Southern Journeys: Alan Lomax’s Steel-String Discoveries

Folklorist Alan Lomax is primarily recognized, when at all, by the instrumental role he played in launching the careers of some America’s—and the world’s—most beloved guitarist-singers. Indeed, it’s difficult to overestimate the role that he and his father, John A. Lomax, played in shaping musical history as they traveled the back roads of the southern United States collecting traditional music under the auspices of the Library of Congress.
Alan Lomax_Woody_Guthrie

Folklorist Alan Lomax is primarily recognized, when at all, by the instrumental role he played in launching the careers of some America’s—and the world’s—most beloved guitarist-singers. Indeed, it’s difficult to overestimate the role that he and his father, John A. Lomax, played in shaping musical history as they traveled the back roads of the southern United States collecting traditional music under the auspices of the Library of Congress between 1933 and 1942 (and, in Alan’s case, independently well into the 1980s).

The Lomaxes first met and recorded Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, at Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary in 1933, and legend endures that it was a Lomax-recorded disc of a Ledbetter “pardon song” to Governor O.K. Allen that won the singer’s parole. While there’s no conclusive evidence of this, it’s a fact that Lead Belly’s most famous song, “Goodnight Irene,” learned from an uncle, played a foundational part in the repertoire and reach of the burgeoning folk revival of the 1940s. His version of “Rock Island Line,” learned from a convict named Kelley Pace at the Cummins State Farm in Arkansas, was adapted in 1954 by English skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan, launching that particular craze, which in its part helped spawn the British Invasion. Brian Eno has said that “without Alan Lomax it’s possible that there would have been no blues explosion, no R&B movement, no Beatles and no Stones and no Velvet Underground.” Without Lead Belly’s influence, this might not be confidently said.

Check out videos from the extensive Lomax Archive

In 1941, Lomax, along with the sociologist Lewis Jones and the musicologist John W. Work III, made the debut recordings of a young blues player named McKinley Morganfield—who went by the handle Muddy Water (the “s” seems to have been an accidental appendage of Lomax’s)—at the Stovall Plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi. Lomax had two of these pieces, “Country Blues” and “I Be’s Troubled,” on which Waters sang and played acoustic guitar, released on the first album of the Library of Congress’ new “Archive of Folk Song” series the following year, and he sent several sets to Waters.

“He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house,” Waters later recalled to Rolling Stone, “and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody’s records. Man, you don’t know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for 20 bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, ‘I can do it, I can do it.’” Not long after Lomax came back in July 1942 to record him further, Morganfield left Stovall for Chicago, and the rest is history.

Guthrie soon picked up an amanuensis in young Jack Elliott, who had his own indelible influence on young Bobby Dylan, recently arrived from Minnesota. Between Jack and Woody, and hours spent at Lomax’s West Third Street apartment listening to Alan’s copy of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Dylan mined more than enough of the raw materials he needed to steer (before, of course, spurning) the New York folk scene into mainstream consciousness.

Annie Mae and Fred McDowell, Como, Mississippi, September 1959

And one of the greatest discoveries of Lomax’s seven-decade career was made in September 1959 outside the North Mississippi town of Como, at the home of two septuagenarian African-American brothers named Miles and Bob Pratcher. During a session with the Pratchers, a neighboring farmer in overalls appeared on the porch carrying a guitar. The brilliant English folk-singer Shirley Collins, Lomax’s then-girlfriend and assistant, recalls that in the midst of the wonderful and very nearly obsolete old black country dance tunes that Miles and Bob had played on fiddle and guitar, this younger visitor seemed an intrusion. But when he started to play, she and Lomax realized they were in the presence of a monumental artist, who, as “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, would put the deep drone blues of the Mississippi Hill Country on the musical map.


“I look at it this way,” McDowell later told Sing Out!, “If you’ve got a gift, you do that, you don’t know what may turn up in your favor.” It was a gift that sent him around the world to perform, and it was represented on more than a dozen albums between 1960 and 1972, when he died in Memphis. A year earlier the Rolling Stones had covered his “You Got to Move” on their Sticky Fingers album. The Stones “made much of him,” Lomax later remarked. They “wined and dined him and bought him a silver lamé suit, which he wore home to Como and was buried in, for he died soon after, much reduced by the life that fame and fortune had too late introduced him to.”

First a Folklorist

If these recordings were all Alan Lomax had to his credit, well, like Jews say on Passover, dayenu: It would have been enough. But professional musicians—to say nothing of famous professional musicians—make up a fraction of a fraction of the performers in Lomax’s collections. He recorded an extraordinary number of artists, well into the thousands, and the vast majority of them were utterly amateur. This is, of course, not to denigrate their abilities, but is to say that that Lomax was first a folklorist, and his interest, indeed his obsession, was seeking out and documenting artists whose repertoires and performance styles represented local traditions and tastes, preferably (although not by any means exclusively) learned through the oral tradition, as opposed to popular culture via the radio or phonograph records.

