Monday, December 10, 2012

The Day the Archives Walked in the Door

Eric B. Schultz

Alan Lomax (left) with Richard Queen of Soco
Junior Square Dance Team at the Mountain
Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina,
mid century. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
I loved Randall’s latest post, which mixed music and archives, and reminded me how tricky it can be to capture and preserve historic “sound.”  It also brought to mind the story of Alan Lomax (1915-2002), one of America’s great music folklorists and archivists.  From 1937 to 1942, Lomax was a director in the newly-formed Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress, eventually collecting and preserving thousands of important and unique field recordings.

In 1938, Lomax sat Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe 1890-1941) down in a small auditorium at the Library and asked him if he knew how to play “Alabama Bound.”  Morton was in the twilight of his career, many years removed from his formative days in New Orleans, and prone to invention—including a birthday that made him old enough to have, as he proclaimed, “invented jazz.”  Lomax was skeptical of Morton in particular and of jazz in general, which he saw at the time as a destructive force threatening to overwhelm his beloved American folk music. 

Morton began playing “Alabama Bound” and Lomax was stunned, saying later that Morton “played me the most beautiful ‘Alabama Bound’ that I had ever heard.” 

Recognizing suddenly the talent that had walked into his archives, Lomax charged up-stairs, secured fifty blank aluminum discs from his boss, the Chief of the Music Division, grabbed a bottle of whiskey in his office to place on Morton’s piano for motivation, and returned to the auditorium.  Lomax’s next question, “Jelly Roll, where did you come from and where did it all begin?” would result in over twelve hours of recordings that included tales of New Orleans, names of the many musicians Morton remembered (or wanted us to think he remembered), and wonderful, marvelous music.  The recordings today can be purchased in an award-winning CD boxed set, or on-line in digital form.

Those who listen will know that Morton was not only a fount of knowledge and a gifted musician, but most appreciative of the whiskey, commenting throughout his interviews on its high quality.  (Ah, for the days when one could grab a loose bottle of whiskey from his office for the unexpected guest.)

The following year, Frederic Ramsey and Charles Edward Smith published Jazzmen, the essential building block for much of the written jazz history to follow.  Interviewing “every living jazz musician who could contribute factual material,” the authors collected stories and first-hand accounts, all of which turned out to be colorful and instructive, and some of which even turned out to be true.  They were diligent in their quest, moving from “the dives of Harlem, Chicago and New Orleans, to the rice fields of Louisiana, to Storyville, the now legendary red-light district of New Orleans, to reform schools, even to the last stopping place of at least two jazz pioneers, a hospital for the insane.”  In particular, they located and relied heavily upon Willie Geary “Bunk” Johnson, a brilliant early New Orleans cornetist who was rediscovered driving a truck for $1.75 a day during rice season in Louisiana, and nearly starving the rest of the year. 

It was the creation of this oral history by Ramsey and Smith that also led to the rediscovery of “King” Buddy Bolden, acknowledged by some of the very early New Orleans musicians as the first to play music that would come to be called jazz.  Morton’s famous assessment of Bolden: he was “the blowingest man since Gabriel.”

It seems clear from Lomax’s writings that in 1938 jazz had not yet attained status as a great American art form.  By 1950, however, he had begun to appreciate its power, writing, “Perhaps nothing in human history has spread across the earth so far, so fast as this New Orleans music.  Thirty years after its genesis it was as popular and understandable in New York, Paris, Prague, and Shanghai as in its own hometown.”

Thanks to Lomax’s fine ear and musical open-mindedness, and Morton’s superb rendition of “Alabama Bound,” we can download today on iTunes (speaking of things that spread rapidly across the earth!) Jelly Roll’s history and recordings of the great American art form.  Then, unlike Randall’s “cold basements with little sunlight,” we can sit in our sunny family rooms or apartments and enjoy selections from one of America’s finest musical archives.

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

God bless those people who are prescient to take advantage of opportunities to preserve treasures for the future. While watching a documentary recently about the Chicago fire, I was reminded of the story of the janitor who saved so many of the records of the Chicago Stock Exchange the first night of the fire. History is so dependent on what seems like perhaps the whims of those who have the chance to record/save something and do it. How often do they really know what they are doing?