Wednesday, August 23, 2006


i don't usually plan to talk about tv shows or other visual arts in this space (not when there are a bajillion other places to read about such things. though if you've been with me for awhile you may recall a certain mention of 'the office' when i'd finally watched it about ten years after everyone else on the planet had.) but last night i watched one that was as much about sound and music as anything else i've mentioned 'in these pages.

'lomax the songhunter' is a one-hour tribute to and sketch of alan lomax, folklorist and song collector extraordinaire, who believed so deeply in the connection between music and cultures. lomax spent most of his life documenting the stories that music tells about different societies, and brought this information to the attention of - well everybody - academics, politicians, students, musicians...the list is endless. in doing so he also brought thousands of stunning recordings into the world, from dustbowl ballads to the folks songs of great britain and spain.

in the documentary dutch filmmaker rogier kappers re-traces many of lomax's ventures into some of the most isolated communites in europe, and visits with people who lomax had recorded maybe fifty years ago, or the relatives of those he had taped. i'm not sure what was more incredible to watch - a fiesty looking old irish man tear up while listening to the recording of his father singing a mournful mining song, or hearing the aged dulcimer player describe what it was like to work with alan back in the day. or maybe it was most powerful to watch lomax himself sitting on his couch, wearing huge headphones and listening along to one of his own cds, trying to tap along with his foot and so oblivious to the world around him. he'd suffered a brain hemorrhage a year before this scene was shot, and at this point in his life while not completely debilitated, he could barely express himself verbally or get around without help in the world. but the extent to which the music moved him, kept him alive, even, was tangible. you think i'm exaggerating, but you'll see.

check out your local PBS listings - it may not be too late for you to catch the documentary, or a repeat screening at 3:30 am later this week. and then get yourself to the record store to pick up a few of lomax's classic recordings, which you'll inevitably need to have after watching. here's a good one to start with - biblical songs and spirituals from the georgia sea island singers.

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