John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (Dover,
1994; originally Macmillan, 1934)
John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, Our Singing Country -- Folk Songs and Ballads (Dover, 2000, originally Macmillan, 1941)
John W. Work, American Negro Songs (Dover, 1998; originally Crown, 1940)
The father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax played a pivotal role in preserving American folk songs at a time when they may have stood in danger of being supplanted by recorded popular music. And they played the role of impresarios and facilitators in helping bring the songs of African American performers to a wider audience.
The two Lomax books here are records of the role that they played, and more than that, they're an immense treasure trove of American song, from which modern performers continue to draw inspiration.
The story of John Lomax's work and the production of American Ballads and Folk Songs in particular, is told superbly in Nolan Porterfield's superb biography, Last Cavalier. Lomax was a colorful and controversial character, and American Ballads and Folk Songs, though popular, was criticized, especially in the scholarly community, for its somewhat relaxed approach to documentation. Lomax was not, after all, a trained folklorist or musicologist; nearly all of the work he did on these two books was done after he retired from a long career as an administrator in Texas institutions of higher education.
So for their followup, the Lomaxes recruited Ruth Crawford Seeger, a noted American composer and matriarch of the Seeger folksinging dynasty, as "music editor," a task that at times drove her to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion. She and her husband, composer and scholar Charles Seeger, were in the vanguard of serious musicians who turned their attention to folk song in the 1930s, under the auspices of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration's various arts programs. Their story is told in Ruth Tick's comprehensive biography, Ruth Crawford Seeger.
To have these two books, and John Work's American Negro Songs, back in print, is an occasion for celebration. One has but to thumb through any one of these tree volumes to find the roots, trunks and branches of all manner of American music that's still being made today.
The first book comprises 25 chapters, all chock-a-block with songs; most have music as well as lyrics, many have a few sentences or even paragraphs detailing their provenance or other interesting facts, and some have variant versions offered. At times it's like thumbing through a written version of the Harry Smith Anthology recordings, as one unearths with every turn of the page yet another gem that is still remarkably current. There's a song titled "Rosie" that contains many of the lyrics Bob Dylan used in his song "Mississippi" on his most recent studio album, Love and Theft; now we know where the theft came in. There's a lengthy version of "Stewball," popularized in the early '60s by Peter, Paul & Mary. There's a variant of "Midnight Special" cadged directly from a prison farm. There are versions of "Frankie and Albert," covered by just about everybody. And there's one called simply "Bad Man Ballad," which became the basis for T. J. Arnall's "Cocaine Blues," covered by Johnny Cash in the early '60s as "Transfusion Blues" and under its drug-referencing title on his masterpiece, At Folsom Prison. The book mentions that it's apparently derived from a song called "Little Sadie," which was recorded by Clarence Ashly in 1962, and again by Dylan on his universally panned Self Portrait album.
And that's just in the first 100 or so pages of this 600-plus-page book. Looking a little farther along you find a section called "Cocaine & Whisky," with a lengthy version of the humorous song "Rye Whisky," which surprisingly contains most of the verses of another song called "Moonshiner," covered by alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo as well as country/alt-country crossover singer Allison Moorer. In the "Blues" chapter, among others, you'll find "Woman Blues," which yielded "C.C. Rider," recorded by numerous blues belters, and a version of which appeared in 2004 on an iTunes exclusive release by the Old Crow Medicine Show; how's that for continuity from the early 20th century to the digital age?
Judith Tick writes a lucid introduction to this latest release of Our Singing Country, which is a shorter but more rigorous and scholarly work. Its six main sections cover Religious Songs, Social Songs, Men at Work, Outlaws, Hollers & Blues and Negro Gang Songs. The songs tend to be more regional and less of the kind that my generation learned to sing at school, although there is a version of "House of the Rising Sun," among the more familiar titles. And there's "Role On, Babe," which contains the seed of Merle Travis' "Nine Pound Hammer," with its chorus of "Oh, roll on, babe, don't you roll so slow/when the sun goes down you'll roll no more." And of course a version of "John Henry."
There's a nice but short section of Cajun songs, a variant of "Pretty Polly," and a long and annotated version of "Black Jack Davy." And much, much more. Both these volumes are invaluable for students of American music, and make good companion volumes for a 2004 book/CD set called The Rose & the Briar, which examines the American ballad.
American Negro Songs is a similar work, focusing solely on African American folksongs: spirituals, blues, work songs, and "social and miscellaneous" songs. It, too, reveals the extent to which current artists are still drawing on folk sources: Page 95 contains the music and words to "I Wish I's in Heaven Sittin' Down," which was a hit single just a few years ago for North Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside. Songs that are now familiar, like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Motherless Child," "Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin' Bed," "Walk That Lonesome Valley" and others were not such common currency outside of the Black community in 1940.
There's also "Railroad Bill," which Ramblin' Jack Elliot and many others sang during the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s, and which showed up on Dave Alvin's Grammy-winning 2003 CD Public Domain; another version of "John Henry"; and "Po Lazarus," the opening song on the multi-million-selling soundtrack from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
These books are reasonably priced trade paperbacks, available online from Dover Books. As I said before, they're a treasure trove for all lovers of American song, and despite the dated language that would be considered racist today, important books that belong in every music-lover's library.