Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project revives traditional tunes from scratchy historical records
By Bliss Bowen
Some artists want a very specific sound and musical feel, and recruit additional players only to service that particular vision; other artists gather respected peers with a “let’s see what happens” mindset.
Banjoist Jayme Stone says he trusts his own musical “proclivities and idiosyncrasies,” but he prefers collaborative situations like his Lomax Project, which he brings to the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica on Friday for an acoustic concert featuring singer Moira Smiley, bassist Joe Phillips and fiddler Sumaia Jackson.
“I feel like my best work can come when I’m able to harness everybody’s voice,” Stone explains. “This record has my name on it, so ultimately I was the curator. But I really like to invite people to really be part of the creative process and see what we can do together.”
“Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project,” released last year by Borealis Records, is a lovingly produced and performed album that draws its traditional material from field recordings made by folklorist/producer Alan Lomax beginning in the 1930s. Over seven decades Lomax recorded at least 5,000 hours of songs and interviews throughout the United States, the Caribbean and Europe; Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters were among the soon-to-be-legendary voices he preserved. (The Lomax-founded Association of Cultural Equity has made the Lomax Archive available in its Global Jukebox at culturalequity.org.)
Long interested in field recordings, Stone revisited Lomax’s archive after reading John Szwed’s “astoundingly good” 2011 biography, “Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.” It guided him to “the more arcane corners of music,” and inspired him to create a “collaboratory”: a hub of musicians from different circles who used Lomax’s recordings as a jumping-off point.
Grammy Award-winning bluegrass hero Tim O’Brien immediately signed on when Stone called “out of the blue” to pitch him the project.
“The person who’s likely the most well-known voice on the record turned out to be the most enthusiastic participant; every few weeks I’d get an iPhone recording from Tim [with ideas],” Stone marvels. “He has the energy of a young boy and the wisdom of an elder.”
Crooked Still fiddler Brittany Haas, cuatro-playing Kobo Town frontman Drew Gonsalves, eclectic jazz guitarist Julian Lage, old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky and Subdudes accordionist John Magnie also contributed — along with Moira Smiley and Margaret Glaspy, whose vocals Stone accurately describes as “mesmerizing.”
The material is true Americana: work songs, spirituals, sea shanties, narratives that served as oral histories, Celtic and English ballads that migrated to Appalachia. Some songs attracted Stone with their lyrical “timelessness”; others with a catchy title.
“‘Hog Went Through the Fence, Yoke and All’ just jumped out at me from an index card in the Library of Congress listening room,” he recalls. “Sometimes it was a matter of lending a deeper ear to these scratchy old recordings and hearing some potential in them that I imagined us bringing to light.”
Songs like “Shenandoah” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “What is the Soul of Man?,” which have evolved over successive generations, were freshened by individualizing touches. One track that memorably “came alive in the room” when Stone and his cohorts gathered to play was “Goodbye, Old Paint,” a 19th-century Western ballad.
“Margaret Glaspy brought in kind of a rewrite of the verse and recast the whole feeling of the song,” Stone says. “We ended up bringing in Tim to sing the male part, and he made a little bricolage of various verses from different places, and I brought the chorus back in that wasn’t there in Margaret’s first draft, and Greg [Garrison] took the bass line for a good walk. By the time we were done, everybody put their own stamp on one little corner or another.”
The vitality of its arrangements is one of the album’s most striking aspects. For example, “Before This Time Another Year” came from the repertoire of Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers, recorded by Lomax in 1960; Jones had a terrific cache of songs learned from her grandfather, an ex-slave born in Africa. Stone & Co.’s gospel-y version includes verses written by O’Brien the morning they recorded it.
Discussing the process by which Stone invited everyone to try out creative ideas leads to thought-provoking analogies between “the folk process” and modern pop track building in which beats, lyrics and melody bits are cherry-picked from various contributors.
“We live in a hyperlinked, super-speedy time, where many of us are sitting around on our laptops or phones and change happens fast,” Stone observes with a laugh. “Back then, maybe somebody would blow through town with a banjo and a song, and a fiddler would catch a couple of verses, and before they’d even learned it the singer would be gone and they’d be left to wrestle with it and make it their own and translate it onto a new instrument. And maybe their neighbor would hear it and come up with a few words of their own, and it all happened slowly and organically. Maybe it’s a similar process spread out through time and a community.
“These things are living, breathing cultural artifacts, and you don’t have a song without a singer. There is no platonic ideal of an old folk song. It’s really how it’s being fashioned and remade time and time again. I think that’s what makes the whole thing go around. What some people call the folk process is really a game of broken telephone that we all have with tradition.”
Hear the Jayme Stone Lomax Project at 8 p.m. Friday, April 22, at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica, 1260 18th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 at the door or $18 in advance at brownpapertickets.com/event/2534408. Call (310) 829-5436 or visit jaymestone.com.