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Alan Lomax
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Alan Lomax

When I met Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, I was in charge of the collecting work at the Archive of American Folk Song, which my father, John Lomax, and I helped to found at the Library of Congress. I was traveling all over the country, handing out recording gear, opening up new areas of America that hadn't been recorded before and finding all kinds of people. And the thing that I always tried to do with important singers when I met them was to sit down and record everything they knew, give them a first real run-through of their art. They heard it all back, they listened to it, they rejoiced in it with someone who appreciated it, maybe, as much as they did. And this was a tremendous experience for people who may have been isolated in their own communities. Suddenly they see their thing from a wider perspective. It's a process I call TLC, and I think that's maybe the most important thing that folklorists and people interested in the people's art do in their work. They give music, musicians, talent, an audience that maybe they lost in their own community because times have changed, commercial music has come in and taken the place of what they had. So they get a chance to understand how great they are in that process of listening, recording, and recapitulating their whole artistic heritage.

Tell us about Lead Belly, why he was important.

    My father and I met Lead Belly in the Angola Penitentiary in 1933. We came there looking for the roots of American black song, and we certainly found them with Lead Belly. I'll never forget: He approached us all the way from the building where he worked, with his big twelve-string guitar in his hand. He sat down in front of us and proceeded to sing everything that we could think of in this beautiful, clear, trumpet-like voice that he had, with his hand simply flying on the strings. His hands were like a whirlwind, and his voice was like a great clear trumpet. You could hear him, literally, half a mile away when he opened up. He was at his peak then. He was, naturally, dying to get out of the place he was in, and he recorded for us his appeal for pardon to the governor. And we took the song to the governor's mansion on one hot August day, left it with his board clerk, and suddenly, magically, a few months later, Lead Belly was out of the pen. And this helped to convince him of something that he really felt all the time: He was indeed a champion. It was the second time he'd done it! When the governor of Texas came to the Texas pen where Lead Belly had also been serving time earlier, the governor was a man who said, "I'll never give a man a pardon while I'm governor!" But he pardoned Lead Belly because Lead Belly had made this incredibly amusing song that got the governor tickled while he sat there on one of his inspection rounds. Lead Belly was a man who decided he was going to be a champion in life. Everything he did, he did it with his whole personality: sing, dance, fight, work. And I think the thing that he felt in himself and transmitted to his audience, and the thing that has made him a figure that no one can forget, that impressed the whole world, was the fact that he endured this incredible experience of work in the backward, dangerous, reactionary South, prison experiences, and came out of it with a laugh like a boy, with a sense of total joy in himself. He wasn't bitter. He simply felt that he triumphed over everything.

    It was this note of triumph, an old note that came from the generations of work-song singers, his ancestors in Africa and in the U.S. who cleared the land for cultivation, that echoed through Lead Belly's voice. He carried that sound right into his city performances, and he simply electrified his audiences. He had standing ovations everywhere we presented him. And suddenly, Lead Belly and the Lomaxes were national figures. Time-Life came along and put him in their first March of Time movie, and there was a book contract and so on. We retired to the country, and I had the tremendous pleasure and excitement of recording everything Lead Belly knew. Sat there with an old-time aluminum recorder that engraved its images on an aluminum record, and Lead Belly and I worked away at what he knew for three or four months. He learned through the way that my father and I felt about his songs, his country songs, that they were great songs. And then he went out and sang them for the audiences that we found, and he found a tremendous reaction to that. So Lead Belly, instead of going through the normal kind of commercial process of having to adapt his material to the standards of what somebody thought would sell, arrived in New York with his whole country background of music intact. He kept, up to the end of his life, singing the wonderful rural songs of Louisiana and Texas, which was a frontier in those days, with the same passion and excitement that he had when we first met him.

    We went over Lead Belly's repertory with him. And we helped him round it off into concert form so that when he got up in front of his audience, he sang ballads and work songs and lullabies and children's games and square-dance tunes, the whole thing. And remember, this was probably the most sophisticated folk music of the world at that time, because blacks had a great tradition that they brought from Africa, but they poured all this African tradition into an English language form here and made all kinds of new melodies that had never been heard of before. The British ballads became a new kind of form in their hand. And out of them came the blues, a new kind of song of commentary and satire, a song form which, after all, has become the main musical form of the whole human species.

What was important about the songs that Lead Belly wrote, that he gathered from the experiences and the music around him?

    Well, Lead Belly didn't write many songs. What he did, more remarkably than that - we told him one time, "Lead Belly, you know, these Yankees don't understand anything you're singing about." So Lead Belly said, "I'll explain it to them." And he began to annotate his songs with kind of a preacher's chant between every verse explaining exactly what the lyrics were about, what the dialogue in the songs concerned. And by the time he'd finished singing one of these songs, you had experienced a kind of a black drama - you'd been at a happening in a black house, a fight at a country dance, or something like that.

