In the beginning was the word, and the word was used to worship God or to get laid, not necessarily in that order. But behind that word lay a tale, a yarn, a hungry urge to communicate that somehow overwhelmed any need to worship, any need to procreate and be loved. The earliest humans sat in the flicker of firelight singing, raising their voices in primitive tunes to acknowledge the spirits of the earth and air, and to attract a mate. Their ambitions beggar our own in that they sought to reach back and beyond, to commune with all that had come before and all who would come after. They were the first creatures in the known universe to successfully plot a strategy to outlive their mortality. They did it through art. The great human arts are the visual arts, dance, and music. All of these three are powered by the same engine and this engine might be the most powerful and fundamental motivator of all: the need to tell a story and become immortal.
Clyde Maxwell chops wood and sings a holler at his farm in Canton, Mississippi. Shot by Alan Lomax, Worth Long, and John Bishop, September 3, 1978. For more videos from the American Patchwork fieldwork and information about Alan Lomax and his collections, visit:http://research.culturalequity.org
John Lomax was a man who believed in the purity and value of those stories, all those stories. He spent most of his life running the back roads of America and Europe, seeking out every snippet of lyric, every ambling air of melody, trying to preserve a cultural heritage that most people did not even know existed.
Sam Chatmon, vocal and guitar, performs “How Long, How Long.” Shot by Alan Lomax, John Bishop, and Worth Long at Sam’s home in Hollandale, Mississippi, August 1978. (Incidentally, this is the voice I want when I get to heaven. Thank you.)
You can read all about him on his Wikipedia page. Read, too about his son Alan who carried on his work for his own lifetime. Words cannot express what we owe these people. Thousands of hours of recordings, countless photographs, and an enormous and impossibly rare collection of videos await all who venture to the website of the Association for Cultural Equity. The amount of love, respect, and scholarship that has gone into the creation of this website is humbling. In some ways we are the most fortunate people who ever lived. All we have to do is click a mouse to immerse ourselves in glory.
I am drawn to this subject because of the recent passing of Earl Scruggs, a legendary musician who, sadly, is best known for the theme to the Beverly Hillbillies television show. And now this week comes word that Levon Helm will be taken from us any day now. Helm was the singer of many a song you know and love, but is perhaps best known for “The Weight.” People pass, the wheel turns. These men were and are professionals and we expect to be able to hear them whenever we like. But they would have been among the first to delight in the pleasures available through the work of the Lomax family.
My thoughts and love to Levon (did you know he is the Levon who inspired Elton John’s hit?). May his passing be peaceful. I leave you with this amazing song, one of the greatest I believe anyone ever recorded, and in every word and melodic air you can feel that reach, back and beyond, talking to all people, for all time.