The Alan Lomax Collection: Deep River of Song
The Deep River of Song series emerged from Alan Lomax's 1978 Land Where the Blues Began film project. He was struck by the virtual disappearance of the music he and his father had documented four decades earlier for the Library of Congress, and mined the archives to compile a twelve-volume retrospective of African American folk music. The Lomaxes always sought the music's deeper roots; hence their interest in the spirituals, ring shouts, corn-shucking songs, field hollers, work songs and minstrel forms that preceded blues and gospel. They reasoned that the oldest African American song forms would be found under conditions approximating those of plantation slavery. Accordingly, many archival Library of Congress recordings documented the music of the penitentiaries and work farms of the South.
Spanning the period 1934-1942, nearly all the 28 cuts on this release are prison songs, 18 from Virginia and five from North Carolina. Among the more unusual Lomax discoveries was stentorian singer, banjo player and guitarist Jimmie Strothers, whose repertoire reflects a post-Reconstruction rural upbringing ("Corn-Shucking Time," "Jaybird," "I Used to Work Contractor," "We're Almost Down to the Shore," Take This Hammer," "Going to Richmond."). Roots blues by Willie Williams ("Boll Weevil," "Railroad Wredk," "Bitin' Spider"), James Wilson ("Walk Down, Devils"), Ezra Lewis (a scatting "Tin Can Alley") and Albert Shepherd ("Pick 'em Up") also stand out. Several spiritual soloists and vocal groups bear witness, including Joe Lee ("I'll Go On"), Michael Lewis ("I Feel the Spirit Moving"), Norman Haskins (a quartet-rocking "Noah and the Flood"), and an unidentified group from the Raleigh state pen ("Can't Hide").
The remaining five tracks were logged at the Library of Congress itself. With Josh White on guitar, Norfolk's famed Golden Gate Quartet offers singular versions of "Dan Tucker" and "Run, Sinner, Run." Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry's signature "Fox Chase," "John Henry" and "Worried Blues" round out a compilation whose freshness and topicality, more than 60 years after the fact, assay the plaintive veins of North American folk music. - Michael Stone
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