Passages: Alan Lomax

From The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax, an account of the folklorist’s song-hunting travels through the American South. This passage is about the field hollers sung by convicts in levee camps and work gangs:

In this anonymous world of the pentientiary, every man is given a distinctive moniker that ticks him off in an apt and sometimes cruel way. This nickname, once slapped on as a joke by a guard or another inmate, can last as long as the convict’s sentence, even for life. A fine-looking young mulatto might be teasingly nicknamed “Yaller Gal” and then have to fight off sexual attacks for the rest of his sentence. Our friend Tangle Eye was painfully cross-eyed, but completely accustomed to the guards yelling, “Come up, old Tangle Eye.” The Texas singer James Baker was christened Iron Head after a live oak fell on him and he never lost a stroke of his ax or a phrase of his chopping song. The great Leadbelly won his name because of his fabled endurance in the fields as “number-one man in the number-one gang in the Texas pen.”

We set down a sheaf of these fanciful black convict names, each one a humorous or a witty assertion of the deathless singularity of an individual in the seething anonymity of the prison farms. Each nickname helped to shield a personality from extinction, maintaining the man’s privacy by keeping his real name out of prison currency. For these hard-pressed exiles, all dressed alike in striped clothing and herded like animals by guards on horseback, the nicknames asserted and underscored their identities in the darkness of the penitentiary. Moreover, each man also had his own self-composed, self-identifying musical signature.

You could hear these peronal songs — sometimes no more than a few notes long — coming from far away across the fields. These so-called hollers, which belonged to the same family as the levee-camp songs, were pitched high out of a wide-open throat, to be heard from far off. A convict, by raising his holler from time to time during the long day of toil, could announce his existence and fend off the crushing anonymity of prison anonymity. His signature song voiced his individual sorrows and feelings. By this means, he located himself in the vast fields of the penitentiary, where the rows were often a mile long and a gang of men looked like insects crawling over the green carpet of the crops. Listening to a holler, some con would say, “Lissen at old Bull bellerin’ over there — he must be fixin to run” or “That’s old Tangle Eye yonder. He’s callin on his woman again.”

My father and I recorded scores of these old “field hollers’ or “old corn songs” or “levee camp hollers,” as they were variously called. They were thickest in the river-bottom country, south and west of Memphis all the way into the river lands of Texas. Most of those we found in the Southeast had been imported from the Delta. you can recognize the Delta hollers because they have have a shape different from the majority of black folk songs, which tend to be short-phrased, to conform to a steady beat, and to be performed by groups. By contrast, Delta hollers are usually minory solos, sung recitative-style in free rhythms, with long embellished phrases, many long-held notes, lots of slides and blue notes, and emphasis on shifts of vocal color. They are impossible to notate and very difficult to sing.

As a youngster, I tried to sing whatever we recorded, with varying success, of course, but I could never do a “holler” to my own satisfaction. Then came a moment when a holler spontaneously burst out of me. It was the evening of the day I had just been inducted into the army. On this first endless and awful twenty-four hours in a huge army reception center, when I had been yelled at, examined, put down, poked at, handled like a yearling in a chute, I drew KP. It was a sixteen-hour assignment, in which we KP’s helped to set the tables for several hundred me three times a day and then clean up afterward. Along about eight o’clock that evening my feet seemed to be on fire, every muscle in my body was complaining, stinging perspiration was running into my eyes, and my arms were deep in greasy, boiling dishwater. I had never been so miserable in all my life, and there were still two hours to go. At that moment, without thinking, I let loose with a Mississippi holler. Loud and clear, my levee-camp complaint rang through that hellish army kitchen:

Well, I asked my captain what time of day,

What time of day?

And he looked at me, good pardner,

Threw his watch away,

Ohhhhhh, threw his watch away.

A couple of guys looked up, but thank God most of the others were too unhappy to notice. I went on hollering and the sound got better. I got to feeling good. All those years and finally those Delta blue notes were coming out of me. Suddenly, the black KP sergeant appeared. I kept whooping and washing dishes. I felt sure I’d be condemned to another day of KP. But all the black sergeant did before he walked off was to say in a kind of nice way, “Hey, man, you sound like you from down home.”

Among blues fans, or anyone with an appreciation for American music, Alan Lomax is an irreplaceable figure. He was the first to record great musicians like Leadbelly, Son House and Muddy Waters, who as soon as he heard himself singing, decided “I can do this!” and headed for Chicago to make his name as the king of electric blues.

That’s part of the story, anyway. I recently acquired two recent books that shed new light, not all of it flattering, on Lomax’s work. Lost Delta Found claims that Lomax relied heavily on the work of a team of black scholars from Fisk University, only to downplay their contributions when he wrote his ow recollections of his song-hunting excursions. America Over the Water is Shirley Collins’s account of her romance with Lomax, which led to her accompanying him on a song-hunting trip that culiminated in the first recordings of “Mississippi” Fred McDowell.

Lost Delta Found apparently accuses Lomax of all but burying the work of competing scholars in order to keep himself in the spotlight. I’ll have to finish the book before I try to reach any conclusions.

But while I’m perfectly ready to accept the idea that Lomax may have been a bit of a shitweasel in his dealings with others, a check of some of the comments on the book’s Amazon page leave me wondering if he isn’t going to be the new Sam Phillips. Though Phillips, the head of Sun Studio in Memphis, was a blues nut in love with the sound of Howlin Wolf, there’s been an apocryphal phrase attributed to him — “If I could find a white boy who sings like a nigger, I’d be a millionaire” — that is a vile slander on the man’s character. A man who could listen to Wolf and say “This is where the spirit of man endures” would never say such a thing.

Was Lomax a credit hog? Could be. Is the story more complicated than that? Could be. For now, all I can say is that the man whose uncondescending love for blues and black American culture suffuses every page of The Land Where the Blues Began — a love he communicated to me, back in the early 1990s, sending me back to the blues after a long time away — deserves the benefit of the doubt.

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