I wanted to end the Lomax-a-Day project with a profound statement about the importance of American folk music, but after 31 days of this, I can’t quite muster the energy. I can say this: I have barely scratched the surface. This giant, tangled web of songs contains millions of histories, millions of mysteries, and millions of keys to the American identity. I am bound to keep trying to untangle the web in my own way. Or maybe “untangle” is the wrong idea–perhaps to tangle yourself deep into the web is the ultimate goal. I urge everyone who cares about music, who cares about the idea of America, who cares about people telling stories, to do some tangling themselves. Lomax is a good place to start.
It’s the last day of the month, and I have three posts to go. Lomax-a-Day Marathon, here we come.
The ‘Work Songs’ section of the Negro South chapter presents some particular challenges. I get the sense with most of these songs that transcribing the original, mostly improvised performance must have been a difficult task, especially for white, Western-music-trained musicologists. Every phrase contains rhythmic and melodic variation, with little of the repetition and predictability found in the white folk songs that fill earlier chapters of this anthology. The transcription process seems reflective of the whole history of white Americans commercializing and commodifying black American music: the songs are twisted and crammed into digestible structures created by whites, only to be misinterpreted and appropriated by white singers (like myself). In the by-line of “Don’t Lie, Buddy,” Lomax writes that the song was “collected and re-composed by Josh White.” I’m not accusing Lomax of any more racism than is to be expected from a mid-20th century cultural collector–in fact, Lomax did a great deal to expose white Americans to black music and thus open an essential racial dialogue–but the word “re-composed” smacks of imperialistic musicology. Composition itself is a Western, scholarly concept that doesn’t fit well with the organic development of most folk songs. Without a single author, without a definitive version, without an ego pining for credit, how can a song be composed? Perhaps Lomax could have just said “composed by Josh White”; if the song wasn’t originally composed in the way we recognize, then how could it be re-composed?
Be aware of at least two degrees of cultural re-/mis-interpretation as you listen to my version of “Don’t Lie, Buddy.” The first was in Josh White’s “re-composition.” The second is my dumbing down of the rhythm, melody, and chord structure into something much simpler than what is printed, something I could wrap my structure-loving brain around.
One side-note: the “Jack the Rabbit” verse of this song is in the family of raccoon, possum, and rabbit songs I mentioned in yesterday’s post, so I was delighted to find it once again in a seemingly unrelated song. I’m learning more and more that there is no such thing as “unrelated” in American folk music.
My recent exploration of animal folk songs has often led back to a family of folk-lyrics centered around raccoon, possum, and rabbit. Three of the most popular characters in African-American folk tales (the Br’er Rabbit tales, for example), these furry varmints seem to have inspired a whole anthology’s worth of slightly varying tunes. From what I can tell, the two most central verses are:
OK, I’m one day behind, but I swear I’m going to catch up this weekend and post 31 songs by the 31st. Today’s selection is from the ‘Spirituals II’ section of the Negro South chapter. “Wade in the Water” is one of my favorite spirituals, first introduced to me by my girlfriend Jessie’s family. Each day-after-Thanksgiving, the Eller-Isaacs host a singing party, where they cycle through folk songs, pop songs, gospel songs… some with guitar accompaniment, some a cappella. At the first singing part I attended, two years ago in NYC, we sang a medley of “Wade in the Water,” “Ride Sally Ride,” “Let My People Go,” and “Beulahland.” While each of these songs is completely distinct, they locked together as if all minor-key spirituals are secretly part of one mega-spiritual, where all the anguished, searching, faithful voices throughout time are subconsciously in tune, in time, in harmony. It was an incredible introduction. Jessie and I sing together here, but I wish we had a room full of singers to really drive it home.
