Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey at 50 (and 51)

First page of Lomax's "Southern Journey" log. (Courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive)

Parchman Farm, September 1959. (Courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive)

In October I will have worked for the Alan Lomax Archive for ten years. (I remark to friends with some regularity about this being my only job as an adult, putting in context, perhaps, some dimension of my peculiarity.) I started at the age of 22, having been hired after three afternoons’ worth of volunteerism at the Woody Guthrie Archive several blocks uptown, with not a whit of archival training or experience, sticking accession numbers on soon-to-be-obsolete DATs; running off copies; doing – as so many 22-year-olds new to New York City have begun and still begin their professional lives – data entry. Virtually none of my tasks that first year, at least, reflected my interest in the music, but I had to pay to play, and I’ll never forget the giddy joy I experienced the evening I lugged home all thirteen volumes of the “Southern Journey” CD series that had kicked off the Alan Lomax Collection reissue project, launched by Rounder Records five years earlier. Those discs made all the workaday tedium worthwhile, and I remember their revelations acutely, listening rapt as I did in the kitchen of my girlfriend at the time’s apartment (where I lived, awkwardly): the sublime harmonies of the menhaden fishermen’s Bright Light Quartet; the keening desolation of Almeda Riddle’s “Lonesome Dove”; the chopping, hoeing, and singing of the Parchman Farm convicts (above), desperately vital against all odds and opposition; the holy terror dripping from E.C. Ball’s “Tribulations.”

Times got better at the Archive – I picked up more responsibilities, began enjoying something akin to a haphazard ethnomusicological home-schooling, and in 2004 was given the role of production coordinator for the Collection on Rounder. We squeezed a few great CDs out over the following couple of years – recordings of Gaelic-speaking women at work in the Western Isles of Scotland; the Lomax Blues Songbook; live tapes from the 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh; the complete 1938 Library of Congress Recordings of Jelly Roll Morton – but a dying CD market and a lack of inspiration from various corners sped the series’ demise. It went out with barely a wheeze some time in 2007.

Without delving into the twists and turns of the most highly specialized folkloric record business or indulging in musings about its current strange renaissance and the stranger counter-cultural moment from whence it comes, I’m pleased to say that the season of my tenth year with Alan Lomax’s archive also marks the release of five new LPs commemorating Lomax’s most famous field-recording trip: what he called his “Southern Journey” of 1959 and 1960. Production for a commemorative series began exactly a year ago, after I met Eric Isaacson of Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi Records – one of the principals in the unlikely vanguard of the vernacular music LP resurgence – at a panel discussion put on as part of Asheville’s fine Harvest Records’ fifth anniversary festival. While Harvest was turning five, the Southern Journey turned 50, yet there was not a whisper regarding it anywhere (outside of a season-long tribute series in Belgium, put on by the noble Herman Hulsens and the Ancienne Belgique). Adding insult to injury was the fact that not a single release of Southern Journey material was currently in print.

Eric shared the formative experience that Lomax’s ’59-60 recordings had had on me, and we hove away on a proper anniversary release. I spent weeks and then months listening, culling, annotating, wringing hands, losing sleep, and wondering, frankly, at my good fortune to be granted not only such intimacy with the collection, which I’ve had bumping around in my own hard drives for years, but also a generous degree (from my boss and Alan’s daughter, Anna Lomax) of curatorial license. It was an incredible blessing, and I hope I ultimately did a measure of justice to Lomax, the artists, the recordings, and their legacies.

Reprinted below is the introduction I wrote to these five LPs. When sequencing them, I tried my best to ignore the rather sizeable catalog in which performances from the Southern Journey had been previously reissued – on Atlantic, Prestige, New World, and Rounder Records – and approach the 70-odd hours of recordings as if they were virgin territory. A few previously unissued items were included, as were a number of oft-anthologized pieces that were just too good to leave out of a reissue (Ball’s “Tribulations” and Fred McDowell’s “Gravel Road Blues,” among them). A brand new job was performed by Timothy Stollenwerk of Portland’s Stereophonic mastering studio. Working from our digital archival masters made 2000–2003, he did a shockingly great job of teasing out dimensions of the performances that have elided previous attempts.

