For the Lomaxes and others, the recordings WERE of consequence, and not simply an efficient way to gather song texts. Only on their first couple of field trips, when they had almost nothing to work with, did they record only a verse and a chorus and write down the rest of a song text. They realized early on that they were recording not only songs but forms and styles. This aspect of folk performance comes through in recordings but is the hardest to thing to get down on paper. The brilliant transcriptions that Ruth Crawford Seeger made for the Lomaxes' book "Our Singing Country" make this apparent. I think Alan would have said that he was not just recording sounds, or even songs, but people.
The quality of Alan's recordings improved enormously when he was able to switch to tape, and some of them are truly exceptional. Listen to some of the one-mic recordings that he made in Italy and Spain in the 1950s, such as "La Partenza" an astonishing performance by a group of Genoese longshoreman recorded in a waterfront bar in 1954, or "Caramiles" by a small group of local church musicians in the Balearic islands in 1952. To hear how far both he and field recordings had come in in 17 years, compare the mono, disc-based recordings he made in 1942 of shape note singers in Alabama with tape-based stereo recording he made there of the same songs and many of the same singers in 1959.
Alan did most of his disc-based recordings in his Library of Congress fieldwork from 1933 to 1942, and had to cope with the local power supplies of the day, if any, or his car battery. They were operating with limited time and funds, and were often hundreds of miles from the nearest source of more recording blanks, so multiple takes were out of the question, though there are false starts and second tries occasionally. That train-recording of Son House and group is one of my favorites--and for me, the train is a highlight, not a blemish. I may be kidding myself, but it always sounds like its passing by on the beat. Maybe Alan heard it that way too, but I think he also knew that the group was giving their all, and he later wrote that he felt it was one of the best performances that he ever recorded. He might have gotten another take without a train going by, but the feeling might have been lost. This was one of the first times that he had been able to take a 16" disc recorder into the field, and so he could let the musicians play for as long as it felt good to them. I think that recording of "Walking Blues" is over six minutes in all.
It went beyond a "fascination" with extra-musical sound. For these performers this was the world in which they played and heard music, and if some of that made it's way into a recording, so much the better., and sometimes it was worth going the extra mile to try and capture it. The name escapes me now, but there's a mono recording of a man singing and cutting wood that Alan did in the Caribbean in 1962 made on an early Nagra where he mixed down three channels of the voice, the axe hitting the wood, and the ambient sound of the forest. Similarly, Alan tried recording Fred McDowell in different parts of his house, but got the best sound on his porch, where he had the least control over background noise. A bed of crickets chirps away on those performances, but everybody I've played those recordings for loves the crickets.
Library of Congress
From: Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List [[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Michael Biel [[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Saturday, September 06, 2014 8:18 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: [ARSCLIST] Asch vs Lomax- was Duke Ellington accidental stereo comparison
Alan Lomax was not collecting sounds, he was collecting SONGS. Going
back to Lomax Sr -- John Lomax -- the recordings were of no consequence,
just like Peter Bartok's father Bela, and their friend Zolton Koday.
They were just a notebook, a way to take down the music while they were
writing out the words. Sometimes when the song had multiple verses they
would only record the first one or two and continue with the notebook.
John Lomax was writing BOOKS, not releasing records. Bartok and Koday
were writing their own compositions and were using abstracts of the
melodies, not releasing records. What do you want to hear our cylinders
for -- come to our concerts where you'll hear the finish product. What
do you what to listen to our discs for? Read our books and sing the
Alan came to quickly realize that the performer was also important, and
thus the sound on the recording was also important. But if there was a
train in the background it made no difference unless it covered up the
words. Only then would we ask for that verse to be repeated. The
Lomax's were using the government to fund their song scouting
expeditions -- it was a mutual affair that the government would also get
the benefit of having the recordings whereas the Lomaxes had material
for their books. Eventually LC issued some of the recordings, and later
on -- after John's death -- Alan would use Goddard Lieberson's Columbia
Record's money to finance his trips, and then turn to Atlantic when
beginning his stereo work in the late 50s. By this time the recordings
became primary because they had more of a market than books, but Alan
realized that stereo recordings gave a more researchable result -- that
they sounded pretty was still quite secondary.
