various artists,
Deep River of Song: Louisiana,
Catch That Train & Testify

(Rounder, 2004)

Here's another CD from the Deep River of Song series in the Alan Lomax Collection, the enormous compilation of Lomax's recordings made over decades of collecting music from all over the world. This is a more interesting collection than some of the others, with a wide variety of musical styles, from jazz to zydeco to the blues, with many stops along the way.

Things start off nice and raw, with a pair of religious ring shouts that would tumble down the walls of most of today's churches. They're followed by two more rough and rowdy secular tracks by the same artists, Joe (Washington) Brown with Austin Coleman and Sampson Brown, and though I see the discographical reasons for positioning these together, by the end of the last track you'll be more than ready to move on. Though doing mostly sacred material, Brown's nastily authentic voice sounds like it's been destroyed by drink, smoke, drugs and maybe a few knife wounds. Next, Sam Ballard sings two unaccompanied railroad songs in which, again, authenticity trumps musicality.

Only slightly more listenable are the next few tracks of early Creole music and French jures. Most are unaccompanied, and often the voices are so unsteady in pitch that it's difficult to get a sense of the melody. A little goes a long way. Not until the 14th track, "Bonsoir, Petit Monde," is the tedium of unaccompanied voice relieved by a glorious blast of harmonica. It's rudimentary, but at least they're singing on pitch. Even better are the next two tracks of full-fledged early zydeco, complete with accordion, steel washboard and drums.

Two early Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) tracks follow. Though the recording of "Goodnight Irene" sounds like a dozen squirrels scampered over it, the voice comes through fine. It's the first track that I was happy to listen through to the end. Ledbetter's "Mama Did You Bring Me Any Silver" is also a joy, as is Lomax's pre-Napster warning to listeners not to use the recording without permission. Three more folk blues follow. There's a rousing string-band rendition of "Little Liza Jane," the World War I-inspired "Trench Blues" performed by John Bray (also horrendously known as "Big Nig") and an elegant "Baton Rouge Rag" played on solo guitar by Joe Harris. The Harris piece has a brief interview by John A. Lomax with Harris. It's always a treat to hear these early musicians talk about their music.

The CD ends with that paragon of New Orleans musicianship, Jelly Roll Morton, playing "Winding Boy." Although he doesn't sound as sharp as on his earlier recordings, it's still a joy to hear his gently rolling piano stylings and relaxed vocal. It's followed by a fascinating eight-minute interview in which Morton explains how the tune "Tiger Rag" evolved, using musical illustrations throughout. These Library of Congress interviews with Morton are almost as great a treasure as his music itself.

The 23 tracks offer nearly 70 minutes of music, some very listenable, some primarily of scholarly interest. Nearly all were recorded in 1934, so the sound is primitive, but the music always triumphs over the early technology. The 40-page booklet tells you everything you need to know about the individual tracks and offers complete lyrics and interview transcripts. Though not for the casual listener, Deep River of Song: Louisiana is another gem for the seeker of musical roots, and another tribute to the farsightedness and brilliance of John and Alan Lomax.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 9 October 2004

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