James Lindsey and the Mountain Rambers

I labored long and anxiously to make my annotations both accurate and engaging, but of course there were times when I failed at both. The only glaring error I’ve found so far credits Jimmie Davis as having in 1932 recorded the first version of James D. Vaughn’s country gospel number, “Down At the Old Country Church,” a version of which James Lindsey and the Mountain Ramblers did for Lomax in Hillsville, Virginia. I found this title attributed to Davis in Tony Russell’s discography, but then relied entirely on my assumptions about Davis, whose later, most famous work I have no taste for at all. (E.g., “You Are My Sunshine.”) Having found a recording of that 1932 record, however, and realizing just how brilliantly irreverent it was (as Davis’s other early recordings turned out to be), sharing the Vaughn title in tongue-in-cheek name only, my feelings changed for the later Governor of Louisiana. Unfortunately, it was too late to change the erroneous liner notes.

Lomax’s Southern Journey wasn’t the first recording trip south (although it was the first to be done in stereo), nor was it the last. It gave us the best recordings ever made, sonically speaking, of the Parchman work song repertoire, although earlier, mono performances were arguably stronger. Lomax did wonders with the Georgia Sea Island singers – they were made for stereo – but still couldn’t quite wrangle a good grasp on a Sacred Harp convention with just two mics (although they were the most successful shape-note recordings made theretofore). Since 1960 nearly every genre and region represented herein has been covered more deeply (some would surely argue more sensitively) by recording trips, doctoral theses, public-sector fieldwork. But none of this minimizes the transcendent beauty and humanity of so much of the Southern Journey, and its enduring, revelatory effect on fifty years of listeners. May it be received with wonder and joy for and by many more.

The Archive will be launching our digital Global Jukebox imprint in a matter of weeks, and digital versions of the Southern Journey LPs will constitute our first release. For now, find these records in any shop that carries Mississippi titles. There are a surprising number of them.

“People were saying that Southern folk song was dead, that the land that had produced American jazz, the blues, the spirituals, the mountain ballads and the work songs had gone sterile.” –Alan Lomax, 1960.

Alan Lomax, BBC radio, early 1950s. (Courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive)

In 1958, Alan Lomax returned to America. He had spent the decade recording the traditional music of Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Italy; producing radio and television series for the BBC; and compiling the eighteen-volume “World Library of Folk and Primitive Music” for Columbia Records. In no small measure he’d also been beating the heat of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts, which had a particular hunger for Lomax’s folk-music peers.

But drink had killed the junior senator from Wisconsin in 1957, and when Lomax arrived back in New York City, he found an urban folk revival in full bloom. Crowds of young banjo players, guitarists, fiddlers, and fans were gathering in Washington Square Park to pick and sing traditional songs and tunes, many of which Lomax had recorded years earlier from the likes of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Hobart Smith, and Texas Gladden. That year the Kingston Trio had a number-one Billboard hit with “Tom Dooley,” based on a version of the murder ballad that folklorists Frank and Anne Warner had recorded from North Carolina banjo player and singer Frank Proffitt in 1940. The young revivalists were becoming proficient on their instruments, and with the help of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, they had access to hundreds of songs in albums, books (among them Lomax’s American Ballads and Folk Songs and Our Singing Country), and burgeoning folk-music magazines like “Sing Out!”

It was in “Sing Out!” that Pete Seeger announced Alan’s return: “Alan Lomax, considered by many America’s foremost folklorist left the U.S.A. an ‘enfant terrible’ and returns a legend…. I welcome back Alan Lomax, not just because he is an old friend, but because he is more responsible than any other single individual for the whole revival of interest in American folk music.” Seeger concluded with a description of the cultural moment to which Lomax had returned and the unique place Lomax held in it. “Well, of course, the folk-song revival did grow, and flourishes now like any happy weed, quite out of control of any person or party, right or left, purist or hybridist, romanticist or scientist. Alan Lomax probably looks about him a little aghast.”

