Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings, 1933

Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings, 1933 is being released today by Global Jukebox in association with West Virginia University Press. The digital release is via Global Jukebox, while the CD is being handled by West Virginia University Press.

In 1933, with the financial support of the Library of Congress and Macmillan Publishers, John Lomax with his young son Alan visited a number of prisons scattered throughout the American South on a mission to record "authentic" negro folk music untainted by the influences of mass culture and technology (radio, phonographs, etc.) and whites. The recording locations included some of the most notorious institutions in the Jim Crow South; Sugar Land in Texas; Angola in Louisiana; Parchman Farm in Mississippi. Lomax chose these locations based largely upon their seclusion, he reasoned that these prisons would be one of the last places in which he would be able to record "uncorrupted" Negro folk material because of the extreme isolation to which the inmates were subjected. As Lomax notes in an interview helpfully appended to the release: "...in the prison camps we found the Negros completely isolated from the whites. They lived in separate dormitories, they ate together. They had no contact with the whites whatsoever except for their guards, and then purely in official relations." 

I won't for a second pretend that this was not an ideologically complicated, and in many ways troublesome project, but Lomax's attitude is consistent with much white New Deal Progressive thinking on race, as well as the New Deal impulse to document "authentic" American culture both black and white. Yes, John Lomax's attitudes about race are patriarchal, and his notions of authenticity from our post-modern perspective sound both incoherent and unsustainable. And at its worst, his obsession with racial and cultural purity sounds like a de-facto celebration of segregation. But his thinking was also far more progressive than most whites of his era. As liner note writer Mark Allan Jackson notes: "Lomax expressed how he saw black America’s songs as a great and undocumented source of literature, an attitude not largely shared by whites of the era."

And as a result of his field recordings, we have access to songs and performances of extraordinary power and beauty, performances that would otherwise be lost to time. Many of these songs are well known, even if the performances are not. Even though Lomax's obsession with authenticity and purity was problematic, there is no denying the fact that he documented something of lasting value and importance. The performances give a human voice to what we know about the era of Jim Crow in America's South, but they also stand up today as artistically satisfying performances despite the technological limitations of the recordings (which have actually been preserved and restored amazingly well). Lomax described the music as "poetic expressions of pungent wit, simple beauty, startling imagery, extraordinary vividness and power," and I think he got it right. The performances from artists like James "Iron Head" Baker, "Lightning" Washington, Alan Prothero, Mose "Clear Rock" Platt, John "Black Sampson" Gibson, Rochelle Harris, Ernest "Mexico" Williams, Adie Corbin & Ed Frierson and various anonymous inmates retain their power to this day.

It's perhaps somewhat ironic that Lomax set out in search of purity, because the real story of American music in the twentieth-century is one of contamination and cross-pollination. It's easy, perhaps too easy, to draw a straight line that runs from Mose "Clear Rock" Platt's performance of "That's All Right, Honey" on this album through Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and into a young Elvis Presley in Sam Phillips' Sun Studios performing "That's Alright." Likewise, one can hear obvious echos of Ernest "Mexico" Williams' performance of "Ain't No More Cane On the Brazos," as well as numerous other songs on this compilation, in Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, and in turn pretty much all of what passes for American roots music to this day.

Of course, in making these comparisons I'm as guilty of patriarchal racial bias as John Lomax. I'm telling you these recordings are worth hearing because they influenced some white musicians who went on to become very famous and fabulously wealthy. But that's not really what I want to say, or at least it's not the entirety of what I want to tell you about this release. The music on this release is worth hearing because the performances are brilliant and moving, and because Lomax, whatever his intentions, documented something important, and preserved the voices of America's most marginalized and powerless during a brutal period in American history. How the words and voices of the powerless went on to change the course of American popular music, and American history in general, is one of the most compelling stories of twentieth-century, and the reverberations Lomax captured on cylinders and discs nearly 80 years ago are still being felt to this day.

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