Simanaitis Says

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REAL FOLK

THERE WAS a time, not that long ago if you’re “of a certain age,” when folk music was all the rage. And when I say “folk music,” I mean the real deal, sung by real folk, not rich kids pretending momentarily to lose their sense of elocution. I recommend three examples of the genre.

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The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler Rounder Records, 1997.

The name Lomax looms large, because much of the genre’s authenticity can be traced to the enthusiasm, not to say downright doggedness, of Alan Lomax and of his father, John Avery Lomax, before him.

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Alan Lomax, 1915 – 2002, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, scholar, political activist. Photo, 1986, by Peter Figlestahler.

In July, 1933, John received a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies to search out and record what was known at the time as “race music.” He and his 18-year-old son Alan hit the road with an old fashioned cylinder phonograph/recorder given to them by Thomas Edison’s widow.

An early stop was at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, where they recorded a 12-string guitar player named Huddie William Ledbetter. This convict, later pardoned by Governor Pat Morris Neff, became better known as Lead Belly, the blues artist who achieved fame, if not fortune. (An acrimonious relationship with John Lomax was part of the Lead Belly legacy.)

Onsite recording technology evolved. At one point, the Lomaxes lugged around a state-of-the-art 315-lb. aluminum disc recorder in their car trunk. Later, in 1946, Alan recounted the efficiency and sound superiority of paper-coated tape recording.

The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler, as its name suggests, is only a tiny portion of his recordings collected in the southern U.S., Caribbean, British Isles, Spain and Italy. The album has a 70-page booklet, including Alan Lomax’s “Saga of a Folksong Hunter: a twenty-year odyssey with cylinder, disc and tape.”

Its Amazon link offers snippets of the album. My favorites include the prison work song “Early in the Mornin’ ” and the lament “I’m Going Home.”

In 2012, as custodian of the Alan Lomax Archive, the Associate for Cultural Equity issued a Sound Recordings catalog of its more than 17,000 digitized audio files. One portal to the catalog is http://goo.gl/fgQ2J.

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Cajun Dance Party: Fais Do-Do Columbia Legacy, Sony Music Entertainment, 1994.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science held its 1990 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Along with its technical presentations, auxiliary sessions offered an introduction to Cajun culture, its heritage, language, cuisine and music. There, I learned of how (and why) these Cajun Dance Party recordings were made.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, enterprising salesmen wanted to sell record players in the hinterlands, and what better sales tool than recordings of local artists. They’d arrive in town, ask who was popular and do a recording session. The same sort of primitive equipment that the Lomaxes used would yield a test disc for all to hear. The salesman would receive orders for copies of the disc—and for Talking Machines on which to play them.

By slick modern zydeco standards, the music of Cajun Dance Party is unpolished. I enjoy Amédée Breaux’s “Ma Blonde Est Partie” and her sister Cleoma’s “Le Vieux Soulard Et Sa Femme.” Raw gems that can be sampled at Amazon, played and sung by real folk.

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The Rough Guide to Music of South Africa, World Music Network in association with Rough Guides, NCOS and New Internationalist, 1999.

This last CD is a sampler of pop music of South Africa that I bought during my visit there in 2002. Alas, its contents are different from the one listed at Amazon.

In particular, two cuts on my album show the transition of pennywhistle to saxophone, from amateur musicmakers to those using professionally made instruments.

A high point of my visit to South Africa was time at MalaMala Game Preserve (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-sI.) There, among other wonderful creatures, I came to recognize the South African Rainbird, what ornithologists call Burchell’s Coucal.

The album’s “Nogizongena Kanjani” by Izingqungqulo Zomhlaba is a jive piece with a pennywhistle playing a faithful rendition of the Rainbird’s song. An actual Rainbird can be heard at http://goo.gl/wCtQOl.

The transition to saxophone jive didn’t come without controversy. Some called it mbaqanga, Zulu for “homemade dumpling.” The trend caught on, though, as did the name. “Groovin’ Jive No. 1” by Noise Khanyile & the Jo’Burg City Stars has some great fiddlin’ and mbaqanga. Check it out at http://goo.gl/i4PCK.

And, believe me, none of the elocution is faked. These are real folk. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014

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