Alan Lomax on Song Style

At the time when Almeda and other traditional singers of her generation were being recorded, many people, especially in towns and cities, were embarrassed by the old rural and ethnic ways of singing. They were more comfortable with opera (which implied wealth and education) or popular theater music (which symbolized fashionable urban modernity). Rural, regional, and ethnic musical styles were gradually invading public consciousness through recordings and radio, producing country music and blues and gospel. But it took a deep acquaintance to strip away prejudice against traditional singing. Ballad singers like Almeda Riddle and the North Carolina singer Dillard Chandler and the many musicians who were masters of other genres in effect taught a generation of outsiders to understand and appreciate their art.

Alan Lomax—who across the years made field recordings of black prison work gangs, religious services, blues, jazz marching bands, Appalachian ballad singers and banjo pickers, and Cajun fiddlers, and then went over to record in the British Isles, and later in Spain and Italy—became more aware than anyone else of the diversity, beauty, and antiquity of traditional song styles. In a 1959 essay entitled “Folk Song Style” he described traditional singing world-wide as falling into ten major stylistic families that he labeled American Indian, Pygmoid, African, Australian, Melanesian, Polynesian, Malayan, Eurasian, Old European, and Modern European. And he became their most active advocate. His 1977 essay “An Appeal for Cultural Equity” is a readable and eloquent argument for the respect owed to traditional musical styles that he saw as threatened with “cultural grayout.” With radio broadcasts and published recordings he tried to share his experience of the music. Currently The Association for Cultural Equity builds on his legacy, using the internet to stream many of the albums he recorded or edited of world music. Lomax also filmed musical performances and planned one of his projects—the Global Juke Box —as an easy way for people to see and experience the clusters of behavior that constitute a performance style: not just melodic structures and vocal timbre and preferred pitch, but also the physical behavior of the performers and their audiences, the numbers of people involved in the musical act, the psychological and emotional content of the events, and their historical and social implications. Ronald D. Cohen’s Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997 (2003) lets the reader follow Lomax’s thinking about these issues in fields he called cantometrics and choreometrics. In Folk Song Style and Culture (1968) and other works he developed a theory that song styles function as “symbols of basic human value systems.”

Almeda Riddle’s own song performances conform to his description of a “modern European” traditional song style he found stretching from Romania and Hungary across central Italy and Spain, western and Central France, Southern and Eastern England, and Lowland Scotland to colonial America. We recognize that the expectation of deference to the solo performer from a silent, attentive audience is so deeply embedded in the whole culture that it governs even the classical performance tradition in the same territory. But readers will particularly recall Almeda Riddle as they read Lomax’s description of the people singing solo songs in strong, hard voices, with a greater interest in text than tune, in this “land of the narrative ballad.”