Moe Asch was a recording engineer. Period. His records were his
documents, not any damn book. Can you hear it? Fine. Can you
understand the words? Fine. Does the hum bother you. A little?
You'll get used to it. Do you need a pretty picture on the cover? Why?
It don't make the music any prettier. Is the song any different in
stereo? Is it worth another couple of bucks to you on top of the
already expensive album price? No? Fine, I don't like stereo anyway.
I'm busy making interesting records, not pretty records. You want that,
go over to Jac Holtzman.
NOW do you get the difference?
Mike Biel [log in to unmask]
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [ARSCLIST] Asch vs Lomax- was Duke Ellington accidental
From: Steve Smolian <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Sat, September 06, 2014 5:31 am
To: [log in to unmask]
Lomax learned to use his disc cutter but had little background in
electronics whereas Moe had considerable technical training. If memory
serves, he chad training in electronics and had a radio repair shop at
time. Lomax.s "capturing the moment" may have been a result of having a
limited number of blanks and budgetary restrictions.
When I worked with Moe on a few projects, he cut at Nola Studios. Many
his LPs have hum in the track separation bands as well as in the audio,
indicating that the cutter was the source of the hum. The
Sithsonian/Folkways issues are to be preferred if only for this reason,
other factors being the same.
From: Paul Stamler
Sent: Saturday, September 06, 2014 1:34 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: [ARSCLIST] Duke Ellington accidental stereo comparison
On 9/5/2014 8:08 PM, Tom Fine wrote:
> The Lomax and Asch comparison is very interesting. I always had the
> impression that Lomax was collecting sound first and music second,
> whereas Asch was running a commercial music label. If that assumption is
> true, then Asch would want a result that sounds like a professional
> music recording, with a sonic reference buyers would be accustomed to,
> even if the music itself or the artist was new to their ears. Lomax, on
> the other hand, started out working for the government (with no need to
> be concerned with a commerical product aesthetics) and his recordings
> indicate a really interesting fascination with the background sounds as
> well as the primary performances. Take the Son House recording in
> Klack's Store. A train runs right through town, loudly passing the store
> even rattling the recorder. Does Lomax stop and try a re-take? No. In
> fact he didn't even ask for a second performance of that song. I have to
> assume he thought the train passing was a part of what he was capturing,
> not just Son House but also Klack's store and the rural Mississippi of
> that time. The same is true of his recordings of the fife and drum band
> and also the prisoner singing. He made recordings where we hear not just
> the musical performances but also the environmental audio around the
> performers. In those cases, it's fascinating.
> Emory Cook's approach seemed more Lomax than Asch. In fact, plenty of
> his commercially-released products were ONLY environmental audio
> (trains, weather, a strip club, etc).
And the famous cricket on one side of Cook's steel drum album.
The Lomax-Asch comparison is fascinating; Tom I think you've hit the
nail on the head. But Asch considered himself a documentarian too -- he
said that Folkways Records was his attempt to document the twentieth
century in sound. Hence the joke, "Why did the chicken cross the road?"
"To record 'Sounds of an American Highway' for Folkways." And yet his
studio recordings were carefully edited.
Still, he made his studio recordings very simply, with few microphones
and no apparent EQ, in a neutral room, and he reissued lots of
folklorists' field recordings. He once told an interviewer something
indicating that he issued those without high-frequency pre-emphasis,
though the interview was kind of garbled and he may have just meant that
he didn't add eztra treble boost over and above RIAA. I asked Peter
Bartok (who cut a lot of discs for Asch) about this, and it didn't ring
any bells with him -- he didn't remember cutting anything without
pre-emphasis. So I may have misread the interview. But in any case, Asch
put out very straightforward LPs.