various artists,
Alan Lomax: Blues Songbook
(Rounder, 2003)

During his long career, Alan Lomax, first in the company of his father John and then on his own, recorded, collected and compiled more roots recordings than most of us could even hope to hear in a lifetime. This two-disc set serves as a solid introduction to Lomax's accomplishments in preserving the sound of the blues for generations to come.

Amazingly, considering the stature of some of these artists, these are nearly all field recordings rather than professional studio tracks. Many of these artists later recorded professionally, but most times it was Lomax's discovery of these musicians that led to their later fame. Even longtime collectors of Lomax material will have reasons to buy this package, since a dozen of the generous 41 tracks are previously unreleased, with new material by Howlin' Wolf, Skip James, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Sam Chatmon, R.L. Burnside and others.

There's a mass of fine material here, starting off with a 1959 Fred McDowell track and ending up with a 1942 recording by Lead Belly with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Nearly all of the tracks chosen have deep musical value, which is a great consideration in field recordings. Many of the Lomax compilations have had a large number of tracks that are of interest primarily to musicologists or other scholars (personally, I wince when confronted with unaccompanied crackly vocal solos with a seemingly infinite number of verses), but the vast majority here are worth hearing over and over. Many versions of blues classic are present, like "Boogie Children," "Cherry Ball Blues," "Rolled and Tumbled," "Dust My Broom," "Stagolee" and "Worried Life Blues," and that's just on the first disc.

The artists are the best the blues has to offer, with tracks by Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bill Broonzy, Son House, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Blind Willie McTell, Muddy Waters and a nice smattering of piano blues, with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton. The distaff side is also heard, with Bessie Jones, Ozella Jones, Vera Ward Hall, Rosalie Hill and other blues divas.

The package is up to Rounder's usual fine standards, with a thick, 40-page booklet with photographs, copious notes on each track, an introduction by blues fan Martin Scorsese and a fine essay on Lomax's life by John Cowley. The tracks themselves sound as good as the newest technology can make them, and that's quite good indeed. Blues collectors may have a lot of this material already, but this is a compilation that's well worth acquiring and a perfect introduction for younger listeners whom we old codgers might want to proselytize. Highly recommended.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 3 July 2004