By ERIN ALLEN
The Grammy Award goes to the Library of Congress, in a manner of speaking. Materials in the Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC) repeatedly have been the inspiration for Grammy Award nominees and winners.
Most recently, the 2011 Grammy Awards gave two nominations to Harte Recordings’ “Alan Lomax in Haiti,” a 10-CD box set chronicling Lomax’s 1936 Haitian recording expedition for the Library of Congress.
In addition, AFC recordings influenced the music of two of the acts honored.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose album “Genuine Negro Jig” won in the Traditional Folk category, previously have recorded selections they learned from the center’s Archive of Folk Culture—band member Dom Flemons is a frequent visitor.
“The Library of Congress archives have always been there in our minds, in an abstract way,” said Flemons.
In particular, Flemons has conducted research using the Lomax field recordings and the Deep River Song Collection. The Library “has such a diversity of American music.”
Of his own music, Flemons said he restyles some of what he’s found in the archive but tries not to “mess with perfection.”
“I want to have elements of the original and recognize the culture it came from,” he said.
The group Feufollet’s album “En Couleurs” was nominated for best Cajun or Zydeco recording. That band likewise has covered music learned from the center’s archival recordings.
According to the AFC’s Stephen Winick, Feufollet is the second Cajun group to win a Grammy award after being inspired by the Library’s materials. Beausoleil, the only Cajun band to win a Grammy before the Cajun/Zydeco category was established in 2008, has recorded several songs that can be traced back to the AFC’s archive, including “Belle” and “Je m’endors.”
Laying the groundwork for this tradition were such performers as Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton and Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), who worked with John and Alan Lomax, the father-and-son team that oversaw what was then the Archive of American Folk Song.
They learned songs from the archive and in return sang their own songs for the Library’s recording devices.
“The most extensive set of recordings devoted to any one performer in that era was captured on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium in 1938, when Alan Lomax recorded over nine hours of music and speech from Jelly Roll Morton, a pioneering jazz pianist,” Winick said. “The recordings amount to a musical oral history documenting the birth of jazz.”
Those recordings were released on CD in 2005 and won two Grammy Awards for historical album and liner notes.
“One of the biggest hits learned from the archive was ‘Tom Dooley,’ a traditional North Carolina ballad that became a No. 1 hit for the Kingston Trio in 1958, also winning best Country-and-Western performance at the very first Grammy Awards,” Winick said. “By all accounts, the Kingston Trio’s version was ultimately based on the performance of Frank Proffitt, which was recorded by collectors Frank and Anne Warner in 1940 and donated to the AFC archive.
“The song is credited with starting a ‘folk boom’ that led to the thriving folk scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
The American Folklife Center collections also have had a resounding influence on rock music.
In 1964, the British rock group The Animals released the track “The House of the Rising Sun,” which quickly topped the charts all over the world.
“It was also an early example of a No. 1 rock hit created from a traditional folksong, prompting some to label it ‘the first folk-rock hit,’ “ Winick said. The song went on to be honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
According to Winick, the consensus is that The Animals copied the version of the song found on Bob Dylan’s debut album. Dylan acknowledged Dave Van Ronk as his source, and Van Ronk acknowledged Hally Wood, who took her version from Alan Lomax’s book “Our Singing Country.”
“That version was transcribed in large part from a performance Lomax recorded for the archive in 1937 from a Kentucky miner’s daughter named Georgia Turner,” Winick said.
The recordings in the Archive of Folk Culture continue to resonate among musicians of the 21st century.
In 2006, Bruce Springsteen released “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” an entire album of traditional folk songs learned from the popular folk musician. The album won the 2007 Grammy for Traditional Folk Album.
“Seeger learned many of his songs from the archive,” Winick said. “In the 1930s, he was the archive’s first intern, working as an assistant to Alan Lomax.”
Canadian musician Feist and the legendary Springsteen have released music directly related to the collections, and both have been honored for it.
In November 2005, Feist visited the American Folklife Center’s reading room, where she heard the children’s song “Sea Lion Woman,” recorded for the Library of Congress by Herbert Halpert in 1939 and featuring sisters Christine and Katherine Shipp.
Taken by the song, Feist cut the track for her 2007 album “The Reminder,” which was nominated for a Grammy and won a Juno Award.
“It’s unique using those old styles, especially since they’ve all but disappeared,” Flemons said. “It’s important to find the cultural significance of a song and find a way to keep that.”
Erin Allen is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications.