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The Land Where the Blues Began
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
The Land Where the Blues Began is one of the finest books on any subject I've ever read in my life. Every magical benefit of reading came poring forth from its pages, including deep and fascinating discovery, chills, outrage, tears, joy, laughter, amazement and finally, understanding and awe. Alan Lomax embarked on a personal odyssey to the Mississippi Delta serving up one of the great vicarious thrill rides any reader with a hankering to learn where rock and roll, and rhythm and blues came from. Armed with primitive recording equipment and a lifetime's experience researching the folk and popular music of the world (following in his father's distinguished footsteps in this endeavor), Lomax plunges us directly into the redneck towns and the plantations, where the Blues emerged from a fascinating combination of African musical roots, Folk...Popular...and Church Music, and the hollers which slaves, prisoners, levee workers, rail gangs, mule drivers, sharecroppers and roustabouts would sing out to express their rage, pain, heartsickness, loneliness, hopelessness and frustrations. Finding giants of the blues in dilapidated shacks in the middle of nowhere, Lomax coaxed many into performing for his acetate machines. Also haunting the bars, with names such as the Dipsy Doodle, in the black sectors of heavily segregated towns, Lomax (who is white) repeatedly puts his personal safety in jeopardy as he defies the redneck deputies' orders and ends up swigging homemade whiskey and eating fresh barbecue while recording legendary performances. If all this weren't enough, the book weaves the evolution of the Blues in with poignant memoirs of impoverished childhoods, family life, prison life, farm labor, Jim Crow, unthinkable mistreatment, murder, and devastation. Fashioning musical instruments out of pieces of wire and wooden boxes, tree branches or anything available, these masters created, nurtured and passed down their knowledge to subsequent generations until it flowered in the hands of a young and inspired new crop of Blues giants. Eventually blacks seeking a better way of life were able to move North into the urban areas of Chicago, New York, Kansas City and other places, and the adventurous among the Blues musicians followed them there, where the Blues kept people in touch with their roots and linked them emotionally to their Southern heritage. Here, the musicians were horribly exploited by white recording executives who invited them to record their music, and robbed them blind when a recording did well on the radio and/or in the stores. Eventually the mature Blues style inspired the world's greatest pop and rock musicians from the Rolling Stones and The Beatles to Eric Clapton, all of whom were British and discovered American Blues music at its commercial inception. Later, they introduced it back to the American masses who had for the most part not yet been exposed to it. As I finished the book, I was awestruck that these impoverished yet heroic people who lived in the shacks, shouting their laments to the cotton fields and the sky above, had a massive and magnificent influence on the world which few human beings will ever achieve. Hats off to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters and so many others, especially the now-forgotten faceless progenitors of the style, without whom today's popular music would have an entirely different and far less rich character. And three cheers for Alan Lomax whose passion and love for the people and music he documents, coupled with his original and rich writing style leaves us in an emotional heap at the end of our journey.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 1998
As a native, white expatriot Mississippian, I read with great interest Alan Lomax's account of the genesis of the Blues--which he considers the most important indigenous musical form of the 20th century globally. As grand a claim as this is, Lomax carries the credentials and the experience to back it up. Aside from the music, what he reveals is bitter suffering and unconscionable cruelty against African-Americans, the quality of whose lives was scarcely better than those of their slave grandparents. Out of this tragedy grew an art and a culture than far surpassed that of the oppressors. The poignant majesty of these folk poets is engaging and arresting. Their ability to find beauty, humor, passion, and dignity in lives that were riven with strife speaks of the indomitable spirits of these people. Lomax's research was timely, because much of the music and poetry he heard in the 40's no longer exists, and he chronicles an invaluable chapter in the history of American art and culture. Dr. William Bradley Roberts
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2003
Think you know the blues? Yeah, well so did I. But after reading this book, coupled with the current PBS series on The Blues, I'm diving back into stuff I've listened to for decades, but never really "heard." Quite possibly the best book ever written on the subject and one that I'll be re-reading for a long time.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2000
I plunged into this book unsure of what to expect, knowing little of Alan Lomax and his contribution to American culture. I emerged overcome with emotion at the stories and lives contained within this book. Lomax's story is not his own, but those of the African Americans he interacted with over the course of his career. And their stories are brutal, hilarious, depressing and uplifting. As Lomax travels across the South with his portable recorder, he discovers and re-discovers musical traditions that have helped sustain a rural culture, and will serve as the bedrock of modern American popular culture. The characters we meet are truly unforgettable - hardly a day goes by when I don't suddenly flash upon Blind Sid Hemphill, Son House, or many others. Lomax's portrait of the South is a tough one, and many times the ugliness makes for difficult reading. But these are the stories that we'd rather keep swept under the rug, tales of vicious brutality and lynchings, the shadowy secrets of America and the black struggle for equality, and it says as much as any slave narrative or civil rights chronicle. For those who agree that American culture is ultimately African in origin, this book will be an affirmation. For those unaware of the rich cultural tradition forged by a proud group of individuals, it will be a revelation. And as an unforgettable portrait of America, warts and all, this is a history book that breathes life on every page. Reading this book should change your life, a lofty claim too often bestowed casually on works that don't deserve the hype. Believe the hype this time - Lomax's story demands to be told, remembered, and taken to heart. We forget the cruel causes of the blues at our own peril.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 27, 1998
This book details the life of the poor, southern black in the early and middle portion of the twentieth century, not only in terms of the music, but perhaps more interestingly, with reference to the traditions and mores of those who were born and lived under the "plantation" system. The unbelievable stories and recountings of the individuals made me understand much more deeply the true effects of slavery as well as the reasons for so many of the difficult to explain behaviors we see in the inner city today. And of course, the highly romantic history of the origins of the blues makes fascinating reading for any jazz or blues buff.This book affected me more than nearly any other I've read in the last 10 years.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2005
Land Where The Blues Began is an especially timely read now when the levees have once again broken on the Mississippi river, since a significant part of the book deals with the experiences and perceptions of the levee workers. Lomax also talks about how blues, re-named "rhythm and blues" became the America's national music. The book is a personal memoir, illustrated with transcripts of recorded interviews, not a scholarly tract.

