REVIEW: “Songs of Hard Times: Up, Over & Through (1936-1982) – Various Artists” from the Alan Lomax Archive is Musical History


Songs of Hard Times: Up, Over & Through (1936-1982) – Various Artists – Alan Lomax Archive

While the majority of these 20-tracks are relatively short they’re a small piece of musical history captured by the field recording work of Alan Lomax. There are folk songs, race music, work songs, hollers, blues & hillbilly. Sung in Spanish, Italian, Scottish & French.

But it’s the expressive human voice with no modern artifacts: no autotune, singing lessons or polish. The voice of experience, homegrown & it’s everyman. Lomax began archiving music decades ago after his father began this effort. Much of their documentation is found on file cards, with spare lyrics. Primitive, but effective, definitely invaluable.

If not for Alan’s efforts these dusty jewels would not have been recorded for prosperity. Accumulated as part of a series of LPs Songs of Hard Times: Up, Over & Through (1936-1982) – released March 2020 – it features artists from Lomax’s 50-year collection. A musical history for the dedicated & the curious.

“Hard Times,” leads with a 58-second tune sung in French with a scrape on a washboard. Dixon Athanase (“Death Is Not Sweet”) suggests neonatal Cajun, zydeco & creole. Bessie Jones acapella — has a rural fresh soulful voice. It’s clear on the classic “Diamond Joe.” Just over a minute, she tells the recordist there are a lot of words. I could’ve listened to more.

The music I previewed was streamed, so I’m limited to historical information, dates, & exact recording places. Some tunes touch on early Calypso which led to reggae years later. “The Growling Tiger: Money Is King,” is an example. The CD hopefully includes an insert with backstories.

A listener must be prepared for empty echo on some tunes since it was just the hollow ambiance of the room where they sang. “When a Fellow Is Out of a Job,” sounds appropriate for today. Grant Rogers – a lumberman, multi-instrumentalist alone with an acoustic guitar at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival has a nice Woody Guthrie tone to his vocals.

Sound reproduction is challenged. Dismiss that from your ears & your spirit will be educated. Some explore spiritual, gospel melodies & the rich vocal interplay is admirable.

Harry Cox sings in a heavy cockney that enriches the old English folk song tradition. Cox sounds like he’s nothing more than a sad genuinely inebriated loveable troubadour.

“Tomorrow Is a Holiday,” is an uplifting field recording (in Africa) with a chorus of school children.

Many songs probably were never written on paper because traditional songs were often passed down through families & cultures. Origination? Lost. But Alan Lomax & his big tape recorder journeyed to capture these obscure people, primitive songs & tireless spirit.

Blues guitarist Skip James plays acoustically clear & sings “Worried Blues.” Labor Union activist Aunt Molly Jackson sings “Roll On Buddy,” from 1939. She’s the original pistol-packin’ mama. Appalachian in style with all its spirited vocal nuances. Jackson is excellent.

Compiled by Nathan Salsburg. The LP is available at Bandcamp & Discogs.

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