    Lead Belly could make a song when he needed to. Once, that actually happened when I was present. He came to stay with me in Washington. Washington, at that time, was a Jim Crow town, and blacks weren't supposed to enter white hotels or houses. Well, I lived in a little apartment across from the Library of Congress, and Lead Belly and his wife, Martha, came up to spend the night with us. The landlady objected, and Lead Belly and Martha, at the head of the stairs, heard the argument that I had with the lady - she said she was going to call the police and have us all put out. So we finally had to get in a car and find a hotel. But Lead Belly made a song about this called "Bourgeois Blues": "Me and Martha was standing up there/We heard the white lady say she didn't want no black folks up there/She's a bourgeois lady living in a bourgeois town." He'd heard us talking about bourgeois, and he put that word into a song so that nobody can ever forget its deleterious meaning.

What's the relationship to Lead Belly in rock and roll?

    Well, Lead Belly was the favorite singer and the model for a young Irish guitar player, ballad singer, named Lonnie Donegan who grew up in Liverpool. Lonnie Donegan sang all of Lead Belly's song and copyrighted some of them in his own name, but he popularized not only Lead Belly's songs, but his style, his guitar playing style from Louisiana, under the title "skiffle music." And skiffle music, in the 50s, was the rage among the young people all over Great Britain, and the songs were big in America too for a while, and it was directly from that skiffle music that the young singers of Liverpool like the Beatles and others got their idea about how to make American songs.

Tell us about Woody Guthrie.

    I'll never forget the first time I saw Woody. We were doing a benefit for this Spanish cause, the Spanish Loyalists who were fighting against Franco, and Woody was on the show. It was one of the first nights he was in New York. He stepped out on the stage, this little tiny guy, big bushy hair, with this great voice and his guitar, and just electrified us all. I remember the first song I heard him sing: "Mention Dirty to My Heart." It was a ballad about Pretty Boy Floyd: [singing] "Come and gather round me children, and a story I'll tell, about Pretty Boy Floyd the outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well." Well, I realized, listening to this song, that I was meeting a guy who was a ballad maker, in the same sense as the people who made "Jesse James," and "Casey Jones," and all the ballads that I spent my life trying to find and preserve for the American people. I thought they were from anonymous people. Well, here was Mr. Anonymous singing to me.

    Tragedy walked in on Woody's early life. His sister died in a frightening domestic accident, and the family was torn apart by all the problems endemic in a little boom town in Western Oklahoma. Woody grew up doing money errands, doing odd jobs, selling cigarettes in the juke joints, surviving any way he could. And then he saw the Dust Bowl and experienced the terrors of a whole population getting up and leaving its roots and moving somewhere else. So he knew life from the bottom of the heap. But amazingly enough he always had a kind of mature vision of this. He saw it from the outside the way a writer sees it. He was a natural writer. Way back in his early life he became a psychic and opened up a shop where he took care of people's troubles. And he remained that person all his life. You could go to him for council, and he'd give you darn good advice. He was someone who was just a little bit bigger than most folk somehow.

    At the time that I first met Woody, I had a radio show on CBS coast to coast, and I wanted Woody on that show. So we drove back to Washington, where I lived, and he spent a week with me. An amazing time it was for me. He wouldn't sleep in a bed and he wouldn't eat at a table because he wanted to keep tough for the road, because he believed that in living on the road, and keeping in contact with the common man and the experiences of ordinary Americans, many of whom were unemployed and wandering the roads looking for a home - Woody wanted to stay a part of that. I asked him to write a couple of pages for the show we were going to do about the Dust Bowl. I came home, there were about twenty pages of the most beautiful American prose - prose that Mark Twain would have been proud to have written. I said, "Woody, what are you going to do with your life?" He said, "I'm going to go back down there to Oklahoma and get me a pair of six guns, and I'm going to break those banks and get that money back to those poor people," because that's what he believed he should do. I said, "Woody, you can do more with that typewriter than you can with any machine gun you can possibly buy." And we went back to New York, and we won the national prize for the best music show that year, and all that was in it was me and Woody and his harmonica. That kind of sold him on it. And then CBS took him up, and he began to have an impact. And he did then turn to being a full-time American ballad writer and prose writer. And I think that his model maybe set up many things for writers and ballad makers all over the world.

What was so significant about Woody's music at that time?

