February 5, 2003




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By Josh Kun
White stranger

IN THE SUMMER of 1941, in a neighborhood Baptist church in Maple Springs, Miss., Alan Lomax knelt over his portable recording machine and recorded Reverend Ribbins delivering a sermon to a room full of sharecroppers. Ribbins starts by talking and preaching, his congregation answering him back with shouts and laughs. Soon he is howling and screaming, stretching the rasp of his voice up toward heaven in long quivering cries. Ribbins is preaching about hell, about "hellish people" and "hell-bound trains," about snails, Lazarus, and catacombs. Hell is not a condition or an external state, he tells the church, but an actual place. In the Mississippi Delta of 1941 – where white men never let black men forget they were as replaceable as mules, where the racial terror of plantation slavery lived on in cotton rows, levee camps, and prison yards – hell was no biblical abstract. Hell was just outside the church doors.

Lomax's recording of Ribbins is one of four that accompany the newest edition of his remarkable 1993 mash-up of African musicology, racial economics, Southern sociology, and first-person blues histories, The Land Where the Blues Began (New Press). Along with a stark pan pipe solo, a country blues, and a love lament by a group of inmates at Parchman Farm Penitentiary who were held at shotgun point by the warden as they sang for Lomax, Ribbins's sermon is meant to be a document of a black South the rest of America had never heard before. In his preface Lomax writes that he believes his recordings give "a voice to the voiceless" and "put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communication chain." Without his recording machine, we might not have any audible record of black life in Texas, Alabama, and Virginia. We might not know the genius of blues musicians like Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy.

But Lomax's recordings go far beyond the simple capture and preservation of work songs and field hollers. They are also documents of Lomax himself – the Mississippi white man with the machine and the discs who was always going where the racial common sense of his day said he shouldn't go, always knocking on black doors across the Delta "hunting for songs," as he used to say. Even as Ribbins's sermon gets going, we can hear him making sure Lomax is listening: "Do you hear me, Brother Lomax?"

There's a unique history of American music in all of this – the history not of the musicians or the music but of the intermediaries, brokers, patrons, and middlemen, of the people who make the connections, keep the archives, and make the recordings. The brokers usually are white. The musicians usually aren't. Their relationship isn't always mutually beneficial and can often be exploitative and self-serving. When Lomax's father, John, took up Leadbelly's cause in the '30s and got him released from Angola State Penitentiary, he hired Leadbelly as a chauffeur and had him play for a room full of academics at a Modern Language Association conference, still wearing his prison stripes.

Alan Lomax, armed with an extra generation's worth of race and class consciousness, is a far more reliable intermediary than his father. The Land Where the Blues Began is really a history of white-on-black mediation, of how a white man raised poor in Mississippi and loving black music goes on to dedicate his life to preserving not its essence, but what he thinks its essence is. The book is not a history of the blues. It is a history of Lomax's love for the blues, a history of his awareness of "the barbed wire" that separates him from the people who make the music he loves, people he calls "my brothers." "I stared into the dusty black faces of the convicts who were singing – shame and anger spilled over me," he writes. "Out of their pain they have made a river of song. How can I repay them for this hard-won beauty?"

Lomax is always conscious of being "the white stranger" traveling this river of black song and admits he can't really get anyone to talk to him until he returns to the Delta with a team of black researchers from Fisk University. Lomax knows what his skin means in a land where skin means everything. He knows where the anguish and despair at the root of the blues come from. He knows every hell has its devils.

As a white intermediary who thought himself progressive and responsible, Lomax isn't shy about his disdain for other white brokers of black culture. He takes shots at Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones for "flattening out" the complexities of African music but saves the most wrath for William Faulkner. He chides Faulkner for his "caricatures" of poor white Southerners (Lomax's kin) and for using Southern blacks as "exotic background." Even when Land veers too far to the other extreme (with Lomax romanticizing blues musicians as primitive gods of the American wilderness), he never forgets the message of Ribbins's sermon: hell is a place. He never forgets his own mission either, to pass on the songs of this place, recorded on discs that outlive all of the people – black and white – who made them.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.