John Dudley, Parchman Farm, September 1959

That said, Lomax didn’t, and likely couldn’t, stop there. His boosterism clawed its way into the very centralized media channels that he fretted were crushing these site-specific performance traditions. He produced records for the Columbia, Decca, Atlantic, and Prestige labels; he wrote, produced, and hosted radio shows over CBS, the Mutual Broadcasting System, and the BBC, and late in his career, a six-part television series for PBS called American Patchwork, focusing on still-thriving regional folkways in the American South. He saw his work as essentially activism, animated by the concept of what he called “cultural equity.” As he explained to Charles Kuralt in a 1991 interview: “Cultural equity should join all the other important principles of human dignity, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to work and live and enjoy yourself, and freedom for your culture to express itself.”

It was this sort of nascent progressive orientation that compelled Lomax to decamp to Europe for most of the 1950s, where he made recordings throughout Britain, Ireland, Italy, and Spain, and escaped the heat of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (which had blacklisted his friends Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie). Returning in 1958 to New York City, he found an urban folk revival in full swing. Crowds of young banjo players, guitarists, fiddlers, and fans were gathering in Washington Square Park to pick and sing traditional songs and tunes, many of which Lomax had recorded decades earlier from the likes of Woody and Lead Belly.

‘Without Alan Lomax it’s possible that there would have been no blues explosion, no R&B movement, no Beatles and no Stones, and no Velvet Underground.’

—Brian Eno

But Lomax had misgivings. Years later, in a passage that is now available in Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934–1997, he wrote, “Some of the young folkniks, who dominated the New York scene, asserted that there was more folk music in Washington Square on Sunday afternoon than there was in all rural America. Apparently, it made them feel like heroes to believe that they were keeping a dying tradition alive. The idea that these nice young people, who were only just beginning to learn how to play and sing in good style, might replace the glories of the real thing, frankly horrified me.”

It was also in 1958 that the Kingston Trio had a number-one Billboard hit with “Tom Dooley,” based on a version of the murder ballad recorded by North Carolina banjo player and singer Frank Proffitt in 1940. The group exemplified the emergence of “folk music” as a commercial genre and its lucrative possibilities. Their squeaky-clean and bowdlerized traditional standards were almost incomprehensibly popular, and worlds away from the performances captured by the Lomaxes “in the field.”

As a child, I thrilled to the Lomax recording of “Railroad Bill,” a song that perhaps more than any other became a testing-ground for revivalist guitar-pickers in Washington Square and elsewhere. It was one that could be traced back to Southwestern Virginia and a staggeringly gifted multi-instrumentalist named Hobart Smith, whom Lomax first met in 1942. Along with his ballad-singing sister Texas Gladden, Smith would be the very first person Alan visited on his famous “Southern Journey” field-recording trip in 1959—an attempt, and a successful one, to prove that American folk music was not just surviving but thriving in its native habitats.

Hobart Smith, Bluefield, Virginia, August 1959

Guitar Originals

In some circles Hobart Smith is talked about in the same reverential tones as Dock Boggs or Clarence Ashley. Listeners first encountering their 1920s recordings on Harry Smith’s Anthology were hit with the force of revelation; in the case of folklorists Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler, they sought them out and introduced them as stars on folk revival stages in the 1960s. Hobart never cut any sides for the prewar commercial companies (although he did tour with Ashley on the medicine-show circuit in the late teens), and was instead first documented by Alan Lomax at Virginia’s White Top Folk Festival in 1942.

A master on fiddle, banjo, piano, and guitar, Smith’s repertoire was an exquisite collection of country dance tunes, breakdowns, sacred songs, ballads, and blues; the latter of which—“K.C. Blues,” “Brownskin Blues,” and “Graveyard Blues” among them—he played on an acoustic guitar (with metal fingerpicks, as he bit his nails) in a style picked up from African-American laborers in the salt industry that gave Saltville its name, or the often-itinerant railroad workers in the town’s black community, Smoky Row.


One of those players was an albino by the name of Bob Campbell. As Smith described him to his banjo student and later recordist Fleming Brown in 1963, he was a “great big tall fellow. His eyes would just dance in his head when he played that ‘Railroad Bill.’ And of all my traveling since . . . of all the men I ever heard play it, I’ve never heard a man could beat Bob Campbell playing ‘Railroad Bill.’ Ah, he was wonderful. Ain’t no question about that.” It’s Smith’s version of “Railroad Bill”—first released by Asch Records in 1946—that took the folk revival by storm. In researcher Stephen Wade’s words, “to be able to play it was a mark of expertise.”

After meeting him again in 1959, Lomax tried hard to get Smith involved with the revival, as did others, like the New Lost City Ramblers’ Mike Seeger and John Cohen. Appearances at a Friends of Old Time Music concert in NYC and the 1964 Newport Folk Festival helped spread his reputation, but the money wasn’t much of a supplement to his old-age pension, and Smith’s health was failing. He died in 1965, unable—like Boggs, Ashley or other Lomax-promoted tradition-bearers like Bessie Jones or Fred McDowell—to profit from the revival that owed so much to his music.

