What Will Become of England?
(Lomax Collection: Portraits Series- Rounder, 2000)
Most people associate the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax with American folksongs of Appalachia and the South, but Alan went on to travel around the world, including Old England. This disc is a portrait of one of the great keepers of traditional and once-popular songs from Great Britain, Harry Cox. The intriguing thing about Cox, as brought out here, is how profoundly ordinary he is - he's an icon, the archetype of the traditional folksinger. Already 68 years old when these tapes were made back in 1953, his voice is not what it must have been when he learned these songs, and he occasionally plays fiddle and squeeze box just well enough to accompany that voice. Clearly a character, Harry Cox is a man you want to ply with drinks all night at the local pub, just to hear him tell his stories and bring out some old chestnuts from another age. And this is apparently what Lomax has done. These recordings are not really performances - they're more like snippets of a long conversation, with brief monologues (clearly edited) interrupted by the songs, which Cox almost always ends abruptly, often after only a minute, not as if he'd forgotten the rest but as if he'd made his point and were eager to continue speaking. It's as though Cox considers his singing a merely necessary tool for conveying the songs, and the songs as merely incidental, another way of getting across the stories and histories he has to tell.
In fact, this may be Lomax's genius as an ethnomusicologist gathering field recordings. His subjects become completely unselfconscious with him and instead of trying to "perform," they become engrossed in a mutual enthusiasm for the songs. Some of the standout tracks are traditional songs, "The Foggy Foggy Dew," "Sweet William," and "Blackberry Fold." Others are popular songs from an age gone by, including the title track and one of my favorites, the delicate fragment "Charming and Delightful."