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DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax

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In early 1960s New York City, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, was host to what came to be known as the great folk music revival. The coffee houses and clubs in the area featured a variety of acoustic music and poetry readings for audiences made up of young, mainly university students and people looking for something more from popular culture than just a good time. It was an odd mixture of people playing traditional bluegrass, old time country, blues and topical protest music. While a great many of these new young performers looked to people like Woody Guthrie and other former musical activists as their inspiration, there were some who looked further afield.

The Friends Of Old Time Music (F.O.T.M.) was founded by three young musicians who took it upon themselves to search out and bring to New York City an older generation of blues, folk and bluegrass musicians and arrange to have them perform. It was after two of these concerts in 1961 that ethnomusicologist and field recorder Alan Lomax invited the performers and a collection of the current crop of younger folk musicians back to his apartment in the Village for an impromptu sing a long and get together. He also arranged to record and film the proceedings. Now, more then fifty years after the footage was shot the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive and Media Generation have edited and cleaned it up as much as possible for release as the DVD Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass. Currently available for sale via the Media Generation web site (the link above) it will start showing up in retail outlets September 11.

The disc is divided into two parts: 35 minutes of footage from the two evenings they were able to salvage, and interviews with John Cohen (one of the founders of F.O.T.M.), and the man who shot the footage, the late George Pickow. Needless to say the latter, shot in 2010, is a lot more polished than the original footage, but both are equally fascinating. For instance, we find out from Pickow that the event wasn’t as spontaneous as some might have been believed; the BBC had asked Lomax if he would be able to provide them with footage of American folk singers. He also mentions the fact Bob Dylan was in attendance one of the two evenings, but was under firm instructions from his management not to let himself be photographed, so he just sat in a corner listening and smoking pot.

The actual footage doesn’t start out very promising; the opening shots of Alan Lomax welcoming us to his apartment are overexposed and the audio is broken up with static. Thankfully once it moves into the actual performances it improves and the majority of it is in far better shape than you’d expect. Aside from a couple of places where you can tell those who re-mastered the sound had to do some doctoring, it’s remarkable how clean it is. Cohen’s bluegrass trio from the time, the New Lost City Ramblers, are the first group to appear, and its funny to see the trio crammed together in a corner of the apartment with audience members sitting on couches tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music.

During his portion of the interview Cohen starts pointing out members of the audience, including a very young Maria Muldaur and others who have since gone on to make names for themselves in either music or one of the other arts. It gives us an indication of what an amazing a time it must have been for those young artists living in New York City. Judging by those gathered in Lomax’s living room, not only were they surrounded by others their age of like mind and interest, they had ready access to older more experienced artists for inspiration and guidance. It’s no wonder so many talented people had their start during this time.

Among those captured on tape were old time Appalachian folk singer Roscoe Holcomb who was the inspiration for the term high lonesome sound for his ability to sing in a near falsetto; Clarence Ashley, accompanied by his band which included a young Doc Watson in singing the classic “Coo-coo Bird” and Memphis Slim with Willie Dixon on pump organ and acoustic bass respectively. Aside from playing a couple of tunes each, all were also interviewed by Lomax and talked about the type of music they played. What’s really interesting is how these three groups of musicians from such distinct backgrounds and playing different types of music, all talked about what they did in the same way. It was music which came from life experience and the heart no matter if it was country, bluegrass or blues.

Of the younger generation immortalized on camera from those two nights, only one of them would be at all familiar to audiences today. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was still relatively young when he was filmed here singing Woody Guthrie’s song about serving in the merchant marines. According to Pickow, Elliot had taken it upon himself to learn as many of Guthrie’s tunes as possible in order to ensure they would continue to be performed. At the time this recording was made, Guthrie was confined to the hospital bed where he would spend the rest of his life slowly dying. There’s something rather poignant about seeing people already establishing his legacy before he’s dead in anticipation of a day when he’s gone.

Someone who is nowhere near as well known today as he was in the early 1960s is Peter LaFarge. Long before there was any really organized push for recognition of Native American rights, LaFarge was writing songs about their situation. A member of the Nargaset nation which was almost pushed to extinction by the end of 19th century he had been raised by members of the Tewa nation on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. He worked as both a rodeo rider and singer until he broke his leg badly and had to give up riding. Here we see him singing his song “Ira Hayes”, made famous by Johnny Cash. If his performance appears unusually theatrical that’s not surprising, he studied acting and came to New York City as a cast member in a play.

His death in 1965 is still considered mysterious as it was officially put down to a pre-existing heart condition. but friends thought he may have committed suicide. Unlike others in the folk scene he never made any concessions to popular trends by toning down his politics or making his music more commercially accessible. However his influence can’t be underestimated as it was because of him Cash recorded the album Bitter Tears, devoted to the status of Native Americans, and which included six songs by La Farge. The clip of him performing shows him at his uncompromising best. In his comments Cohen says at the time he thought La Farge was a little over the top, but he now realizes he was just ahead of his time.

While obviously neither the sound nor video quality of the performance part of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass are what we’re used to, all things considered, they are better than we have any right to expect. However, far more significant is the opportunity this film represents. Not only is it a record of a time of unprecedented artistic growth and experimentation it also shows how, while this new generation may have been looking to the future, they built on the solid foundation of the music of previous generations. When that’s coupled with the opportunity see and hear those who showed up at Alan Lomax’s apartment it makes this an invaluable document. Of course, the music is great and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of such an intimate gathering. No modern unplugged concert you’ve seen can match watching these great musicians hanging out in the casual atmosphere of Lomax’s living room.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://www.media-generation.com John Melville Bishop

    Thanks for such a nice and thoughtful review. It was a lot of work pulling it together. I want to note, however, that it is essentially the edit that Anna Lomax Wood made of the footage around 1967.

  • steve

    very cool. i’ll check out LeBarge…