There’s a lot of discussion of classic blues players – Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe – and a cast of many more whose music has formed, influenced and been a model for many modern blues singers. Talk to these singers and you’ll hear these names and more mentioned again and again.
Robert Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27, and yet thirty years later the Rolling Stones recorded ‘Love in Vain’ on Gimme Shelter. The real question is how did he find that material so much later, well after Robert Johnson had died? Of course, he heard a recording, but back then people who made recordings were pretty thin on the ground. And yet we have a large number of recordings from the 1920s and ’30s of these American blues artists, and that’s what I want to talk about and praise.
A key to this fell into my hands about forty years ago when a friend lent me a copy of Negro Prison Songs from the Mississippi State Penitentiary. I listened to it out of sheer curiosity; I had no idea what I would be listening to. It’s an album of blues and work songs, recorded in the field, when that meant using recording equipment that completely filled the back half of a substantial car.
I was listening to a song called ‘Old Alabama’ being sung by a work gang splitting timber, with some wonderful natural harmonies, when I hear, and it’s documented in the album notes, a woodchip hitting the microphone. That’s when it really hit me – these are not performers, this is their life. When they sing “did you hear about that waterboy getting drownded”, that’s actually a hurry up to their waterboy to get moving and bring up some water. That’s a whole different perspective on this song, and, more generally, the blues.
The USA was amazingly foresighted in establishing the Library of Congress as a repository of all these records. A collection of unrehearsed songs, as they were sung, by the people who made them part of their life. A key person involved with this was Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax was Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress who followed his father into field recording the folk music of the American people as a cultural treasure trove. After 1942, when Congress cut off his funds, he collected music in Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy and Spain.
But it’s not just musicians who use this treasure trove. When O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out in 2000 starring George Clooney, I was amazed to find actual tracks from that prison songs’ album in the soundtrack. Truly an amazing legacy.
“These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River. They were born out of the very rock and earth of this country, as black hands broke the soil, moved, reformed it, and rivers of stinging sweat poured upon the land under the blazing heat of Southern skies, and are mounted upon the passion that this struggle with nature brought forth. They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen.” – Alan Lomax
Written by Dr John Lamp. Presented by The Sleepy Hallow Blues Club