The map sings. The chanteys surge along the rocky Atlantic seaboard, across the Great Lakes and round the moon-curve of the Gulf of Mexico... From Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England, the ballads, straight and tall as spruce, march towards the West. Inland from the Sea Islands, slave melodies sweep across the whole South from the Carolinas to Texas. And out on the shadows of the Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains the old ballads, lonesome love songs, and hoedowns echo through the upland South into the hills of Arkansas and Oklahoma. There in the Ozarks the Northern and Southern song families swap tunes and make a marriage. —Alan Lomax, from his Introduction to The Folk Songs of North America
16 Tons plays American Folk songs collected and popularized by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax. Probably more than any other figure, Lomax helped bring folk music into our consciousness and his influence is still felt today.
Alan came into my life when I was in my 20’s. My first job out of college was as his research assistant, poring over manuscripts and computer printouts in a dusty office on West 98th St. in Manhattan. He was larger than life and intimidating. But somehow we got along—he said it was because we were both Texans. Working with Alan was often frustrating and perplexing, but also inspiring, and the experience has stayed with me ever since.
After the job ended I started getting serious about my own music, and I’ve released five well-reviewed CDs that explore the Stephen Foster songbook, the New Orleans front-line, Rube Goldberg machines, and conversational chamber jazz.
A couple of years ago I decided to take another look at Alan’s legacy to see if I could find a personal way of presenting some of the music he championed. Alan had given me a copy of his last big anthology from 1960, The Folk Songs of North America.
It’s about the size of a phone book and contains 317 songs from every region of our country. There’s commentary on each song and a beautifully poetic essay about the purpose and meaning of folk music that foreshadows the cross-cultural research that would occupy the last decades of his life.
I decided to use The Folk Songs of North America as my guidebook for this journey and to give the project the weighty title of 16 Tons, which is #154 in the book. Unlike most folksongs, we know exactly who wrote this one—Merle Travis, in 1947. It was huge hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955 (and there’s a clarinet featured in that arrangement). We haven't learned it yet, but we’ll get to it.
I wanted to write for an ensemble that could mimic the call and response of a soloist with a chorus. And I wanted that chorus to contrast to my clarinet in a big way. So I settled on a line-up of clarinet, three trumpets, and drums. (Several people I respect told me I was crazy and that this would never work, but I didn’t listen.)
The trumpeters are John Carlson, Dave Smith, and Kenny Warren and Rob Garcia is on drums. It’s been a wonderful process to work with these guys and come up with a sound for the band that allows the songs (and my clarinet) to come through. Also it’s been a crash course in trumpet lore. Who knew there were so many kinds of mutes?
I figured out a way to prop that big book on a music stand and started playing through it to see what bubbled up. Since the songs were not being sung, they had to have melodies that could speak for themselves. Gradually I settled on handful that seemed sturdy enough to handle further exploration. They all have great stories that I try to share when we perform, and will explore further the album notes. Here are some some of them.
I learned Blue Tail Fly (that’s "Jimmie Crack Corn") as kid. It was a minstrel song in the 1840s and a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s. It was revived 100 years later during the folksong revival, and became a well-known children’s song. It was a big hit for Andrews Sisters and Alan is said to have taught it Burl Ives. For our version, we pair it with the New England ballad, Springfield Mountain.
Knock John Booker is an African American children’s game song that dates back to the slavery era. It’s included in the book but it makes no sense until you hear the original field recording Alan’s father, John Lomax, made of Aunt Molly McDonald in 1940. Here’s the index card from the Library of Congress.
Am I Born to Die is a hymn from the sacred harp tradition. It was published in 1817 and we stick pretty close to the original four-part harmony.
As I kid I remember Burl Ives’s version of Grey Goose. It was also recorded by Nirvana and Lead Belly. I love Mike Seeger’s darker and edgier version, which is on an indispensable Seeger Family Animal Folksongs for Children record that we played endlessly on car trips when our daughter was young. For our rendition I tried to incorporate all the versions, to underscore the sneakiness and elusiveness of that goose. Alan says it’s a song about a people being stronger than their oppressors.
I asked Eric Drooker, who digs this music and does a lot covers for The New Yorker, if he had an image I might be able to use for the album and he gave me this, which he calls "Tenement Roofscape." It really spoke to me because it doesn’t romanticize the rural south, where so many of these songs came from, but instead depicts the Lower East Side of New York City, home to the garment-workers, lefty activists, and folksingers who championed this music and helped bring about its revival.
The first function of music, especially of folk music, is to produce a feeling of security for the listener by voicing the particular quality of a land and the life of its people. To the traveler, a line from a familiar song may bring back all the familiar emotions of home, for music is a magical summing-up of the patterns of family, of love, of conflict, and of work which give a community its special feel and which shape the personalities of its members. Folk song calls the native back to his roots and prepares him emotionally to dance, worship, work, fight, or make love in ways normal to his place. —Alan Lomax, from his Introduction to The Folk Songs of North America
I love idea of a community of people banding together to make something happen. That’s why I’m crowd-sourcing this project. I’m seeking your contributions to help cover fees for the musicians, recording, editing, mixing, mastering, and producing the final CDs.
Learn more about me at andybiskin.com
Learn more about Alan Lomax's legacy at culturalequity.org
Here's 16 Tons live on WNYC's Soundcheck.
Risks and challenges
Having self-produced several critically acclaimed CDs, I know what's involved in the production of a recording. I've set aside funds for final production and promotion and I'm excited to bring this music to a larger audience.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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