Last year for Black History Month, I dubbed 2014 the year of the folksinger and spoke about the importance of Pete Seeger to music today. I’m not sure how to dub 2015; so much change has occurred in the United States and the world. I do want to highlight three people whose influence on music, and on me, are particularly strong: Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, songster Guy Davis and folk song impresario Alan Lomax. All three of these men influenced or were influenced by Pete Seeger, indicating how strong the links on the chain of folk music truly are. These three men have had a strong impact on m life, and this year I want to honor their work in the arts.
This year Leadbelly will be represented in a brand-new box set from Smithsonian Folkways, so be sure to read the articles that come out about him as this new box set is released to the world. Leadbelly showed me there was a strong secular black folk song repertoire, separate from the blues.
My father’s parents, Raymond and Mamie Flemons, were from East Texas and Arkansas respectively, moving to Flagstaff, Arizona after the Second World War. When I first heard Leadbelly’s music I was reminded of them instantly. As I write this, it is my grandmother’s birthday. I’m so proud of the family I have come from and the country roots that they represent. Being brought up in the city, it was my interest in folk music and Leadbelly’s music in particular that helped me understand my grandparents’ roots.
With that being mentioned, I have to mention Guy Davis. Part of what made me want to recommit myself to old-time music fully was my collaboration with Guy Davis
on my recent record, Prospect Hill
. Guy came down and worked with me on the record after leaving Pete Seeger’s death bed. Guy also had to leave his mother Ruby Dee, who he was taking care of and who has since passed, to come down to the recording session. He told me that his heart was open and he would help me realize the album no matter what.
When I hear Guy Davis’ harmonica, five string banjo, guitar and snare drum work on my record it makes my heart swell with pride. Guy and I have gone on a very similar journey even though we were born three decades apart from each other. To me, Guy Davis is the greatest living songster following in the tradition of Leadbelly. Not just with the breath of his work, but because of the collective experiences he has gained over his lifetime. From our recording session we had last January, I can tell you that Guy Davis is in the prime of his performing life. I would suggest to anyone interested in hearing a great folk songster, run, don’t walk, to Guy Davis’ concerts. Unlike Leadbelly, Guy Davis is still living. Take some time and look up Guy’s elaborate career as a singer, songwriter, actor, playwright and quintessential figure of American vernacular music.
That leads me to the final person I would like to celebrate for Black History Month, Alan Lomax. We are celebrating his centennial this year and his work as a folklorist, musician and advocate for folk music from all around the world will be re-examined for a new generation. Lomax, along with his protégé Pete Seeger, created a legacy of American vernacular music. While I believe Alan Lomax had flaws, as we all do, his documentation is spectacular and remains incredibly important to this day. I feel that to ignore those parts of our cultural memory would be the greatest tragedy, especially in these trying times of redefinition and ownership of our country’s history.
Alan Lomax, like Pete Seger, made it part of his life’s work to help elevate black folk song in the United States. Though not as well-known as his other work, Lomax later in his life made efforts to create the Black Encyclopedia On The Air a radio program focused on teaching inner-city kids in black communities about their country roots. Around the time that Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Black Power movement began to grow in the early 1970’s, Lomax tried to create an education program that would shine a light on working class black music for future generations. Abandoned at that time due to lack of interest, that project is currently more Important than ever. Just read the introduction to the Deep River of Song CD series and you’ll understand how important Alan Lomax has been to the progress of social change by using his documentation raise the power of the people’s voices. His work helped create the world we live in now. Lomax’s computer-based Global Jubebox is the root of Pandora, Youtube, and Spotify, technologies that are so ingrained in our culture now that many younger people do not remember a time before they existed.
Many people do not realize that documentation requires several elements. You must have the performer, the advocate, and the song. These three men used these elements to become legends in their own time. I have learned from them and apply their lessons in my work, which is why I must celebrate these men this year for Black History Month.
While Leadbelly and Alan Lomax have found a place in history, I’d like to take the role of the advocate, to highlight Guy Davis as a true inspiration, a good friend and someone who I hope will receive all the acclaim that he deserves.
Here’s to the New Year of the Folksinger!
The American Songster
Feb 23, 2015