When I first started doing radio in New Haven, I spent hours plowing through the seemingly bottomless well of records in WYBC's folk library and "archive" (in fact, a bunch of unattended, rotting boxes in the basement). One of the treasures I found there was Bad Man Ballads, a recording of American folk songs collected on the highways, porches and prisons
of the American south collected by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins. A rendition of the gospel shout-and-response song "Poor Lazurus," sung by a road gang from a Mississippi state penitentiary, became a virtual theme song for my show. As I dug deeper into the record, I realized that I knew so many of these songs from more contemporary recordings by the bluegrass, string band and folk bands that were leading the latest "revival" of American folk. But here was the real thing, the real folk singers and gospel groups that had inspired the revivalists in the 60s and 70s, well recorded but unproduced and unarranged; The Bright Lights Quartet (again with Poor Lazurus, but this time with a churchy spirit), Almeda Riddle singing about Jesse James, Hobart Smith singing about the Hawkins County Jail (sounding more like a first hand experience than a tale twice told).
Well, I searched high and low and only found one other record from the Southern Journey series, battered and unplayable in a used record shop. You will have an easier time of it. 1997 sees the beginning of a major release of all of Alan Lomax's recordings from the American south and the rest of the world as The Library of Congress and The Lomax Collection yields their treasures via a Rounder record release schedule that will span a number of years and dozens of recordings, all classics from the Caribbean, the British Isles, Spain, Italy and "the world."
Southern Journey is the start, six CDs that defined American folk music for the world when they were recording in the late 50s and early 60s, from the spirituals that defined the Civil Rights movement to the prisons that defined the society, from Appalachian guitar pickers to Delta shouters. Work songs, play songs, field hollers and formal ballads are all treated as equal partners in the American folk saga, reminding Americans all over the nation (those who bothered to listen, which ultimately were few, I am sure) of their roots and their kinship.
- Cliff Furnald
Take a further look at the entire Lomax Collection