Thursday, July 5, 2012

Notes From The Field: Blues, Ballads, & Bluegrass

By Jennifer Joy Jameson, Notes From The Field editor

On a recent trip home to visit my folks in California, I was able to catch the world premiere of some newly unearthed archival footage from New York City’s Association for Cultural Equity — more commonly referenced as the Alan Lomax Archive. ACE editor and production manager Nathan Salsburg had alerted some friends to the premiere of Blues, Ballads, & Bluegrass on June 19 at the Grammy Museum as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival,  so I quickly found a seat for the event. 

The short film captures a musical house party in 1961 at the Greenwich Village apartment of folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Party-goers are serenaded by musicians rooted in their culture’s own musical traditions such as former medicine show-performer Clarence Ashley, Delta bluesman Memphis Slim, and Kentucky coal-mining banjoist Roscoe Holcomb, as well as younger, revivalist artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the New Lost City Ramblers. Salsburg noted to me that the film includes the earliest known footage of the late Doc Watson, who stands in this film as a liminal figure between these two social contexts—he is regarded as both traditional and revivalist.

During this time, a group composed of noted musicians, ethnographers, and music promoters known as the Friends of Old Time Music would organize regular concerts for New York City audiences, seeking to bridge the gap between the emerging folk revival and the traditional artists outside of that sphere. Lomax’s house party, which takes place after one of these concerts, catches—in an unexpectedly honest way—this particular moment in history when urbanite 20-somethings were reckoned by the folk musics of their parents or grandparents and sought to access it and re-create it in their own way.

The film is compiled and edited by Lomax’s daughter and President of the ACE, Anna Lomax Wood, who even assisted with the clapboard during the 1961 filming when she was just 16. In the film, her father emerges as a somewhat hammy emcee, but his careful interview questions which bookend most of the performances remind of his preparedness and natural ability as a folklorist. These conversations elicit particularly insightful and surprising responses or stories from the performers, making the film something substantially more lasting and timelessly relevant than what it easily could have been. Many Art Of The Rural readers will find Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass a worthwhile segue into the heart of our discourse on the rural-urban dynamic and cultural heritage.

The film, which also features performances from Willie Dixon, Clint Howard, Fred Price, Jean Ritchie, Peter LaFarge, and others, has been restored by Wood’s cousin, the ethnographic filmmaker John Bishop, and is now available on DVD through his Media Generations production company. 

Related Articles:
Alan Lomax and the Southern Journey
Rural Urban: From Alan Lomax to Jay-Z