Guess Who’s Turning 100?

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Alan Lomax in a Duell & Sloan publicity photograph for his book Mr. Jelly Roll, 1950. (Alan Lomax Collection AFC 2004/004)

Whether you’ve been a follower of Folklife Today from the outset, or you’ve only recently joined us, we’d like you to help us celebrate a milestone: this is our 100th post! And what better way to mark that point on our journey than to announce a centennial celebration?

So I’m pleased to announce AFC’s 2015 celebration of the centennial of Alan Lomax’s birth.  Next year, we’ll be presenting a year-long series of projects, events, and activities to celebrate the Lomax family’s contributions to the preservation and promotion of traditional music and dance, and to highlight the depth and diversity of AFC’s Lomax family collections.

Of course, we’ll produce the kinds of events we’re already known for: concerts, lectures, symposia, exhibits, and publications. We’ll also branch out to work with festivals, organizations, and individuals with a strong interest in traditional folk music and in Lomax’s legacy. Activities being planned include special events in the Homegrown Concert Series and Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series; presentations by staff members at academic conferences and folk festivals, including Austin’s SXSW Festival; Lomax concerts and open mic stages at large folk music gatherings such at the Folk Alliance conference and the Brooklyn Folk Festival; and an agile traveling exhibit for performance venues, conferences, and local libraries. The Center will also be digitizing all of the Lomax-related papers for the first time.

As a first step, the Center has already placed a new Lomax centennial web page online, and has redesigned its Lomax-related pages. New special features, blogs, and centennial events will be added as they arise.

Of course, Folklife Today will make regular postings throughout the year highlighting the Lomaxes’ contributions.  And you know what? We’ll start right now, with a rundown of a special item the Lomaxes captured for the Archive: AFS 100, the 100th instantaneous disc accessioned by the Archive of American Folk Song (the original name of the AFC Archive). AFS 100 was recorded in Louisiana by John A. and Alan Lomax in June 1934.  Our early discs weren’t officially accessioned until 1940, at which point several hundred were numbered at once, so this may not have been the 100th disc recorded for the archive. Still, whether by luck or design, it bears the fateful number 100!

AFS 100 is an interesting disc. I’ll start with side B, because we suspect the Lomaxes recorded it several days before side A. It features two songs and an announcement.  The songs are sung by a retired railroad worker in New Iberia, Louisiana, named Sam Ballard, whose nickname was “Old Dad.”  His first song, “Catch That Train,” combines his occupation and his faith, employing a variant of the “Gospel Train” theme: a railroad running into heaven.

Let’s hear it:

 

In his book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana, the recent John W. Kluge Center Alan Lomax fellow (and Folklife Today guest blogger) Joshua Caffery discussed “Catch that Train”:

This song, while obviously indebted to the spiritual tradition, may have also served an occupational function. Specifically, many of the lines direct the listener to prepare for an arriving train (“get your luggage,” for instance, or “better get your ticket”). We might speculate that a song such as this could have been used as a call–something sung by black porters during the heyday of the railroad in the late nineteenth century.

Ballard’s second song on AFS 100 is more challenging.  It’s called “He Got a Debt to Pay.”  Hear it below:

 

Of this item, Caffery notes:

Although seemingly traditional in nature, this song appears to have no direct analogues. As with many spirituals, images of bondage (“pillar and a chain”) mix with eschatology (“whole round world opened wide”), held together by an organizing idea–in this case the allegorical biblical notion that Jesus Christ died to pay the debts incurred by the sins of mankind.

I agree with Caffery’s general interpretation, but I hear some of the lines differently:

Sam Ballard 1

One of the Lomax team captured this photo of Sam “Old Dad” Ballard in New Iberia, Louisiana, in June, 1934. This is a detail from a contact sheet–see the full sheet and catalog information by clicking on the photo. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00671

My Lord smiling like the sun
My Lord brings four bloody wounds
He got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay
That ain’t all
That ain’t all
He got a debt to pay
He called “Almighty God”
He got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay
He got a pillar and a chain
Whole round world done been ‘stroyed
Talk ’bout that bloody war
He got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay
He got a pillar and a chain
Whole round world done been ‘stroyed
Talk ’bout that bloody war
He got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay
Oh Lord, he got a debt to pay

 

