A preliminary definition of “Lomax-rock”

I’ll be leaving the land of reliable internet connections for the wilds of home tomorrow, so I reckoned I should post something long and rambling. For the next three months, expect my posts to be somewhat less frequent, though I will try my best to keep it up. The following I meant to post quite a while back following the posts on Bruce Peninsula and Megafaun, but it got lost in the wash. Anyways, here it is in all its glory. Cheers!

Considering that I’ve been batting the term around for a couple of posts, perhaps it’s time to forward some preliminary terms toward the definition of what I’ve been calling either Lomax-rock or Lomax-core. (Perhaps leave a comment below about which of the two you find more appropriate.) Primarily, I would suggest that Lomax-core is defined by the borrowing and repurposing of material from field recordings by ethnomusicologists such as Alan Lomax; however, this definition I find lacking, as it would necessarily include the tracks such as “Natural Blues” from Moby’s 1999 album Play. While I do not dislike this song, and several songs from this album certainly repurpose Lomax field recordings, I wish to keep Lomax-rock separate from “electronic” musical styles which directly use existing field recordings, in the format of samples. Further, I do not wish to confine Lomax-rock only to bands which use songs that can be thoroughly identified as sourced in existing (field) recordings. As such, I do not wish to define Lomax-rock as music which simply covers folk songs in a similar manner to which they were originally performed. This would simply be folk music.

Perhaps it’s best to define Lomax-core by the style of performance, and in the ways in which this style differs from electronic sample-based music and perpetual folk music. Accordingly, while I won’t reject the criteria of repurposing material from field recordings, I would instead suggest that Lomax-core is a style of music which seeks to emulate and update the musical style of field recordings. Here it would be useful to define field recordings as both separate and different from pre-war blues, early country-western music and early folk music recordings, which for the purposes of simplicity I will lump together for the time being as “folk recordings.” The difference between these two categories would be as follows: folk recordings typically featured professional or semi-professional musicians (such as Charley Patton or Jimmie Rodgers) working for a for-profit record label (such as Paramount or Vocalion, and RCA, respectively). Field recordings are hereby defined as recordings of typically non-professional musicians by ethnomusicologists, anthropologists or hobbyists for non-profit labels and releases (such as Smithsonian Folkways). Of course many musicians first recorded for organizations such as the Library of Congress went on to lead successful commercial recording careers, the best example being Muddy Waters. As such, I would further differentiate “folk recordings” from “field recordings” (solely within the context of this definition, of course) by the requirement that the typically non-professional musicians of “field recordings” recorded primarily with little or no musical accompaniment. To get down to it, by “field recordings” I intend to say work songs, prison chants, church hollers, children’s jump rope rhymes, etc. On the other hand, by folk recordings I mean songs that have been recorded in an idiom with a degree of professionalism and musicianship based on an accepted commercial value, aside from scholarly consumption, at the time of their recording. Thus work songs and prison chants are contrasted with blues boogies and country ballads.

Thus we’re left with the idea that Lomax-rock is a style of music that seeks to emulate and repurpose field recordings of work songs. This tendency is clearly quite visible in the two previously posted examples of songs covered by Bruce Peninsula; however, it is possible to find similar tendencies in songs of theirs that less directly reference Lomax related material. Field recordings are primarily an a capella form of musical expression. Thus Lomax-rock, while not necessarily a capella, prominently features vocals and/or vocal harmonies. The vocals in field recordings are more rhythmic than melodious, a feature recurring in Lomax-rock. In both styles, the vocals also follow a call and response pattern. The instrumentation is sparse and primarily percussive, often exclusively percussive. Lomax-rock features similar accompaniment. All of these features are evident in much of Bruce Peninsula’s catalogue, such as “Crabapples,” which bears no directly evident source material.

Bruce Peninsula, “Crabapples” (from A Mountain is a Mouth, 2009)

From a much more popular contemporary recording artist, we can sense gleams of Lomax-rock in the following song, “Rumour Has It” by Adele. Though the instrumentation becomes more complex as the song progresses, and eventually drops into a piano ballad, the opening motif makes the inspiration clear. Additionally, the lead single from this album, “Rolling in The Deep,” also features a similarly sparse and rhythmic opening motif. Both of these Adele songs could be considered part of Lomax-core.

Adele, “Rumour Has It” (from 21, 2011)

Reaching further back, Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours also features a song that follows my definition of Lomax-rock, “The Chain.” (Perhaps it is a coincidence that Adele’s most Lomax-esque track also features the word “rumour.”) With its sparse opening, driven primarily by banjo and percussion, “The Chain” is reminiscent of Lomax’s recordings; additionally, the title could be seen as a sly reference to the fact that much of Lomax’s recordings were of prison inmates on chaingangs. During songs like this it is a little easier to remember that Fleetwood Mac was founded in the mid-1960s as a blues-rock band akin to Canned Heat or The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Fleetwood Mac, “The Chain” (from Rumours, 1977)

The portion of the track that picks up at the beginning of the last minute is certainly a far cry from Alan Lomax’s field recordings; however, this is partially the point. None of these artists are trying to record pedantic imitations of Lomax’s field recordings. Rather, these artists are working with, not within, the field recording style of music to create a modern hybrid of mid-century field recordings and contemporary rock music. Thus, the work song lives on as a vibrant and living part of contemporary music, rather than as a dead style that is performed in facsimile, without any relation to our contemporary context.

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1 Comment

Filed under Alt/Indie, Field Recordings, Lomax, Music, Rock

One response to “A preliminary definition of “Lomax-rock”

  1. Pingback: Willis Beal Earl | See That My Blog is Kept Clean

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