Various Artists: Root Hog or Die: 100 Songs, 100 Years – An Alan Lomax Centennial Tribute

Music Reviews Various Artists
Various Artists: Root Hog or Die: 100 Songs, 100 Years – An Alan Lomax Centennial Tribute

On a day 100 years from his birth, the work of folklorist, cultural archivist and compiler Alan Lomax seems both ancient and incredibly prescient. As Nathan Salsburg notes in this set’s compelling liner notes, Lomax, like his father John before him, and Harry Smith who followed him, tried to make the voices of the masses penetrate through the monoculture of his era’s media, a task of all-to-all communication that anticipated the YouTube era before anyone could even begin to conceptualize the realities of today’s fractured but high-volume social common media spaces. The sweep of his recordings—from capturing the singing of anonymous children in streets and churches to a performance by a young Bob Dylan in Lomax’s own home—speaks to a drive to just grab his world’s music from the air so that history couldn’t lose it.

The challenge now is context. In the headier moments of the ‘60s folk revival, the political implications of a 1959 field recording from a Memphis church were almost implicit in the presentation—airing the music of diverse day-to-day people was an active form of inclusive democracy. While our race relations and geopolitical imbalances haven’t exactly perfected themselves in the few decades since Lomax’s career ended, the use of local music as a tool for the message arguably has narrowed; we seek it in Kendrick Lamar, but might struggle to find it in these fiddle recordings from the 1930s.

What we’re left with perhaps instead is a warm memory of Lomax himself. More than anything, this commemorative set beautifully captures the energy Lomax applied to his mission, essentially spinning the dial through a mere fraction of the things he captured. The many lanes of his cultural travels are all here in various measures—Skip James at Newport, but also anonymous Romanians, songs of the British Isles alongside songs of the Caribbean and Deep South. Extreme followers of folk will welcome the glut of unreleased recordings presented here, but neophytes won’t spot anything missing, either. The point of Lomax’s all-to-all approach was that nothing was placed above anything else: there are no greatest hits to be had even if the received historical focus might linger slightly on Jelly Roll Morton or Big Bill Broonzy.

Taken as a slightly unwieldy whole, it’s a treasure trove for those that want what it has to offer, and for the most part they probably know who they are. These aren’t jams for today’s social moments, nor are they background music. They’re more a journey for the journey’s sake. As a listening experience, Root Hog is in turns curious and strange, random and commonly alive, much like the world and the decades he traveled and the ones we still inhabit. In the end that’s as good a way to nod to Lomax as we’ll soon find.

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