In 1959, American musicologist Alan Lomax wrote: “We of the jets, the wireless and the atomic blast, are on the verge of sweeping completely off the globe what unspoiled folklore is left. It is only a few sentimental folklorists like myself who seem to be disturbed by this prospect today, but tomorrow when it’s too late, when the whole world is bored with automated, mass-distributed video music our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.”
It was this sentiment that propelled Lomax through his life-long pursuit: to document the songs of the people. Carrying the torch of his father’s foundational work and armed with the cumbersome tools of early portable recording – Lomax travelled the “dying folkways” of the Mississippi Delta and beyond. It was not a pursuit of fame or profit, he was in fact famously often broke, instead, his pursuit came from an internal obligation to the future.
This self-appointed role of ‘Song Hunter’ was not particularly new, folklorists have existed in various guises throughout recordable culture. However, they often loomed in the distant and detached worlds of academia. They were concerned with the study and the catalogue of the folk song– rarely the people responsible for expressing it. Even less concern was placed on preserving the culture of the poor, incarcerated and forgotten.
Lomax disagreed with this sentiment, for him the common folk song was as precious and valuable as any opera or sonata. Charged by a desire to enable the denigrated songs, Lomax set out to shift the microphone towards these unheard voices.
This soon grew into something much larger. Beyond the enjoyment of the music itself, when compared these songs revealed the threads that ran across the map of history. Using his extensive archives, he began to develop systems to note the key similarities and difference between songs of different cultures. With this system, it was possible to track the movement of folk songs over the centuries. These threads are insurmountable and overlapping, but they reveal an inescapably honest view of historical narrative that is often simplified to distortion.
The huge importance of Lomax’s work was not just his tireless efforts of chronicling, but equally, his openness to embrace technology and his intuitive ability of production. Many of the 17,000 recordings he made during his life do not just idle on the dusty shelves of obscurity but are still widely listened to today. Recordings of artists like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson still spin on turntables and cycle through the algorithms of playlists.
This stands testament not only to the talent exuded but the ability of Lomax to summon such performances. As recalled by Lomax’s ex-partner Shirley Collin’s, part of his genius was his ability to make every singer feel like “they were the best in the world”. Most likely fostered to the restrictions of the rudimental recording process (no second takes), Lomax developed an uncanny ability to create a sense of urgency in the artist, a certain “now or never” fury.
As it stands, it has been almost 100 years since the Lomax Family began their work – and the role of Song Hunter could be argued as an antiquated role. Although divides between rich and poor are as vast as ever, the majority of the poor now have access to technology and the internet. This gives the previous silent poor the utilities in which they can record and chronicle their own life. They can engrave their voice and images directly into the mausoleum of their own life – for history to hold forever. This is not only accessible, it is encouraged. Western culture is entirely obsessed with the individual: you must share your experience, tell your story, make your voice heard.
In an age like this – why do we still need the middleman?
Anthony Simpkins started his YouTube channel GemsOnVHS in 2011. A self-supporting Musicologist and Documentarian. Living in Nashville, there was no shortage of talented musicians creating diverse music, rooted deeply it the various folk traditions of The South.
Armed with some cheap analogue cameras and nothing in the way of formal training, Simpkins began to film everyone and everything he thought was worth hearing. Often choosing to work with artists that, for various reasons and roadblocks, would never make it in conventional music routes. Simpkins felt compelled to capture the songs that most likely wouldn’t be heard any other way. Since 2011, this project has exploded into 262 videos, a collective 58 million views and various international tours.
Is this what the modern “Song Hunter” looks like? I thought it would be best to ask Anthony directly.
What inspired you to start this project?
I was inspired by the tradition of field recordings by the likes of John and Alan Lomax, Cecil Sharp and newer projects like La Blogotheque. Cinema verite, realism and documentary have always been big inspirations for me. I was also lucky to live in a place with such a glut of rich musical talent in Nashville. Generations of songwriters call this place home, and we’re right in the middle of many tour routes.
Were you aware of Lomax, Cecil Sharp and the folk chronicling tradition when you started?
At the beginning, I was familiar with Alan Lomax’s field recordings, which were initially becoming made available on YouTube around that time, 2010. Cecil Sharp I found much later, as his work wasn’t usually recorded visually. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Cecil Sharp House in London multiple times, interview the librarians (for our upcoming Folks Talk podcast) and record music in their library.
Now that the technology is available for people to “self-chronicle” (i.e record and post their own material), do you think the role of folklorist is becoming redundant? As in, do we become our own folklorists by default – or do you think there is something integral in the role of folklorist that keeps it alive?
