Early Fifties and Brilliant Recordings

  April 18, 2022   Read time 2 min
Early Fifties and Brilliant Recordings
In the early 1950s the folk revival began to accelerate, heading in various directions, with Lomax’s steady involvement. Beginning with recording English and Irish traditional performers, he next moved to Scotland, where he secured the help of Hamish Henderson and William Montgomerie.

Lomax’s collections were part of two BBC programs, I Heard Scotland Sing, soon followed by The Gaelic West, which demonstrated to a broader British audience that Gaelic folk songs were alive and well. For six months in 1952 he traveled through Spain, then returned to Britain to record Harry Cox, Jeannie Robertson, and other traditional singers. He also worked with Lloyd, MacColl, Isla Cameron, and jazzman Humphrey Lyttleton on the series Ballads and Blues. Similar to his earlier radio programs in the United States, although MacColl now did most of the research and scripting, each show had a particular theme, such as “The Singing Sailormen,” “Song of the Iron Road,” and “The Hammer and the Loom.” Older British folk songs were compared and contrasted with American folk, jazz, and blues lyrics. “In 1953 MacColl’s vision of the revival,” E. David Gregory has explained, “like Lomax’s, was of an eclectic music of working people that would naturally mix songs and tunes from both sides of the Atlantic.”

Indeed, in the 1950s Britain increasingly served as a magnet for various American performers. Blues men were somewhat familiar through their recordings and wartime radio broadcasts, so the burgeoning jazz community warmly greeted Josh White’s arrival in 1950, part of his European tour (the previous year Lead Belly had performed in Paris, but not in the U.K.). Big Bill Broonzy’s trip to England in 1951 was, therefore, rather exceptional. A recording of the singer Lomax made in 1947 was part of The Art of the Negro program, but Broonzy appeared live on Song of the Iron Road, (broadcast in November 1952), performing “John Henry” and “the Midnight Special.” He had already performed and recorded in England the previous year, but returned in early 1952, and again later that year for his third visit, when he was joined by gospel diva Mahalia Jackson for two concerts (he also toured in 1955 and 1957).

Traditional ballad singer and mountain dulcimer player Jean Ritchie, accompanied by her photographer husband George Pickow, also arrived in 1952. She was born in Viper, Kentucky in 1922—not long after Cecil Sharp had visited the Hindman Settlement School, where he had collected songs from her family, including “Fair Nottamun Town” and “The Farmer’s Cursed Wife”—and in 1947, following college, she moved to New York City and first met Lomax. Curious about her British folk roots, she obtained a Fulbright Scholarship from the U.S. government and crossed the Atlantic. She first appeared on one of the Ballads and Blues programs, then traveled with Lomax and Peter Kennedy on a collecting trip to Devon and Cornwall. She collected traditional singers in Scotland and Ireland, recording Seamus Ennis, Tommy Makem, and numerous others. Oddly, Ritchie, as well as popular folksinger Burl Ives, briefly had their own BBC programs, thanks to Lomax’s connections. Ritchie and Pickow soon returned to the United States.