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Home To Como
Return of the Alan Lomax Archive

Mississippi Legends Magazine - March 2012

Home to Como - Olga Wilhelmine

On February 3rd a very special and magical event happened in a little town called Como in north Mississippi. Music makers, artisans, professors, children, blues fans and family converged on Como, population 1,310, to celebrate the return of the town's musical heritage and legacy. The Alan Lomax Archive was repatriating all of the recordings, photos, videos, field notes and books that Alan Lomax had made during his two visits to the hill country. We were there to welcome it home.

Among those recorded was one very special fellow named Fred McDowell. The night this recording took place changed the lives of Lomax and McDowell, the course of Como history and the lives of blues music lovers and makers around the world. These were the very first recordings of Fred in their truest and purest form. In fact, the Mississippi recordings were some of the first obtained by Lomax, a man who would spend his life gathering an documenting American folk music and who dreamed of one day returning it to its origins. In return, his work fueled the nation on folk music, which led us into the pop culture of the '60s.

On this night, we listened to McDowell again, in his native Como, playing his music in one of Lomax's legendary and enduring recordings. Many of us had never heard these recordings before. In fact, most of us had never heard the recordings of Bob & Miles Pratcher, or Ed and Lonnie Young, or likewise watched Napoleon Strickland play diddly bow, or Jessie Mae Hemphill beat the hell out of a bass drum (and the fellow who got in her way!).

Blues is the truth. McDowell once said that. The blues is not just a style of music or a way of singing; it is an expression of one's heart. If you speak from your heart, then you will know the blues. The blues is a feeling that resonates deep in the soul. It is the good and the bad, the yin and yang, the pure and the wicked. It is what life is, that is, what is in all of us, and we learn how to balance and live with the two.

And in this little library, somehow more than 150 of us squeezed in to experience the beautiful indigenous music of Como's hill country and to give thanks and praise to God for it's return. We had opened our hearts and minds to let the spirit in, and we laughed and we cried . We felt the blues.

The Alan Lomax Archive of Como music will forever be at the Emily J. Pointer library for everyone to experience and learn, to find inspiration, to cherish and to be proud of. Anna Lomax Wood, Alan's daughter, told me it was Alan's wish to bring the recordings back to the towns and communities from where he recorded them. Once again, Como was the pioneer, with many more to come.

I am only one of many in the world who have experienced this pure soul and source of blues, but on this day I got to experience it with kindred spirits, with relatives of it's originators and with new friends and old who were also called home by the music. We were moved and we were bonded.

It's been nearly six years since Jessie Mae Hemphill passed away. In those years, as much as I miss her, her presence has never been more powerful and profound in my life than it is now. She has gotten even stronger in her spirit and she is still very much here with us. What a blessing it was to remember her with her friends and family and to keep her memory alive.

I'm grateful for those who were there in person and those who were there in spirit. I'm grateful for those who keep the music alive. The list is long, but you know who you are. I look forward to our next meeting somewhere, perhaps in Como, even if it is only in our dreams.

Who was Alan Lomax?
Alan Lomax was the foremost music folklorist of the United States. He was the first to record such greats as Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie. His documentation of folk music educated the nation on this important music, which fueled its advance in the United States and Britain and pop music's rise to fame in the '60s. His archive contains 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and countless manuscripts, books and notes. Lomax began his adventure in the American South in the 1930s... what an appropriate place to begin such a legacy.

The original Mississippi Legends article, including historical photos can be viewed at: www.mississippilegends.com.

Olga Wilhelmine is a musician, member of board of directors of the Blues Foundation and president of the Jesse Mae Hemphill Foundation. To learn more about Olga and her music, please visit: www.laolga.com.

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