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Lomax to southern folk song in the first place. It’s about time. Folksong collecting arose out of a profound disillusionment with the music industry during its initial experiments in mass mar keting. At the dawn of the 20th century, popular music was ruled by a small collection of Manhattan publishers. Tin Pan Alley firms cranked out thousands of formulaic songs. It was an assembly line. Henry Ford would drool. They controlled their products and profits through copyright litigation. The phonograph industry was dominated by a handful of firms that crushed potential competitors by ruthlessly defending their technology patents in court. As the industries grew, products became more homogenous. Music for the masses could not accommodate local community tastes. Many Americans turned a deaf ear to the industry’s drivel. They went looking for something else. They found it in the music of the southern backwoods. Originally captured by outside collectors scurrying through the rural climes, field recordings of southern folk music were heralded by collectors and consumers as alternatives to the crass commercialism pushed by the industry. Folk singers, enthusiasts gushed, could provide an antidote to a music industry gone mad. Theirs was music rising out of local cultures, everyday needs, and heartfelt desires. American folk songs had acquired the validation of history. They were old in an era that fetishized the new. They were survivors. Fiddle breakdowns, lullabies, epic blues, and murder ballads: These were but a few of the styles salvaged by song-catchers and promised as spiritual armor against the soulless market. Time was short, collectors warned. Mass-produced ditties from New York City were creeping across the country, seducing even the most isolated Americans to forget the songs their mamas taught them. Today we are richer for collectors’ paranoid efforts. Their combined archive remains one of our national treasures. Yet such dystopian nightmares have proven as shortsighted as they are persistent. Doomsday predictions lasted at least 70 yearsfrom the 1890s well into the 1960s, if they are not with us still. But the end days for American vernacular music never came. Folk song is still with us. Just ask the fine folks at Rounder. So, how did Lomax and his peers get it so wrong? To put it simply, collectors neglected singers in pursuit of the song. They were remarkably consistent. Listening to the original Lomax recordings we can learn a great deal about the sounds of the South. But the archive, like most folksong collections, grants few clues to the lives and longings of the performers captured on tape. Who was Ed Lewis? Why did he sing what he did? What were his ambitions, musical or otherwise? Lomax’s “Southern Journey”and by extension Tangle Eye’s remixgives little indication. It is a context-free collection. Celebrated as windows into a forgotten, holistic world, folk songs ultimately grant little insight into what that world was like. The evidence we do have overwhelmingly suggests that it did not resemble collectors’ fantasies. First, southern singers loved popular music. When Alan’s father, John Avery Lomax, went looking for uncut African-American tunes, he turned to the southern prison system. Parchman preserved folk songs, he reasoned. Prisoners could not be contaminated with Tin Pan Alley. Lomax was wrong. Convicts dug Broadway. Letters came from around the country, such as this one from a New Orleans jail superintendent in 1935: If the idea of Dr. John A. Lomax regarding prisoners’ songs is based on the idea that prisoners, as a class, are different from the general run of humanity in regard to musical taste, I think he will find his idea is not correct… They have such songs as have the people outside of prisons, and for the same general reasons. Lomax’s driver, Leadbelly himself, dropped into Gene Autry as often as “John Henry.” Second, folk singers loved money. Collectors’ dreams aside, folk singers did not critique the market. They wanted in. Singing trumped sharecropping. Musicians practiced because they were tired of smelling mule farts. They were often disappointed. After recording all day in 1942, Son House shook his head. Alan Lomax paid the blues master with a Coke. It was cold, but it was not what House had in mind. What makes someone a folk singer? Not getting paid. Ed Lewis might agree. Before his unwitting collaboration with Tangle Eye, the talented singer appeared on the chart-topping Oh Brother soundtrack. He might now be the most popular unpaid singer in the nation. Here is the bittersweet sting that makes “Southern Journey Remixed” so poignant. We can enjoy folksong reissues and remixes. We can hear the sound of striped pajamas chopping wood on our stereos and silver screens because folk informants did not get paid or control access to their art. Tangle Eye has produced the second most interesting remix in recent months. \(Top honors go to DJ Danger Mouse, but you won’t find his disc in local stores. The deft, rollicking “Grey Album” backs Jay-Z raps with Beatles samples. It’s a virtuosic display. Sony and EMI closed down the “Grey Album” for copyright infringement. Ed Lewis never had that chance. He lacked copyright then. He In a very real sense, yesterday’s uncut vernacular culture is back to exorcise the same demons it did the first time around. In this age of copyright-crazed companies pushing pre-packaged Britney and Christina soul, Ed Lewis still embodies a culture Americans own rather than one that is sold to them. When Lomax found him, Lewis’ plaintive, honest delivery captured a spirituality spurned by an industry hawking new technologies and rechristening artists as content providers. Ed Lewis can still heal us. Check out Tangle Eye. Just remember the price that has not been paid. Compensation is not a cold can of Coke. Karl Hagstrom Miller teaches history and music at the University of Texas at Austin. 5/7/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29