Night Music

REVIEW: ‘Night Music’ Reframes John and Alan Lomax’s Quest For Prison Field Recordings

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Night Music photos by Clay Rodgriguez

Night Music

“Night Music” Reframes John and Alan Lomax’s Quest For Prison Field Recordings

Night Music, a short film inspired by the father and son musicologists John and Alan Lomax, was co-produced by Lukas Huffman and Dom Flemons. It recently debuted at festivals, and currently available online via Omleto. Huffman wrote and directed the film, Flemons served as musical director, and the online release was timed to celebrate African American Music Appreciation Month.
The short film stars David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks) and Michael Potts (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and is inspired by the 1930s field recordings that John and Alan Lomax made in Southern prisons, some of the first to be made in prisons. The significance of the recordings to later generations would be immense, particularly during the Folk music revival of the 60s and 70s, but they continue to impact us today.

Some provided quotes from Flemons and Huffman are illuminating about their motivation in making the film, highlighting the importance of the prison recordings made by the Lomaxes.

Lukas Huffman shares:

“These are evocative work songs, spirituals, ballads and oral histories. These are rarely heard American voices that ring out from the past with wisdom about pain, beauty, desire and above all, spirituality. They describe a life of suffering and the bliss that can come with death. Ultimately, I see them as a form of narrative medicine… My hope is that by telling this story now will can draw attention to these recordings and reveal some truths about early contributions to the American musical cannon.”

Dom Flemons explains:

“The first thing that drew me to these recordings was the hypnotic quality of the songs. As most song performances are made on a stage for the benefit of a paying audience, these performances were made by men singing for their own survival. As an African-American person interested in the continuity of music in my own community, I could not help but think of the subversive nature of the lyrics which brings up a thin but poignant link to modern day hip-hop. These men are not rappers, but like rappers they are using pieces of the song tradition to create a platform for lyrical improvisation.

…In a world dominated by three decades of strict segregation, the Lomaxes dared to say that the homegrown music of the African-American community was just as important and “American” as the most high brow Euro-classical music of the day. They dared to present a style of music that could be documented for future generations paving the way for a much more informed and authentic “black folk music” aesthetic.”

The film itself is set in 1933, and focuses on the Lomaxes’ visit to Angola, Louisiana’s infamous penitentiary known as “The Farm”. Rather than taking a documentary-like approach, the film is very purposive in its artistic choices, from opening and closing with dramatic, stormy skyscapes to suggest the bleakness of the setting, to the use of black and white footage of prisoners to bring home the realities of the story and the instrumental soundtrack that often crops up during scene transitions.

The two main acts of the film also both focus on dramatic negotiation situations. In the first, we follow John and Alan Lomax into a prison director’s office where they attempt to persuade him to let them record the songs of prisoners. This is a very nuanced scene that suggests a lot about the difficulties the Lomaxes faced on their recording missions, but also speaks to the personality of John Lomax. Something that Dom Flemons noted in a released interview about the film is the generational difference between the more “stoic” and formulaic John Lomax and the more flexible and adaptive approach Alan would take in his own work later that would make it feel more accessible to later generations.

In the first negotiation scene, we see in John his ability to out-fox the sly prison director by saying the right things and appearing to be on the same side as the brutality and racism that governs the prison. However, in the second negotiation scene, trying to persuade two prisoners (also an older and a younger man) to record their songs, we might come to the far less comfortable conclusion that John is no hero or even an anti-hero. His drive to succeed in his goals might even render him far less humane than we might suppose.

Since Alan Lomax is a very young man here, and subject to his father’s mission, there’s less opportunity to learn about his motivations, but we might note that, when alone, he challenges his father’s tactics in an understated way, and when addressing the prisoners, he asks salient questions in a fairly respectful manner. He also doesn’t interfere when the prisoners undermine his father. He certainly doesn’t take on tactics in the same way that John clearly does.

In the first negotiation scene, we can appreciate the discomfort of the Lomaxes attempting to reach their goal. In the second negotiation scene, we can appreciate the discomfort of the prisoners who seem to have no real power of choice. From a modern perspective, the request that the prisoners sing their songs feels very invasive, more of an order or a threat than anything else, particularly when John hints that he’ll get the director to convince them if they don’t comply willingly. This is something the filmmakers are making sure to include for audiences with good reason. We might think, “It’s wonderful that the Lomaxes saved this music.” But stopping there, we might fail to realize the social realities that enabled them to do so.

One of the most rewarding things about the film is the way in which tables turn multiple times depending on the power structures at play. One of the most astonishing things is that the filmmakers manage to do this in such a short narrative and in such a powerful way. Suggesting that the prisoners used religious music to actually challenge John Lomax’s moral standing and offer, in turn, to have mercy on him, is a radical challenge to the power that the Lomaxes assume they possess. It also potentially undermines how we see the Lomaxes through watching the film, not so much saviors as those who, also, might be in need of salvation.

A really helpful touch is that the film includes the original recordings featured in the plot of the film during the credit scene, again, bringing us as close to the subject matter as possible to consider the actual events that transpired behind the gathering of the recordings. For some audiences, this may be their first encounter with prison field recordings, while for others who are familiar with these recordings, it will encourage them to think in a more nuanced way about the situation surrounding each recording that was made.

Like John Lomax in the film, “We’ll take what we can get.” However, given the passage of time and growth in perspectives on these field recordings, it’s our responsibility to chip away at mythologizing that might take place and allow room for further lessons they might teach us. This film makes room for those lessons.

Find more about the film here: https://huffmanstudio.tv/night-music

 

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