Like storytelling, music is not always a static form of expression. Though subtle, movements of people and the shifting of cultures have a way of altering music over time — particularly traditional music — causing it to change, transform, merge or sometimes disappearing altogether.
Alan Lomax understood that well. From 1933 through the 1950s, Lomax, a folklorist, ethnomusicologist and political activist, recorded oral histories and songs from various regions across the U.S., Europe, and the Caribbean. With his father, John Lomax, he helped develop the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
Alan Lomax died in 2002, but the music he documented lives on through Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project. Mr. Stone, a banjo player and composer from Colorado, uses Lomax’s field recordings as the jumping off point for a revival and re-imagination of those traditional tunes.
The project is a collaborative effort and one involving many musicians who bring their own visions to Lomax recordings, that in many instances, document material that otherwise would have been lost to history. Mr. Stone brings his Lomax Project to Sylvester Manor on September 17, along with three of those musicians — singer, banjo and accordion player Moira Smiley, fiddle player and singer Sumaia Jackson, and Andrew Ryan who will perform on the double bass and sing as well. The band’s repertoire includes sea chanteys, Appalachian ballads, work songs, and African American tunes from the Georgia Sea Islands.
“The project is a loose knit gathering and we’ve had a kind of steady band for the last few years,” Mr. Stone explained. “This is a collective of people. The songwriters in the bunch tend to gravitate to epic stories of the British Isles — the ones with 25 verses. Everyone finds their own gems. I always listen for slightly lesser known under-played songs. In other cases they’re well known, like ‘Shenandoah,’ the old sea chantey, and we’ve built this lush sound around it.”
“The door is open for people to bring in songs and new ideas,” he said. “I steer the ship, but it’s a very democratic process.”
When asked how he first became involved with the work of Alan Lomax, Mr. Stone explained that when he was starting out on the banjo, he often turned to Lomax’s field recordings and those of other folklorists for inspiration.
“I was always fascinated by them,” Mr. Stone said in a phone interview from his home. “Fast forward a couple decades. Several years ago I was reading the amazing biography of Alan Lomax, ‘The Man Who Recorded the World’ by John Szwed. I was taken with the stories and it brought me back to the Lomax recordings and I listened to them all, including the arcane corners of the collection.”
That’s when it occurred to Mr. Stone that one way to bring some of these obscure tunes back to life was through collaboration. So he brought together some of his favorite traditional musicians, dusted off the old songs and together they have reimagined them in a whole new way.
“I’m more of a modernist, but I use the traditional material as a touchstone in the music I create,” he explained. “The preservation work is done so beautifully, we can go back and bask in the glory of old recordings. In some cases, we’ve stayed close to home, but other songs called for us to bring our own voices and stamps.”
“Naturally, sometimes I’ll sit down with the banjo and think of a whole new setting for a song,” Mr. Stone said. “Some songs we drew from were a capella melodies so we bring them to the band with new colors and instruments and different voices.”
Mr. Stone’s own personal interest leans toward West African music and a decade or so ago he traveled to Mali to study and make field recordings of what he heard there. The roots of that music can, of course, be found in the traditional genres on this side of the Atlantic as well.
“I love the African diaspora traditions in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Georgia Islands and South Carolina Islands,” Mr. Stone said, “black music styles that retain a lot of the elements of West African music.”
Within a couple weeks, Mr. Stone will be recording some of the traditional music from the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. It’s a region that has been discovered and now boasts bridges and golf courses, making it more important than ever to document the music of the African Americans who have lived there for generations and these days, struggle to survive.
It’s a scenario that Alan Lomax witnessed in his own work as well.
“He started in 1933, and even then felt, as we do now, culture is being lost at a dizzying pace,” said Mr. Stone. “There’s always a new technology when people with a mind for the past worry it will be lost. It’s a common thread in civilization.”
“Lomax felt like it was a race against the radio and phonograph,” he added. “This new technology allowed him to collect songs at the same time the proliferation of commercial music was threatening regionalized styles.”
“He did a great job preserving traditions we’d likely never have heard and in some cases brought attention back for a revival to happen,” Mr. Stone said.
By way of example, Mr. Stone points to a man he’s been in contact with in Spain who told him that musicians in Galicia are now playing traditional songs they were able to learn only through Alan Lomax’s field recordings of the 1950s since the music has vanished entirely from communities in the region.
But change is inevitable, even when it comes to traditional music. For Mr. Stone, embracing the historic while staying true to one’s modern sensibilities is a great way to keep the music alive.
“Everything is melding. There are just 12 notes and we’ve been recombining them for centuries,” Mr. Stone said. “In a way, there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s all basic building blocks we call music. But it’s possible to spin endless variations, combine, recombine, look ahead and backwards.”
“It’s a thing I revel in,” he said.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project performs in the finale of Sylvester Manor’s Summer Creekside Concerts on Saturday, September 17 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $35. This is an alfresco performance, so bring a blanket or low-profile beach chair. For details, call (631) 749-0626 or visit sylvestermanor.org.