In our rush to idolise our favourite singers or composers, we miss some other great contributors to musical culture. One such unsung hero is the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Armed with a portable tape recorder, Lomax spent several decades from the 1930’s travelling the United States, along with many other parts of the world, recording and archiving musical traditions from the tail end of the days when music was a participatory tradition and every town had its own distinct musical style. Many of the folk music traditions he documented died out soon after. His enormous collection of recordings is now in the hands of the Library of Congress.
Another source of unsung musical heroes is the world of film, particularly the role of Music Producer, who is typically buried deep in the closing credits, although sometimes a higher-profile artist is brought in to work behind the scenes sourcing music. For their film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen called on the services of the respected artist and producer T-Bone Burnett, another great champion of forgotten folk music. Burnett obviously considered the film, with its depression-era Mississippi setting, and the Coens’ aim of making the music an integral part of the story, as a great opportunity to share his love of American folk songs. The soundtrack was a huge success, winning Burnett a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001, and selling millions. It’s credited for turning many people on to country music, and you don’t have to visit too many hip urban households before you find a much-played copy.
For inspiration, Burnett scoured the Lomax archive, unearthing one particular gem, a recording of a prison work song. In 1959, Lomax had visited Parchman Farm State Penitentiary in Mississippi and recorded a group of prisoners, led by James Carter, a man who had left home at 13 and seen a lot of prison time, singing a “bad man ballad” while chopping logs in time. Work songs, common in many traditions, often improvised and typically sung at a tempo that matches the task, help keep the workers productive, happy and connected. These days they’ve been replaced by rock music booming out of construction-zone ghetto blasters, but for me it’s almost enough, hearing the rich chanted harmonies and rough rhythm of this song of trouble and strife, to get me out chopping wood.
After the huge success of the album, Lomax’s daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis, director of the Alan Lomax Archive, along with Burnett and Don Fleming, director of Licensing for the Archive, realised that Carter would be due royalties for the recording, and determined to track him down. Trawling the archives of the Mississippi penal system and other public records, they managed to do just that. Happily Carter had put his prison days well behind him and was living in Chicago with church minister Rosie Lee Carter, and had for years worked as a shipping clerk.
When Chairetakis and Fleming flew to Chicago to personally present Carter with a $20,000 royalty check, Carter was astonished. He couldn’t even remember making the recording 43 years earlier. Fleming then informed him the soundtrack was outselling Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson. As Fleming relates, “He got a real kick out of that. He left the room to roll a cigarette and when he came back, he said, You tell Michael that I’ll slow down so that he can catch up with me.” Soon after, Carter boarded a plane for the first time in his life to attend the Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles as well as travelling to Tennessee for a benefit concert.
Carter died not long after at the age of 77. His past caught up with him, but in a way he could never have imagined.