Friday, March 30, 2012

Texas Hymns in the Alan Lomax Archives

Alan Lomax is a name that resounds with reverence for a handful of people, and is relatively unknown outside of that handful. Every time I returned home from college, I would spend an hour here and there digging through my father’s old vinyl records. One day I came upon one called “Texas Folk Songs.” The music sparked and crackled, but eventually Lomax’s clear, nasal delivery cut through, aided by a guitar, singing campy old odes to gamblers, horses, rattlesnakes, and long summer days.

Born in Austin, Lomax was one of the great collectors, performers, historians, and producers of traditional music around the world. He spent six decades rambling around Italy, Spain, Scotland, the Caribbean, Asia, Appalachia, and numerous other locales. I remember reading years ago about how Lomax would haul giant tape recorders out to remote parts of the world and hook them up to car batteries in order to capture musicians who had never before been recorded. He also documented folk songs from his native Texas.

His work prefigures much of the contemporary NPR culture of interest in world music. Before his death in 2002, he turned to a project called the Global Jukebox, an “interactive multimedia software program” that would allow anyone to hear all of the music he had collected. In the 1980’s, he founded the Association for Cultural Equity to work on it.

This month, the association, working with the Library of Congress, is releasing more than 17,000 recordings online. The archive, which is here, is well organized by culture, location, genre, and artist, and is clearly the product of some very passionate organizational work. From Texas, the recordings come from Galveston County and Dallas County. In addition to the music, the Texas section holds a lot of Lomax’s commentary: snippets of lectures and personal observations. Here is a bit from a lecture in Texas City in 1969, where he talks about Protestant Guilt:

“That’s the way our country’s been. It’s had its good spots and its rough spots. It’s like every place else. We’ve got to face up to it. The trouble is we were a snake-bit people from the start, you see, the snake got us and got us irritated and we behave that way and one of the things that got us down was those Calvinist preachers in the revival days. They preached that revival and they said everything was sinful. There’s a story about a little boy in New England that hid behind the door to whittle on Sunday so God wouldn’t see him.”

And an introduction to a song from the American revolution in which Lomax waxes about the American propensity to violence and his worries about armament:

“Always been mean as a bunch of rattle snakes. ‘Don’t tread on me,’ it said on our first flag, the rattlesnake, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ And I’ve been scared to death ever since we got the atomic bomb. We’re too mean. Some of us are too mean for words.”

The archive is a good place to waste hours. From the Dallas section, I found a mess of awesome old hymns. I can’t figure out how to embed the music players, but here are some highlights from Dallas-area churches in 1948:

That Awful Day Will Surely Come (intro is long, but its worth it)

Old hymns seem to be popping up a lot lately. Graham Reynolds’ soundtrack for the forthcoming Richard Linklater-Jack Black-Shirley MacLaine film Bernie (to be released in April) is heavy on Texas hymns. Veteran Jazzmen Charlie Haden and Hank Jones released a collection of spirituals, Come Sunday, in January. I hope this big Lomax dump will be a part of a bigger surge of interest.