At the outset, in May 1938, Alan Lomax did not expect much from his interview with Jelly Roll Morton. As assistant in charge of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Lomax focused on collecting endangered music: field hollers, hillbilly ballads, the old-time songs of marginal peoples that commercial recording was fast drowning out. So he was intrigued but skeptical when friends told him about Morton, a jazz composer who had generated a string of hit records before his fortunes turned sour in the Depression. For the previous 18 months he had been running a bar above a hamburger joint in the black district of Washington, playing piano, mixing drinks, when necessary tossing out drunks.
Lomax had never been a jazz fan. But friends described Morton as a great source of old melodies, so Lomax arranged to bring him together with a disc recorder in the library’s Coolidge Auditorium. Morton turned up for the session on May 23 sporting gold rings, a hundred-dollar suit, and a diamond-studded incisor, unfurling his satin-lined jacket over the back of the piano like a bullfighter wielding his cape.
At Lomax’s suggestion, Morton opened the interview by singing “Alabama Abound.” Lomax had first heard the song in 1933 sung by a black convict named Bowlegs, whom he and his father, the folklorist John Lomax, had recorded at a Mississippi prison. Bowlegs’ rendition had been slow and mournful, a lament for a vanished lover that was full of the penitentiary’s pain and privation, but Morton played a jaunty, sardonic version that he claimed to have written in a Gulf Coast honky-tonk in 1904. Here the singer, not the lover, was the one who was leaving, and even the abandoned woman did not sound that bothered: She said, “Don’t you leave me here / Don’t leave me here / But sweet papa, if you must go / Leave a dime for beer.”
Between verses Morton recalled his days as an entertainer in the low-down dives from Biloxi to Mobile, composing songs, playing piano, and shooting pool when he spotted an easy mark. “I never will forget, after I beat some guys playing pool, if it wasn’t for one of my piano-playing friends, you’d never heard this record because the guy was gonna knife me in the back, I’m telling you. He said that I only used the piano for a decoy, which he was right.” He played softly while he was reminiscing, and his speaking voice itself became music, guttural and melodic by turns.
For Lomax, all this was dizzying. One simple request for a traditional tune and Morton was spinning in a picaresque novel, full of the laughter of prostitutes, the click of pool cues, and the rattle of loaded dice. “He had a knife right on me. And, of course, he had it in his mind that I was kind of nice-looking. Imagine that, huh? Of course, he wasn’t such a good-looking fellow hisself. He had some awful, rubber-looking lips, I’m telling you.”
His tale called up a subterranean world unlike anything Lomax had ever set out to document. So when Morton concluded by saying, with patrician grandeur, “Is there any other information you would like to ask?” Lomax excused himself and rushed to his office for a boxful of blank discs and a bottle of whiskey. “Jelly Roll,” Lomax resumed, setting the recording machine whirling once more, “tell us about yourself.”
Over the next three weeks, Jelly Roll did. Returning daily to the Coolidge Auditorium, Morton spoke and sang of his life’s adventures, recounting his childhood, his musical training, and his apprenticeship as a pianist, composer, and pool shark in the dives and brothels of New Orleans. Lomax sat at his feet, maintaining eye contact, while reaching behind him to manipulate two disc recorders. As each disc neared its four-and-a-half-minute capacity, he could perform virtually without interruption. Though initially he prompted Morton with questions, that soon proved unnecessary. Morton had a clear sense of the shape of his narrative (“I’m getting ahead of my story,” he remarked periodically), an unerring feel for the tale he wanted to tell.
Propelling that tale was a sense of grievance. In a decade when jazz had become big business, Morton believed that he had been defrauded. Three years earlier Benny Goodman had recorded Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” and though it had become “the outstanding favorite of every great hot band throughout the world” (as Morton put it minutes after the interview began), the composer himself received little credit and no recompense. All around him he saw jazz being misrepresented, its history stolen and falsified, its pioneers tossed on the rubbish heap. Anodyne white entertainers like Goodman were winning acclaim for black innovations, and even when the press managed to credit black artists, too often it got the wrong ones. In Lomax’s disc recorder, Morton found a sort of authenticating mechanism. It gave him the chance to establish the facts of jazz’s origins, to set the record straight.
