As every Dylan fan knows, or will fully pretend to know if they didn’t already and you call them out on it, there would have been no Dylan without Woody Guthrie. In fact, the better of the two original songs that Dylan wrote for his eponymous debut album was called “Song to Woody” – you can listen to a short clip of it here.
What I didn’t realize until reading this article a couple of days ago is that there would have been no Woody without Alan Lomax.
Alright, I won’t try to con you into believing that I knew who Lomax was. But most of us won’t have to pretend to know his work, because it was Alan Lomax that provided many of the field recordings for the amazing “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack. He even gets props for giving us early recordings of such greats as Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, and even Muddy Waters.
Let me just say for the record: I love this kind of stuff, especially while studying theology. And it’s not just because I have some odd (and probably unhealthy) attachment to unearthing the roots of great blues and folk music. It’s because listening to Lomax’s recordings of these musicians is something like what I imagine it must have been like for early Christians to read the burgeoning, still-unformed New Testament. If blues and folk lead to rock-and-roll, then Lomax’s recordings are something like having a tape recording of one of St. Paul’s letters as it was read in a tiny house-church in ancient Greece.
So if you’ve got some time this weekend take a few moments and listen to some of these prison songs Alan Lomax recorded in December of 1948. And maybe as you hear those scratchy recordings think about what it might have been like to be young and living in Philippi in the year 60. You go to a friend’s house to pray and in walks this guy, a messenger, who opens a letter written by the last of the apostles. And he reads to you: “I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:3-6).