Deep River of Song

Deep River,
Deep River, Lawd,
Deep River, Lawd,
I want to cross over in a ca’m time.

—From American Ballads and Folk Songs, by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax

More than half a century separates us from the performances in this series, and nearly all of the artists who gave them to us have “crossed over” in that time, leaving us these treasures in trust so that we might be delighted, informed, and edified by them. Each song tells its own story, but together they form an epic of a people seeking to ford a turbulent river of oppression and disadvantage, who gave us another life-giving river of untold depth and riches: a deep river of song from which all may draw.

It was this that John Lomax and his son Alan sought to preserve and document when they began their field recording for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1933. It was this same river that Alan Lomax sought to replenish when he and Peter B. Lowry reviewed more than a thousand field recordings of black music made by the Lomaxes in the South, the Southwest, Haiti, and the Bahamas.

Alan Lomax spent the summer of 1978 in Mississippi with John Bishop and Worth Long, shooting the program Land Where the Blues Began. “I discovered to my consternation that the rich traditions which my father and I had documented had virtually disappeared,” he wrote. “Most young people, caught up by TV and the hit parade, simply did not know anything about the black folklore that their forebears had produced and which had sustained and entertained generations of Americans. I resolved to try and do something about this situation, so far as I could.”

Lomax and Lowry eventually compiled 12 albums at the Library of Congress, with more planned; these were “organized in a way that might help to show blacks and other Americans the beauty, variety, the regional traits and African characteristics of this great body of song.” These albums bear witness to a transformative moment when a new singing language, new musical forms, and thousands of songs that belong in the first rank of human melodies were created. They evoke now vanished musical worlds, showing how black style developed as settlement moved westward from the Carolinas to Texas and how regional styles branched forth along the way.

“[This music is] a thing of very great beauty—a monument to the extraordinary creativity of the black people of North America,” Lomax wrote. “No song style exists anywhere that can surpass this material for sheer variety, originality, and charm. Yet its most genuine aspects are little known today and are fast fading out of currency under the pound of the media.” He hoped that this series could help “restore to the American consciousness, and especially African-Americans, a heritage that is about to be altogether lost.” Perhaps now, as we have crossed over into the twenty-first century, we are close enough to the “ca’m time” of songs and dreams for this restoration to take place.

Deep River of Song: Alabama
Alabama - From Lullabies to Blues

Resplendent voices from Sumter County, including those of the great Vera Ward Hall and her cousin Dock Reed, capture the genius, vitality, and inventiveness of African Americans in song: historic recordings of blues, play party, sacred songs, and work songs recorded in the field between 1937 and 1940 by John A. and Ruby Terrill Lomax, assisted by Ruby Pickens Tart.

Bahamas 1935, Volume 1: Chanteys And Anthems From Andros And Cat Island

These chanteys and anthems are the earliest field recordings made in the Bahamas, sung by spongers from Andros Island and featuring the rhyming style that has vanished since the end of the sponging industry. Twenty-one of the album’s 24 songs are previously unissued.

Here is an amazing wealth of brief but perfect melodies, playfully rhythmicized in the African manner and harmonized in ways that are as unique as they are moving. The folk songs of the Bahamas are as limpid and charming, as full of light and delightful movement as the endlessly lovely gold and turquoise seas that bathe the shores of these islands.’ –Alan Lomax

Bahamas 1935, Volume 2: Ring Games And Round Dances

This second volume of the earliest field recordings made in the Bahamas brings together ring games, sung with handclapping and drum accompaniment, and round dances, performed by a string band. ‘Here is an amazing wealth of brief but perfect melodies, playfully rhythmicized in the African manner and harmonized in ways that are as unique as they are moving. The folk songs of the Bahamas are as limpid and charming, as full of light and delightful movement as the endlessly lovely gold and turquoise seas that bathe the shores of these islands.’ -Alan Lomax 

Big Brazos: Texas Prison Recordings, 1933 and 1934

Prisons were the last home for the work song tradition that African slaves had used to keep themselves alive in the brutal plantation economy of the American South. The Texas prisoners recorded here used work songs in the same way and for the same reasons. These songs have a variety of subjects, but what they're really about is staying alive in hell.

Black Appalachia - String Bands, Songsters And Hoedowns
Black Texicans - Balladeers And Songsters Of The Texas Frontier

Black Texicans: Historic 1930s field recordings document African-American life on the Texas frontier — black cowboy songs, work, minstrel, and play party songs, ‘eephing,’ and virtuoso harmonica playing. These performances by Lead Belly, Henry Truvillion, Moses ‘Clear Rock’ Platt, and many others call up the open, the prairie, and the immutable desert, as well as the days of minstrel and medicine shows. Twenty-two of the album’s 29 songs are previously unissued.

Deep River of Song: Georgia
Georgia: I'm Gonna Make You Happy

English convicts, militant Scottish Highlanders, German religious refugees, and slaves brought directly from Africa carved out in Georgia a harsh and often impoverished agricultural life.. Racial conflict and repression lasted in Georgia until late into the 20th century, but the state produced some of the stellar figures in Black music and American literary history, and nurtured the Sea Islands, where African-based ways of life and music-making went on relatively peacefully until the 1960s. These pioneering recordings made in the 1930s and1940s feature Blind Willie McTell, Buster Brown, and great but lesser-known artists such as Reese Crenshaw, Camp Morris, the Smith Band, Sidney Stripling, SophieWing performing blues, ballads, folk ragtime, 19th century dance tunes, spirituals, and worksongs.

Louisiana - Catch That Train and Testify!

Here are legendary performances by the great Jelly Roll Morton and Lead Belly, and historic field recordings of French and English-speaking jure, zydeco, ring shouts, and work songs. This is the most varied album in the Deep River of Song series, and it illustrates the cultural richness of Louisiana’s varied population and geography. Recorded by Alan Lomax, John A. Lomax, and Ruby Terrill Lomax 1934-1940, and Paul Yeager, c. 1980. Remastered to 20-bit digital from the original metal and acetate field recordings.

Mississippi: Saints & Sinners - From Before The Blues And Gospel
Mississippi: The Blues Lineage - Musical Geniuses Of The Fields, Levees, And Jukes
South Carolina: Got the Keys to the Kingdom

The Gullah enclave of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, was home to a distinctive tradition of deeply moving unaccompanied spirituals and work songs that the Lomaxes recorded onto aluminum and acetate discs in the 1930s. Included with them here are children’s songs and songs from the parallel traditions that thrived in the state prison system.

Virginia And The Piedmont (Minstrelsy, Work Songs, And Blues)

These field recordings tell the story of African-American musical development in Virginia, the first home of slaves in North America, and in the Piedmont, where free blacks and whites made music side by side. Minstrel tunes, banjo songs, spirituals, work songs, and blues take us from the Reconstruction Era into the twentieth century and from the work gang to the concert stage.