The hot jazz record collector Kenneth Hulsizer was one of a handful of young white aficionados who, in the late ‘30s, frequented the Music Box in Washington D.C.’s U Street district. The tavern was, by extant accounts, more or less a dive; overlooked and under-attended by the many potential African American patrons who lived, worked, and recreated in the neighborhood, and not just for the decor. What kept them away was precisely that which attracted those few youngsters—among them burgeoning journalist Murray Kempton, Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun, later of Atlantic Records, and the BBC’s own Alistair Cooke—whose atavistic tastes had earned them the title “moldy figs”: the music. The house pianist, who was also the booker, the bartender, and the bouncer, was none other than the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz and stomps,” Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton. By 1938 Morton had washed up. He’d been thoroughly bilked by his publishers, struggling to make ends meet, and the compositions through which he made his name—the hot jazz of New Orleans’ late Storyville district (the “District” was where, according to Jelly, “the birth of jazz originated”)—had become, to popular taste, hopelessly passé. Yet those same tunes his publishers had stolen from him—“Tiger Rag,” “King Porter Stomp,” “The Pearls”—were being modernized, swung, by ambitious white bandleaders like Benny Goodman, who were making their fortunes off Jelly’s work while he continued his slide into obsolescence at the Music Box.
Hulsizer eventually asked Morton if he still had any of his old 78-rpm records, of which he’d recorded scores for the Gennett and Victor labels. Morton laughed and replied, “What would anyone want with those old things?” “He never met a record collector,” Hulsizer explained. “Records were merely something made to get a little money and to spread his name.” Not long after, the folklorist Alan Lomax—who had recently been appointed Assistant In Charge of the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song—was tipped off by Hulsizer’s friend and fellow collector Charles Edward Smith about Morton’s whereabouts, and, in the Spring of 1938, Lomax invited him to the Library of Congress for a recording session. He was almost certainly of two minds: perhaps a bit skeptical, which wouldn’t have been owing to any presumption of dwindling talent on Morton’s part, but rather to a semi-conscious inheritance from his father John A. Lomax, that jazz was a commercial corrupter of all things good and pure in African American folk music. On the other hand, he would have seen the opportunity for what it was: the chance to sit an indubitably legendary figure down for a bit of reminiscing, quite literally, on the record.
As it happened, the eight hours of oral musico-biography that resulted is a landmark in recorded history. It also served to dispel the lingering doubts about jazz—at least in its incipient form in Storyville, which was nonetheless an urban, syncretic, and commercial musical genre—that Lomax may have yet harbored. It also instilled in him the conviction that New Orleans, with its creolized gallimaufry of races, classes, musical traditions, was in fact the most acutely realized expression of the American cultural experience.
There’s not a lot of evidence, pre-1938, that commercial recordings held the appeal for Alan Lomax as they did for Hulsizer, Smith, and the other moldy figs. They weren’t unappreciated: he and his father John A. Lomax acknowledged their documentary value while compiling their American Ballads and Folk Songs in 1934. In ’38, however—not long after finishing his sessions with Morton—Alan got the 78-rpm bug after junking a batch of store-stock Paramounts at a resale shop in New York City. He wrote to Harold Spivacke, head of Recorded Sound at the Library of Congress, asking for permission to buy 225 of them: records by hillbilly combos Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles and the Fruit Jar Guzzlers and “race” artists like country bluesman Ramblin’ Thomas; barrelhouse pianist Cow Cow Davenport; and (mostly) sacred singer Blind Joe Taggart. As John Szwed writes in his biography of Lomax, The Man Who Recorded the World:
It didn’t take [Alan] long to figure out that it would take a good part of a lifetime to listen to all of the rural recordings, as he had learned that at least seventy-six recording companies had at one time or another operated in the United States. So with the small budget he had, he hired his sister Bess (then in her first year at Bryn Mawr) and Charles Seeger’s nineteen-year-old son, Peter, to help him.
Alan and Pete—and Bess, when she could get away from school—set up that fall at the Library and worked their way through thousands of commercial records of American vernacular music from the “pre-war” era, roughly 1922 to 1938. Pete later recalled Lomax’s instructions as being to “set aside the schmaltz and pick out the best…. I picked out about one in ten.” Bess remembered traveling with Alan to a New Jersey warehouse (perhaps in Camden, where RCA Victor was based) to sift through countless 78s; anything they didn’t deem worthy the company would be destroying, along with their metal masters, within 24 hours. “We sat there in two chairs with a phonograph and listened to country, race records, anything promising. Alan had to have the best, and nothing but the best. He asked my opinion, and when we both decided to reject a recording, he dramatically sailed it out the window and down an air shaft.”
Of the 3000 titles John Szwed estimates Lomax, Lomax, and Seeger listened to, Alan selected 350 for inclusion in a Library of Congress monograph, published in a September 1940 Report of the Committee of the Conference on Inter-American Relations in the Field of Music, called the “List of American Folk Songs on Commercial Records.” This was the first methodological research made into the pre-war commercial record companies’ documentation (however unwittingly) of rural music traditions and, despite its primary shortcoming— the fact that the team had little or no access to titles from the Gennett or OKeh catalogs—it proved to be a highly influential road-map for at least two of the earliest and most influential collectors of this music, James McKune* and Harry Smith**, who in turn paved the way for the many years that followed of its further excavation, investigation, and publication—which, of course, continue apace today.
The List takes some getting used to. Alan’s categories are often idiosyncratic, requiring frequent review of the “Code used in condensation.” Some delineations are peculiar, provocative (on what basis should Charley Lincoln’s 1928 “Gamblin’ Charley” be considered “completely authentic”?), and highly subjective. But that’s the point. It’s a thrill to imagine Lomax listening to “Vo[calion] 03623, Hell Hound on My Trail, Robert Johnson” and jotting “unusual m[elody], traces of voodoo, beautiful g[uitar]” in his notebook. How lucky he was to listen with ears unclogged by the intervening decades of myth-making, canon-consolidation, and, especially recently, hysterical economic appraisal. It was arguably the first step taken towards outlining what is now broadly accepted, however argumentatively, as the central canon of commercially recorded American vernacular music.
Thankfully, Lomax, in his introduction to the List, doesn’t traffic in any of the occultish indulgences that Harry Smith brought to bear when compiling his Anthology. But it’s not hard to hear in the former a prophetic tone that resonates in Smith’s later declaration of having seen “American changed through music”:
I have come away from this listening experience with the certainty that American folk music, while certain folklore specialists have been mourning its decline, has been growing in new directions to compete with “thick” commercial music, and that it is today in its most “distorted” form in a healthier condition, roving the radio stations and recording studios, than it has been or ever will be in the notebook of collectors.
*For the tragic tale of James McKune, see Amanda Petrusich’s “Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records,” Scribner, 2014.
**In an interview with Smith, folklorist John Cohen asked where he first heard the Carter Family:
SMITH: I would think from that mimeographed list that the Library of Congress issued around 1937 [sic], “American Folksongs on Commercially Available Records” [sic]. Shortly after that, two Carter Family recordings, “Worried Man Blues” and “East Virginia Blues” were reissued on the album Smoky Mountain Ballads. That album would come to stores that wouldn’t ordinarily have Carter Family records.
COHEN: In that album John and Alan Lomax made hillbilly music respectable enough to have it sold along with art music and symphonies