In early June, 1933, Texas-based Folk song collector John Lomax and his 18-year-old son, Alan, drove out of Dallas on a mission. They were going on “the first major trip in the United States to capture black folk music in the field.” (All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from: The Life & Legend of Lead Belly by Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell.)
The elder Lomax was no stranger to song collecting. In 1910, he had published the results of many years of work in the book: Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Through subsequent research in the published and unpublished folk song collections of the Library of Congress, several Ivy League colleges and elsewhere, he found that there was “a dearth of black folk song material.”
John Lomax wanted to rectify this deficiency and came up with the idea for a new book to be called: American Ballads and Folk Songs. He envisioned that this book would “especially focus on the neglected genre of the black work song.” To collect such music, he decided to visit “sections of the South with a high percentage of blacks.” Specifically, his journey would pinpoint “labouring camps, lumber camps… and eventually, prisons and penitentiaries.”
He convinced the Macmillan Company to give him a contract and a small advance and the Library of Congress to provide research funds and a new disc-based recording machine.
Unlike the pen-and-paper way that John collected songs at the turn of the century, the technology existed in 1933 to first “capture” the songs in recordings. This became known as making “field recordings” and was something that commercial recording companies had been doing for a while. The Lomaxes started their trip with what they had: a dictaphone machine that recorded onto metal-coated cylinders and made “scratchy and squeaky sounds” at best. The state-of-the-art disc-cutting machine with it’s 12-inch annealed aluminum discs that the Library of Congress had promised did not catch up with the travelers until they reached Baton Rouge, LA in early-July.
But it was just in time.
On or about the 12th of July, the Lomaxes arrived at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA. After four days of listening to and recording both male and female inmates, Captain Andrew Reaux of Camp A introduced them to inmate Huddie Ledbetter on Sunday, July 16. John later wrote that “we found a Negro convict so skillful with his guitar and his strong, baritone voice that he had been made a ‘trusty’ and kept around Camp A headquarters as laundryman, so as to be near at hand to sing and play for visitors. Huddie Ledbetter…was unique in knowing a very large number of songs, all of which he sang effectively while he twanged his twelve-string guitar.”
The Lomaxes recorded Huddie, also known as Lead Belly, playing and singing eight different songs, recording “Irene,” a piece they’d never heard before, three times.
In his wonderful book, Delta Blues (2008), Ted Gioia writes: “Prisons are not supposed to play a role in the history of music.”
Good thing John and Alan Lomax didn’t know that.