Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 29

It's the last day of the month, and I have three posts to go. Lomax-a-Day Marathon, here we come.

The 'Work Songs' section of the Negro South chapter presents some particular challenges. I get the sense with most of these songs that transcribing the original, mostly improvised performance must have been a difficult task, especially for white, Western-music-trained musicologists. Every phrase contains rhythmic and melodic variation, with little of the repetition and predictability found in the white folk songs that fill earlier chapters of this anthology. The transcription process seems reflective of the whole history of white Americans commercializing and commodifying black American music: the songs are twisted and crammed into digestible structures created by whites, only to be misinterpreted and appropriated by white singers (like myself). In the by-line of "Don't Lie, Buddy," Lomax writes that the song was "collected and re-composed by Josh White." I'm not accusing Lomax of any more racism than is to be expected from a mid-20th century cultural collector--in fact, Lomax did a great deal to expose white Americans to black music and thus open an essential racial dialogue--but the word "re-composed" smacks of imperialistic musicology. Composition itself is a Western, scholarly concept that doesn't fit well with the organic development of most folk songs. Without a single author, without a definitive version, without an ego pining for credit, how can a song be composed? Perhaps Lomax could have just said "composed by Josh White"; if the song wasn't originally composed in the way we recognize, then how could it be re-composed?

Be aware of at least two degrees of cultural re-/mis-interpretation as you listen to my version of "Don't Lie, Buddy." The first was in Josh White's "re-composition." The second is my dumbing down of the rhythm, melody, and chord structure into something much simpler than what is printed, something I could wrap my structure-loving brain around.

One side-note: the "Jack the Rabbit" verse of this song is in the family of raccoon, possum, and rabbit songs I mentioned in yesterday's post, so I was delighted to find it once again in a seemingly unrelated song. I'm learning more and more that there is no such thing as "unrelated" in American folk music.

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