The idea behind the 22-song Alan Lomax Collection, according to the liner notes, is to collect "early Lomax field recordings of songs that became famous as pop, rock, R&B, and jazz hits by contemporary recording artists." This it does well, and if a little liberty was taken in using the word "hits" in some of these instances, no harm's done considering how instructive the anthology is about the roots of popular music in general. There are, to be sure, plenty of songs represented that were hits or at least quite popular album tracks in subsequent versions, though the Lomax recordings (from 1933-1959) aren't always the very first versions to have been recorded. There's the previously unreleased 1937 Georgia Turner a cappella rendition of "The House of the Rising Sun," for instance, which has a quite different melody than the one popularized by the Animals' 1964 number one rock cover. Leadbelly alone weighs in with "Gallows Pole" (done on Led Zeppelin's third album), "Midnight Special," and "Irene Goodnight (Goodnight Irene)." A recording of prison inmates singing "Rock Island Line" illustrates the origins of the song eventually made into a huge transatlantic skiffle hit by Lonnie Donegan, and "Rosie," recorded as a work song by Parchman Farm Penitentiary inmates in 1947, provided the basis for the Animals' mid-'60s hit "Inside Looking Out." The 1933 performance of "Black Betty" was also done in prison, a million miles away from the 1977 hit rock cover by Ram Jam.
All of the aforementioned tracks are fairly raw and basic, but not everything here is: Duke of Iron's "Ugly Woman (If You Wanna Be Happy)" and Macbeth the Great's "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" are both live and clearly recorded 1946 calypso, the former getting made over into Jimmy Soul's 1963 number one hit "If You Wanna Be Happy," the latter covered by artists as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and Robert Palmer. The interpretation of the oft-covered "Stagolee" chosen for inclusion is urban 1947 blues, with Memphis Slim, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, and Big Bill Broonzy. You could go on and on about interesting prototypes for songs here that underwent radical mutation before reaching their wider audience, like the 1935 recording by the Cleveland Simmons group in the Bahamas of "Sloop John B." (eventually a huge 1966 hit for the Beach Boys) and Woody Guthrie's "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad" (a staple of the Grateful Dead's repertoire).
Not everything here, though, became extremely well-known down the line; "Jesus on the Mainline" might have been done by Ry Cooder and others, for instance, but is hardly something that will be automatically familiar to the pop audience. Also, a few tracks were chosen not so much for having been "covered" in the traditional sense, but because they were sampled by Moby. The range of use of this source material, however, in itself testifies as to the resilience and fundamental importance of this material, which -- in its previous guises as prison songs, a cappella chants, acoustic folk tunes, calypso frivolities, and such -- is far starker, in both melody and arrangement, than the interpretations that would reach the largest audiences. In addition to its value as an exposition of the deep roots of much popular music, however, it might also serve as a good entry point for non-folk specialists into the immense catalog of Lomax field recordings. For the links between his work and the more popular music of the 20h century are made far more explicit here than they are on his many more arcane projects.