Ground Down to Molasses: The Making of an American Folk Song


Dave Byrne in Boston Review (photo: Alan Lomax, Library of Congress):

The folk revival that emerged in New York in the mid-twentieth century took as its texts two primary sources: the six-volume Anthology of American Folk Music curated by the filmmaker Harry Smith, and the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax, particularly the acetates featuring obscure blues singers and inmates from the prison farms that flourished, if that is the word, in the southern states. Unlike Smith’s anthology, which was culled from a number of traditions and ethnicities, Lomax’s recordings during this period focused almost exclusively on African American music.

After the first recording of “Ain’t No More Cane” in 1933—which we will wander back to—the song goes largely silent, enters a period of dormancy from which it will not emerge for several decades. When it is recorded again and released in 1958, it comes from an unlikely source—Lonnie Donegan, the Scottish-born “king of skiffle.”

Skiffle, an idiosyncratic blend of early jazz, blues, and jug-band music, is closely associated with its mid-century practitioners in the United Kingdom. Its roots, however, lie in African American culture, and the term gained currency in pre-Depression Chicago. But by the early 1940s, the homemade ethos of the music—guitars, banjos, jugs, tea chest, kazoos—was pretty much a done deal.

In the late 1950s skiffle got a second wind in England. Donegan had several huge novelty hits in the idiom, with “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)” and “My Old Man’s a Dustman.” Donegan immersed himself in American jazz, blues, and forgotten work songs. His keening tenor and frailing banjo on “Ain’t No More Cane” conjure Appalachia more than East Texas, but the verses are terse and spooky. He cuts to the heart of it somehow.

More here.