A reissue, 70 years after the original publication, of the lightly learned, endlessly interesting memoir by pioneering folklorist Lomax.
“Home on the Range” is a definitively American song and one that most Americans know. We owe that knowledge, and the primacy of the simple but compelling song, to Lomax, who, following a bread-crumb trail of clues, found it embodied in a “drink dispenser, a Negro,” who shooed him away from the San Antonio railyard in which he was sleeping off a drunken binge but then, in the shade of a mesquite tree, sang it the next day. Recording the man on that day in 1908, Lomax had the music transcribed and, as he writes, it “has since won a high place as a typical Western folk tune.” Lomax popularized the song, but he did much more: he discovered Lead Belly on a work farm and helped introduce “Goodnight, Irene” into the national lexicon. Folklorically inclined readers—or, perhaps, fan of roots music—will thrill at Lomax’s accounts of how he happened across songs like “Whoopie ti-yi-yo,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” “John Henry,” “Rock Island Line,” and “The Buffalo Skinners.” A case in point is Vera Tartt’s singing “Boll Weevil Blues” and then, on Lomax’s prompting for another blues song, delivering a haunting song: “Another man done gone / from de County Farm; / I didn’t know his name; / He had a long chain on….” Lomax’s wanderings across the country in search of cowboy songs, prison work songs, Appalachian ballads, and the like delivered a huge part of our folkloric repertoire, which were rare gems even then. As he notes, given their druthers, those cowboys expressed “frank disbelief in my undertaking and with little respect for the intelligence of a man undertaking the work of collecting such material” and would just as soon have listened to Tin Pan Alley tunes, but they gave up their knowledge anyway.
Essential reading for neo-folkies, alt-country fans, blues enthusiasts, and most other stripes of music lover.