Alan Lomax on Music and Transformation


An art so deeply rooted in the security patterns of the community should not, in theory, be subject to rapid change, and in fact this seems to be the case. Musical style appears to be one of the most conservative of culture traits. Religion, language, even many aspects of social structure may change; an entirely new set of tunes or rhythms or harmonic patterns may be introduced; but, in its overall character, a musical style will remain intact. Only the most profound social upheavals – the coming of a new population, the acceptance of a new set of mores – or migration to a new territory, involving complete acculturation, will profoundly transform a musical style, and even then the process takes place very slowly.

– Alan Lomax (1959), in American Anthropologist, explaining why music may be the great barometer of culture. For the uninitiated, Lomax may be one of the major reasons that this site exists, and there will be more on him soon, especially as I try to sort through my own feelings on his system of cantometrics. All I know is, his 50s recordings from the American South are eternal.

Let’s Give Ol’ Tennessee Credit for Music… [Part One]

via cityofknoxville.orgSo, I’m in Tennessee. The Eastern portion, perhaps best known by Geographers as the land of Oak Ridge Laboratories and the Great Smoky Mountains, equal parts remote sensing supercomputers and surreal Appalachian beauty. Of course, the process of moving has made it all but impossible for me to really experience either of those things in any measure, and the massive, predominantly wifi-less train journey I took (I do apologize for the lack of updates since I was in the Pacific Northwest) prevented me from preparing my brain for the onslaught of musical geography that this state contains.

In related news, not that I’ve formally mentioned this on the blog yet, I will be working toward my PhD in Geography here, at the University of Tennessee. I could not be more excited about it. The department is a great group of people, and Knoxville is a great (and growing ridiculously fast) medium-sized city. I will keep this updated with any news on my research here. I should probably finish registering with the department first…

Anyway, I was driving through Knoxville earlier today and a beautiful sentimental song about Tennessee came on the radio which my general desire to not crash my car into the Fourth & Gill underpass murals prevented me from grabbing a pen and writing down. In my online search for the song, I came across a pair of videos that will undoubtedly lead me down an infinite rabbit hole of Eastern Tennessee music. Considering how (relatively) little in-depth research I did on Knoxville prior to moving here (rewatching the classic Simpsons episode notwithstanding), I am still amazed how easy it is to forget that Tennessee may just possibly be the single most influential state in the development of modern popular music. NO BIG DEAL.


I don’t even have to begin explaining why I’ve come to the right place. Even without Memphis’ monolithic impact on RnB and Rock n’ Roll over the past eight-plus decades (which is easy to discount around these parts, since that city is about eight hours’ drive away), Tennessee remains the bellwether of both Country Music (Nashville) and Bluegrass Music (Knoxville). Hillbilly music in general owes as much to Tennessee as it does any state; the hills of Eastern Tennessee were where those auld [sic] English ballads wove their way through the nineteenth century and into the strings of countless fiddles and banjos. I’m going to spend the next few years of my life digging through all of it and attempting to provide insight, but for now, here’s (who else?) the inimitable Dolly Parton singing about it. Enjoy the rest of your week, everyone.

The New Alan Lomaxes

I woke up to see Don Fleming’s name in my email inbox yesterday morning. For those of you who don’t know Don Fleming, he has been plying his talents as a musical and cultural jack-of-all-trades for more than three decades. Imagine David Byrne if he had emerged from Washington DC. Or just listen to some of his early works and get the idea.

Anyway, I first came into contact with Don a few years ago when I contacted the Cultural Equity Center in New York, primarily out of my general interest in the life and work of Alan Lomax. It turned out that Fleming, whose name seemed familiar at first, had not only been integral to DC’s bizarre post-punk scene in the early 80’s, but had also produced records for a number of legendary artists (Hole, Sonic Youth, Andrew WK) and had, at one time, worked at the same company that I had in Bethesda, MD. Given his nearly endless resume as a musician and producer, “archivist” and “preservationist” both followed pretty closely.

Alan Lomax with friends, 1960’s (Photo: UNC Libraries)

This is not the first time I’ve written about Alan Lomax, and it absolutely won’t be the last. I cannot understate his contributions to ethnomusicology, musical geography, anthropology, and of course the recorded backbone of American music, but here’s the ten-cent biography from the auction listings:

A prolific folklorist, ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, writer, producer, and musician, Alan Lomax dedicated his life to documenting and preserving the world’s expressive traditions. Lomax was devoted to what he called “cultural equity”: the right of all cultures to nurture their traditions and to see them represented equally in media and the public sphere.

Fleming’s email to the Cultural Equity list serve announced that their foundation was downsizing and, in an effort to spruce up funding, was selling off many of the original tools of Lomax’s trade on eBay. Just tell me you don’t want his beautiful typewriter, or that you don’t want to buy me his original UHER 516 Mono Microphone for my (upcoming) birthday.

A few years ago, Mississippi Records issued dozens of his field recordings made during his now-mythologized “Southern Journey” through the United States from 1959-1960. I got my hands on a couple of them, and it’s completely remarkable how well the analog recordings have held up, and how you can hear strands in these traditional numbers (many of which hearkened back to the Antebellum era, even) in all kinds of modern music.

The last track on Side A of “Worried Now, Won’t Be Worried Long” (I love the titles that MR chose, by the way) is a fife-and-drum traditional song called “Ida Reed” performed by Ed, Lonnie, and G.D. Young. As strange as it felt when I first heard it (and still feels strange to type a few years later), I could not get “Hollaback Girl” out of my head as I listened to it. (Where’s the tribute there, Gwen Stefani?)  I couldn’t find the exact recording online, but here is a video that Lomax filmed of Othar Turner and friends playing a snare-happy version of the song in 1978.

True to form, I had difficulty finding the shooting location of Gravel Springs, MS via any satellite, but from what I gathered, this is approximately 50 miles south of Memphis and 50 miles East of the Mississippi. In other words, the middle of nowhere in the Mississippi Delta, which may be the most appropriate place they could have filmed this. It’s remarkable how unrefined Turner’s playing style is, considering how he was one of the best known fife players of this century. Of course, the music is meant to be somewhat sloppy, though, like the dried-out, unkempt land they grew up on and worked for most of their lives. Based on all evidence I can find, these guys were the real deal, and Lomax devoted his life (like his father did before him) to reminding us living on the other side of all this just what exactly “the real deal” was. 

I don’t know if Lomax has a direct successor out there now, but given how cheap recording technology has become (or embedded in the phones our society sanctifies), there could be thousands out there. For all of the damage that Youtube and similar sites have done to comedy, production standards, and our attention spans, they’ve done a good job immortalizing once-unknown street musicians and musical styles.

Anyway, thanks to Don Fleming and his associates for making sure we don’t forget just how expansive and vital all of this was for so much of the 20th century. And thanks to whomever supports the Association for Cultural Equity and puts in a winning bid for this poor geographer on Lomax’s amazing blue typewriter. Or maybe the microphone, too.

Bonus Tracks

  1. In case anybody is interested, I’ll upload my 6.14.11 interview with Don Fleming from my former radio show once I find the file.
  2. In case anybody missed it (or just isn’t obsessed with 90’s emo), the title of this post is indeed a nod to the song “The New Nathan Detroits” by the (ostensibly) late, great Braid