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Listening

Hard-Workin’ Music From Musicologists

OK, forget all of these new bands with their false haircuts and arbitrary affectations. There’s a reason people are nostalgic for the music of a bygone day and age without video games—where you spent most of your life toiling at soul crushing work and the rest realizing the bleakness of your existence: because the music was honest and so, so depressing. The only way you can get that mixture nowadays is by way of mental insanity.

And so it’s good thing there are plenty of people preserving the obsolete sounds of depressed America for future generations, so they can feel bad about how good they have it by not having to work all the time, and how bad they have it because they don’t understand the value of a hard day’s work.

For me, finding out about radio host Dick Spottswood in college was a saving grace, since it stemmed my tide of whiny indie rock. His Obsolete Music Hour has been broadcasting every type of miscellaneous old-timey country and blues for who knows how many years, and he may possibly be the friendliest voice on radio.

» Listen to the Obsolete Music Hour at WAMU.org


Alan Lomax is the king of preservation and ethnomusicology. Mostly known for his recordings of prison songs throughout the South, he also traveled the globe in a VW bus with a mic in hand to record any folk tune people could cough up—a Scottish ballad, an unknown blues riff, a Spanish waltz, a children’s song—often without backup instrumentation.

Lomax got a lot of music out of the British Isles. His collection of walking songs, which have nothing to do with ambulation but rather sitting while working on bolts of wool, are reminiscent of negro prison songs: One person leads and the others follow in chorus, so everybody moves the cloth at the same time. It’s really the most utilitarian extension of music. The other British ballads he recorded are not so much pragmatic, but the sad songs of the wayward.

» Listen to “ The Twa Sisters” by John Strachan


His collection of children’s music from Scotland runs the gamut between cute and sinister horror movie cliché. The songs are filled with strange taunts, plays on words, and weepy depressed music of bleak existence—you know, just like the old folks sing.

» Listen to “ Jelly on the Plate” from Singing in the Streets: Scottish Children’s Songs


Alan Lomax’s dad, John Lomax, started the Archive of American Folk Song with the use of one of the first portable disc recorders. Although not as prolific as his son, he recorded a metric ton of music himself, mainly cowboy songs, prison songs, and early Leadbelly. He also found Henry Truvillion, whose booming voice swings back and forth the whole way through “Let’s Go a Huntin’.”

» Listen to “Let’s Go a Huntin’” by Henry Truvillion


Unlike the Lomaxes, Harry Smith aimed more toward songwriters rather than the songs of laymen, and helped popularize numerous folk superstars like the Carter Family and Blind Lemon Jefferson. His compilation of recordings, the American Anthology of Folk Music, has been so influential that they’re now making boxed sets of cover songs of the original boxed set. Of course, the newer version is modernized and probably contains no bleak wistful catharsis for a life spent milling corn all day, but that’s the modern world for you.

» Listen to “I Wouldn’t Mind Dying” by the Carter Family


I mean, would anybody these days nickname themselves “Cryin’” Sam Collins? That sort of self-effacement rarely exists. They’d more likely call themselves “Awesome Sam Collins” or “The Funkdoobiest Sam Collins.”

» Listen to Cryin’ Sam Collins at Honey, Where You Been So Long?


Sure, the modern world can push out some depressing tunes now and again (e.g., the Smiths, Daniel Johnston) that has more to do with alienation than anything else, but can it get a swinging Texas fiddle tune right? Somehow I doubt it.

» Listen to “Brilliancy Melody” by Robertson Eck and Family


Instead, I think the modern world will have to understand that the closest it will come to representing pure heartbreak is through the lamentations of folks like Wild Man Fischer, who can belt out a song like Henry Truvillion does—though about wanting to kill his mother rather than fixing rail to the track.

» Listen to “Wild Man Fischer and Smegma Sing Popular Songs” at Music for Maniacs


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