The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax
reviewed by Dr. Dan C. Hilliard, Professor Emeritus
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Alan Lomax came by his interest in Southern folk music honestly. His father, John Lomax, previously a faculty member at both the University of Texas and Texas A&M, took Alan, his mother, and his three siblings along to assist in his field recording sessions during the 1930s for the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. They recorded folk musicians throughout the South, using a 315-pound acetate disc recorder that they carried in the trunk of a Ford sedan—hardly “portable” recording equipment by today’s standards. Alan was only 18 when he assisted his father in recording Huddie Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”) at Angola State Prison in Louisiana (which I would think might have been a bit intimidating).
The younger Lomax extended his family’s work, becoming in one music journalist’s estimation “the most important folklorist of the twentieth century.” The Land Where the Blues Began, winner of the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award, is a memoir of Alan’s own field recording expeditions among African-American folk musicians in Mississippi. He describes encounters with these musicians over a period of several decades, beginning in 1942 and ending in the 1970s. With each visit to Mississippi, the recording technology improved and life became a bit less oppressive for African-Americans in the Mississippi Delta, but the specter of a racial caste system remained. Lomax was keenly aware of the surveillance to which he was subjected by white landowners and law enforcement (he was run out of town on more than one occasion). Some of his respondents, too, were concerned about revealing the truth of black life in the Delta. In one case, the names of three Delta blues musicians who gave Lomax a fabulous group interview at a New York City recording studio in 1946 were not revealed until 1990, so terrified were these men that Delta whites would retaliate against them. (For the record, the three men were Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and they had all died by the time their identities were revealed in 1990.)
While Lomax spent some time in the segregated enclaves of Southern cities (like Beale Street in Memphis), his most interesting subjects were found in the remote rural areas, and part of the book’s appeal is the combination of apprehension and excitement one feels as Lomax follows word-of-mouth leads along the rutted dirt roads out in the hinterlands of the Delta. He recorded Muddy Waters in 1942 at the commissary of the Sherrod Plantation, where the now legendary blues singer-guitarist drove a tractor—it was the first time Muddy Waters had ever been recorded, only a year before he would leave the Delta for Chicago and only three years before he would make his first record for the Chess label.
Venturing into the even poorer hill country of eastern Mississippi, Alan discovered fife-and-drum bands producing African polyrhythms and recorded Sid Hemphill playing his homemade quills and fiddle. He recorded traditional gospel arrangements at rural black churches and work hollers sung by railroad work gangs and prison fieldworkers; he interviewed men who had worked as stevedores on the paddlewheel steamers that plied the Mississippi and as muleskinners building the levees that contained the great river.
The book appeals to me on several levels. At the most fundamental level, the book gives voice to poor but talented individuals whose stories would not otherwise be recorded, and in that sense the book, along with the videos and CDs that have now been produced from Lomax’s work, is a national treasure. Song lyrics, interspersed liberally throughout the text, are a delight in and of themselves. At another level, the book implicitly explores Lomax’s own relationship to African-American culture. Lomax clearly loved the songs, dances, and stories he collected, and he clearly had a strong empathy with the people from whom he collected them. Yet, I think he had real misgivings about what he was observing, because he was aware that it was the extreme oppression of the Mississippi Delta’s racial caste system that had produced the power of these cultural gifts. Finally, for one who grew up on rhythm-and-blues and early rock, the book is full of great anecdotes. My personal favorite is the story of how Lomax found Muddy Waters and his band asleep in Waters’ Cadillac in the shade at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in 1968. They had driven all night from Chicago, so that they could perform at the March on Washington. Later that day the band performed Muddy Waters’s first blues hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” for the throngs gathered in front of the Washington Monument:
Well, if I feel tomorrow
Like I feel today
I’m gonna pack my suitcase
And make my getaway
I be’s troubled, I’m all worried in mind
And I never be satisfied.