In Lomax’s Place

Money and Music in the Field

The Oxford American, November 2008

Even though Della Daniels had always dreamed of a singing career, she didn’t want to sing for the producer from New York. Michael Reilly had come down to Mississippi to record her nephew’s rap group, the Money Hungry Youngstas. Della first saw the skinny white producer when he pulled up to her sister’s double-wide trailer in October of 2004, and he looked like he was hardly out of college. But Michael had brought real equipment, and she thought maybe this could lead somewhere. Della’s nephew, Kevin, had never really believed that a producer would come from New York to a Mississippi town as small as Como, and his group was not ready to record. One of them was still at school, in the middle of football practice.

With help from her sister, Angela Taylor, Della stalled for time. They told Michael about how their grandfather had recorded for the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. They got their cousin, Ester Mae Wilbour, to bring over photographs of their grandfather and the CD with his songs on it. Della and Ester, who were ten at the time of Lomax’s visit, remembered him playing guitar atop his red mare, who would keep time with her hooves. As they talked, Della realized that Michael was so fascinated with Lomax’s work that they were at risk of stealing the show. “It was as if he had read the man’s biography and seen himself in it,” she thought. “It’s like he put himself in Lomax’s place.”

When he asked the ladies to sing, Della and Angela looked each other right in the eye and thought, “We can’t do this to Kevin.” But Kevin still had not rounded up his group, so what could they do? The three large women reluctantly stood up, settled on a song they used to sing on Mother’s Day at Mt. Mariah Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and shook the trailer’s walls with their voices. When they finished, the soft-spoken Michael quietly said, “Awesome,” but they could see the depth of his excitement in his reddening face. Ester could tell their singing had the effect Angela and Della feared. “When you come back next time, you’ll be coming back at us,” she told Michael.

Though the hip-hop he had come for did not pan out, Michael was in a “blissful state” driving out of Como. The trip had started as a half-baked plan to make a movie with two friends, a slapstick buddy film improbably combined with a journey through Lomax’s old stomping grounds. The twenty-seven-year-old Michael was not much of a “producer” at the time—he was working a meaningless job in the office of a New York construction contractor called ZZZ Carpentry and living in a room too small to stand up in. But he had discovered the Lomax Archive at Manhattan’s Hunter College, reconnecting with music that had hooked him ever since he had heard one of Lomax’s Mississippi recordings in an African American music class he took in college. Needing to shake up his life, Reilly came up with the idea of making a film with the help of two friends.

The Archive suggested he visit Como because Della Daniels had just sent them a CD of the Money Hungry Youngstas in the hopes that her grandfather’s connection to Lomax might be the ticket to a music career. The film never got made, but Michael quit his job at ZZZ Carpentry almost a year later and returned to Como in June of 2005 with a high-end field recording setup he had put on a credit card. He set up a recording session at the Mt. Mariah church with the three women he met on his first visit, whom he had come to call the Como Mamas. He shopped a CD of their work after he returned to New York, ultimately hooking up with Brooklyn-based retro-soul label Daptone Records. The label sent Michael back to Mt. Mariah in 2006 to record more tracks with the Como Mamas and five other local acts whom Della Daniels helped recruit. In August, Daptone released Como Now, a collection of searingly powerful a cappella gospel.

It is ironic, yes, that the album is called Como Now, when Michael passed up recording a hip-hop group to make a gospel CD that Alan Lomax could have made. Lomax believed the folksong collector was fighting against the music industry’s “corrupting” influence by preserving the talent of people who could not appreciate their own worth. But Lomax’s notion of “folk music” does not make sense in Como—“I wasn’t really in touch with that word, folk music,” Angela Taylor says.

In Como, records and money go hand in hand. And it is only because the Pratcher family believed their music had value—cash value—that this “folky” recording ever got made.

***

Michael Reilly’s road to Como really began when Ida Mae Carter got a check from the Alan Lomax Archive. Ida Mae is the Como Mamas’ aunt, and she was one of many relatives who recorded for Lomax at the same time as their grandfather, Miles Pratcher. (Some of the Pratcher family’s recordings can befound on Atlantic’s Sounds of the South and volume three of Rounder’s Southern Journeys.) Ida Mae told Della, “I got a check! Three hundred dollars! He’s still sending us money!” Della reported this to her cousin, who started to wonder why she was not getting royalties on recordings she remembers her mother making for Lomax. The cousin called the Archive, where an employee named Bert Lyons said he would be interested in connecting with the younger generations of Pratchers.

Della pounced on the opportunity. “Kev’ an’ ’em got this record, girl!” she exclaimed. Hoping to give Kevin the shot at a musical career she had wanted at his age, Della had already been checking out library books on the music business and had written to record companies without success. From what she learned, you could not promote a record without an established producer. “We down here trying to promote this record,” she told her cousin, “[Bert] might have somebody who may be interested in some rap.” Her timing had been perfect. She called Bert right around the time Michael asked him to recommend some musical stops for his road-trip film.