How people/artists perceive themselves is always different from how they actually are. A lot of artists I work with have spent plenty of time recording themselves, and often their first strike at success is still on our channel, done in this field recording style.
Their own taste often gets in the way of their talent. Often, artists’ music videos are much less well-received than these live videos, because anything is possible in a studio, but the live rendition doesn’t lie. People crave reality and suspension of disbelief at the same time. They want to believe (and certainly it can be true) that you could just walk into the right room and hear this incredible music.
The technical aspect also still has a learning curve, regardless of how much “easier” it is now. People who spend most their time learning instruments and performance craft are still not necessarily equipped to record themselves successfully.
There will always be room for documentary filmmakers and folklorists to shine a light on some undeveloped talent.
How involved do you get with artists when recording? Do you see it as a collaboration? or do you think it’s important to remain detached?
I typically don’t dictate what they play or how they play it.
I try to focus on the technical end of what I’m doing, while getting as involved in their personal life as I can without creating false realities.
The project is a collaboration. The more welcoming the artists is, the more they let me into their life, the better the recordings will turn out.
What are the most common ways you discover new artists to work with?
I find a lot of artists through other artists I trust.
Occasionally someone random will reach out to me, and i’ll listen to their music.
Even more occasionally, someone in the industry I trust (publicists like Devon Leger at Hearth Music, record label folks like Jody Whelan at Oh Boy! records) will show me someone wonderful.
What do you look for when deciding which artists to feature? Is it something tangible, or do you just “know”?
I look to work with artists who are working hard for themselves already.
Often I’ll be sent links to “great unknowns” by their friends who think the person deserves the world.
That’s great, but if they aren’t taking their work seriously (touring, playing shows, getting their music out there), chances are I’m not going to bet everything to go work with them.
Lost Dog street band was playing hundreds of shows across the country every year before we made our first video.
They were busking on street corners and living the reality they wanted to live.
I look for people with passion, drive and devotion to the craft.
I avoid people looking for an easy ticket to fame or playing on their couch.
You once said that your priority in the project is authenticity. How would you define the word authentic?
Authenticity is a funny thing, fleeting the moment it’s recognized.
In Lomax’s work, and other field recording series, the culture was often said to erode just by the nature of being recorded in the first place.
But I look for interesting stories, people who are dreaming big and living their own ways, for good or bad.
What do you think is the biggest destroyer of artistic authenticity?
Is there anyone you could point to in popular culture who has managed to keep a strong sense of authenticity and originality whilst remaining widely accessible?
Lost Dog street band.
They live the life they portray. Off the land, off grid. They just built a cabin, and power is supplied by solar panels.
Your channel has been growing a steady and very dedicated fan base over the years – with some videos reaching multi-million view counts – do you have any concern that a wider fan base may threaten the “underground and undiscovered” appeal of the channel?
I think it’s much more likely I’ll disappoint the wider fan base than disappoint myself. There will be plenty of undiscovered talent I’ll record that they won’t like. But as we’ve received wider viewership, we’ve been able to record with some fantastic talent like Willie Watson and Todd Snider. So there will probably be something for everyone going forward.
As well as being wonderfully shot, your videos often feature incredible locations. How important do you think setting is to capturing a song? How do you decide the locations?
The setting is a character in the movie. Locations are always dependent on what’s available. I try to record somewhere meaningful to the artists, the closer to “home” for them, the better.
We like to be outside of studios and off stages.
How do you feel about the state of modern mainstream music? Both as an industry and a culture?
There’s a lot of derision of “Pop Country” and general elitism among hardcore fans of songwriting, Americana, Country, as with any genre.
The internet has really allowed so many musicians to thrive in such a wide variety of genres and niches that it’s hard to cry about pop music.I don’t find any point in focusing energy on hating any type of music. Not everyone listens to music to grow, learn, experience the gamut of human emotion.
Some people just want to ride in a truck in their blue jeans and drink beer. Fuck it, let them be.
Is what you are doing a challenge to modern music? Or do you see it more of a way to modernize old traditions?
We’re telling 21st century stories, sharing songs new and old. I hope the project can be a gateway drug to interesting people in learning about their history through song. Like Nirvana Unplugged introducing me to Leadbelly, our project is a lot of folks first introduction to folk music.
It’s a long rabbit hole, and we’re happy to facilitate.
We’re going to continue doing what we’ve always done, recording amazing musicians in our field recording style. Beyond that, we’re releasing very special edition recordings in our new “Rough Cuts” series, acoustic recordings with artists in the same style.
And we’ll be covering the entire world, with more trips to Ireland, Korea, Africa, and wherever else we can find fine music!
Alexander Mansfield is a UK based writer and musician with interests in folk music, '70s cinema and various other terrible things to bring up on a first date.