Summer of Lomax

by Nick Pittman

Seminal recordings from more than eight decades ago form the basis of a new appraisal of the origins and early years of Louisiana’s indigenous music.

In the wet, balmy summer of 1934 — August alone taking 10 inches of rain in a state where even the roads connecting Baton Rouge to New Orleans were not weather proof — the father and son team of John and Alan Lomax traveled the undoubtedly muddy roads of South Louisiana in a car weighed down by a 300-pound recording device in the trunk. Crossing Acadiana from Lake Arthur in the west to New Iberia in the east, St. Landry Parish in the north to Avery Island in the south they captured songs of many styles on aluminum discs. Their recordings would provide material for scholarly and musician study for the next eight decades.

Today, the Lomax material has received a makeover. Valcour Records fetes the expedition, its own 10-year anniversary and what would have been Alan’s 100th birthday with Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country, a 24-song boxed set of four staggered-release CDs. Compiled and produced with the help of Joshua Caffery, former member of the Red Stick Ramblers and Feufollet and now a visiting professor in folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington, it features a bevy of noted Acadiana names such as Marc Broussard, Zachary Richard, Michael Doucet, Steve Riley and Wayne Toups, plus many more.

“We’ve been thinking about our 10-year anniversary for a while now, and we’ve been looking for the perfect release to tie together this past decade of music and growth in Acadiana,” says Joel Savoy of Valcour Records. “Over the course of the last year as our Lomax album concept grew and expanded it became apparent that this is exactly the way we wanted to celebrate: a multi-disc set featuring all of our favorite Acadiana artists creating new versions of old songs. After all, isn’t that precisely what has been happening here as long as anyone can remember?”

The project stems from Caffery’s 2013 book, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana. Between the book’s covers are transcriptions, in English and French, of all the 1934 recordings made in Southwestern Louisiana, plus photographs from the expedition and biographical details of the performers. For many of the songs, it is the first time their histories and translations have been shared.

Caffery assembled a small group of musicians to perform some of the songs he was lecturing about at several book fairs and special literary events.

Says Savoy, “We were all enjoying the songs and the ensemble so much that I said to Josh that we should make a record, and we scheduled an afternoon to get together and barbecue and record a few tracks in my studio here in Eunice. From there the whole project just took off.”

For decades, music scholars and fans alike have characterized the Lomax material as ballads directly from Acadie, serving as proto-Cajun and pre-zydeco Creole music. While those elements are present and there is plenty of formative material for today’s music in the collection, there is much more to the Lomax collection. The Lomaxes heard old slave spirituals, rural blues, Irish and English folk songs, and traditional French folk songs. Within these genres there are delightful varieties and crucial building blocks that formed the music of Louisiana.

This diversity is reflected on Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country. Savoy and Caffery gave the artists freedom on how to approach the material. Some stuck to tradition while others bent it. BeauSoleil’s Michael Doucet doesn’t disappoint with his rendition of “La Chanson de Theogene Dubois.” Even though scaled down to just strings, it contains a nice hop to it thanks to Danny Devillier’s bongos. Megan Brown’s “La Jolie Fille et Le Garcon Colonial,” in its beautiful a capella French style, stays within the lines of the perceptions of the Lomax recordings. Others do not.

“We basically tried to match certain artists with certain songs and then let them follow their own creative inclinations,” Caffery explains. “I believe that archival recordings, just like archival seed banks, enable access to earlier strains that can be recombined and retrofitted to meet the shifting challenges of the future.”

“Batson” tells a dark story amid a peppy piano setting straight out of an Old West saloon. A murder ballad based on a real life drama that unfolded in Welsh, the story behind “Batson” made headlines in 1902 when the title character was accused and later executed for murdering six people. “Le Garçon Sans Soucis,” originally a drinking song from a well-to-do Parisian men’s society, pairs a harpsichord sound via the bowed bass, fiddle and bouzouki with a marching beat and an overall sound that is more Parisian at the time of the revolution than Plaisance. Unexpectedly, the last half of the song ends with a spaghetti western whistle and distorted guitar.

With 1960s’ pop guitar and indie rock elements, “Inch Above the Knee” in no way sounds like it belongs with the other material. That being said, it’s a gem: Kelli Jones-Savoy’s voice is one part pissed off, one part smart mouth as she delivers a tale of corruption at the hands of an “honest boy.” The smirky refrain of “like an honest girl does” and “like an honest boy do” stands out in a song that will be on constant repeat. “Orphan Girl,” a sentimental Victorian parlor ballad that became a folk song sung by Ollie Murphy of Crowley, is far from home in the hands of Tiffany Lamson, known for her work with GIVERS. Still, Caffery calls the result “uncannily fitting.”

“I wanted to make a record that would reflect the range and diversity of those original recordings,” says Caffery. “If there is a theme in the book, it’s plurality. We tend to think of our musical culture in dualistic terms, as Cajun/Creole music. That’s part of the story, but the music reflects a panoply of historic influences and intersections, and I wanted to make something that would sound and extend that complexity. Also, I just wanted to share the excitement I had for some of the more interesting nooks and crannies of the collection, and to polish up some of these forgotten gems.”

Savoy concurs: “Today, I worry that people from outside of our area tend to pigeonhole our culture and feel the need to define us and our music. When a culture is alive, it’s bound to grow and change, and I think people forget that. I hope that this release will help to break some of those stereotypes, because there sure is a lot of diversity here today. I think we have captured that in this set.”