I was listening to David Byrne’s How Music Works this morning and came upon a passage that made me double-take. The section explores the advent of musical recordings in American history and its ultimate effects on the face of society. He references Alan Lomax, the great ethno-musicologist, best remembered for his field recordings of folk music.
In the early 1930s, Alan and his father — John Lomax — were crisscrossing the country and capturing the voices of everyday African-Americans. Most of these men and women were salt-of-the-earth and desperately poor. While slavery had officially been outlawed almost a hundred years previously, most African-Americans born in the South were still dependent on the back-breaking work that had put their ancestors in an early grave. While Alan Lomax believed their mission would empower the disenfranchised, Papa Lomax wanted to ensure his subjects remained ‘authentic’.
Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly to folk enthusiasts, was a singer-songwriter the Lomaxes encountered in a Louisiana-state prison in 1933. A gifted musician with a penchant for pop music and folk songs, he would record with the Lomaxes for the better part of two years while serving time for an aggravated assault charge (he had previously been imprisoned for murdering a relative in his twenties).
Upon his early-release, Papa Lomax brought him to New York City to perform, forbidding him to play his pop ballads. He wanted to present a "raw Negro, an authentic primitive straight from prison for New Yorkers to gawk at and appreciate as well." He even had the musician dress in overalls for such performances, as if he had no other clothes to wear. (Ledbetter preferred the comfort of suits).
These strict measures were likewise applied to the recordings. Papa Lomax wanted Lead Belly to give a great performance, so long as it didn’t resonate as being too polished. As Byrne tells it, the Lomaxes had unknowingly given birth to a ‘simulated authenticity’, a term that would come to define the future of music forever. By actively shaping what was recorded, it effectively set a precedent for the way listeners accepted and digested new forms of music.
Whether we appreciate it or not, every single artist we know and love to this day has made their mark by investing in a level of simulated authenticity. For some it might be closely tied to their personal lives, for others this alter-ego is the incarnation of their deepest fears or desires.
In later years Alan Lomax would become dismayed at the modern music industry. He saw people being robbed of their voices, disenfranchised by a small handful of powerful conglomerates. As Byrne dryly states: "Inevitably recorded music was a branch of proto-globalisation, a process that could uncover hidden gems while at the same time flattening them out."
For the intently curious, check out this wild article on Lead Belly from the mid-1930s (the headline alone helps to cement the social context). I also discovered this incredible collection thanks to Kurt Cobain who cited Mr. Ledbetter as a critical influence on Nirvana’s sound.