Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook

Sometimes, an album is too good. We listen to what's there, because it is deep and it is vast and it teaches us things we want to learn. But after a while, we start thinking about all the stuff that isn't there. We begin looking at other albums with envy, and before long, we are shamelessly partaking in their delights. It's just a matter of time until we leave that first album behind with a sad smile and a sincere "thank you."

Popular Songbook is the kind of album we eventually leave behind. It is an exploration of 22 popular songs from the past few decades, and the traditional folk and blues songs from which they were born. It covers a variety of artists, from the Grateful Dead to Moby. Some of the songs here are obscure, while others have been recorded hundreds of times before.

After a month of digging into this record, though, my attention is wandering. Popular Songbook rarely gets to snuggle up in my warm CD player anymore. Now, I find myself digging up old Son House and Blind Willie Johnson recordings of "John the Revelator" and comparing them to the versions by Depeche Mode and Nick Cave.

Which, unfortunately, means I'm not listening to Popular Songbook. Even though it is wonderful, I want more than what it can offer.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
It's a shame that Rounder Records couldn't include a second CD with the modern interpretations of these songs. Regardless, for people like me -- rock fans with an interest in other genres -- this album is brilliant. It was released in 2003, and it is influenced by the success of Moby's Play and the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?. Its scope is far greater than those two albums, though, and it presents early versions of songs like Eric Clapton's "Motherless Child" and The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." Alas, for people who are already well-versed in traditional American music, this CD has little to offer.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Alan Lomax was a musicologist and an anthropologist who recorded thousands of songs by thousands of people. If the booklet contained only the introduction and the song notes, it would probably still deserve a 5. Lomax's introductory quote ("I'm sticking up for rock and roll because even though some of it is destructive and crude, it is essentially a creative American impulse. It's made by young people for young people. It's a rebellion against the Puritan ethic which has decreed from the beginning of our society that Americans are not allowed to have pleasure.") is wonderful, and the song notes are informative. But the meat of this package comes in Gideon D'Arcangelo's essay, "Alan Lomax and the Big Story of Song." After reading it, I understand that everyone who has loved a song in the past 75 years owes a little bit of thanks to Alan Lomax.

Listen if you like: Rock music (and I use the term to include virtually all styles of pop music of the past 50 years), and you want to learn more about its roots; folk and blues music, and you want to learn more about where it led.

If it were food, it'd be: baby food. It's the beginning of a wondrous journey.

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