You’ll have to forgive me for posting this a day late. Last night I played a solo show opening for my friends Jim Stier and the Volunteers. I performed my favorite Lomax songs, so it was kind of like I was doing my Lomax-a-Day. But, in order to complete my goal of recording a song out of each section of the book, I need to do six more. This means no skipping a day! The good news is, I’ve entered the final geographical section, called ‘the Negro South.’ It’s full of spirituals, reels, and blues, and it’s the section I’m most excited to explore. So I should have no trouble with this home stretch.
No better way to start a day than by singing a beautiful spiritual. I recommend it to anyone with the midwinter blues. “When the Stars Begin to Fall” is a song I grew up on; we always sang a similar but more white protestant hymn-y version at my family’s church. Singing hymns, and the feeling of community it made, was by far the best part of church. From an early age the black spirituals were my favorites. The lyrics of this one are so perfectly thankful:
My Lord, what a mornin’!
My Lord, what a mornin’!
My Lord, what a mornin’!
When the stars begin to fall!
You’ll hear the sinner moan
To wake the nations underground,
Lookin’ to my God’s right hand
When the stars, the stars begin to fall.
The only nations underground I woke today were my downstairs neighbors. Is 7:45am too early to be hollering my appreciation for the loveliness of the morning?
When I started to record, the gray Portland clouds were shrouding the dim sky out of my apartment’s east windows. Slowly, a sliver of yellow pushed up from the horizon. Layers of purple and pink and blue piled on. Now, a brilliant morning sun is beaming through the bare trees, through the dew and dust on the window, in onto my sleepy face. My Lord, what a morning!
The more I think about my posting yesterday, in which I complained about how hard it is to come up with an original idea around folk music these days, the more I realize how badly I was missing the point. The modern need for originality is a construct at best, a complex at worst. If my goal is to immerse myself in the folk tradition, then originality should be my last concern. A perfect moment to land on ‘The Last West’ section of the West, which is basically a chapter devoted to Woody Guthrie. Lomax reflects on Guthrie: “Woody has never tried to be original, in the sense of the sophisticated songwriter. Like all folk poets, he uses familiar tunes, re-works old songs, adding new lines and phrases out of the folk-say of the the situation that demands the new song. He feels that his function is to sum up and crystallize popular sentiment, to act as the voice of the common man. Although his songs are conversational in tone, they have a truth, an authenticity, and a punch which no other poet of this age can match.”
I love this. The folk poet doesn’t demand a new song to feed his ego, the situation demands it. The folk song is not an event in the way a new pop song tries to be; a folk song is a response to the events beyond our control. There is an appreciation here in the outer world’s ability to provide the folk singer with all of the beauty and originality he needs. If he has mastered the form, then he already possesses the tools to respond to the world with an authentic reaction.
The Lomax-a-Day project is not, and should not try to be, an original exercise. It is, among other things, an exercise in relinquishing the selfish desire for originality. If anyone can remind me of this, it is Woody Guthrie. In 1941, Lomax contacted Guthrie on behalf of the Bonneville Power Administration, who wanted to use the folk singer as a “public relations consultant.” The BPA hired Guthrie for a month to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of federal dams. Inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, Guthrie wrote 26 songs in 26 days. The situation demanded these songs. My first reaction was that it takes some serious creative originality to compose 26 songs in so many days, but perhaps Guthrie was just a well-honed folk poet. A finely polished mirror with the ability to reflect the world back to itself. Regardless, “Roll On, Columbia” is a classic, a source of pride for Northwesterners, a reminder to all that this world contains some serious beauty and power. It is a narrow human view to think that we are the only creators of beauty, the only generators of power.
On Day 6, I found that Jim Henson had long ago beat me to the idea of puppet bands singing classic American folk songs. On Day 9, I discovered that Walt Disney, among others, beat me to the idea of modern kids’ entertainment based on animal tunes like “Cock Robin.” Yesterday I realized that Roger McGuinn, lead singer of the Byrds, has been cataloging American folk music, including most of the Lomax songs I’ve chosen, on his website McGuinn’s Folk Den. And today I found out that Dan Zanes, who also beat me to the idea of being a kids’ performer who doesn’t make adults want to throw up in their mouths, has an album of 25 songs from Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag (where Lomax found many of the songs he includes in Folk Songs of North America). As folk music has proven throughout time, there is no such thing as an original idea.
