The Lomax Blues

"...Harder for people to accept is that nothing outside of assumptions connects the music to Africa. Starting in the early 1960s, musicologists fanned across western Africa looking for a proto blues music and in every case came up empty..."



This is apropos of absolutely nothing, but something I couldn't help noticing.  Last year, someone on eBay was selling what he claimed was Alan Lomax's personal 16mm projector.  It sold, but didn't command a high price as a collectible.  (The machine in question was an Athena, which was a Kodak chassis post-fitted with a lot of bells and whistles and rebranded by another company.  Unlike the basic Kodak machines which were very reliable,  Athenas had a bad reputation for frequent breakdowns caused by the added parts.)

 Whatever else one may think about Lomax, who was a controversial figure, he seemed to have a knack for generally choosing important artists, and excellent performances in his recordings.  I've always been puzzled why he didn't make more of the fact that there were black string bands who played music that was cross-fertilized with what white string bands did.  

  The author have reversed the Work and Johnson rules.  John Work III was a musician and college music professor.  Lewis Johnson was a sociologist.  

  The invalidation of African aspects in the blues by "Furry Lewis," is not accurate.   The most obvious one is the call and response of blues guitarists, using the instrument as an answer to vocals.






I think the author's point is that some characteristics of North American folk music that have been traditionally described as obviously African are not demonstrably so. I'm not sure what is obviously African about the call and response of blues guitarists. Ethnologist Alice Fletcher, for example, documented Native American singers mimicking nature in the tempo, rhythm, and pitches of their songs, much like early fiddlers and bottle neck guitarists mimic trains and animals.

Also, from educational publisher McGraw-Hill:

"Many traditions feature a leader and group, or even a more formal call-and-response style... In the cultures of the Eastern Woodlands such as the Iroquois and the Delaware, call-and-response is prevalent as well as a more relaxed, open singing style. Of course, there are many more differences than can be outlined here-even within regions and even cultures..."





   By the way I thought that Furry Lewis was dead and gone, and I certainly look forward to your performances of Kassie Jones!  Just kidding.

  The Delaware and iroquois lived in the northeast US.  Are you now claiming that the blues were invented up there?   




Yes, the great, real Walter E. "Furry" Lewis recorded many great numbers, Kassie Jones among them!

Dick, your comment about black string bands brought to my mind the interesting book I'm currently reading by Elijah Wald called "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues."  He makes a point about exactly that--how black and white musicians influenced each other and--contrary to accepted belief--often played together, especially in rural areas where there were a limited amout of musicians to jam with.  He also claims our accepted history of the blues is quite wrong based on hindsight and current tastes. He claims many of the now-revered old bluesmen like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton were not popular in their time and almost unkown and the popular performers are now somewhat obscure except to blues scholars and dedicated fans--guys like Leroy Carr.

He also makes the point that most of these blues musicians played in many styles--indeed had to in order to make a living playing for a variety of audiences--but since blues was the most popular style when these recordings were made in the 20s & 30s the field recorders only wanted to record the artists' blues songs and dismissed all their other styles. The black string band the Mississippi Sheiks he especially pointed out as being very versatile and excellent musicians who played in every popular style of the day but now we only know them as a blues band because that's what got recorded.

From this article it seems Lomax was guilty of this misrepresentation too and wanted black artists to fit into some preconceived pigeon hole to fulfill his own unintentional racist judgments.


     I think that Elijah makessome  good points, but somewhat overplays them.  IThe blues popularity stuff is from the Lomax-Work-Johnson trips to Mississippi.  This is based primarily on jukebox listings.  How do we know what actual live music these folks listened to? Certainly the streetsinger types were much more available, so to speak, in the rural areas and small towns.     Certainly the musicians weren't limited to blues styles, but the evidence of what Johnson and Patton actually played that isn't on record is pretty anecdotal.  

  On the McTell boxed sets there's a wonderful Library of Congress interview where John Lomax actually harasses Willie about whether he does protest music.  Funny, since John was pretty much of a Texas redneck.  Willie says things are good and he's doing OK, and John keeps pressing the issue.  Weird!


Very intersting Mr. Weissman. Before reading Wald's book I recall listening to one of Blind Willie McTell's last recordings in which he played lots of things besides blues and the liner notes said that was typical of these musicians of his day who are now simply called blues artists.  I also seem to recall mention of Lomax asking McTell about protest songs and the response seem to indicate that McTell was very uncomfortable telling a white man what he really thought about racial relations so he just acted like he had no complaints.

Good point. Big Bill Broonzy, on the other hand, spoke frankly about such matters on a number of occasions. The Blues in the Mississippi Night recordings, for example, were released without the men's real names for fear of retribution.

I had never heard of these recordings "The Blues in the Mississippi Night". After doing some research online what I learned is that they sound both very interesting and probably very disturbing considering the frank discussion of racial relations of that time which, although hard to believe, were even worse than now. Thanks for the information Furry Lewis.

 I bought the Miss. Night album when it first came out.   I do think there's a certain amount of putting on Mr. Charley here.  If you read Bob Riesman's book on Big Bill, he was a great storyteller who shall we say embellished the truth.  I'm sure that Bill and the others were well aware what kind of stories Alan WANTED to hear.  I'm not saying that life was any bed of roses for blues singers or anyone black, just that there's something a bit Hollywood about the whole thing.  Originally he withheld the identies of the singers.  Memphis Slim and Big Bill lived in Chicago, and Bill was singing some protest songs.  It wouldn't appear that they were in mortal danger from racists.

