The Voices Of America

If such an upbeat fellow as Alan Lomax has nightmares, they must be like this scene from Thomas Pynchon's 1966 novel, "The Crying of Lot 49." An acid head named Mucho Maas listens to Muzak and imagines--prophetically, we now know--that "they could dispense with live musicians if they wanted. Put together all the right overtones at the right power levels so it'd come out like a violin." He goes on to fantasize that since each human voice is just a combination of frequencies, they could all be electronically broken down and reassembled. "Then you'd have this big, God, maybe a couple hundred million chorus saying 'rich, chocolaty goodness' together, and it would all be the same voice."

That's a good image of where corporate record labels are taking America's once idiosyncratic popular music. Lomax, the dean of American folklorists, sees the high tech, the homogenized and the disposable crowding the genuine homemade stuff off demographics-driven radio and TV. "The terrifying thing," he says, "is that modern communication centralizes and standardizes culture--as if that were a virtue." His response: the new PBS series "American Patchwork," which began last weekend with an hourlong show on New Orleans jazz parades. If Lomax thinks some old geezers twanging banjos are going to change anything . . . well, he's been right before.

The five NEA-funded shows present some of the rootsiest music ever televised, from raucous Mississippi drum-and-canefife bands to tart-voiced Appalachian ballad singing. It's hardly news that American music is a "patchwork" of African and European elements, but seldom have the origins and cross-connections been so clearly demonstrated. And Lomax, 75, the series' creator and host, is a man who changed that music forever. In 1933, he and his father, song collector John Lomax, discovered Leadbelly, who was to become the great popularizer of black folk music, in a Louisiana prison. Later, Lomax's radio shows introduced Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He got the Library of Congress to establish its folk-music archives, to which the Lomaxes contributed more than 15,000 songs; their field recordings were among the seminal documents in a series of folk revivals from the '30s to the '60s. If not for Lomax, few people would have heard "Tom Dooley" or "Goodnight Irene," and Bob Zimmerman might be singing "Feelings" at Holiday Inns around Hibbing, Minn.

When Lomax first started recording in 1933--with a 500-pound portable rig--people thought the mike was a telephone, and implored FDR to "come down here and help us poor folks." Lomax realized then that a folklorist was "the person who made the connection between unrepresented, unheard people and the rest of the culture." Fifty years later, when he began filming for "American Patchwork," both equipment and musicians were more sophisticated. Some, like North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell, had already been "discovered" many times over; Louisiana Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa has appeared in the Hollywood film "The Big Easy." But besides the usual suspects, Lomax rounded up folks even he hadn't heard of, like Mississippi bluesman Belton Sutherland--a master musician who appeared during Lomax's session with another singer and asked to "try" the guitar.

Monk tunes: Lomax sometimes overcompensates for the more obscure material: why must a bluegrass group play "Orange Blossom Special," and a New Orleans band do "When the Saints Go Marching In"? And he occasionally gives too much time to unexceptional musicians. (One competent but derivative Scruggs-style banjo player is overbilled as "one of the stars of the modern Appalachian folk music revival.") Yet he also gives neglected giants their due. The second show, on Cajun music, tells of the infiuential black accordionist Amadie Ardoin. (A cousin, Alphonse "Bois-sec" Ardoin, actually performs.) Ardoin was savagely beaten--he later died--after playing a dance. Why? A white woman had wiped his sweat away with her handkerchief.

"Once you've taken the Cajun culture away from me, away from my grandchildren, then who are they?" asks Dewey Balfa. "They're an American plastic card with a number on it." But Lomax sees hopeful signs. Young Cajuns now learn their grandparents' swamp-French patois in school and take up accordions as well as electric guitars. Appalachian kids do old-time flatfoot dancing in Rockette-like precision teams; New Orleans street bands, once nearly extinct, mix spirituals and Thelonious Monk tunes. "What I found when I went out in America this time was that there was all kinds of invention going on," he says. "So long as it can get a hearing, it's going to continue to grow." Half an hour with your local top-40 station can be a sobering corrective to Lomax's optimism: synthesizers and sound-alike voices still rule the airwaves. But "American Patchwork" reminds us we've got other choices.