Next summer, Lomax wrote his own article for “Sing Out!” – an astute critique of Seeger’s “happy weed.” The revivalists might pick a banjo fluently or boast of a large repertoire of songs, but, Alan pointed out, when those songs are “ripped out of their stylistic contexts and sung ‘well,’ they are, at best, changed. It would be an extreme form of cultural snobbery to assert, as some people do, that they have been ‘improved.’ In my view they have lost something, and that something is important.” Writing forty years later, Lomax was more blunt:

Some of the young folkniks, who dominated the New York scene, asserted that there was more folk music in Washington Square on Sunday afternoon than there was in all rural America. Apparently, it made them feel like heroes to believe that they were keeping a dying tradition alive. The idea that these nice young people, who were only just beginning to learn how to play and sing in good style, might replace the glories of the real thing, frankly horrified me. I resolved to prove them wrong.

Alan Lomax began making arrangements for a field recording trip throughout the American South using state-of-the-art stereo tape. He secured support from the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Neshui, who ran Atlantic Records, and who had just wrapped up a profitable summer filled with hit records by Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, Bobby Darin, and the Coasters. Atlantic had also begun recording in stereo in 1959, and, as fans of early jazz and rhythm and blues, the Erteguns were personally invested in Alan’s project. Accompanied by the young British folksinger Shirley Collins, whom he had met in London several years earlier (and whose “America Over the Water” – a coming-of-age memoir of Sussex, London, and this trip through the American South – is essential and wonderful reading), Lomax left New York City in late August.

For the next two months the pair traveled through Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina, making over seventy hours of recordings. The project was shorter than every other major recording trip of Lomax’s career, but it is among the crowning achievements of his legacy. It marked the first-ever stereo recordings made of American traditional music in the field, at last doing justice to the sonic complexity of the Georgia Sea Island ring shouts, the many-voiced work songs of the Southern prison farms, and the thunderous hymnody of the Sacred Harp. It gleaned the debut recordings of farmer and bluesman Fred McDowell. When Lomax returned to New York City in late October, he prepared seven LPs for Atlantic, which were soon released as the “Southern Folk Heritage Series.”

There was much music left over, however, and Lomax ultimately made an arrangement with Prestige Records to issue another series entirely – twelve LP volumes under the title “Southern Journey.” This series also drew on recordings Alan and his daughter Anna made on a tour through coastal Georgia and Virginia in the spring of 1960, when Lomax was invited to Williamsburg, Virginia, to serve as music supervisor to a historical film being produced by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Atlantic and Prestige albums were proof that many old-timers were still alive and making music, and Lomax succeeded in involving these tradition-bearers directly in the folk revival. He arranged for appearances at the Newport Folk Festival by Almeda Riddle, Fred McDowell, Hobart Smith, Ed Young, and Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, all of whom became frequent performers at other revival events and seminally influential figures of the era. Riddle and Jones each went on to make records of their own and enjoy considerable popularity at concerts and folk festivals for decades to come. McDowell appeared on dozens of albums and became a highly renowned and regarded bluesman. Alan, sitting on the board of the Newport Foundation, also saw that money left over from the annual festivals was donated to traditional performers and to new documentation projects in the field.

From the Little Sandy Review, c. 1960

Fifty years later, the 1959 and 1960 trips are known singularly as Alan Lomax’s “Southern Journey.” Their music has been released in various formats over the years, retaining every bit of their vitality, power, and emotive effect. Some of the traditions represented therein have gone extinct in their vernacular contexts – the prison work songs; the Sea Island shouts; the menhaden fishermen’s chanties – while others, like singing from the Sacred Harp and playing old-time country music, have expanded far past their traditional boundaries, finding fans and practitioners worldwide. The Southern Journey didn’t just prove that the folk revival wasn’t the sole inheritor of America’s traditional music. It proved that we all are.

“This was 1959 and I finally had German mikes and a Cadillac of a recorder and was doing stereo – the first stereo field recordings made in the South. You should hear the recordings – for me, a life’s dream realized.” –Alan Lomax, 1993.

