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Published: 2004/08/27
by Jesse Jarnow

Singing In The Streets: Scottish Children’s Songs – Alan Lomax and various artistsItalian Treasury: Piemonte and Valle D’Aosta – Alan Lomax and various artistsThe Spanish Recordings: Basque Country: Biscay and Guipizcoa – Alan Lomax and various artistsThe

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Preservation Hall Records 06

I feel like a bit of a cultural doof grouping these albums together, recordings made in the mid-20th century in Spain, Italy, Scotland, and New Orleans. Despite their varied cultural heritages, the albums employ similar means of imaginary transportation and evoke a similar sonic space. Certainly, they all sound exotic. But the reason for that foreignness isn't because of their literal distance from the American experience. Instead, it's merely the distance from the present. The factors that combine to make these records sound weird and cool are the twin artists of time and technology, compressing voices to tinny mysteriousness and investing rhythms with pre-modern swings.

The evangelicalism of Sister Gertrude Morgan's Let’s Make A Record, recorded in English in Louisiana, is equally as magical (and beguiling) as any of Alan Lomax’s field recordings from Spain’s Basque region. The latter – along with reissues of discs from his Italian Treasury (whose name unfortunately makes it sound like a chintz CD you’d order offa late-night cable) and his Folk Songs of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales series – are predictably crammed with liner notes. They are helpful, albeit overwhelming, like a librarian who piles a reader so high with books that, no matter how many he reads, he will always be made to feel like he should read just one more before levying judgment. The liners are overwhelming and make it hard for listeners to make the music their own.

Which leads to the question of whether listeners should be allowed to make Alan Lomax’s recordings their own? Does listening to these recordings mean that one is obligated to sympathize with its creators and do his best to understand their culture? Or is it alright to just close one’s eyes and dig all the groovy non-English abstraction that comes piping through the headphones? I side with the latter. If the music is good, it doesn’t matter if you know what it means or not. What’s the difference between that and listening to one of John Coltrane’s long instrumental meditations?

Thankfully, more than many of the recent batches of Lomax recordings, the music on these discs feels instantly otherworldly, almost mystical. (They are highly recommended if looking for a total palette cleanser.) The melodies on the Spanish and Italian discs seem derived from the same ancient DNA as each other, the voices are the same ghostly high-pitched whine exemplified on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. I suspect that if this music were recorded again today, with all of the voices properly mic’ed in a decent recording studio, it wouldn’t have the half the impact of these recordings.

Basque Country: Biscay and Gupuzcoa begins with a blast of alboka — a droning double-clarinet that sounds like a Bulgarian bagpipe. From there, strange instrumentals on weird instruments wander in and out between vocal solos, women’s choruses, and bizarre counter rhythms. (Thankfully, the translations – turns out these are whaling tunes, fishermen’s poems, and odes to the simple life – seem mostly benign.) Perhaps naively, the music evokes sun-kissed countrysides unspoiled by mass advertising and anything more technologically advanced than an occasional beat-up car.

The discs' scholarly architecture actually leads to some aesthetic pleasure, too, notably on Singing in the Streets: Scottish Children’s Songs. These songs "are the folklore of children themselves," Ewan McVicar writes. "[They are] first heard from their pre-teen elders, learned along with their peers, aged seven to ten, and abandoned when puberty struck." Cool! It makes kids sounds like hobbits. (Filthy ‘obbits.) It also means that, in studying the habits of songs over space, several variations of many are included, stacked one after another. What it sounds like, then, is simply a multi-verse arrangement of a song, the melody and lyrics and voices shifting slightly over the course of the composition. (That and just about all the songs are sung by children, which always makes for a bizarre/pretty experience.)

Sister Gertrude Morgan's Let’s Make A Record is another deal entirely. The latest release on Preservation Hall’s in-house archival label comes in a gorgeous gatefold sleeve with nary a liner note about Morgan herself. This is odd, given both that Preservation Hall’s last releases were nicely annotated and, apparently, that Morgan was a hugely alluring New Orleans cultural figure and folk artist. Her emotionally unschooled paintings even grace the cover of the record. It’s odd that there’s nary an explanation, but ultimately it’s okay, because – on the disc – there are 40 minutes of Morgan singing/preaching, accompanied only by her tambourine. Her voice is rich, her language evocative ("it looked a wheel in the middle of a wheel / wheel in a wheel"), her melodies rife with inspired twists. Her voice comes from that same distant land of memory.

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