Alan Lomax

Deep River of Song: Big Brazos

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All 20 of these a cappella performances were recorded in Texas prisons in 1933 and 1934 by John Lomax and Alan Lomax; it's titled "Big Brazos" because almost all Texas prisons were large farms along the bottomlands of the Brazos and Trinity rivers. Unless you're a professional folklorist, you'd be hard-pressed to identify a specifically regional "Texas" sound to the prison song. Like numerous other field recordings of prison songs (or, indeed, some recordings of work songs by non-prisoners) from this time, it's often characterized by rhythmic chant-like group singing suitable for cutting trees or slower call-and-response numbers that are close to gospel and spirituals. This is better than some such archival collections because there is a variety of singers represented: about a half-dozen lead singers, sometimes singing by themselves or in pairs, more often singing with groups. These are non-professional vocalists, but they, or certainly the ones chosen for this disc, are good, strong ones, not at all the kind that you grit your teeth to listen to in the conviction that because it's authentic, it must be worth your time. As far as things in the repertoire that might be familiar to those not steeped in this idiom, there are versions of "Black Betty" and "Stewball." If you're looking for a vague possible influence on pop music, part of the chorus of "Drop Old Diamond" sounds rather like the "oh, those lonely weekends" hook of Charlie Rich's "Lonely Weekends." The sound, remastered to 20-bit digital from original metal and acetate field recordings, is about as good as it's going to get for this sort of thing, but be aware that there's still some hiss and whine, and quite a lot on some tracks.

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