Hard Times Ain’t Nothin’ New

The Alan Lomax Archives releases an album of songs to lift spirits in troubling times

Alan Lomax (Art: Ron Hart)

The current COVID pandemic has affected the entire population of the world. Everyone has been hit hard and many of us are wondering how to make ends meet.

Yet they say music has charms to soothe a troubled heart, and that was on the mind of Nathan Salsburg, head of The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE), when he created the 20 track compilation Songs of Hard Times, Up, Over and Through, available now on Bandcamp. 

“I got the idea for this collection just as stuff started hitting the fan,” Salsburg said from his home in Kentucky. “Everyone wants to contribute something meaningful to the conversation, however small. Folk music has always addressed the reality of the times, socially and economically. I thought some of the music recorded by Alan Lomax could provide a bit of comfort and perspective to people, to let them know other folks have gone through similar hardships.”

The noted folklorist and educator, Alan Lomax, founded ACE to promote and preserve the folk music, dance and oral traditions of the world for future generations. During his long career, he made about 17,400 recordings of folk music, as well as folk musicians talking about the cultural background that gave rise to their craft. The ACE collection includes Lomax’s first recordings, using the newly invented tape recorders of 1946, and continues on to the recording and collecting he did until he retired in 1996. He also recorded music for the Library of Congress/Smithsonian Institute on aluminum discs from 1933 to 1942, including material by Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, as well as songs from Haiti and Eastern Kentucky. Those recordings remain in the Smithsonian archives. The material on Hard Times is the property of ACE, the organization he started after leaving the Library of Congress.  

Various Artists Songs of Hard Times: Up, Over & Through — Selections from the Lomax Collections, 1936-1982, Smithsonian Folkways 2020 

“Alan was the son of John Lomax, another collector of folklore,” Salsburg explained. “He became the foremost folklorist of the 20th century, doing more than anyone to preserve and promote vernacular music in America and worldwide. He also wanted to help the original artists – the tradition bearers themselves – contribute to the national conversation, rather than depending on the revivalists, like The Weavers and Kingston Trio. He built the ACE archive to help people inject vernacular culture into the mass culture, and have it be appreciated.” 

Songs of Hard Times addresses the worldwide epidemic by including songs from Italy – Arista Meladri’s “Doman L’è Festa (Tomorrow is a Holiday,)” an uplifting a cappella song that sounds like it’s being sung by a chorus of children – and Spain –Si Vas A Tonyar Al Tendre,” a solo performance by singer Amadeo Magraner, celebrating the hard work farmers do in the fields at harvest time. There are a few hits, like Calypsonian Growling Tiger’s “Money Is King,” a workingman’s lament from the 1930s and “Sitting On Top of the World,” an ironic celebration of the end of a relationship that was popularized by Doc Watson. It’s sung here by bluesman Turner Junior Johnson accompanying himself on harmonica and foot stomps. Most of the songs, however, will be unknown to the average listener. 

“The songs that became hits during the folk revival are part of the national consciousness,” Salsburg said. “I feel my role is to provide access to the unheard voices and material in the collection. I used what Lomax recorded, with no truncation or editing. Knowing most of the audience speaks English; I wanted to make sure that the bulk of the lyrics could be understood. Some things were great performances; some were powerful textually and musically. I chose lyrics relevant to the current situation, particularly the Spanish, Italian and Caribbean recordings. 

“On Bandcamp, you can embed each track with lyrics, translations and details about the artists. That was faster than writing liner notes. Most of the archives are digital files, so it only took me three days to assemble it. Making it available digitally made sure it got out to people quickly.”

Listen here.


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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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