“Our Singing Country”: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of an American Past

The author of this essay, Benjamin Filene writes an interesting perspective on the Lomax family who collected American folk songs.  They were a travelling bunch of people who were scouting for talented musicians.  They wanted to preserve and popularize folk music.    Leadbelly, an African American singer, guitarist, and at one point of his life, prisoner was taken under the Lomaxes’ wings.  Leadbelly who’s real name is Huddie Ledbetter began an incredible journey with the Lomaxes.  He had great talent despite being in a prison.  There were bumps along the way for example, he couldn’t control his income as the Lomaxes held the majority of it.  He had to wear (at one point) his prison suit outfit when performing even after he was freed from prison, which I felt was a bit demeaning to Leadbelly but it was a promotional concept the Lomaxes had to do to garner appeal.  Leadbelly, over a period of time expanded his repertoire of styles, but settled down with new flavors that eventually were to stray away from folk in his later years.  This changed the way people viewed him as his audience was now geared towards the Northern states instead of the South.  This was where folk fanatics lost touch with his new style.  I feel this happens even in today’s music industry.  An artist suddenly changes styles and original fans can’t adapt to the new sounds and lose interest.  It’s a shame, but that’s the way things go, I guess. Overall, Leadbelly’s success was thoroughly enjoyed in my opinion in his early years with the Lomaxes until he died in 1949.

The Lomaxes for the most part were generally good people and they should be remembered/studied for many years to come.  Just like the “collectors” of today’s society which are equated to music producers/record labels, there will be highs and lows for each musician’s career.  You just have to take things in stride wherever you go.

Having just read about the Lomaxes and Leadbelly for the first time, I feel that there are even more artists, collectors, producers, etc. who deserve more recognition as other musicians do.  Does anyone know any other under-appreciated music icons of the past who deserve more credit?

“The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South”

I’ve heard of the Grand Ole Opry before I registered for this course, but I never knew a lot about it until I read this essay.  This essay had some interesting insights to this cultural and social icon in country music.  Seeing that I was raised in the Northeast all my life, I’m not familiar as I want to with the South, the ‘hillbilly culture’, and country (rural) living.

The Grand Ole Opry got it’s name after George D. Hay, program director of WSM radio station in Nashville,TN was attempting to make a name out of his program which had Grand Opera elements in it.  It eventually was known as the Grand Ole Opry and ever since then, the rest is history.  The rich collection of artists who started here are legends today for example Roy Acuff, Deford Bailey, and Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters.  Country and folk music were the predominant styles of music played, however vaudeville acts were also included. It was catered to mostly Southern audiences.  Themes they sang include the automobile which was mostly scorned by Uncle Dave Macon.  He wanted to live in what that time was ‘old fashioned’ ways, which was not to use the automobile and instead use a wagon.  This even inspired him to sing it in a song.  This little fact alone made me felt that even something as simple as not liking an invention can be a song for the masses to hear.

A little point about DeFord Bailey is worth mentioning.  He was a well known African American harmonica player, yet Mr. Hay treated him in an unfair manner.  To me, I felt he had the short end of the stick when it came to performing.  Mr. Hay had him play alone and limited to a certain amount of tunes.  His inferiority almost seemingly rendered him a puppet as he was call Mr. Hay’s mascot for the Opry.  This raised questions to the racial treatment back then.  I would like to conclude by saying that had Mr. Bailey not receive the harsh treatment, he wouldn’t have been fired and be forced to comply to such orders.  He could’ve had a more illustrious career.

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