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Lead Belly, Alan Lomax and the Relevance of a Renewed Interest in American Vernacular Music

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Dom Flemons plays a Big Bill Broonzy song at AFC’s Lomax Challenge Showcase at the Folk Alliance International conference in February, 2015. Photo by Stephen Winick.

The following is a guest blog post by Dom Flemons, a musician and singer who currently tours and records as “The American Songster.”  Dom was one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom he has played at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium, and with whom he won a GRAMMY Award.  Dom has also visited the AFC’s research center several times, and is a passionate advocate for the materials we preserve in our unparalleled archive.

Earlier this year, my AFC colleague Jennifer Cutting enlisted my help in organizing the Lomax Challenge, a showcase at the annual Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City. For this unusual showcase, an array of different folk musicians learned materials from AFC’s archive collected by Alan Lomax and his father John A. Lomax.  We could think of no one better to open the program than Dom Flemons.  Dom’s participation in the showcase helped inspire this blog post, which he originally published at his own website; the original post can be found here.  For Folklife Today, we’ve edited it slightly and added the audio of one of the songs Dom chose to perform.  We’re grateful to Dom for taking part in that event, and for letting us use his blog post as well!  We also captured the full showcase on video, and we are currently editing that–so we hope to present Dom’s performance on Folklife Today in due course.

A couple of editorial notes are in order: this blog post is part of a year-long series of events  celebrating the 100th anniversary of Alan Lomax’s birth. We are indebted to the Folk Alliance International for holding the Lomax Challenge, another of these centennial events, and for making possible this continued work with Dom.  Finally, the original film elements of Pete Seeger’s Big Bill Broonzy film, from which Dom learned the other song he discusses, are also in AFC’s archive, but the film itself is not legally available online.  You can see the catalog record for that collection here.

Dom’s words begin here:

Recently, I was interviewed for the NPR program Studio 360. (You can hear it here.) The main thing that struck me about the interviewer’s questions was that they came from a place of downplaying Alan Lomax’s role of recording folk music for the Library of Congress. While Alan Lomax was by no means a perfect person his documentation as a folklorist is indispensable. The first question that the interviewer asked me was, “What if I told you that everything Alan Lomax represented was false and that he made it all up?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around that question. It really clouded the rest of my interview. When I heard the final version of the piece I was glad that I had been interviewed because I was the only person in the piece coming from a place that understood the context of WHY the Lomaxes did what they did. People tend not to know that field recording is different than music recorded for commercial purposes. The music industry was never made to represent the music the Lomaxes recorded. They were also a government-sanctioned folklore team that made a sizeable archive that we still use as the basis of our national identity. They were New Deal guys. They also worked with the WPA. Alan later worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. Alan Lomax’s role as an archivist is a national treasure in itself.

A group of friends gathered at a party in New York City, about 1940. Left to right, the men are Henry Cowell, Alan Lomax, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. The woman with her back to the camera is Toshi Seeger. Bess Lomax Hawes Collection (AFC 2014/008).
A group of friends gathered at a party in New York City, about 1940. Left to right, the men are Henry Cowell, Alan Lomax, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. The woman with her back to the camera is Toshi Seeger. Bess Lomax Hawes Collection (AFC 2014/008).

Again, my main problem with the story was that it lacked context. Many people don’t put into consideration that the Lomaxes were sticking their neck out for these folk musicians. There is not much money in old folk songs. The business is tough and unfortunately Lead Belly didn’t get a chance to live to see the way his music was appreciated by every generation that followed. Several people that I respect reached out to me and thanked me for giving a perspective that didn’t let Alan Lomax’s name get dragged through the mud.

Portrait of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter with guitar.
Portrait of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, ca. 1940s. Photograph by Alan Lomax.

I was resistant to write about the program at length but recently on another NPR program, On Point, they featured a great piece on Lead Belly. Over the course of this piece, I found the context that was lacking in the previously mentioned radio program. While the discussion of the horrors of segregation are always relevant, the documentation of folk song in the case of Lead Belly specifically shows the way that the Folk Revival from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s was fueled by the music recorded by John and then Alan Lomax. What makes Alan’s work so much more prevalent is that he wanted to get the sound of the proletariat, the voice of the working people. This included collecting verses and songs that spoke of what they called “complaining” songs. These were songs that black folk musicians might not pull out immediately out of fear of white hate brought upon them by social oppression. Also, the middle class black community wasn’t particularly interested in this old “country” music so the Lomaxes’ interest in the music of the secular “folk” thankfully has given us a legacy that would be lost without their advocacy.

