In 1959, Alan Lomax plotted a trip through the southern United States to document the breadth of the region’s disparate musical traditions. With financial backing from Atlantic Records allowing him access to some of the most up-to-date equipment available, Lomax and his entourage (which included British musician and folklorist Shirley Collins) recorded semi-professional bluesmen, Sunday church choirs, bluegrass callers, shape note singers, folk musicians, and a capella crooners.
Lomax compiled the recordings onto several records that Atlantic released individually in 1960. In 1993, they were reissued as a CD box set, titled Sounds of the South, which is out of print today. Bootlegs and old vinyl still circulate among the faithful, continuing to inspire artists from various generations and genres to innovate and reinvent (including Megafaun and friends, whose three-night Duke Performances gig, starting tonight, takes Sounds of the South as its source material). On 1999’s Play, the techno artist Moby sampled jump-rope rhymes by Bessie Jones and a capella spirituals by Vera Hall to create a kind of whooshing millennial folk music. A year later, producer T-Bone Burnett included several songs from Sounds of the South on his soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and won the 2002 Grammy for Album of the Year.
Many of the musicians and genres were virtually unknown outside of their own communities, but soon found themselves in front of a much wider audience. In particular, Almeda Riddle, the grand dame of Ozarks balladry, probably never foresaw the day she would be singing at the Newport Folk Festival. As told in the 1985 documentary Now Let’s Talk About Singing (which you can watch on The Thread later today), Riddle lived her whole life (1898-1986) in Arkansas, lost her husband to freak tornado in the mid-twenties, and struggled throughout the Great Depression to raise her children. Singing became a salve for her fears and the grueling labor of running a small farm. Later, it would be a repository for memories—a mnemonic device by which she could recall the events of her life. On her five songs from the volume titled American Folk Songs for Children, her voice is spry, boisterous, and utterly commanding; it’s impossible to decide if she sounds older or younger than her 62 years.
By the time Lomax recorded her, Riddle was already somewhat well-known in the region, having been the subject of field recordings by Arkansas professor John Quincy Wolf Jr. in 1952. Seven years later, she claimed a 500-song repertoire that included hymns, ballads, poems, hollers, and intricate children’s verses. In the early sixties, Riddle began to record and tour music halls and college campuses prolifically, attaining something like stardom (as “Granny Riddle”) at the height of the American folk revival. She adopted an almost evangelical relationship to her music, working to introduce her songs to new listeners and preserve them for posterity.
From one perspective, Sounds of the South might be seen as an intrusion of the corporate into the individual, the public into the private. The truth, however, is more complicated. It’s all too easy to regard field recorded folk artists as passive, even exploited: the anthropologist sweeps in, takes what he needs, and then sells it. But Riddle hijacked Lomax’s endeavor for her own ends, effectively taking control of her own public narrative. The dissemination of her recordings represents an inestimable treasure for generations of listeners—and, in some very important ways, for her as well. But if anything was lost or forgotten in the process, between singing “Frog Went A-Courtin’” to her children and recording similar traditional ballads for corporate labels, we can never know.