The records:

Volume 1: “Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea.”

Side A.
1. Wade Ward: Chilly Winds
2. Texas Gladden, Hobart Smith, and Preston Smith: Lonely Tombs
3. Ed Young, Lonnie Young, and G.D. Young: Church, I Know We Got Another Building*
4. United Sacred Harp Convention: Sherburne (#186)
5. Bessie Jones & group: Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rolling Under
6. Floyd Batts & prisoners: Dollar Mamie*
7. George Fields: Bob Johnson’s Tune*
8. Silver Leaf Quartet: Dark Day
9. Texas Gladden: Whole Heap Of Little Horses

Side B.
1. Forrest City Joe & His Three Aces: Drink On Little Girl†
2. Johnny Lee Moore & prisoners: Early In the Morning
3. Ollie Gilbert: Pretty Polly Oliver
4. Neal Morris & Charlie Everidge: Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea
5. Fred McDowell & Fanny Davis: Gravel Road Blues
6. Vera Ward Hall: Riding In A Buggy*
7. Daddy Cool on WEUP Huntsville*

*Previously unissued. †Previously unissued version.

Volume 2: “Worried Now, Won’t Be Worried Long”

Side A.
1. Sidney Carter: Worried Now, Won’t Be Worried Long*
2. Norman Edmonds & the Old Timers: Walking In the Parlor
3. Rosalie Hill: Rolled and Tumbled
4. Ishman Williams & the William Singers: The Old Ship of Zion*
5. John Davis, Henry Morrison, and the Georgia Sea Island Singers: Hop Along, Let’s Get Her
6. United Sacred Harp Convention: Hallelujah (#146)
7. E.C. & Orna Ball: The Cabin On the Hill
8. Ed Young, Lonnie Young, and G.D. Young: Ida Reed

Side B.
1. Bright Light Quartet: I’m Tired
2. Viola James: I’m Going Home to Live With Jesus*
3. Boy Blue & His Two: You Got Dimples In Your Jaws
4. Wade Ward: Cumberland Gap
5. Johnny Lee Moore: Levee camp holler (Downtown Money Waster)
6. Almeda Riddle: Lonesome Dove
7. Neal Morris: Turnip Greens

*Previously unissued.

Volume 3: “I’ll Meet You On that Other Shore”

Side A.
1. Fred McDowell: What’s the Matter Now?
2. Bookmiller Shannon: The Eighth of January
3. Ruby Vass: Old Gospel Ship
4. Union Choir of the Church of God and Saints of Christ: None But the Righteous
5. George Spangler & Thornton Old Regular Baptist Church congregation: Why Must I Wear This Shroud?
6. Neal Morris: Sing Anything
7. Vera Ward Hall: Black Woman (Wild Ox Moan)†

Side B.
1. Floyd Batts: Dangerous Blues
2. Hobart Smith: Railroad Bill
3. Unidentified woman & St. James Church congregation: I’ll Meet You On that Other Shore*
4. Charles Barnett: Moses Was A Servant of the Lord*
5. Spencer Moore & Roy Everett Blevins: The Girl I Left Behind
6. Lucius Smith: Goodbye Honey, You Call that Gone*
7. John Davis & the Georgia Sea Island Singers: Moses, Don’t Get Lost
8. Almeda Riddle: Rainbow Mid Life’s Willows

*Previously unissued. †Previously unissued version.

Volume 4: “I’ll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down”

Side A.
1. Wade Ward & Charlie Higgins. Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe?
2. James Shorter, Viola James, and the Independence Church congregation: Jesus On the Mainline
3. Mattie Gardner, Ida Mae Towns, and Jessie Lee Pratcher: Green Sally Up
4. Fred McDowell: Woke Up This Morning
5. Ollie Gilbert: Joseph Looney
6. United Sacred Harp Convention: Calvary (#300)
7. James Lindsey & the Mountain Ramblers: The Old Country Church
8. Willis Proctor & the Georgia Sea Island Singers: One of These Days
9. Norman Edmonds & the Old Timers: Sally Anne*

