various artists,
Negro Work Songs and Calls
from the Library of Congress
Archive of Folk Culture
(Rounder, 1999)

For the most part, this isn't the kind of music you put on to listen to while you do something else, and it sure isn't party music. Rather, it's a historical document. These are field recordings made by the Lomax family, Herbert Halpert and Mary E. Barnicle during the years 1933-1940, and include railroad calls, steamboat calls, field calls and more. They were originally released in 1943 as part of the series Folk Music of the United States by the Library of Congress.

What the Lomaxes and the others tried to do was to record the early songs, calls and chants of African-Americans while there were still those people alive who remembered them. They succeeded brilliantly, and this re-release by Rounder, 56 years later, gives these recordings even more weight and a greater sense of historical authenticity.

For example, there is a 1939 recording of "Heaving the Lead Line" by Sam Hazel, who was 86 at the time, which means he heard and possibly sang this call on the Mississippi steamboats as early as the 1860s. The chant includes the call "Mark Twain," from which Samuel Clemens derived his pseudonym. This is aural history at its best.

You can also hear the blues in its purest form in many of these calls, particularly in the soulful "Go Down, Old Hannah," "I Wonder What's the Matter" and especially "It Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad," all three of which were recorded at southern prisons and work farms. There are joyous work songs as well, sung in the call and response style. "Hammer, Ring" will have anyone singing along and stamping their feet after just a few choruses, and "Old Rattler" is another call and response that was borrowed by Appalachian whites and eventually became a country/bluegrass standard. There are other borrowings as well. You'll hear the roots of the blues classic, "Alberta," an early version of "The Rock Island Line," and more.

Needless to say, these pieces are unstudied and raw, but as pure as you're likely to get. The recordings are amazingly good for their day, especially considering the fact that they were made on portable equipment under less than acoustically pristine conditions. They're also far from politically correct, and if the "N-word" bothers you, you may want to avoid these recordings, although such silly PC-fastidiousness will cause you to miss a wealth of fabulous recordings, and they will also quiet voices that needed very much to be heard.

These were songs and chants that kept a people moving and advancing through dreadful oppression. These are the voices of those who harvested the fields, drove the mules, launched the boats, and hammered the rails. In the process they made some incredible music that every devotee of folk and traditional music should hear.

If you do decide to mine these particular roots, do yourself a favor and listen to this CD multiple times. It is with repetition and familiarity that these songs and calls gain their greatest strength, just as they did when they were sung and chanted for the first time, all those years ago. Rounder is to be praised for making these legendary (and non-commercial) recordings available again for a new generation of listeners, who will find great emotion and unequaled beauty in them.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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