Over the past three years, Jayme Stone has listened to thousands of folk songs from Alan Lomax‘s celebrated archive. And that’s just a fraction of what’s available. The overall collection, Stone says, contains some 30,000 field recordings.
That’s a lot of music.
Stone listens for those irresistible songs, the ones that catch him on first listen, but he also keeps a careful ear out for songs with potential. Some may have a melody or lyric that can be drawn out or explored, even if the original recording isn’t altogether remarkable. Accordingly, Stone’s repertoire of Lomax songs is constantly growing and evolving as he and his sphere of collaborators put new touches on old music. The result is the album Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, an ongoing collaboration with 20-odd musicians, three of whom join Stone at Isis Restaurant and Music Hall Thursday, Oct. 1.
Lomax, a folklorist and ethnomusicologist, was a collector of folk music. He recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song, and is credited with contributing to the folk music revivals in the U.S. and U.K. during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. He visited Western North Carolina, photographing local folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford and performing onstage at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. Lomax’s collection at the American Folklife Center, amassed with his father and many others, “encompasses more than 100 collections and includes 700 linear feet of manuscripts, 10,000 sound recordings, 6,000 graphic images and 6,000 moving images,” according to the Library of Congress. It’s fertile ground for a contemporary musician to dig into.
Stone, a banjo player and composer originally from Canada, is no stranger to seeking out inspiration. He traveled to Mali to study the African roots of his instrument of choice and released the album Africa to Appalachia in 2008. For the Lomax Project, he and his friends sifted through thousands of field recordings, seeking songs on which they could place their own stamp. That’s the nature of folk music.
“There is this continuum of people getting together and making music,” Stone says. “Before there was recorded music, if you wanted music, you had to make it yourself.” He describes neighbors getting together to shuck corn, after which they’d get out their instruments and hold a square dance. Players collaborated, and songs developed and evolved.
“That approach is easily lost in a world where things have been highly commodified,” Stone says. “I want to have that as part of my life, just as a human being.” The songs of the Lomax Project grow out of retreats at Stone’s Longmont, Colo., house, where a revolving cast of musicians gathers. Someone would bring an old Lomax recording, one that’s either arresting as is or had some hidden kernel that needed to be brought to light, and the group will develop an arrangement. In concert, they play at least half of the songs from Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, while the other selections from the setlist might be new arrangements of recent discoveries. The record, Stone says, is not the ultimate expression of the project — the collaborative sessions are.
“That, for me, is the heartbeat of the project,” he says. “Touring and records are just one manifestation.” At his retreats, the process is alive. Recently, Stone says, composer and folk singer Moira Smiley brought the song “Hey Lolly Lolly Lo,” which Stone thought sounded a lot like “Lazy John” — the chords and melody were just too similar. “Lazy John” was already on the record, but Stone wondered how the song would sound slowed down and played like a dark ballad, Miles Davis-style. He wrote fresh chords, and now “Hey Lolly Lolly Lo” behaves like a jazz standard. Today, the original version sounds odd to Stone. “We realized then that there was this smoldering undertone to the lyrics. There was this clandestine love affair,” he says. “Now I can’t imagine it being done any other way.”
With some songs, the original recording isn’t entirely compelling, but the song itself — the structure, the melody, the lyric — almost demands to be teased out and given attention. “Shenandoah,” Stone says, appears in the archives as a rendition by a retired sea captain, recorded in Staten Island in 1939. For the Lomax Project, the song is transformed. It opens like an ethereal ballad, with Margaret Glaspy‘s vocals only loosely accompanied at the start. Soon, instruments join in, and a counterpoint emerges between the euphoric bounce of Stone’s banjo and the sweeping laments of Brittany Haas‘ fiddle. It’s at once jubilant and bittersweet.
Stone and his collaborators made “Shenandoah,” “Hey Lolly Lolly Lo” and other Lomax recordings their own. The songs are still familiar, recognizable as traditional tunes with rich histories, but they also reflect the tastes and personalities of the people playing them at the time.
“That’s what I think the folk tradition is all about,” Stone says. “You get handed this dented little baton and you get to carry it around for your lifetime, and work it and rework it, and then pass it along.”
WHAT: Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
WHERE: Isis Restaurant and Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 1, 8:30 p.m. $18 advance/$20 at the door