This is a reprise of a post that originally appeared on sixstr stories in July, 2010.
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 1992 book 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 Through subsequent research in the published and unpublished folk song collections of the Library of Congress and those of several Ivy League colleges, John had found that there was “a dearth of black folk song material.”
John Lomax wanted to rectify this deficiency. He 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, John 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.”
(Prisons and penitentiaries? Alan Lomax gave this answer to that question in his 1993 book, The Land Where The Blues Began: “We thought we should find that the African-American away from the pressure of the church and community, ignorant of the uplifting educational movement, having none but official contact with white men, dependent on the resources of his own group for amusement, and hearing no canned music, would have preserved and increased his heritage of secular folk music.”)
John Lomax convinced the Macmillan Company publishers to give him a contract and a small cash advance. He also got the Library of Congress to provide research funds and a new disc-based recording machine.
The only recording equipment that John and Alan Lomax had when they started their trip in June, however, was a dictaphone. This machine, originally intended for taking dictation in an office setting, recorded onto metal-coated wax cylinders and made “scratchy and squeaky sounds” at best. The state-of-the-art machine that recorded onto 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 arrived just in time.
On or about the 12th of July, the Lomaxes arrived at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA. They spent four days listening to and recording many talented inmates. But on Sunday, July 16, Captain Andrew Reaux of Camp A introduced them to inmate Huddie Ledbetter. 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 Ledbetter, who went by the nickname “Lead Belly,” playing and singing parts of eight different songs. “Irene,” a song John and Alan had never heard before, warranted three recordings.
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.