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Published: 2003/11/28
by Jesse Jarnow

Blues Songbook – Alan LomaxPopular Songbook – Alan Lomax

Rounder Records 82161-1866-2

Rounder Records 82161-1863-2

It's funny the way the things come around. Two new releases from Rounder
Records are credited to one "Alan Lomax." That's the name on the spine,
anyway. The cover of one, Popular Songbook, is designed to look like
an old-tyme bound folio-style vinyl edition — the kind where they used to
put idealized sketched portraits of the authentic musicians contained
therein, like the Carter Family or Leadbelly or whoever. In that spot,
there's a tinted picture of this Lomax fellow, looking fairly blissed out
under a big pair of headphones. The other, Blues Songbook devotes
about 12 small-print pages of its not inconsiderable liner notes to a
biography of Lomax, written by some guy in far off England, from a
ridiculously British sounding town (Hertfordshire) with a ridiculously
British sounding name (John Cowley, Ph. D).

It's all quite perfect, and not a little amusing, that Lomax is being put on
a pedestal. He wasn't, in fact, some genuine musician pulled fresh offa a
plantation. He was the man with the microphone and the tape deck. He was the
man that some have lionized as a great preserver of American music and
others have accused of being a right dastardly exploiter. No matter what he
is, or was (Lomax passed away last summer), there are two points that cannot
be argued. The first is that he was responsible for the recording,
dissemination, and popularization of some incredibly beautiful and vital
music from the American South. The second is that Lomax himself has more
recently become the center of the same kind of academic and commercial
scrutiny that he turned on his subjects, and there's gonna be something
quite delicious about record companies endlessly repackaging Lomax's
recordings. This delight will be for both those who hated Lomax (his name
will be abused and misinterpreted into the ground for a good long while) and
for those who love him (remastering technology will make these amazing
recordings sound better and better as the years pass).

It's the latter that one first notices about Blues Songbook and
Popular Songbook: the sound quality. These tracks have never sounded
richer. And while, on Blues Songbook, there are still plenty of tunes
buried under viciously grating crackle, there are just as many that have
been remixed in stunning stereo fidelity. Under headphones, the music really
is transportational — not because the performances are transcendent (which
they sometimes are) but because the recordings are. For that, one can begin
to get a glimpse of just how important Lomax was, and why his recordings
should be preserved. One can hear guitarists tap their feet on the floor,
and can hear the first microseconds of those taps reverberating through the
structures of whatever buildings they were sitting in — the sound of the
room, the sound of stress on the floor, the sound of the building settling,
the sound of architecture, and the sound of space. It is those creaks that
are Lomax's performances: the building rocking and a dog barking far in the
background during Sidney Lee Carter's a capella lullaby, "Don't Leave
Nobody But The Baby" In listening, the performance really is as much Lomax's
as it is Carter's — at least in terms of what we hear as listeners.

This is all great stuff, and some folk and blues field recordings would
serve any record collection well. Whether or not these are the ones, well,
whatever. These are almost arbitrary paths cut through Lomax's recordings.
Popular Songbook is a disc of tunes later covered by rock acts —
"Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad," "House of the Rising Sun," "Sloop John
B," and the like. Blues Songbook is, at it sounds, an overview of the
blues tunes in the Lomax archives. This essential music will be packaged and
repackaged for years. These will go out of print and be replaced by other
compilations. But the music will always be there, and it will always be

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