I feel so glad that Lead Belly’s legacy can show us something that is truly human in music. This is a very important time for lovers of music and culture to take the time to dig in and embrace our culture. It’s one of the most important things anyone can do. I know because I am one of the folks influenced by it as well. Again, the story is very complex. I’m glad that the whole story can be told after all these years.

Big Bill Broonzy. AFC Alan Lomax Collection.
Big Bill Broonzy. AFC Alan Lomax Collection.

Part of my love for this music was realized in the way that I was honored at Folk Alliance this year by being asked to open the Lomax Challenge. Jennifer Cutting and Stephen Winick from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress put it on and it was a great program of people interpreting music from the Alan Lomax Archive. I played a bit of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey Hey Baby,” which I first heard through a movie filmed by Alan Lomax’s protégé, Pete Seeger. Alan had recorded several sessions with Big Bill but one session with Memphis Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson served as a powerful document letting the musicians from the South talk about the oppressive culture that led them to move up North to Chicago. In his book The Land Where The Blues Began, Alan explains that this was a conversation that many black people from the South were resistant to have out of fear for their lives and the lives of their families down South. Even though they were physically gone, word could get down South and mean trouble for the folks at home. Released as Blues In The Mississippi Night, the album was released without the artists’ names on the cover. It would not be until the re-release in the early 1990s that the musicians’ names were mentioned, after all of them had passed. (Now the material can be found on the web at this link via the Association for Cultural Equity.) Though mostly an instrumental, “Hey Hey Baby” has a poignant verse:

Hey Hey Hey Hey Baby Hey
I love you baby
But I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Dog

Knowing I had a small amount of time, I chose another song that I found to be particularly poignant now more than ever. I chose a version of the classic song “Pick A Bale of Cotton” sung in a Texas prison ax-cutting gang in the early 1930s. The group is even listed as “Unknown Axe-Cutting Group.” I added a verse of my own and led the crowd in a sing-along. This is a song that is misinterpreted all the time. This is a victory song. Many times people think of it as an “Uncle Tom-ish” sort of number. The song goes:

Call: I’m gonna jump down turn and around
Response: Pick a bale of cotton
Call: Jump down and turn around
Response: Pick a bale a day

Oh Lordy (pick a bale of cotton)
Oh Lordy (pick a bale a day)
Me and My Buddy Can (pick a bale of cotton)
Me and My Buddy Can (pick a bale a day) etc.

The verses I found on this field recording tell a different story, and the vocal inflection gives a sense of what could be described as proto-soul. Many fans of older blues and the songsters have heard this sound. It has a soul or even hip-hop sensibility coming from the same places that those types of music would emerge from years later. Here’s my adaptation of what the ax-cutting group sang:

Never will I pick a bale of cotton
Never will I pick a bale a day
Oh poor Eli pick a bale of cotton
Oh poor Eli pick a bale a day
Granddaddy had to pick a bale of cotton
And father never had to go and pick a bale a day
So how can I pick a bale of cotton?
How can I pick a bale a day?
You gotta jump down and turn around and pick a bale of cotton
Jump down you turn around and pick a bale a day

You can hear them sing it at this URL:

These are the times to reanalyze American vernacular music and also keep the songs on. This is also a time to make new songs with the materials in the Library of Congress. The music has lasting quality. That never has been the issue. It’s always an issue of getting the word out and sharing the music with everyone you meet. It’s all a team effort.

Here’s to the Year of the Folksinger! Going Strong!

Dom Flemons
The American Songster
February 27, 2015

Comments (2)

  1. Interesting piece! Am thinking about your point that Alan Lomax’s recording choices were shaped by a political imperative. The same was certainly true of his father, in a different direction. But it’s a great point.

    I heard a little bit of the “Fresh Air interview” in the car. You’ve made me want to go back and listen to the whole thing, partly to contemplate your interviewer’s wrong-headedness. Will have to hear the “On Point” interview, too. Sounds like a fascinating contrast.

  2. Proud to say that 50 years ago I produced a 3LP Boxed set of Lead Belly’s Library of Congress material for Elektra Records. Received quite well at the time, the project seems to have been completely forgotten about and lost to the passage of time. A shame, inasmuch as the project presented much of his very best recordings!

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