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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 December 2004, 02:40 GMT
Music's debt to folk duo
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News

O Brother, Where Art Thou
The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was a huge success
A new book recounts how, 45 years ago, a trip into southern America made by music archivist Alan Lomax and singer Shirley Collins helped bring the rest of the world some of the most influential songs in music history.

If it had not been for Alan Lomax, there might well have been no Rolling Stones.

There almost certainly would have been no Grammy-award-winning soundtrack to the Coen brothers' film O Brother Where Art Thou?

Lomax was the unparalleled archivist of American folk music, criss-crossing the country repeatedly for decades starting in the early 1930s.

I loved the music, and I was in love as well and I was young - it's what you do
Shirley Collins

He recorded blues, gospel, work songs, ballads and whatever else he found ordinary people - white and black - singing.

"He is arguably the most important song collector to come out of the 20th Century," says music critic and writer Ken Hunt.

Among Lomax's many road trips, one in particular has passed into legend - the two-month 1959 southern journey in a second-hand Buick with a rising young English singer called Shirley Collins.

Collins went on to become a leading figure in the British folk and early-music scene of the 1960s and 1970s - and now, 45 years after that trip, she has written about it in a new book, America Over the Water.

Alan Lomax at work. (Alan Lomax Archive)
Lomax's recordings continue to inspire artists today

Released in the UK earlier this year and due out in the US in February 2005, it tells both the story of the trip itself and how Collins found herself on it.

In her utterly unpretentious voice, she describes her wartime childhood on England's south coast, her music-loving family, and how she met Lomax and became his assistant and lover.

Snippets of her youth are scattered between the longer chapters that make up the heart of the book - the southern journey itself.


Remembering the trip in London a lifetime later, Collins reveals glimpses of the enthusiastic ingenue she must have been then.

"I had longed to go to America," she says of the decision to make what was then an adventurous ocean crossing.

"I loved the music, and I was in love as well and I was young. It's what you do."

Shirley Collins shortly before the 1959 trip (Shirley Collins collection)
Collins was a rising folk star when she met Lomax

The American south through which Lomax and Collins travelled was just starting to experience the civil rights movement, and she was very aware of the complete separation of races - and how thoroughly engrained racism was among many whites.

She recalls seeing signs for the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan proudly displayed at the entrances to some towns.

A woman cleaner at Mississippi's Parchman Farm state penitentiary told Collins she had been jailed for walking on railroad tracks in defiance of a No Trespassing sign - though she could not read.


It was in Mississippi that Lomax and Collins made the greatest discovery of the trip: blues guitarist and singer Fred McDowell, then a poor cotton farmer who went on to influence - and tour with - the Rolling Stones.

"The whole trip would have been worth it for Mississippi Fred McDowell," Collins says today.

It's great to hear the music, but it does sadden me that no-one knows the source of it
Shirley Collins

"He walked out of the forest in his work dungarees from picking cotton all day. His singing was so focused and so beautiful, shimmering - you knew you were in the presence of something remarkable."

Lomax wrote just one word in his notebook, she says: Perfect.

Ken Hunt, the music writer, describes the trip as "several stones thrown into a pond and rippling out.

"Think of the music they captured. I cannot imagine a world without Mississippi Fred McDowell. Think about the impact that he had on the Rolling Stones, the white blues boom, the rock boom. I find that totally inspiring."

Fred McDowell, photographed by Alan Lomax in 1959. (Alan Lomax Archive)
McDowell's shimmering music captivated Lomax and Collins

And he says Collins was an essential part of the trip, although Lomax himself admitted to Hunt he had been "a little niggardly" in crediting her in his own book, The Land Where the Blues Began.

"Shirley had this winsomeness that enabled him to talk to people in ways that maybe he wouldn't have got on his own - he was this unobservant white male.

"There was also the exoticness of her accent which must have been extraordinarily charming to them," Hunt says.


The ripples continue to spread today: In making O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers used not only contemporary covers of songs Lomax recorded, but one original Lomax recording, Po' Lazarus.

Shirley Collins
Collins wants credit to go to the singers
When the soundtrack won its Grammy in 2002, the Lomax estate tracked down the man who had been lead vocalist at Parchman in 1959, presented the 76-year-old James Carter with a $20,000 royalty cheque and flew him to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony.

And Lomax recordings are being used as background music on UK television programmes and sampled by Moby.

The vocal sample on Moby's 1999 song Natural Blues is Vera Hall singing Trouble So Hard. "That's a washerwoman in Alabama in 1959," Collins says.

She is pleased that artists like Moby have rediscovered the music, but wishes more listeners realised what they were hearing.

"It's great to hear the music, but it does sadden me that no-one knows the source of it.

"These are working-class people who have been exploited their whole lives. Why should we exploit them by nicking their songs?"


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