The song thus presents an apocalyptic vision primarily drawn from the Book of Revelation, in which the Lord is said to have a face shining like the sun (1:16), to make the righteous into pillars of the church (3:12), to loose angels with mighty chains (20:1), to fight in a bloody war (17:14), and to destroy the earth (8-11).  The central figure of the lamb, representing Jesus, is said to have paid or purchased mankind’s debt with his blood (5:10). The four bloody wounds do not appear in Revelation, but I believe they are the “four wounds of original sin” enumerated by Aquinas with reference to Bede: ignorance, malice, weakness, and desire. In longstanding Christian belief, Jesus’s sacrifice (a central image of Revelation) makes it possible for these wounds to heal. (The “four wounds” are also frequently confused with the five wounds suffered by Jesus at the crucifixion, which may be relevant here too.)  The song thus presents a diffuse smattering of Christian images, which don’t all appear together in the Bible, but which are linked by the powerful themes of apocalypse and redemption. This was not unusual  in sermons and songs based on Bible verses.

On other discs (AFS 99 and AFS 101), Old Dad sang occupational songs of his railroad work.  We learn more about him, and about the Lomaxes’ trip, by listening to the announcements John A. Lomax made on each disc of Old Dad’s songs. Most importantly, we learn that the recordings were made on June 22, 1934, when Old Dad was about 75 years old. Hear the three announcements in the player below:

 

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Becky Elzy, Avery Island, ca. 1933. Photo courtesy of E. A. McIlhenny Enterprises, Inc., Avery Island, Louisiana.

Side A of AFS 100 features Alberta Bradford and Becky Elzy, who were recorded in Lake Arthur, Louisiana, probably just a few days later.  They were renowned spiritual singers, and had grown up in slavery. Bradford had grown up on Avery island, as a slave belonging to the McIlhenny family. The McIlhennys were a prominent local clan who owned a sugar plantation, but whose most famous business today is making Tabasco Sauce. Elzy had belonged to a close neighbor of the McIlhennys.

Edward Avery McIlhenny was an enthusiastic supporter of black spirituals, and the Lomaxes found these singers through his book, Befo’ De War Spirituals. In the book, McIlhenny gives an account of meeting Elzy, an “active, quick-witted, intelligent” octogenarian, when he asked local clergy for help finding old-time spiritual singers. It was Elzy who introduced him to Bradford, although she had belonged to his family before he was born.

Interestingly, Caffery sees their song on AFS 100, “I Want to Go to Heaven All Dressed in White,” as a reflection of ideas in the book of Revelation:

References to the association between the color white and heaven appear throughout the Bible, particularly in the Book of Revelation. For instance: “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (Rev. 3:5); “And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they [were], should be fulfilled” ( Rev. 6:11).

The stark, brooding imagery and simple, forceful language of Revelation can only have provided a natural catalyst for the development of vernacular African American religious song. “Dressed in white” was apparently widely known. In American Negro Folk-Songs Newman White prints a version from a manuscript transcribed in Grayson County, Virginia, and also notes that it was sung in Durham, North Carolina, in 1919.

Hear it below:

 

BradfordBlog

Alberta Bradford, Avery Island, ca. 1933. Photo courtesy of E. A. McIlhenny Enterprises, Inc., Avery Island, Louisiana.

Like Sam Ballard, Bradford and Elzy were recorded by the Lomaxes on other discs besides AFS 100.  Their other songs are on discs 105 and 106, which is one reason we believe their appearance on AFS 100 was out of sequence: the Lomaxes apparently inadvertently left a side of AFS 100 blank, then went back and used it later. (You can hear all of Bradford and Elzy’s songs, and all of Old Dad’s, at the Lomax 1934 site.)

On AFS 105, Bradford and Elzy perform a song we placed on our new Lomax Iconic Songs List.  The Lomaxes called it “Thank God Almighty,” but McIlhenny had given it its more common title, “Free At Last.”  It’s a widely known song in the African American spiritual genre, and has been recorded numerous times by popular gospel groups.  It was famously quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, in which King deliberately placed it in the context of a patriotic song, “My Country ’tis of Thee,” and its closing line, “Let freedom ring”:

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

To hear Bradford and Elzy, who were born into slavery, sing “thank God almighty, ’cause I’m free at last” is a powerful experience we think everyone should share.

Hear it below:

 

AFS 105 also presents an announcement about the performers, this time by Alan Lomax, who was then only 19 years old.  We’ll end this post announcing our celebration of Lomax’s centennial year by giving him the last word, an announcement in which he praises Bradford and Elzy’s handling of the songs, saying the elderly singers “still have the wonderful voices to sing them as they should be sung.”

Here, then, is the youthful voice of Alan Lomax, doing what he did best: lifting toward the light people’s songs and the hard experiences behind them, bringing them one step closer to national recognition.

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