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Searching the globe uncovers folk's roots

Musicologist Alan Lomax has been driven by a unique enthusiasm: He has combed the earth - microphone and tape recorder in tow - looking for opportunities to record music by folk performers.

Mr. Lomax's father, John Lomax, began this musical mission in 1933, a quest to preserve a disappearing art form. Alan picked up his mantle and has continued the project.

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The impact of the field recordings Lomax has made during the past six decades is becoming richly evident through "The Alan Lomax Collection," a series of CDs released by Rounder Records. Nearly three-dozen discs are currently available, and the series will encompass more than 100 albums when completed.

A hint as to what makes this legacy worthy of such a massive outpouring of recordings is available in the form of a single disc, "The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler." These 38 concise musical selections span the breadth of Lomax's interests.

They include moving examples of blues, prison songs, and gospel music from the Deep South. Joyous calypsos and children's songs from the Caribbean abound, as do traditional ballads from northern Europe. A native American rain dance surprises listeners, as does a song by Japanese fishermen celebrating the season's first catch.

Lomax was far from an objective researcher; he was committed to a left-leaning political agenda in which folk music represented an avenue of empowerment for people outside the established elites. He was among the first musicologists to heavily record rural African-American blues and gospel performers, who were often denied commercial recording outlets because of Depression-era racism. His European recordings reflect the lives of blue-collar workers.

Few of the performers captured on tape thought of themselves as professional musicians. Many never had the opportunity to hear themselves recorded, and when Lomax played back their recordings, they would express amazement and delight.

"I found out that what I was really doing," commented Lomax in 1991, "was giving an avenue for people to express themselves and tell their side of the story."

These are unpolished performances - raw, passionate, jagged expressions far removed from the studied formulaic perfectionism of professional recording studios.

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Three recent discs in this series yield exceptional riches. "Mississippi: Saints & Sinners From Before the Blues and Gospel" discloses through 25 songs the roots of today's blues and rock. Grateful Dead fans will recognize "If I Had My Way," a song by Deacon Tom Jones and Rev. C.H. Savage recorded a quarter century before the Grateful Dead's version.

While the performers on this collection are obscure names, "Mississippi: The Blues Lineage" showcases the starkly moving first recordings by two blues artists who would become superstars in the '60s, Muddy Waters and Son House. But little-known figures like Lucious Curtis and Willie Ford also shine, each with a version of blues accompanied by a guitar rhythmically mimicking locomotive sounds.

From a wholly different culture, "Dominica: Creole Crossroads" collects 1962 field recordings from that tiny island nation in the eastern Caribbean. Although Dominica is not as well known among music fans as Cuba or Jamaica, the songs and instrumentals Lomax recorded suggest a musical heritage second to none.

One tune will ring true for American listeners of any age or background. Dozens of young children standing outside their one-room schoolhouse sing "Be it ever so humble/ there's no place like home" in a ragged but right harmony that will make your ears feel right at home.

That is what Lomax accomplished: Training our ears to feel at home with harmonies from anywhere on earth, taking seriously musicians who weren't aware of the extent of their gifts, and reminding us of the deep roots of American pop music.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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