the folkways record set

What does the Great Depression have to do with roots music? The Great Stock Market Crash occurred between October 24 and October 29, 1929. Share prices collapsed sending the United States economy into the Great Depression that lasted until the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific. Less known is the fact that Blues music popularity, which had its heyday during the “Roaring Twenties,” collapsed along with the stock market. Sales of blues music records dried up and many recording companies went out of business. Blues performers found it difficult to find gigs in pubs hit hard after Congress passed the 18th Amendment, outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. The Volstead Act that followed ushered in a long era of Prohibition (1920-33). Many blues performers, who had prospered in northern cities during the Flapper Age, were forced to return to menial jobs in the South. Maybe Muddy Waters said it best: “There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues – the blues we used to have when we had no money.”

Big Band, Jazz and Swing overshadowed the Blues in a big way during the 1930s and 1940s, sparking dance sensations like the Charleston, but during the 1950s roots music such as the Blues started to make a comeback as the young postwar baby boomers searched for new and more exciting sounds. It was in that decade, often stereotyped as an era of “collective Eisenhower insomnia,” that young white Americans tired of the insipid music on the hit parade began to rediscover their country’s trove of raw, powerful music. Television, still in its black and white infancy, began to produce music reviews aimed at boomers. Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” which stayed on the air from 1957 to 1988, became a must-watch program for these postwar kids. The show was groundbreaking in another way too. “Episodes he hosted were among the first in which blacks and whites performed on the same stage, and likewise among the first in which the live studio audience sat without racial segregation,” states Wikipedia. Many older-generation Americans, however, looked down on Clark and his show. “I was roundly criticized for being in and around rock and roll music at its inception. It was the devil’s music, it would make your teeth fall out and your hair turn blue, whatever the hell. You get through that,” Clark once said.

Sometimes it takes the publication of a music anthology to spark a movement. That’s exactly what happened in 1952 in Greenwich Village, New York City. Called the “Folkways Records Set,” it was the brainchild of the avant-garde filmmaker, folklorist and anthropologist Harry Smith. The anthology comprised three boxed two-LP sets that contained 84 performances recorded between 1926 and 1933. Included were early black blues and white country music, Cajun recordings, hymns and sacred music, and more, thrown together under a loose framework that almost single-handedly redefined folk music. Recordings included everything from “Georgia Stomp” by Andrew and Jim Baxter and “Dry Bones” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford to long-forgotten African-American gems such as “Old Country Stomp” by the East Texas songster Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas to “John the Revelator” by Blind Willie Johnson, who accompanied his powerful religious songs with slashing blues slide guitar.

“In doing so, the anthology became the single most important source of material and inspiration for many young singers in the 1950s and 1960s and the touchstone of the early-‘60s ‘folk revival.’ Such performers as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and the New Lost City Ramblers, as well as later offshoots like the Byrds, Bruce Springsteen and Jerry Garcia, owe not just repertory and techniques but, in a real sense, a large portion of their world view to the anthology’s conflation of such seemingly different traditions,” explains Tom Piazza in “A Folk Album that Awakened a Generation” in The New York Times (1997).

One of the blues singers featured in the anthology was Lead Belly, whose recordings of such classics as “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line” and “Goodnight Irene” have influenced performers on both sides of the Atlantic. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” George Harrison once said.

Maybe Piazza hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “More than six decades after his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1949, the influence of the great blues and folk singer Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) continues to reverberate through time. Tom Waits, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Jack White are just a few of the musicians who have been deeply influenced by Lead Belly. Kurt Cobain said that he was his favorite performer, adding ‘Isn’t he all of ours’?”

Would Harrison, Cobain and countless other performers have even known about Lead Belly had this anthology not been published? Perhaps it’s a question for the musical ages.

Lead Belly sings “Midnight Special”