Some musical experiences are like gifts to all involved — the artist, subject and audience — and “The Lomax Project” certainly has that potential.
The project, which started earlier this week and runs through Wednesday at the Chautauqua in Boulder, will host world-class musicians to study the recorded works of legendary folk-music archivist Alan Lomax. The public will benefit from this collaboration in multiple ways.
The musicians — Tim O’Brien, Jayme Stone, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Ron Miles and Greg Garrison — have a lot on their plate. They’ll study the music. They’ll talk about the process with the public. They’ll workshop with local musicians. They’ll write new music based on the folk archives. And they’ll throw a big hootenanny at the Chautauqua Auditorium on Wednesday.
We chatted with O’Brien — formerly of Boulder, currently of Nashville — about the project.
Q: What was your initial reaction when the organizers approached you?
A: As soon as I heard the general idea, I said, ‘Yes, and count me in.’ I love that music. It’s a good excuse for us to dive in, and to have the money that enables us to get together for a week is a great opportunity. The other participants are really qualified, too.
Q: Do you have a history with the Lomax archives?
A: There have been songs throughout the years that I’ve made or extended or rewritten. With Darrell Scott, I did a song, ‘Turtle Dove.’ I don’t know who wrote it; It’s a field recording … There’s another one, a square dance call. Somebody was playing a mouthbow and singing a square dance call. It was enough of a verse … (With that, O’Brien started singing.) ‘Prettiest girl I ever saw/Stood on the banks of the Arkansas/Her cheeks are red, and her eyes are green/Prettiest girl I ever seen.’ It was neat. ‘Wave the ocean, and wave the sand/Wave this way, and wave again.’ I think that was the square dance call, with him describing the action of the dance. I just made it into a song about the guy who had to leave the girl behind, and it had a chorus and a verse and it was ready to go. I just had to finish out the story.
Q: You just added to what was already captured by Lomax?
A: It’s a fragment of folk poems. They might just be there for something to sing while the people are dancing for a minute, and then it might make you think about some other stuff.
Q: What was that song called?
A: The song was ‘Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea’ — not sure what it’s called on the Lomax recording. It’s from Arkansas. And listening to his recordings, you get to know these voices, too, and then you hear a ‘new’ song by them. Lomax would go and record people, and then he’d go back again and get more songs. One of those people he found very valuable was Hobart Smith.
Q: So how do you credit a song if you only wrote half of it?
A: The line blurs, doesn’t it? Who came up with the idea first? It gets to be beside the point, but you call it a traditional arrangement, public domain, and as far as money and publishing is concerned, traditional songs are by in large free to use — but you can generate a little cash if you want by copyrighting the arrangements: Traditional, with additional parts by such-and-such. Folk music is like our national parks: They belong to everybody.
Q: A couple of the first days of this ‘Lomax Project’ are closed to the public with you all just listening, working and writing? How does that sound?
A: It could be a little frightening. We’re supposed to come up with a program of music less than a week later. People will come with some half-formed exercises. They’ll have some things started, and I have some ideas. I have things I can fall back on that are already there, which I’ve already discussed with you. But I’ve never done a collaboration on this scale. I’ve worked in rooms with co-writers. But this is a whole different thing.
Q: Sounds exciting.
A: I’m really excited about what might happen, but it’s so up in the air. And because it’s at Chautauqua with these people, it seems like, ‘Wow, how could I not want to do that? To see what will happen for a week up against the flatirons there with folk music.’
Q: This experience seems as if it could easily produce a CD.
A: I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was a CD. There’s one thing I’ve done that’s a little similar to this. The Transatlantic Sessions in Scotland, they do TV tapings from time to time. You spend several days with 15 musicians working on a show, and everybody works on the songs. Then you put the show on, and it’s a freak-out — but it’s a wonderful thing every time. It brings a certain soul out that’s more than the sum of its parts. If everybody has the right stance and energy, it can lift off the ground with not a lot of effort. So in Boulder … you never want to predict anything, but I feel like the elements are all there.
Q: And it brings you back to Colorado — again. Do you miss living here?
A: Boulder was my hometown for most of 22 years. A little in Fort Collins, a little in Denver, but most of it was Boulder. I love it there. It just happens that Colorado’s always been a strong market for playing music anyway. I still come three or four times a year to perform. This year, we’ve already had a ski trip to Telluride, we’ll be in Boulder (this month), and then back in June to record with Hot Rize. Then back to the (bluegrass) festival in Telluride, then RockyGrass. It’s hard to get rid of me.