If you've read any of Alan's books or attended any concerts where he was the MC, he definitely favored the dramatic gesture.

Dick Weissman






I have a biography of Big Bill which I haven't read yet so I'm not sure if it's by Bob Riesman but I've heard of Big Bill's "embellishements". Such as when the folk revival of the late 50s early 60s hit which included appreciation of the old country blues artists who were being rediscoverd Big Bill was quick to see the opportunity. Although he was originally from the country he had long been a Chicago resident and very much a city man who had been playing electric blues but he dawned coveralls and toured with his acoustic guitar as some sort of country hayseed since that's what the white folk audience wanted. I know this is nothing new to you Dick who obviously knows more about all of this than I do but I thought others might find it of interst.

You're thinking of Leadbelly in the overalls, which was Lomax's idea. Big Bill toured with "I Come For To Sing" as well as touring Europe as a legit act, not a hayseed.

I don't doubt that Leadbelly wore overalls too but I could swear I read about it in reference to Big Bill which was so incongruous from his true nature such as his wonderful backing on Lil Green recordings which were almost jazz more than blues.

As a teenager in Houston, I saw Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscome perform at several "Alan Lomax presents" shows at the Jewish Community Center. The audience had to endure a long academic introduction and then listen to Alan sing field hollers accapella. Ironically, his style was almost operatic - stiff, formal and extremely "white" - completely out of character with the origins of the music. But once he ceded the stage to his "discoveries," we would be transfixed and transported. Years later, I would have the opportunity to play with Lightnin' and remind him of these shows. He, of course, did not remember than all that fondly.


Rich Layton...Your knowledge and experiences made me curious enough to click on your icon and discover your history as a Texas harp star now living down the road in Portland, OR. So I went to yor website and saw you perform mostly around Portland. Do you ever make it up to Seattle? Are your CDs available in stores or only through your website? I'm interested in hearing your music.

Hey Rich, if you are going to slam my family at least get their identities straight. That was not Alan Lomax at the JCC in the 1960s, but his brother John Avery Lomax Jr., my grandfather.

I am sorry you did not enjoy his singing, but I would dispute your use of the word “operatic” to describe it. Luckily, others can judge for themselves, and you can also see that he did not confine himself to field hollers by any means. He was a man who loved to sing, period.

It’s highly doubtful that “Pops” presented Lightnin’ as his discovery as Hopkins had been a chart-topping star just a few years before those shows. (And who else in Houston was bringing the likes of Hopkins and Lipscomb in front of white audiences in those days, Rich?)

I can’t tell you what Hopkins thought deep-down of those shows, years later, but I can tell you that Hopkins was a guest at the Lomax home on at least one occasion, where he was photographed in our backyard with my parents, my grandparents, and Townes Van Zandt and his then-wife.

I also once read that Pops was the only white man Lightnin’ trusted. (Sorry I can’t cite it; pretty sure it was Living Blues somewhere between 1984 and 1986.) Yes, their relationship had its ups and downs – Pops once groused that “Lightnin’ had every quality of a dog except gratitude” -- but Hopkins was no saint, as I am sure you would admit, and even close friendships sometimes hit patches like that if they last long enough.

So heap scorn on Pops all you want, just know which Lomax you are crapping on. And you should also remember that without Pops’s bookings, you might never have even heard of Hopkins or Lipscomb, and the Houston folk music scene might never have given rise to Townes or Guy Clark, who only reached their full potential because of the shows Pops hosted and booked.

I’ll close with an excerpt from Clark’s 2002 profile in these very pages:


The Houston folk scene was dominated by John Lomax Jr. (son of the famous folklorist, brother of Alan and father of Van Zandt's future manager), a real-estate developer who founded the Houston Folklore Society. At the society's concerts, John Jr. would sing a cappella the traditional songs his dad had collected; sometimes he would grab an axe and slam it into a log to keep the rhythm of a work song.

More importantly, Lomax made sure that Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, two of Texas' greatest living bluesmen, were frequent guests. They couldn't have been more different, for Hopkins was a wise-cracking, slick-as-oil urban hustler, while Lipscomb was a gentle, self-effacing, rural troubadour who included many non-blues numbers in his repertoire. But both could spellbind an audience with just voice and acoustic guitar, so they had a great impact on Clark, Van Zandt and their peers. And that made the Houston folk scene different from any other.

"For a 21-year-old folksinger, it was heaven," Clark recalls. "Both Lightnin' and Mance were brilliant guitar players, though neither were flashy, and that taught us that it's not always the notes you play that make a difference; it's also the holes you leave. We eventually applied that to our songwriting. You don't want to tell the listener everything; you have to leave room for them to imagine how their grandfather would have said it. It makes them feel smart; it makes you feel smart; and everyone is happy.

"Lightnin' and Mance wrote some lyrics that were stunning for that genre. To hear Lightnin' do 'Mr. Charlie', that long talking-blues dripping with sarcasm, just knocked me out. Townes and I didn't write 12-bar blues and didn't try to sing like Lightnin' -- why bother, you can't match him -- but we learned to write about real stuff. You can't make up the shit that Lightnin' sang about."