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Major U.S. Folk Music Archive Makes Online Debut


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll share some of my thoughts in my weekly essay. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, if you are a fan of folk music - or so-called world music - there is a new treasure to be found online. Alan Lomax spent decades traveling the world, braving all sorts of conditions and even risking his life and health, to collect recordings of music, spoken-word performances, and more.

From the 1930s to the 1990s, he recorded thousands of songs, including this performance of "Ugly Woman," performed at a 1946 calypso concert in New York City.


GERALD CLARK AND HIS INVADERS: (Singing) Now, if you want to be happy living a king's life, never make a pretty woman your wife. You want to be happy living a king's life. Never make a pretty woman your wife.

MARTIN: That was Gerald Clark and His Invaders, playing in 1946. Recently, this and thousands of other songs and interviews Alan Lomax recorded, have been made available for free online, by the Association for Cultural Equity, or ACE. That's an organization founded by Lomax. And those recordings are already inspiring a whole new generation of songwriters.

Here to talk with us about all this is Geoffrey Clarfield. He is the director of research and development for ACE. Also with us is Dom Flemons. He is a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and he's already done extensive research in Alan Lomax's collection to inform and inspire his own music.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.


DOM FLEMONS: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Geoffrey, if I could start with you, it sounds like a massive undertaking. Could you just tell us what were some of the things that you had to do, to get this all done?

CLARFIELD: A lot of it has to do with cataloging and documentation, and it's gone through various stages. And one of the things about the digital world is people often think that oh, we've made it digital; it's safe forever. Every couple of years, the platforms change, so we have to take large amounts of the archive and re-digitize it, or re-engineer it, to keep on getting it out there. So it's a constant kind of thing. It's the kind of 21st century digital equivalent of those old guys and ladies in the Alexandria library of ancient Hellenistic times, constantly copying manuscripts.

MARTIN: Dom, is there a song that you could just point us to, that's already been inspired by your discovery of the Lomax archives?

FLEMONS: Here's one song that I always liked. It's a tune that was done by a fiddling banjo duo by the name of Bob and Miles Pratcher. And this is one called "Buttermilk" and so...


FLEMONS: (Singing) Long time, so babe. Long time, so babe. Take me back. Take me back, babe. That's all right. Thought I had you. You wouldn't do. Got me another. Don't want you. Won't you take...

And so you got the fiddle usually going like this. (Vocalizing).

(Singing) Take me back. Take me back, babe. That's all right. Thought I had you. You wouldn't do. Got me another one. Don't want you.

And it goes on, kind of, on and on like that. I heard that on one of the New World records that Alan Lomax had put out in the - I think it was in the early '70s. One called "Roots of the Blues" and so it was the first time I'd ever heard black string band music.

You know, like, I didn't know it at the time that I was going to be in a string band and doing all this sort of stuff. But out of all the other recordings I heard were some great ones of Fred McDowell and some beautiful church music and some quills, as well, which I'll probably get to a little later, but...

MARTIN: That's great.

FLEMONS: I heard this "Buttermilk" and it was great. Just knocked me out.

MARTIN: That was great. Also, just anytime you can put buttermilk in a title, you are good. It's all good. Right? If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are talking about a massive collection of folk music that has now been made available for free online and we're talking about how it is influencing and may continue to influence contemporary music. It was put together by the late ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

With us are Geoffrey Clarfield, of the Association for Cultural Equity - that's the group that Lomax founded; and Dom Flemons, of the band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Geoffrey, is there a song that - well, I was asking Dom about a song that's inspired him. Is there something you want to tell us that you just that you love from the collection?

CLARFIELD: Well, there's so much stuff that I and we love, but when you look at the stuff from a folkloric point of view, and discover that it influenced millions of people and made some people hundreds of millions of dollars, it's a really interesting thing. So the song that comes to mind is "Rock Island Line." And "Rock Island Line" was recorded by Leadbelly himself and John Lomax, Alan's father during a collecting visit to Cumins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas in October, 1934.

And then, Leadbelly later developed his own version. And then in England during the 50s, where Alan was living, a guy named Lonnie Donegan turned it into a big hit and introduced the skiffle side of music, which is kind of proto rock 'n' roll.


CLARFIELD: They brought into Britain. And then, there were these really poor young men in Liverpool and London who were just entranced by the music and it actually made them pick up the guitar and teach themselves how to play. And the names of those people, ladies and gentlemen, were John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend.

MARTIN: Stop it.


CLARFIELD: So without Alan Lomax and "Long Island Line," there ain't no Beatles, baby.

MARTIN: All right. Geoff, you've given us a lot to think about. Let's play a little bit.