That Alan Lomax didn't acknowledge colleagues, specifically composer John Work is an unscrupulous Swift-Boat-like smear that has lately been perpetrated to hype a recent edition of Coahoma study material.

In LWTBB Lomax wrote: "I have many people to thank for contributions on fieldwork data -- Samuel Adams, John Work, and mainly Lewis Jones, who collaborated on the whole Coahoma County Survey. The Library of Congress Folk Song Archive of which I was then in charge, furnished recording instruments and other equipment, and the records of the songs are now in the Archive. John Faulk and, especially, Elizabeth Harold contributed important interview material. . . [and so on for the rest of the page.] " p. 481

And on p. 496: Much of the sociological material in this chapter was gathered by Lewis Jones and his Fisk University associates, and summed up by him in two unpublished monographs, "The Mississippi Delta" and "An Ecology of Counties," edited by Lewis Jones in the 1940s. These sources, as well as conversations with Jones, are cited and paraphrased here."

There are eighteen references (most highly complementary) to Lewis Jones in Lomax's index, some for entries of multiple pages. The book has numerous complementary references the works of other scholars, as well.

It is lucky that Lomax preserved Work's field recordings in the Library of Congress (don't know if others survived independently) and kept a copy Work's and Jones's unpublished manuscript "stuffed" in a file in his open-to-the public archives, because the material that Work kept at home was lost after his death.

"Stuffed" in the files of the LOC are letters from Work in the 1940s requesting Botkin to send him copies of his Coahoma essay because he has lost them, and a reply from Botkin that he had done so "along with a couple of mimeographed copies."

In 1958 Work wrote the Library again, asking permission to publish his Coahoma material and the Library wrote back saying go ahead, if it was all right with Fisk. More correspondence about the Coahoma study can be viewed on the LOC website.

The copy of Work's essay found in Alan Lomax's archive (not his private papers) was a mimeographed one that the Fisk Librarian said probably went out on interlibrary loan.

According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music, John Work III was indeed a prolific composer of classical music, mostly of choral but also instrumental. He composed 70 arrangements of folk material in which rich textures and use of dynamics added interest to the repetition of the stanza form. His large-scale choral works were not based on folk music. They are strictly diatonic. Work's cantata "The Singers" (text by Longfellow) won a national composers' prize in 1946. Work was also an acknowledged authority on black folk music and published several books on the topic. In the 1950s, he toured Europe conducting the Fisk Jubilee chorus.

As a classical music composer and educator in a school with a mission to "uplift" its pupils, Work had strict standards of what constituted "good" and "bad" folk performance. He prized through-composed dynamic variation, "correct" diatonic intonation (no expressive shifts of half or quarter tones), and felt that songs should always end on the tonic -- all essentially bel canto rather than folk criteria.

Lomax himself tells us that he decided to bypass conventional musical notation altogether and instead spent years developing descriptive parameters he called Cantometrics.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2003
This book is important, and maybe even vital, in spite of itself. Lomax is the real thing: He knows his material incredibly well, and even his most offhand paragraphs on anything at all related to African influences on American/southern culture are right on the mark. His field recordings were/are an incalculable contribution to American music. Some of them brought major artists -- Muddy Waters being the most obvious example -- from total obscurity squarely into the mainstream. He was a true scholar, and a kind of cultural hero. That said, this memoir/history was not exactly a joy to read. Lomax has a terrible weakness for lyrical language, but he just doesn't have the chops as a writer; his story is so good he should have been as plain in the telling as possible. His overheated romance with the black American male is often embarrassing. Maybe the best part of the book is a long passage when he simply gets out of the way and we hear directly from one of his subjects for many pages. It's not that Lomax had no right to do a book like this -- he had every right to. And even at its most purple, what he has to say is crucial if you want to understand American music. I just wish he could have spared us some of his attempts at heightened language and overwrought description. Complaining about white rock musicians, he writes, "To my jaundiced Southern ears .. many rock guitarists are more concerned with showing how many notes they can get off and how many chords they know tan what the song has to say or how the guitar can speak for them." I would say something very similar about the way Lomax wrote this book -- he should have been less concerned about how many phrases he could get off and how many words he knew, and just let his wonderful story tell itself plainly.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 1998
This is a must read for blues fans! Lomax takes the reader into the dark corners and sometimes disturbing haunts of the early bluesmen. The times and the cold social realities that shaped the blues are described by Lomax as he travels in search of original blues practitioners. This is both a musical and sociological journey which is thought provoking and informative.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2004
A critical first step in your Blues education. An excellent read, but may contain more information than the casual Blues fan wants to know. What I would call a "serious" blues text. Along with a detailed search for the source of the blues, there are fascinating portions that illuminate racial divides and prejudices. Check out Lomax's adventures in Memphis, told in first person, for a disturbing portrait of "cracker law enforcement"...seems almost unbelievable...almost.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2000
I've just finished The land Where the Blues Began and I can say it is amongst my 5 favourite books. I enjoyed it more than almost any other book I've ever read. It opened my eyes, fed me with interest and enthusiasm and allowed me to read about people whom I knew nothing. Revelatory. A true delight. I feel deeply indebted to Alan Lomax and to those he spoke to and recorded with such care and commitment. Wonderful.
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