    Woody came up in a frontier place in Oklahoma, Injun territory, which was new country, in an oil boom. And everything was happening there. The town was full of Injuns, Mexicans, blacks, people from all over the country, and Woody lived in those honky-tonks, and he picked up his guitar, and he learned how to make music that would make sense to all those folks. It was composed of ragtime, hillbilly, blues, of all the currents of his time. He made a new idiom that really represented the opening of this new Western frontier of new highways and power lines and Dust Bowl migrants and all that. It had the sound of movement in it. His guitar has the sound of a big truck going down the highway with the riders bouncing around in the front seat. It was a new idiom and really, all America really responded to that. The whole world! We have a dam named after him; he wrote America's unofficial national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land." He had the feel of the relationship between language and melody such as nobody else in our time had except maybe his protégé, Bobby Dylan. And I think one of the signs of Dylan's uniqueness was that when he was just a kid he realized that the greatest verbal artist in the country was named Woody Guthrie.

What's Woody's relationship to rock and roll?

    I knew Bobby Dylan back in the days when he lived in the village. He used to come and see me and sing songs for me, saying they ought to go into my next collected book on American folk music. But I was terribly impressed with the fact he had really learned Woody's style, and I think that was just as important an act for him as it would have been for a young opera singer to learn how to sing Enrico Caruso. Because Woody lived Whitman's dream, and Dylan had the genius to see that and feel it. He absorbed Woody completely. And he could sing Woody's songs in a fantastically marvelous way. And out of that style, which was a style that represented the new Western frontier that Woody had put together out of his genius, has come a great deal of the best of rock and roll. First of all, it's a style that had a conscience. A lot of rock and roll goes back to that. Because when Dylan became popular, he became popular as another Woody Guthrie, really, on his first couple of records, and was a person who was reflecting about life, who was concerned about justice and injustice and equity and poverty and all that. Not quite so militantly as Woody, but still that note was struck in popular music more powerfully than it had been since the Civil War. And it has remained an important thing in rock and roll. And I think that's really Woody's contribution via Dylan and via the other singers who have also admired and followed in Woody's footsteps.

Let's relate Woody and Lead Belly together.

    Back in the early 30s, Woody and Lead Belly were musical cronies. At all the New York folk-song parties of that day - and the guitar picking population of New York at that time consisted of about ten people, if you can believe it - Lead Belly and Woody were the stars. And usually after all of us had decided to go to bed, Woody would go home with Lead Belly and they'd sit up and play until morning.

    Really, the spirit that Lead Belly and Woody have stems back to the New Deal. That was a time when the whole country was opening up, America was learning about itself. And a great deal of what we learned was through those two guys who suddenly turned up. There was a real affinity between them, I think, because both of them came from a new part of the Western frontier - both came from oil boom towns, in the far west of the South, that is, one from Shreveport, Louisiana, and one from nearby oil-rich hills of Oklahoma. Both of them, therefore, were Western singers, in a sense, and the Western styles sum up the whole of America, where America had got to. And it was a new West. It not only had the sound of cowboy ballads in it, but both of them had the sound of trucks and fast railroads and oil-well pumps and the new opening up of the country, and it also had all the woes that go with it, the feeling of the fragmentation of society that was happening under the pressure of industrialism. Their music has grabbed the attention of the world because it sums up the whole country. It has everything in it: ballads, mountain music, ragtime, jazz, blues, and yet remains a genuine rural folk music that doesn't depart from the canons of that.

Can you describe a little bit of how Woody and Lead Belly spent their time together?

    Basically, they just loved to play together. Woody just absolutely venerated Lead Belly. You see, Lead Belly had gone through an experience that very few other people had gone through and even survived physically. And he came out of these American concentration camps that were the penitentiaries of the South at that time; he came out of it whole and laughing and joyous and confident. And who couldn't admire a person like that? And he had this incredible voice, he had a musical fire that just didn't exist in other people. Even by the 30s, American folk music was being commercialized. And what did that mean? That the guy in back of the glass there, a person who had no knowledge of what the songs actually signified emotionally, was saying, "Oh, put in a little bit more of that, do a little bit more this way. No, no, that's too long. No, speed it up! Slow it down! Stomp your foot harder!" and so forth. Lead Belly and Woody managed to escape that and brought their pure country style right to town. They liked each other for that reason. And Woody learned from Lead Belly. Some of his best things are based on Lead Belly tunes. And I think they were of enormous help to each other, because they were, aside from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the only folk singers in the city at the time.

You've said that some of the best years of your life were spent working with Woody and Lead Belly.

    Well I think that, really, when I look back on fifty years of working on folk music in America and elsewhere, I think maybe the most important contribution I made to the future was the time that I put in with these two people. I was very young and I could really sit at their feet. At the same time, I was a very ripened person in the sense of literary and folklore knowledge, and I could give them a very sophisticated response. And I think I helped them a lot in appreciating the wonder of the tradition they inherited from all the people in their background. And perhaps in that way, I helped them make the enormous impact that they did on the music of our time. I suspect that they're the two of the most influential folk musicians of the last fifty or sixty years, and part of this is due to the fact that they came to town with their whole, fresh, powerful, pure folk repertory intact - living, vibrant, and with the impact of a country mule ready to kick a hole into the future.

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