Monday, June 25, 2012

Sing, Memory

Lawrence Lebduska, "Panicked Horses" 1957
Once in a while, the Internet does what it's supposed to do. To wit: the Alan Lomax Archive channel on YouTube. Lomax, you may be aware, is one of the great documentarians of global folk music. His mid-20th century field recordings--which helped make musicians like Muddy Waters and Son House household names--are among our genuine cultural treasures, proof (when we surely need it) of our culture's abiding soulfulness and beauty.

In the late '70's and early '80's, at the behest of PBS, Lomax again toured through the southern U.S, this time with a 16 mm camera, shooting performances and interviews with musicians, dancers, storytellers and congregations. The recordings document regional modes--vocal styles, instrumental arrangements, ways of talking, ways of being--that have gradually decayed, that have been paved over by mass culture's ever-growing hegemony.

Speaking of said hegemony: YouTube may be our most populist, anarchic virtual medium but, like the Web in general, it has contributed mightily to the ongoing erosion of physical community and oral communication, to our isolation from each other. Here, though, it has given us access to a powerful traditional method of binding ourselves together, for physically communicating in the present and across generations.

Music has always been historically contingent, subject to socio-political change and the caprices of popular taste. It's a romantic mistake, then, to believe that any recording--no matter how charmingly weathered--hearkens back to some static, primordial moment. Nevertheless, the songs here are evidence of a far weirder, wilder musical culture than the one we currently inhabit. Gothic, surreal songs about talking animals and dead child-brides; droning strings, high lonesome voices, wobbly rhythms. Makes me want to hold hands with everybody. Makes me want to sing and dance.

Here's Sam Chatmon of Hollandale, MS singing "The Preacher and the Bear," from 1978.

This is the Wootten Family of Sand Mountain, Alabama singing "Present Joys" (#318) from the Sacred Harp. From 1982.

Here's Tommy Jarrell singing "Let Me Fall" in 1983. It's a song about getting drunk.

Sheila Kay Adams of Madison County, North Carolina in 1983. This is "Little Margaret".

Here's R.L. Burnside, one of my favorite humans, in 1978. Here he's singing "See My Jumper Hangin' on the Line". That voice!

Here, Frank Proffitt Jr, of Beach Mountain, North Carolina performs "Johnson Boys" on the dulcimer while Stanley and Hattie Hicks Buck-dance. Holy shit.

Finally, your Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans performing "Voodoo" at a funeral parade for Marshall Poland, Sr. in 1982. 

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