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Lomax Project pays tribute to renowned folklorist

07/19/2013 11:17 EDT | Updated 09/18/2013 05:12 EDT
The pioneering folk music recordings of Alan Lomax will serve as the inspiration for a group of musicians led by banjo virtuoso Jayme Stone, this Sunday at the Vancouver Folk Fest.

Starting in the 1930s Lomax began travelling the back roads of the U.S, Caribbean, and Africa to record songs from cultures on the verge of extinction.

Jayme Stone could barely contain his grin when he chatted with the CBC's Elaine Chau about why Alan Lomax's work matters to him.

Q: What is the Lomax Project?

Well, first, I should say, Alan Lomax was the most pioneering and prolific field recorder and folklorist of all time. He recorded over 20,000 songs around the world, every root and branch of American folk music. He used to record plantations, in penitentiaries, and farms, and all over rural and city America at first, making recordings of folk music in its natural habitat.

The project in a nutshell, is we take this vast archive of music that Lomax recorded and we use it as a jumping off point. So I’m bringing together all these amazing musicians who are steeped in different folk traditions and we’re listening and sharing songs that Lomax recorded. Reviving, recycling, and reimagining them…the songs become the raw material of our own creative process.

Q: Can you take me through a particular recording, and how it becomes a song?

You caught me in the middle of working on one of these pieces… We’re doing a song called Oh Shenandoah, which is a very famous and well-loved piece that’s been recorded by many.

The recording I learned it from was from Alan Lomax. He recorded this writer and folksinger from Norway, who sang sort of this version of it that’s sort of a sea shanty. This is one of those tunes that, like one of the great folk tunes, has lived in so many places. Originally, the song was a sea shanty, probably from the British Isles, and came over and established itself with the new immigrants in America. It gets sung on the East Coast of Canada as well.

There are so many verses because in every region, they’ve repurposed the song, added in place names for their locales, it’s really cool. We chose some lyrics that we like, and we’re in that process together of trying to figure out every way to play it. And in doing so, everybody kind of brings their strength to it. It’s this amazing collaborative and creative process.

Q: Where does your love of Alan Lomax’s work come from? Do you remember the first time you encountered his work?

When I was 16 years old, I moved here to Vancouver [Stone now lives in Denver, Colorado]. I remember getting from the library, Alan Lomax’s book The Land Where the Blues Began.

At 16, it totally rocked my world. I read for the first time that the banjo actually came from West Africa. It really opened my mind up to all the diverse corners of history that often get overlooked. I have a bit of a research mind, so I would listen to all the recordings that were mentioned and got exposed to all this traditional music.

Through the years, I could see that a lot of the songs I was learning were recorded by Lomax. He was the first to record people like Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, all these people who are core to our traditional music.

Q: It’s one thing to steep yourself in that knowledge….another to turn that into a performance. Why did you want to do that?

I feel like it’s a great opportunity to learn music and to share this music with peers and audiences eventually. One of the things that’s really exciting is that here we are on day one of rehearsals and we’re going to be presenting all this new music on Sunday.

So we’re going to walk out of this festival, having done this project with a whole new repertoire. It’s really exciting, to right now be on the front end of it, and not knowing exactly how it’ll turn out.

The Lomax Project performs Sunday July 21 from 1 p.m. PT to 3:30 p.m. at Stage 2 of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

You can follow the CBC's Elaine Chau on twitter @echaudaily

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