Setting the record straight meant describing where “the birth of jazz originated,” and that took him to Storyville. Morton called up a cast of characters from New Orleans’ turn-of-the-century Tenderloin that no jazz critic had ever bothered unearthing. He told Lomax about Tony Jackson, a sissy-man and one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, and Buddy Bolden, the blowingest man since Gabriel, who blew his brains out through the trumpet and ended up in the crazy house. He remembered the Broadway Swells, the gang of toughs he marched with in the Mardi Gras parades. They were musicians who lived off the earnings of fifth-rate whores, and he had been bewitched by their red flannel undershirts and cork-soled shoes with gambler designs on the toes, and the moseying walk they called “shooting the agate,” their hands at their sides, their index fingers extended, moving in a slow, deliberate strut. In time he learned to walk that way, too, and at the piano at Hilma Burt’s mansion he wore a Stetson hat, a peacock-blue coat, and $18 striped trousers that fit tight as a sausage. “I was Sweet Papa Jelly Roll with the stovepipes in my hips,” he recalled, “and all the women in town was dying to turn my damper down.”
Lomax soon realized that this was an interview like no other. It was not just the ribald folk history of jazz that simmered within Morton’s stories; nor was it his novel reflections on the “Spanish tinge,” the cosmopolitan mélange of New World rhythms that shaped early jazz technique. Above all, the interview’s magic lay in elements no transcription could capture. Lomax watched Morton thrust himself physically into the music, his foot like a metronome tapping the beat, his hand slapping the piano bench to mimic the sound of cards hitting the table. He heard the stentorian tones of Morton’s voice, part preacher, part medicine-show huckster, a rich, languid baritone that looped and slid, stretching one-syllable words into two. He saw how Morton seemed to light up as he faced the phonograph day after day, a one-time jazz has-been who had found a new purpose. And he marveled at the music that the microphone seemed to elicit: the Creole street cries, the obscene whorehouse melodies, and, most haunting of all, the formless, nameless chord progressions that he played as he spoke, changing from major to minor to augment the mood of his tale.
Morton turned the recounting of his life story into an aural event, and for Lomax it was a revelation. Since the age of 18, when he first went song collecting with his father, he had been operating phonographic devices, but though he knew how to assemble them and take them apart, Morton showed him their full potential for generating a radically innovative cultural form. The years preceding the Morton interview had seen intensifying interest in autobiographical testimony, both among social scientists and within the Federal Writers’ Project. Researchers gathered the life stories of the unlettered: Polish immigrants, mill workers, gamblers, and African Americans born as slaves. Yet all these reminiscences had been collected with pen and paper, a fact owed only in part to the expense and awkwardness of sound technology.
In the recorded life story, Lomax sensed something more democratic and more revealing. “The needle writes on the disc with tireless accuracy the subtle inflections, the melodies, the pauses that comprise the emotional meaning of speech, spoken and sung,” he reflected after the Morton interviews were finished in June. “Between songs, sometimes between stanzas, the singers annotate their own song. . . . They are not confused by having to stop and wait for the pedestrian pen of the folklorist: They are able to forget themselves in their songs and to underline what they wish to underline.”
Watching Morton come alive at the microphone convinced Lomax that in an age when mass communications were overpowering marginal voices, the recording machine could empower those who spoke into it by enabling them to document their own story. Unlike an interviewer with pen and paper, the machine was a disinterested listener; it took down the frankest reflections without embarrassment, even as it captured vocal gestures that a written transcription could not convey. Faced with a microphone, subjects felt validated, lost their reserve, and dipped into unconscious material.
Since the 1970s, oral history in the United States has revived the Depression-era populist quest to recover the lives of nonelite peoples, the everyday struggles on the social margins that political historians had long ignored. Many oral historians echo Lomax’s commitment to a documentary practice that empowers the people it chronicles. Yet most would dismiss Lomax’s faith in sound recording, in the machine’s objectivity, as simply naive. Subjects, they insist, never “forget themselves” as they are speaking and are invariably influenced by the interviewer’s presence. Looking back on the Morton sessions, some have raised questions about Lomax’s methods, asking whether the extraordinary obscenity of some recollections was fueled by conscious or unconscious prompting, and by the glass on the piano that Lomax kept filling (“This whiskey is lovely,” Morton repeatedly exclaims).
Still, one might ask whether even today’s oral historians have quite encompassed what Lomax was after. “That hot May afternoon in the Library of Congress a new way of writing history began,” he argued in 1950. For all their methodological sophistication, oral historians remain largely committed to a history that needs to be read, while Lomax imagined one written in sound, “history with music cues, the music evoking recollection and poignant feeling.” The past, Lomax suggested, sometimes cannot be reduced to mere words. With that vision—of what might be called aural history—most historians have yet to catch up.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher from A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. We spotted the excerpt in the Canadian literary magazine Brick (Vol. 86). www.brickmag.com
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.