Field recordings typically have a small listening audience. In a 2006 interview, Pete Seeger told a few stories about Moses Asch of Folkways Records. Seeger recalled that Asch would promise professors and musicologists and anthropologists that if they sold their field recordings to Folkways for a one-time payment, Asch would produce records that would never go out of print. And then Folkways would sell five copies a year.
Luckily for us, many professional and amateur musicologists went into the field looking for non-commercial music, some for more altruistic reasons than others. Today we have field recordings available that were made decades ago by Jean Ritchie, Emory Cook, Harold Courlander, and many other lesser-known sonic adventurers. Perhaps the most famous song collection is that of father and son folklorists John and Alan Lomax.
Which brings us to a 2017 record by the young Canadian banjoist, Jayme Stone. As with his 2015, Lomax Project, the recently released Folklife delves into the Lomax collection to bring out songs rarely performed today and present them to a larger audience. He gets strong support from Dom Flemons and Moira Smiley to put out these new arrangements of old folk songs.
Even those of us who regularly listen to and enjoy field recordings will find sparkling new treasures on this album. “Candy Gal” begins in stunning four-part a cappella harmony, a technique that is used throughout the record. The arrangement then moves into old time fiddle and banjo, then expands into a full band danceable romp. “Wait On The Rising Sun” uses call and response vocals to evoke a vintage gospel feeling. “Mwen Pas Danse” features Smiley's accordion and Nick Fraser's percussion alongside Stone's banjo with vocals in both French and English to produce another energetic adventure. (See the video at the end of this article.)
Some listeners will be familiar with “That's All Right,” a spiritual collected from the Moving Star Hall Singers of South Carolina on a field recording made by Guy Carawan. Stone puts a contemporary spin on this tune without sacrificing spirituality. Even more familiar is Stone's rendition of “Drunken Hiccups” (also known as “Rye Whiskey” and “Jack O' Diamonds”) which has been recorded by artists as diverse as cowboy singer Harry Jackson, cajun swing fiddler Harry Choates, and McCamy's Melody Sheiks.
For listeners who enjoy new takes on traditional songs and for listeners who enjoy new songs they haven't heard before, Folklife offers the best of both worlds. One hopes Stone will continue to include these old songs in new recordings, and that other young folk musicians are inspired to follow suit. - Greg Harness
You will find a lot more about this project on Jayme Stone's web site.