Interview: Alasdair Roberts and Nathan Salsburg

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Alasdair Roberts and Nathan Salsburg talk to Guy Kiddey about celebrating the ‘cultural equity’ of folklorist Alan Lomax

THE NEWS was still read in black tie – Lord Reith would not have had it any other way – but in 1951 iconoclasts had begun to stir amid the dourness of post-war Britain. That year, the BBC commissioned the great folklorist Alan Lomax, whose chronicles include music from all over the world, to make recordings of traditional Scottish music.

The American had already gained a reputation for his meticulous fieldwork in the US – a collection that came to 400 hours of footage. He conducted now legendary interviews with old-time luminaries like Jelly Roll Morton, who some now call the father of jazz, and Muddy Waters, perhaps the most definitive exponent of the Delta blues sound.

These trailblazers laid the bedrock from which the sounds of the 1960s – and every popular music movement since – would rise, and they continue to inspire Nathan Salsburg of the Alan Lomax Archive in Louisville, Kentucky.

Salsburg grew up listening to American folk – much of which has its roots in British music imported with centuries of immigrants – and has the glorious job of archiving and curating Lomax’s American footage. Tomorrow, at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar in Edinburgh, he will join musician Alasdair Roberts, a standard-bearer of the British folk revival, to present some of the most seminal clips from Lomax’s collection of Scottish recordings.

The event celebrates the anniversary of Lomax’s 1951 tour, and also that of the Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh, established 60 years ago by polymath Hamish Henderson (who was Lomax’s guide in Scotland) as an antidote to the Edinburgh Festival, the “imported” culture which, he thought, did not reflect the lives and traditions of the city’s people.

Salsburg and Roberts have also collaborated on Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree, a compilation of songs distilled down from the 25 hours of recordings made by Lomax on his extensive tour of Scotland.

“Alan Lomax’s mission was to get people looking for the culture in their own back yards,” says Salsburg. “He came up with the concept of cultural equity – a strongly counter-commercial argument about everybody having the right to know their local culture. People are starting to revert back to small-scale perspectives. The whole organic movement, attitudes towards the local community – they’re exactly what Lomax was about.”

Roberts chose a range of music to provide a broad flavour of Scottish folk – with styles ranging from the ballads of Davie Stewart to the travelling song of Jeannie Robertson. It may surprise some that there are no Gaelic songs on the record. This, Roberts says, is because he does not speak the language, and so did not feel qualified to select material to represent its musical canon most accurately.

“Folk” is a loose term, but elusiveness of its definition is, perhaps, what makes it such a powerful artistic representation of life and culture. Its scope is as varied and eclectic as the lives its songs document, and Roberts is reluctant to try and categorise it: “It’s not something I’m interested in doing. If I said something now, Nathan would disagree with me, and I’d disagree with myself come tomorrow morning.”

Salsburg thinks the political significance of Lomax’s work resonates strongly with today’s public. While contemporary folk music has grown in popularity over the past few years, with acts like Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling labelled as “nu-folk”, interest in the old songs and the people who sung them is growing, as people become more intrigued about their “real” roots. At the launch of Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree – in, as Salsburg puts it, “a hip music shop full of hip people” – the audience were mainly in their twenties and thirties.

For Roberts, folk is the foundation of all music. “If you can’t understand where you’re coming from musically, you can’t understand where you’re going.”

Indeed, at such a socially and economically wayward time, it is perhaps no surprise that people are so enchanted by this sense of an anchor of heritage and identity.

“The main aim of this Lomax Tour is to inform,” says Salsburg, “to make people realise that all this song exists.”

lAlan Lomax in Scotland is at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh, tomorrow at 3pm. Whaur The Pig Gaed On The Spree is out now on Drag City.