Listening to Alan Lomax’s Sounds of the South box set. Being a compilation of southern US vernacular musical styles, it invites comparisons to Harry Smith’s Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music. It’s a completely different animal, first of all, because Lomax’s collection is all field recordings, most done by Lomax himself with a portable tape or wire recorder, in churches, on front porches, and yes, in actual fields.
The Smith compilation is a collection of commercial 78s from the late 20s and early 30s. The funny thing is that I find the Lomax recordings much slicker and somewhat less exciting than the Smith collection. It seems like the field recordings are a little bit put-on or staged, like the performers are trying to live up to Lomax’s romantic view of them as noble savages. I’ve read Lomax’s writing, and let me tell you, this is not an unfair assessment.
Lomax was a poster boy for white middle-class liberal guilt if there ever was one. He shamelessly romanticized his subjects and the contexts in which they lived. The artists who recorded the sides for Smith’s collection, on the other hand, believed that they were recording for an audience that was much like themselves, and thus did not play up their ‘authenticity’ or play down their essential weirdness and regional identity. Of course, it could be that I’m charmed by the medium, the scratchy 78s that Smith transferred to tape. Insert McLuhan quote here.