The late folklorist Alan Lomax, born 100 years ago this past January 31, collected and first recorded a good deal of what has become known as American traditional music, laboriously dragging huge open-reel tape machines around the Southern mountains and river deltas. He’s far from a household name, but his influence on the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s was enormous. Recently his recordings have been made available in full as Internet streaming audio, and with the new Lomax Project of Canadian banjoist Jayme Stone they are once again directly shaping the work of young musicians.
Old-time and roots music are undergoing a revival, and Stone is one of its most adventurous participants. Several years back I saw him in concert at the Ark with a Malian kora player, Mansa Sissoko–while others debated the Afro-Islamic roots of the blues, Stone had gone over to Mali himself to try out the hypothesis by playing with Malian musicians. Since then he’s done an album that took the banjo on a tour through various kinds of European folk and concert music and another that retraced part of the Silk Road (a Canadian paper calls him the Yo-Yo Ma of the banjo). But nothing so far compares with the Lomax Project for sheer ambition.
For one thing, Stone tries to capture the full range of Lomax’s achievement: familiar tunes like “Shenandoah” cohabit with unknown Anglo-American ballads, proto-blues work songs, and tunes Lomax recorded in the Caribbean. For another, Stone presents the material on a continuum running from traditional in style to fully eclectic, adding modern chamber folk arrangements, or a 9/8 Balkan rhythm to a fifteenth-century ballad called “The Devil’s Nine Questions.”
And there’s more. As if to emphasize the continuing inspirational power of Lomax’s material, Stone invites others to throw their ideas into the mix. He has assembled a diverse group of musicians, both from his own millennial generation, who have done so much to make folk and acoustic music vital again, and from previous ones; the latter group includes the West Virginia bluegrass singer and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien, a major inspiration for Stone and other younger players in the way he brings a contemporary perspective to older material. Stone plays the banjo, an instrument not present on most of the Lomax recordings, but his main role here is to put the other musicians together and stir the pot.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, then, is less a tribute to Alan Lomax than a bold decision by a young bandleader to plunge into the river of traditional American music and follow it farther. A concert version of the project comes to the Ark, with O’Brien in the band, May 6.