Note: This post was co-written with AFC Folklife Specialist Jennifer Cutting. It is part of series of blog posts celebrating the centennial of Alan Lomax’s birth, and also part of another series celebrating the 40th anniversary of AFC! Part Two of this series of posts is now available, featuring videos of contemporary artists performing French Language songs collected by John and Alan Lomax.
Last year, we celebrated Alan Lomax’s centennial year with a range of programming around the country. As part of that effort, we came up with the idea of holding a special “Lomax Challenge Showcase” at the annual meeting of Folk Alliance International in Kansas City. We invited Folk Alliance 2015 conference attendees to sign up to “Take the Lomax Challenge”: each act chose a song or tune collected by Alan Lomax (or in some cases by his father John A. Lomax), put their own stamp on it, and performed it onstage at the conference. We got a wonderful response, and a wide range of performers signed up to “perform the archive.” Even better, we were able to obtain the services of a great videographer, Steve Circeo of Americana Music Times, who shot the whole thing in hi-res video. Because of that, we’re able to present the videos here at Folklife Today.
Our first performer was 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. Dom’s participation in the showcase even helped inspire a guest post at Folklife Today. Dom chose to perform two songs, “Hey Hey Baby” by Big Bill Broonzy, and “Pick a Bale of Cotton” by Lead Belly. Both songs were recorded by Lomax, and coincidentally there are also films of both songs in our Pete and Toshi Seeger Film Collection. You can watch the Seeger film at this link. Before performing, Dom talked at some length about Lomax’s influence, so we’ll just let him speak for himself in the player below.
After Dom performed, we were graced by an unexpected guest: Peggy Seeger, who hadn’t heard about the showcase in advance, decided she wanted to address the room as a longtime friend and associate of Alan Lomax. Peggy, along with her brother Mike Seeger and half-brother Pete Seeger, was our guest here at AFC for the Seeger symposium and concert we called How Can I Keep From Singing? We were thrilled to see her, and even more thrilled to hear her reminiscences of Alan Lomax, whom she affectionately called “a bull in a china shop.” You can watch her remarks below.
Our next performer was Cody Brewer, a musician from Tulsa, Oklahoma who sometimes performs with the band Grazzhopper. Brewer chose to perform “Muleskinner Blues.” Lomax recorded this song a couple of times, most notably from a colorful character named Panhandle Pete at the Asheville, NC Folk Festival in 1941. Brewer learned Woody Guthrie’s version, and although Lomax didn’t record Woody singing this, we decided it was appropriate for the showcase since Lomax did make the first extensive recordings of Woody, which led to Woody’s later sessions with RCA Victor and with Folkways. You can hear Guthrie’s version at this link. Watch Brewer’s version in the player below.
The fourth showcase performer was a Kansas City local, Gerald Trimble. Trimble first appeared on the national scene as a virtuoso cittern player, and recorded three critically acclaimed albums released in the early days of the Celtic label Green Linnet. Nowadays, his passion is for the viola da gamba, and for combining his Celtic and English leanings with the power of Middle Eastern music. In the showcase, his singing and viola da gamba were joined by Bill Banks on mandobass and Serdar Tuncten on Iranian zarb. Believe it or not, they used those instruments to perform a calypso song! Alan Lomax ran a number of successful calypso concerts in New York in the years after World War II and before the Blacklist made him relocate to Europe. At one of these concerts in 1946, the assembled calypsonians performed “Love Alone,” or “Edward VIII,” a song about the abdication of the British throne by Edward VIII, which had happened ten years before. You can hear the Lomax recording here. Trimble’s unusual and enjoyable rendition is in the player below.
We’ll be presenting the rest of the showcase videos on the blog in due course. In the meantime, we should say that we could not have created the showcase, or these videos, without the help of the Folk Alliance’s Executive Director Aengus Finnan and Operations Manager Jennifer Roe. We also want to thank Joelle May, Publicist and Canadian Coordinator. Special thanks also to the sound crew, and to Steve Circeo of Americana Music Times. Also, of course, we thank the artists.
Last but not least, we thank Alan Lomax. Lomax said of himself that his greatest talent was making people feel comfortable to be themselves in front of a microphone. And because he was so good at that, we have many priceless recordings that preserved for all the world the voices of Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Aunt Molly Jackson, Woody Guthrie, and hundreds more singers and talkers whose names we will never know, but whose contributions are just as important.
As we write this, we’re getting ready to make the trip to the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City once again. This year, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the American Folklife Center, we’re running another challenge: this time we’ve asked performers to select recordings from the whole range of the archive, not just Lomax’s work. The showcase will be February 20, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., in room Century C at the Westin Crown Center Hotel in Kansas City. We’re proud to follow in Lomax’s footsteps, and to add these performances to the same archive as Lomax’s original field recordings: the American Folklife Center Archive at the Library of Congress.