LEADBELLY: (Singing) I got old livestock. That old Rock Island Line is getting on down the road. Oh, the Rock Island Line, it's a mighty good road. Oh, the Rock Island Line, it's a road to ride. Oh, the Rock Island Line, it's a mighty good road. If you want to ride you've got to ride it like you're flying. Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line.

MARTIN: That is awesome. That is awesome.

CLARFIELD: It is. And there's many other stories. There's a song that Alan recorded in the Bahamas and Alan was an absolute fan of traditional Caribbean folk music. And it was called "John B. Sails" it was later called "The Sloop John B." It was performed by a group called the Cleveland Simmons Group. Was recorded by Alan and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle at the Old Bight, Cat Island in the Bahamas in July 1935.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit of that.


CLEVELAND SIMMONS GROUP: (Singing) Hoist up the John B's sail. So get out the mainsail sets. Then send for the captain ashore. Let me go home, Let me go home. Oh, let me go home, let me go home. Oh let me go home. I feel so brake up. I want to go home.

CLARFIELD: And then Harry Belafonte in the 50s made it part of his repertoire. And a young kid from California named Al Jardine, who had formed a band called the Beach Boys, turned it into a national pop hit in 1966 that reached number three on the pop charts. So...

MARTIN: That's crazy.

CLARFIELD: From obscure beach in the Bahamas to, you know, number one in 1965 and then 1966, and there's millions more like that. You know, four of the pieces from the archive were in the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby" was redone by T-Bone Burnett. And then Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss recorded it. And then that soundtrack went platinum.


SIDNEY HEMPHILL CARTER: (Singing) Your mama's gone away and your daddy's gonna stay. Didn't leave nobody but the baby. Go to sleep you little baby. Go to sleep you little baby. Mama gone away and my daddy gonna stay. Didn't leave nobody but the baby. Go to sleep...

MARTIN: That was "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby" recorded in 1959. The artist is Sidney Hemphill Carter.

Geoff, is there anything a little painful about this - in the sense that the people who originated this music and inspired this music so often didn't profit from it, if I - I can't think of any other way to say it? Did not profit from it. I don't know.

CLARFIELD: Yeah, that's true. Alan, however, was a pioneer and he meant it when he talked about cultural equity. I'll give you an example, is Georgia Turner was a young woman in rural Georgia and Alan recorded this song called "House of the Rising Sun Blues"


CLARFIELD: And that eventually got covered by The Animals and Alan went to bat for her and got her the requisite royalties - not what she'd get today but a fair chunk of money. And later in her life she said those royalties paid for my medical bills when I was an old woman.

MARTIN: Dom, what about you? Just, we only have a couple of minutes left. I just wondered about you. Is there anything Dom, just bittersweet for you as an artist? I mean obviously art will do what it will do.


MARTIN: Given that your music is so rooted in the history of pain, really in some ways. Pain and joy.

FLEMONS: Well, it's a, you know, see, it's a hard thing because it's, you know, it's always an uphill battle; on an emotional level just because there was a different society that was producing this music and the people that were a part of it. That's one part of it. A friend of mine and I were joking one day that folk music is really the study of stuff that nobody else cares about. And like anybody who has worked in folklore knows this idea where there's beautiful art that's being made by people, but at the same time it's an uphill battle to try to elevate it to a level where it's something that people are wanting to take it seriously as an art form instead of it just being some thing that the common folk throw together.

And I think that that's something that Alan Lomax was always pushing forward to, you know, to present and try to disseminate out to the world. Because also you find that, you know, every time this old music makes it out there, it influences and it stretches people's imagination about what you can do with music. And in a mass media world, you know, trying to find anything that's simple and beautiful is - that's something that people are always striving for. And so I think that's something that's been very important with Alan Lomax's collection. It's one of those things where you always got to fight for the folk music but at the same time it's an uphill battle. Always an uphill battle.

MARTIN: Dom Flemons is a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their latest album is "Leaving Eden." And he joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Also with us, Geoffrey Clarfield, he is the director of research and development for the Association for Cultural Equity. That's the group that was founded by Alan Lomax. And he was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York.

Congratulations, Geoffrey. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you both.

CLARFIELD: My absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me.

FLEMONS: My pleasure as well.

MARTIN: And we'd like to leave with one more song from the Alan Lomax collection. This is "Stagger Lee" by Memphis Slim, Johnny Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy.


MEMPHIS SLIM, SUNNY BOY WILLIAMSON, BIG BILL BROONZY: (Singing) Tom Devil, he asked his daughter who can this bad man be? There must have been a bad fellow called old Stagger Lee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.