We'll never see these singers. They were hardly represented in any other way, except as statistics, prison numbers, sick communities, migrators from dust bowls.
South Carolina 1934-1940 - Field recordings
Why are you here? Yes, I know your parents got together a few months before your birth and, bang bang, here you are. No, I mean ‘here’. Reading this particular website? You might be a literature fan, a film buff but, chances are, you’re a music fan. the music you listen to, chances are, wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for some of these people, recorded for John Lomax’s huge archive of music created by mainly Black and, almost definitely poor people of the USA. These people or others like them.
It might be hard, when you listen to The Cure or Tankus and the Henge to hear the connection. The crackles, the lack of instrumentation, the unfamiliar American accents, as different as Dublin to Durham, all can distract you from the songs and the singing. Recorded in the mid-1930s, just sixty years after slavery was abolished (imagine 1962, the same distance away in years, Cliff and the Shadows, President John Kennedy, the queen aged 36, The Beatles one year old as a group - not so long ago, right?) and the memory and the injustice of slavery still fresh and alive in living memory.
America. It’s hard for Brits to imagine hearing American music as Americans hear it. Ask an American - what does that rocking rolling accent mean to them? Not as much as the individual accents, the local accents, the non-Hollywood accents, at a guess. Talkies, films with sound, were just seven odd years old at this point. For the first time audiences could hear what actors sounded like and it took no time at all for any local eccentricities, nasal or gruff pronouncing, anything characterful to be ironed out with voice coaches or ruthless sacking. We’ll never see these singers. They were hardly represented in any other way, except as statistics, prison numbers, sick communities, migrators from dust bowls.
But these faceless performers invented the music that Lady Ga Ga performs, that gave Barbara Streisand a career, inspired the sublime (Lou Reed, sometimes) to the please-don’t (Scouting For Girls?). And, amazingly, the older these sounds get, the more relevant they seem. Even the sonic quality, the fizzing, pops, jumps and repeats now remind me of glitch, of composers purposefully interfering with the strict quantising of computer music to try to humanise it. When authenticity is just another element to be added by producers and labels, another plug-in for music software (choose the room in a particular recording studio, choose the mic, the distance, choose someone else’s frequency settings - click click click) here is nothing but authenticity. The real thing. The blues scale. The country harmonising. Creating to make a hard, long day digging or lifting or busting stones go quicker. To give meaning to miserable life.
Dig in. It’s free. Explore and thank the ancestors for all their hard work. Respect.