore scholarship.

Lead Belly, self-described as "The King of the Twelve-String Guitar," was a virtuoso instrumentalist, and his prowess certainly enhanced the effect of his singing. He played semi-professionally as an entertainer at parties at which there was dancing, presumably. So, whatever importance Lomax may or may not have accorded to his instrumental accompaniment, Lead Belly certainly can't be called an cappella singer.

D.K. Wilgus was head of ethnomusicology at UCLA, I understand. His book is essential reading. You will enjoy it. Sorry, I don't have a copy available to me right now to back up my recollection. It is readily available from Abe Books and Amazon used books.

Some evidence that John A. Lomax was indeed very much aware of the inter-relatedness of black and white music his collection of cowboy music from black singers and also his inclusion of ballads such as "John Henry" and "Frankie and Johnny" with together with ballads of British origin as equally American and of equal aesthetic value to the much prized British ballads.

Sorry for double posting. My internet connection timed out on me and did strange things.

Harold

Yuval’s description of the organization of American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), which I have in front of me, as “segregated” is a stretch and even a distortion. Just Leafing through it off the bat, although some categories of the book are titled Negro Bad Men, White Desperadoes, Negro Spirituals and White Spirituals, others, such as Railroad Songs, Sea Chanteys, and Songs of Childhood, Whiskey and Cocaine, combine black and white material. There are also sections devoted to the music of the Vaqueros of the Southwest (Spanish-speaking cowboys) and the Cajun Negroes. The Minstrel Types section makes it clear that this category of songs were performed by both black and white dancers and fiddlers, the section on black “reels” performed by black fiddlers belies Yuval’s assertion that John A. Lomax might have been ignorant of this category of music.

The effect, far indeed from segregating or marginalizing any kind of music or group, is instead one of inclusiveness. This was undoubtedly the intention and was how the book was received. The Lomaxes made it clear that these various groups were all equally the creators of American music and deserved credit. Indeed the epitaph of the book makes this clear: “If anyone asks you who composed this song, tell him it was a brown-skinned man” (quoting gist, from memory). Calling this “segregation” is rather thick. Indeed, it was rather daring in 1934 to loudly affirm that American music was predominantly African-American.

American Folk Songs and Ballads was criticized by scholars because the authors used composite versions of songs, a practice they avoided in the sequel: Our Singing Country. Judith Tick comments in her preface to the reissue of that book:

“In making choices for Our Singing Country, the Lomaxes treated performance style as important a factor as the tunes themselves. The way a tune was sung could transform it from the commonplace into the realm of distinction. … In OSC, ‘Down in the Valley’ reappeared as ‘Little Willie’s My Darlin.’ The Lomaxes write how this version, ‘as sung by a Negro convict with its unexpected blue notes here and there, has more charm than any we have heard.’ At a time when most folklorists still considered words more important than music and disdained all commercial venues, the Lomaxes pushed the frontier of what was American folk music across borders that were then drawn between commercial and folk and later drawn between folk, country, and old-time. Alongside of field recordings came songs like ‘Hard Times in the Country’ from the ‘hillbilly’ list of Columbia Records. ‘Jack O Diamonds’ as sung by Pete Harris, Richmond, Texas, 1934, was probably derived from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s record on Paramount, ‘Sweet Thing’ is linked to a tune popular on radio and the phonograph known as ‘The Crawdad Song.’
Instead of treating folk music as some kind of antiquarian relic, the Lomaxes touted the modernity of the material. No more quaintness, no more stereotypes of folk music as an example of primitive simplicity. Over and over the literary commentary embedded music in lived experience.”

Harold

Correction: epigraph not epitaph!

Yuval Taylor

I should have said "mostly segregated." My point was that unlike Harry Smith, they categorized songs by race. You're right--not in every case, but in most. And I never said that the Lomaxes were ignorant of black fiddle music. Of course they knew all about it. Please stop putting words in my mouth.

Thanks,

- Yuval

Harold

Once again you are misusing words for the sensationalistic purpose of setting up strawman arguments. First -- claiming that "them" didn't apply to the younger Lomax also or not to him after 1935. Second, you tried a la Humpty Dumpty ("when I use a word it means what I want it to mean -- it is a question of who is to be master, that is all) to assert that a cappella meant not without instruments but without words (where would this leave "diddling" or wordless syllables used for dancing, I wonder, not to speak of yodelling or vocallizing?).

seg·re·gate [v. seg-ri-geyt; n. seg-ri-git, -geyt] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation verb, -gat·ed, -gat·ing, noun
–verb (used with object)

1. to separate or set apart from others or from the main body or group; isolate: to segregate exceptional children; to segregate hardened criminals.
2. to require, often with force, the separation of (a specific racial, religious, or other group) from the general body of society.

There was no 'Main Group" in American Ballads and Folk Songs for the songs to be 'isolated" or "segregated" from. It was a multi-cultural mosaic. Certain genres were indeed identified as black -- such as "Negro Spirituals" -- for descriptive purposes and to assign creative credit. Other categories were mixed genres that clearly showed the interchange between styles. Anyone who wants to check can see this on Amazon Reader.

When Harry Smith made his LP anthology in the 1950s there was no felt need to identify the background of the performers in any way. This was in large part because of the previous work of the Lomaxes, whom Smith generously acknowledged. Smith's anthology, furthermore, was packaged and presented purely in aesthetic, rather than informative, terms. He gives the barest historical information or exigesis. Such an approach was undeniably very effective in its poetic suggestiveness and was certainly legitimate. And, one could argue that the Cold War made it virtually obligatory. But, in the end, the difference between Smith and the Lomaxes boils down to one of packaging and is not indicative of political or intellectual differences between the two, wishful thinking to the contrary.

Yuval Taylor

I don't get it. Why the animosity? Why the constant barrage of nitpicking over tiny differences in word meanings? I agree with much of what you've written, after all.

I never said "a cappella" meant without words--it doesn't. I said that what I meant by "fiddle music" was without words. I meant by "segregate" putting black and white things in different sections, which is what the Lomaxes did, and not just in the three sections you named either. If you want to suggest a better word for that, I'll be happy to use it in the future. What "strawman" arguments am I making?

You seem to have a very astute perception of the Lomaxes, and I thank you for sharing it. I much prefer that the conversation be conducted along those lines than picking apart nuances of word meanings.

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