(The following is a guest post by Stephen Winick, writer-editor in the American Folklife Center.)
This year the GRAMMY awards promise to be exciting for music fans everywhere, but especially fans of the Library of Congress. At least four of the nominees have connections to the Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC). They present archival recordings, new performances of songs learned from the AFC’s archive and new songs using samples from the archive.
The most famous name among the nominees inspired by AFC’s collections is undoubtedly Beyoncé, who sampled two songs from AFC’s Alan Lomax Collection for her song “Freedom,” which appeared on the album “Lemonade.” “Freedom” has been nominated for “Best Rap/Sung Performance,” while “Lemonade” is in the running for “Album of the Year” and “Best Urban Contemporary Album.” In addition, the long-form video for “Lemonade” is nominated for “Best Music Film.” Beyoncé is the most nominated woman in GRAMMY history and has already won 20 GRAMMY awards.
According to Alan Lomax’s daughter, Anna Lomax Wood, “The ‘Freedom’ samples represent vernacular traditions the Lomaxes were devoted to documenting: folk spirituals and sacred songs of Southern black churches; and the work songs and field hollers of black prisoners. Both, in Alan Lomax’s words, ‘testified to the love of truth and beauty which is a universal human trait.’ They are taken from two Alan Lomax field recordings: A segment of a 1959 worship service led by Reverend R. C. Crenshaw at Memphis’ Great Harvest Missionary Baptist Church, and “Stewball,” a 1948 work song led by Benny Will Richardson (known as “22” at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the notorious Parchman Farm).”
Another name Library aficionados might recognize is Paul Bowles (1910-1999), who is probably best known as the author of “The Sheltering Sky,” “Let it Come Down” and other novels. A box set featuring music recorded by Bowles for the Library of Congress in Morocco is nominated for a GRAMMY in the “Best Historical Album” category. In addition to writing fiction, Bowles was known as a composer, musician, travel writer and translator. From July to December 1959, he traveled around Morocco making recordings of traditional music under the auspices of the Library of Congress, and his entire collection is part of the AFC archive. “Music of Morocco from the Library of Congress,” a box set from Dust-to-Digital, presents four CDs of the music, accompanied by extensive notes and enclosed in sumptuous packaging.
In discussing the place of Morocco in North African music, Bowles wrote, “The pieces with the greatest, and those with the smallest amount, of Arabic influence, are both to be found, strangely enough, in the same country: Morocco. This region’s contact with Europe has been that of conqueror: in its decline it has been comparatively unmolested by industrial Europe. By virtue of this, also because it once had colonies in Mauritania and Senegal, and thus has a fair amount of admixture of Negro culture, it is richer in musical variety and interest than Algeria and Tunisia. In the latter countries there is plenty of music, but in Morocco music is inescapable.”
The box set can be purchased from the Library of Congress shop.
Another historical box set with Library of Congress connections, “Waxing the Gospel,” is nominated for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes. A collection of more than 100 cylinder recordings of sacred songs from Protestant camp meetings and revivals of the 1890s, it contains two ultra-rare cylinders of Professor John R. Sweney from the AFC archive. Sweney was a famous choral leader and composer, whose most famous song is the hymn “Beulah Land.” He was also the great-grandfather of Joe Hickerson, a former Library of Congress staff member who retired as head of the AFC archive. The recordings reissued on the box set are Sweney’s renditions of the hymns “Beulah Land” and “Only Remembered.” They were originally recorded by Columbia Records on the occasion of Sweney’s visit to Washington, DC in April 1892. They were intended only as promotional souvenirs of the event and were never released commercially, so only a few of them were made. The box set uses transfers of Hickerson’s personal copies, which he donated to AFC in 2006. Hickerson also wrote the prologue to the album’s booklet of notes. Read more about “Waxing the Gospel” at the Archeophone blog.
Finally, the compilation “I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country,” presents contemporary Louisiana artists performing their own versions of songs they learned from John and Alan Lomax’s 1934 field recordings in coastal Louisiana. The set, which is nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album, was released as a boxed set of four EPs of six songs each by the Louisiana record label Valcour Records. The CDs, which are produced by Joshua Clegg Caffery and Joel Savoy, present a wide variety of songs and styles, from Cajun music and bluegrass to blues and light opera. As an initiative to return archival recordings to circulation as popular songs, it fits in well with Alan Lomax’s own aims for the collection all those years ago. Caffery is a former Alan Lomax Fellow at the Library’s John W. Kluge Center and has published a book about the Lomaxes’ Louisiana recordings, as well as placing them online.
As Caffery told me a few months ago, “My ultimate aim is getting the music back into circulation. The Lomax recordings are such a vital resource, and it’s important to understand the lineage and the cultural context of the songs, but the real end game for me is always a creative one – how do you facilitate the emergence of this incredible music into contemporary culture? What’s the best way to get people to sing these songs and think about the past?”
At the beginning of this post, I said that at least four nominees have connections the AFC archive. That’s because we don’t automatically get notified every time someone is inspired by our collections and gets nominated for an award. It’s entirely possible that other connections exist, which we don’t know about yet. If you’re aware of a connection between a current GRAMMY-nominated song or album and the Library of Congress, please leave us a comment about it.