Both McGuinn and Zanes recorded versions of “Wand’rin,” which Lomax calls “one of the most beautiful of American folk songs” and the “finest of American hobo songs.” McGuinn gives it a Byrds-y treatment, with his clean Rickenbacker guitar work and high-pitched croon (which, I must say, has seen better days). Zanes’ version is a lovely, lazy shuffle with guitars meandering through the mix like so many hobos through a train yard. Lomax’s version has a slightly different chord structure, with a major III and VI instead of minor like in McGuinn’s version. McGuinn’s and Zanes’ chords flow bittersweetly into one another with an ease of motion that Lomax’s chords complicate. I think I like the off-kilter sound of Lomax’s chords. The hobo feels the twinge of melancholy in his life of wandering, and half-apologizes in the refrain. But before he can get too down, he feels that chugging rhythm of freedom lifting his feet again.
“A man of the old West hardly ever got downhearted about anything unless something happened to the woman he loved and was married to. They were a quiet, solemn kind of lot, mighty short on kissing and all that stuff women are supposed to set such store by, but I reckon they loved their wives as much as any men that ever lived, even if they rarely said so.” (Lomax, 393)
“Colorado Trail” perfectly captures that deep but understated love. Clocking in at just under a minute, the song packs an eternity of longing into 32 words. When the man of the old West can’t himself weep and wail for his lost love, he lets the rain and wind do it for him. It’s telling that the only time the singer says more than he needs to is when he repeats the word “along”–“all along, along, along, the Colorado Trail.” So simply put, he’s doomed forever to ramble that trail, forever to remember his Laura.
The Chisholm Trail, a path used for cattle drives from southern Texas into Kansas, ran straight through my hometown of Austin, TX. My aunt and uncle live in an amazing house that used to be a Chisholm Trail hotel in Belton, TX, about an hour north of Austin. So it felt appropriate to learn the classic ballad sung by cowboys riding that trail. “The Old Chisholm Trail” is LONG–Lomax says the song had a verse for every mile of the way between Texas and Montana. Only 9 verses here, but they show the range of subjects that a cowboy ballad might cover. Plenty of verses are about riding on the trail, but then a verse will amble away, the cowboy’s mind drifting back to a girl in the last town he rode through (“I know a girl who’s going to leave her mother…”) or drifting forward to his destination (“Oh, Abilene city is a dang fine town”). But no matter where his mind wanders, it always returns to the job at hand: the girl’s petticoats flop “like a pair of saddlebags”; in Abilene the boys “liquor up and twirl those heifers round.” He knows he’s chosen his fate; when he dies he’ll be “herding dogies up in Heaven in the sweet bye-and-bye.”
Doing a bit of research, I found several versions of “The Old Chisholm Trail” that share lyrics with this one, but I couldn’t find any with quite the same chord pattern. Tex Ritter does a hilariously chipper, yodeling version here; Lead Belly, an unlikely cattle herder, gives it a spin here. I think the somber tone and endless repetition of Lomax’s version are fitting, and strip away the glossy romance that the Tex Ritters and technicolor westerns play up.
This is cheating, I know. Today my creative energy has been pulled away from the holy anthology. Today I wrote a song.
It’s time for me to come clean. I’ve had ulterior motives all along. My hope was to dig deep enough into this old American music that my own songs would begin to come from that same hole. Maybe it’s presumptuous, that I could tap into the great American spirit from whence all classic folk songs come. But a boy’s got to try.
“Empty Ring” is part “My Bonny,” part “Ring of Fire,” part death-of-a-lover ballad. Close your eyes and tell me, honestly, if Lomax might have transcribed this song from a field recording back in the day. If so, I’ve achieved my hidden purpose. If not, I’ll keep trying.
Ten days to go, after all.