Side B.
1. Texas Gladden: Three Little Babes
2. Hobart Smith: Banging Breakdown
3. John Dudley: Clarksdale Mill Blues†
4. Miles & Bob Pratcher: All Night Long
5. Neal Morris: The Juice of the Forbidden Fruit
6. Henry Morrison: Lazarus
7. Ed Lewis & prisoners: I’ll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down
8. Sidney Carter: Leather Britches*

*Previously unissued. †Previously unissued version.
Alas, due to unfortunate circumstances too banal to disclose, Hobart’s “Banging Breakdown” failed to make it onto the finished LP, and is offered here as a mea culpa. The hope is that a second pressing of the record – as well as the digital versions – will include it.

Volume 5: “I’m Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die”

Side A.
1. J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers: Number 111
2. Fred McDowell: 61 Highway
3. Bright Light Quartet: Chantey medley†
4. E.C. Ball & Lacey Richardson: Tribulations
5. Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers: Daniel In the Lion’s Den
6. Unidentified woman & Pentecostal Temple congregation: Heaven Is Mine*

Side B.
1. Emma Hammond: Shout Lula*
2. Ervin Webb & prisoners: I’m Going Home
3. WROS Scottsboro Old-Time Religious Hour excerpt*
4. Hobart Smith: The Devil’s Dream
5. Sid Hemphill & Lucius Smith: The Devil’s Dream
6. United Sacred Harp Convention: The Last Words of Copernicus (#112)
7. Elder I.D. Back: Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow
8. Vera Ward Hall: The Last Month of the Year
9. Miles & Bob Pratcher: I’m Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die

*Previously unissued. †Previously unissued in entirety.

15 responses to “Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey at 50 (and 51)

  1. very nice work.
    Ordered my copies from Mississippi yesterday. Been looking forward to it. I picked up a couple LPs in the Southern Journey series out of a friend’s mom’s record collection when I was in college. Changed the course of my life. Ended up writing my undergrad thesis on Lomax, going to folklore school, and eventually ended up in an archive. But I still find myself having to do data entry.

  2. So lovely. I had an internship at the Folklife Archives at the Library of Congress in the 1980s. This brings back great times. Excellent job! Thank you!

  3. Hi Nathan- Quick question about MSR-60: Is “Banging Breakdown” by Hobart Smith known to be missing from the Mississippi Records press of “I’ll Be So Glad…” Its definitely listed on the LP label and the cover, but the track doesn’t appear to have been pressed onto the vinyl. Thanks again for curating this excellent reissue series.

    • Thanks for the note, Nick. Yes, unfortunately, we had a too-many-cooks situation, and that tune got lost in the shuffle – which of course was discovered much too late. Hoping a re-press, if it happens, might be able to include it. Been meaning to put it up here as a free download, and will do now.

  4. Pingback: New Year, New Vision: Press and Repress. « Paradise of Bachelors·

  5. Hi
    Really enjoyed the post.
    I have all the LPs in the original “Southern Folk Heritage” & “Southern Journey” series but unfortunately a number of the original inserts are missing.
    Is there anywhere I could access these for download? Or can anyone scan & email them?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Missing inserts are:
    SFH Blue Ridge Mountain Music
    SFH Roots of the Blues
    SFH The Blues Roll On
    SJ 1 Georgia Sea Islands Vol 1
    SJ 5 Deep South….Sacred & Sinful
    SJ 7 All Day Singing From The Sacred Harp
    SJ 9 Bad Man Ballads
    SJ 10 Yazoo Delta…Blues & Spirituals
    SJ 11 Southern White Spirituals
    SJ 12 Honor the Lamb

    • Good question, Malcolm. I don’t know of any online resources of them, although they were all reprinted (and in some cases expanded) in the Rounder CD reissues. I’ll look into that for the Lomax Archive’s page, or perhaps here.

      • Thanks.
        I appreciate your response & offer to help. Let me know if you turn anything up.

  6. Pingback: New Year, New Vision: Press and Repress. | pob·

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