John Henry's Blues,' the opening track of Tangle Eye: Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed, sounds like it's by a contemporary R&B band, with an echoed vocal over a Fender Rhodes piano, the player bouncing lightly with the right hand until a thwack introduces a slightly tribal drum loop. The Rhodes then sets up a relaxed, soulful groove for a retelling of the John Henry story. In fact, Henry Butler is playing all the keyboards, there is no band, and the singer is Ed Lewis, an inmate chopping down a tree in 1959 when he was recorded by archivist/musicologist Alan Lomax. Lewis' song is one of 11 selected for remixing from more than 20 hours of music collected in Lomax' Southern Journey series.
'We listened to every song really carefully to choose what we wanted to use,' explains Steve Reynolds, producer at New Orleans' own Ultrasonic Studios, and co-producer of the album with Rounder Records' Scott Billington. In the control room of the studio, Reynolds has a box with all the CDs and the handwritten notes they made while listening to the recordings. One note reads, 'banjos in D, slightly flat, approximately 138 to 148 beats per minute, ' hinting at the challenge working with the tracks presented.
'We chose things that maybe lent themselves to the remix format and stayed on a more consistent key, although nothing was in a standard western key, and if it was it didn't stay there long,' he explains. In 'John Henry's Blues,' Lewis sped up and sang higher the closer he got to chopping down the tree.
'We really wanted to bring in live musicians to get live interaction and the human element of it instead of the Lego blocks of hooking together little pieces of sound,' Reynolds says. For the 'human element,' they recruited artists such as Butler, bassist George Porter Jr., trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and Galactic guitarist Jeff Raines. 'I listened to the track two or three times and started experimenting, bassist James Singleton remembers, 'and Scott and Steve would give some input more active, less active.' According to Reynolds, Singleton's process was a fairly common one for the musicians: 'They wanted to listen to what was going in the original vocal before they played anything.'
Regardless of the quality of the performances and well-meant participation of the musicians, for many there is something at least ironic about taking Lomax tapes -- recordings that have become synonymous with authenticity -- and fabricating new tracks out of them. Scott Billington recalls being chewed out by an angry folk purist at a convention panel: 'Someone in the audience objected to us working in a steady tempo. The nature of this medium is that everything locked to tempo. She objected to us taking a singer like Almeda Riddle (the singer of 'Hangman') and harnessing that to a consistent groove.' Billington and Reynolds also had to win the approval of Lomax's daughter. Billington recalls that Anna Lomax Wood was 'skeptical and supportive, but mostly she wanted us to get it right.'
In the case of 'Chantey,' there is something odd about a light, happy rock steady track emerging from fishermen singing while hauling in their nets. Reynolds feels the treatment is appropriate though. 'The guys are working hard,' he points out, 'but the lyrics are humorous, keeping their mind off their work and thinking about something else -- Evalina , she's got a money accumulator.' In that context, you want something with a grind to it, a little bit of a bounce to it. Rock steady seemed to be the way to go.'
Though he defends the tracks, Reynolds isn't blind to the controversy. 'This is like hallowed ground and you're dealing with recorded history,' he says. 'It put a certain burden on us to be careful with it, but not so much so that we're scared of it. I'm amazed more of the folk purists embraced the idea.'
Not everybody sees the originals as sacrosanct, though. 'The existing tracks weren't all that impressive,' Singleton says. 'These people were out in the boonies and were entertaining each other.' As such, the songs weren't meant to be listened to as records and CDs are. For him, remixing the chosen performances put 'a gem in its perfect setting. We've spent years learning to refine what we do, and we bring that to these vocals.' Reynolds and Billington are not, of course, the first people to remix Alan Lomax recordings. Moby's Play was released in 1999, but Reynolds admits he's unsure if the album came out before they started Tangle Eye. "Scott was the one who told me about the Moby connection," he remembers. "I had already started the project before I was aware of the Moby thing. I totally support Moby on what he does because if he hadn't have done his thing we probably wouldn't have sold the idea to anybody else."
- Tangle Eye remixes Alan Lomax's field recordings with a "human element" provided by George Porter Jr., Delfeayo Marsalis and James Singleton, among others.