Just after his 1959 sessions with Smith, Lomax went to visit another singular guitarist in Southwestern Virginia, this one in the tiny mountain hamlet of Rugby. Estil Cortez Ball was one of America’s greatest arrangers, composers, and singers of country gospel, but despite his religious fervor he’d still play ballads, blues, rags, and play-party songs in his signature three-finger style. Ball could one minute perform his bona fide country gospel classic, “Tribulations”—a truly terrifying account of the Book of Revelation, which he first recorded for Lomax in 1959 (and which has been covered by scads of singers as “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations”)—and launch into the nonsense ditty “Jennie Jenkins” the next. He made his first recordings in 1937 for John Lomax at the Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Virginia; Alan visited him in 1942 and 1959 for more.

Ball’s extensive recorded output (he made several records for the Rounder label and was a prolific home-recordist) is a corrective of a kind to the notion that Appalachian music is all high-lonesome singing and turbo banjo-frailing. His voice was deep and sonorous, his picking frequently complex but always relaxed; even when playing one of his own magical instrumentals, a raggy tune like “Walkin’ the Wires,” he does it with such mellow ease as to make Sam McGee sound manic. Perhaps it was E.C. Ball’s day jobs that made his music sound that way—he ran a service station and drove a school bus, two occupations requiring patience and a gentle touch. No doubt his deep religiosity and commitment to spreading the gospel of Christianity inspired a certain forbearance in him. But most likely, like the best of artists, “folk” or otherwise, the music he made was just a reflection of who he was—in his case, thoughtful, diligent, and honest, with severity, gentleness, and humor in equal measure—shaped by his time and place.

We’re Just Culture

We have thus far given grievously short shrift to women. Lomax conducted extensive sessions with many brilliant female singers—first among them the trifecta of Bessie Jones, Vera Ward Hall, and Texas Gladden in the States; Ireland’s great Margaret Barry (who was also a mean banjo strummer); Scotland’s ballad queen Jeannie Robertson; and a young Haitian woman identified only as Francilia, whom Lomax ostensibly hired as a housekeeper (though she couldn’t keep house) just to be able to record her huge trove of ceremonial Vodou songs.

Rosa Lee Hill, Como, Mississippi, 1959

But female guitarists are a relative rarity in the collections. The one who leaves perhaps the most indelible impression is Rosa Lee Hill of Como, Mississippi—despite her having played just two songs for Lomax’s tape machine. Hill was the daughter of the sublime musical patriarch of the Mississippi Hill Country, Sid Hemphill, whom Alan had first met in 1942. During an interview with Hemphill then, Lomax asked how many instruments he played. “Well,” replied Hemphill, “I don’t know, hardly, lemme see: play guitar, fiddle, mandolin, snare drum, feist [fife], bass drum, quills, banjo, pretty good organ player.”

Lomax met and recorded Hemphill for the last time in 1959, at which time he also sat down with Hill. Growing up under his tutelage and in a community thick with songs and dances, she had been a fixture at musical occasions like country frolics and picnics. As she told George Mitchell (who thankfully recorded a few more of her songs in 1967): “Everybody in my family played. My mother, my daddy, my aunties, and my grandpa played, all my cousins and sisters played. The whole Hemphill band played music—all of ’em.”


The Hill Country’s guitar blues, as heard in Fred McDowell’s first recordings in 1959, remained acoustic for much longer than other regions, as it was poorer and more isolated than the Delta to the west and southwest. (To look in the other direction, the acoustic guitar began eclipsing the banjo as the Delta’s most popular stringed instrument around 1900. As one Clarksdale oldster told Lomax in 1942 about those changing tastes of local musicians: “They thought they was progressing.”) And despite being categorized as a “blueswoman,” Rosa Lee Hill sounds like more of a great-grandmother of the blues, embodying the hypnotic modal drone of the region’s traditions better than nearly anyone besides McDowell, and anticipating the electric trance boogie of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough that would refocus attention on the Hill Country decades later. Sadly, like Hobart Smith, Hill died before her time in 1968.

These guitarists were certainly not famous. They were instead deeply gifted craftspeople who succeeded in deftly reconciling collective traditions with individual artistries, and who created bodies of work (in some cases woefully slim) that were entirely their own. In that they are representatives of the greater galaxy of the Lomax recordings, and of the whole surround of traditional expressive culture that serves as a testament to the tremendous diversity of human identity and experience. And in this, deserving of popular attention, respect, and support at large. As Lomax told Charles Kuralt, “‘Cause that’s all we got, you know. We’re just culture.”

All photos from the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.


A Mark of Expertise 

On paper, Hobart Smith’s classic take on “Railroad Bill,” the paradigm for the snippet of notation shown here, might look straightforward. But to pull it off at Smith’s tempo of around 280 quarter notes (140 half notes) per minute is no mean feat. That’s why the researcher Stephen Wade considered it a mark of expertise to be able to play it. —Adam Perlmutter

Nathan Salsburg
Nathan Salsburg

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