Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook

Don’t know who Alan Lomax is? Neither did I, until I read the extensive liner notes included with Popular Songbook.

Lomax could be called a musical historian, but when he started, it wasn’t exactly history.

For the better part of the last century, Lomax traveled the world collecting folk music. He was there for the birth of rock and roll and earlier, before it was the blues, before it even had a name. Lucky for us, he was also one of the pioneers of early recording technology, and was determined to document everything he heard.

The songs on Popular Songbook are all familiar, just not in the versions presented here. Everyone who’s listened to an oldies station has heard “House of the Rising Sun,” “Sloop John B” and “Black Betty.” The versions on this disc, from 1937, 1959 and 1933 respectively, show how much history these songs have, and even they don’t claim to be the originals.

That’s what makes these folk songs–no one person wrote them. They were the result of one musician hearing a song, adding their own twist to it, and passing it on.

The sound quality on Popular Songbook ranges from pretty good to abysmal, but considering the age of the source material, it’s something of a miracle to be able to hear them at all. It’s a fascinating document for anyone with an interest in the origin of popular music.

Or, you could pick it up just for whatever bragging rights come from having the original song Moby sampled for “Natural Blues.” Whatever works for you.

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