The Pratcher family has a complicated relationship to the Lomax royalties. Sizeable checks like the one Ida Mae Carter received were rare—usually they were for four or five dollars, and sometimes for as little as seventy-two cents. They heard about Lomax’s ties to the Library of Congress and the archive that bears his name in New York. “I don’t know what his studio looked like in New York, but Alan Lomax must really have done good,” Della says. The small, erratic payments that showed up in their mailbox made her wonder: “Had Alan Lomax really been fair to the people that he recorded?”

Her grandfather and other relatives had mostly been illiterate, and Lomax came through at a time when segregation made it all but inevitable that a white man would take advantage of black folks. “I felt like Alan Lomax knew there was no way for them to know…whether he was being fair or not,” Della explains, saying she had overheard her aunts’ suspicions that they had been cheated. Perhaps the occasional payments were just token amounts to assuage his guilt? “I believe that Alan Lomax had a conscience,” she says. “I believe that there was a part of him that knew that he didn’t really need to come down to Mississippi and just take advantage of poor helpless black people that didn’t have anything.”

Charges of racism have plagued Lomax, in part because his work is sometimes conflated with that of his father, John Lomax. The senior Lomax was a paternalistic segregationist who once infamously described the Louisiana inmate musician Leadbelly as “a nigger to the core of his being” in a letter to the New York press. Alan Lomax, on the other hand, was a liberal, but was limited on racial matters by what folklorist Patrick Mullen called an “arrogant lack of self-awareness.” Alan came under heavy criticism for copyrighting Leadbelly’s songs and those of other musicians he recorded under his own name. But, according to fellow blues scholar Jeff Todd Titon, Lomax justified this because he needed to earn a living in order to keep collecting songs. “I don’t think he could see that it was problematic,” Titon remarked.

Lomax Archive associate director Don Fleming is weary of battling allegations that Lomax exploited the people he recorded. He says that members of the Archive staff have at times dedicated more than thirty hours per week tracking down musicians’ heirs. Fleming would not disclose the exact terms of Lomax’s agreement with the Pratchers, but he said they were “on par with standard industry contracts of the same time” in which Lomax would have been compensated as the record’s producer. Industry practice gives musicians and producers only a small share of profits, with the lion’s share remaining with the company. According to Bruce Nemerov, former audio archivist at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Popular Music, an artist might receive a royalty in the neighborhood of six to eight percent, while some producers would get a fee equal to roughly half that amount in the late ’50s. Though Lomax had put his name on the copyrights of songs he collected, the Pratchers were assigned the copyright for the song on the collection released by Atlantic.

The suspicions Della Daniels and other Pratcher family members harbor likely arise from expectations about records that clash with Lomax’s. “I heard maybe my aunts and things say they didn’t really feel like they got like what they should have gotten because they felt records made a lot of money,” Della says. For Lomax, however, recordings were first and foremost tools to preserve treasured songs, not a major source of revenue. Sales of Lomax’s Como recordings were modest when they were first released by Atlantic records in the early 1960s, as they are with the Rounder reissues. The Lomax Archive says the Rounder reissue of Southern Journeys has sold under ten thousand copies in ten years, and only eighty in the last six months. When such small sales are divided up between all the artists’ heirs, royalty checks sometimes go out for well under one dollar.

Michael is about as mild-mannered as Alan Lomax was blustery, and the Como Mamas gained confidence in him as their collaboration proceeded. “We trusted Mike,” says Angela Taylor, “Mike is like part of our family now.” But Della also felt comfortable because she had prepared herself. “Even though I didn’t have anything but maybe a twelfth-grade education…. I had educated myself again as to what was going on today, and I felt like we weren’t going to just jump up and sign something without knowing or believing.” And they did in fact turn down the first contract Michael brought them, from Rounder Records, which appeared to benefit the record company at their expense. (Michael says he thought it looked like “bullshit,” but wanted to give the Como Mamas a chance to make up their own minds.) Daptone offered the artists a $250 advance and a fifty-fifty split of any profits, which Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth presented to the artists in a meeting at Mt. Mariah.

Michael returned to Mt. Mariah in September 2008 to deliver copies of the CD to the musicians, who were going to be performing a concert in Memphis the next day. They sat in small clumps around the church’s one room. Reilly wanted the meeting to be informal, but Della was so excited she set up the church microphone so that it would feel like more of an event. “Y’all just don’t know how long we’ve been trying to sing—yes, we thank you, thank you, thank you!” she told Michael. “I had given up on anybody ever being willing to put any money behind it, anything I was doing.”

Tonight, she felt like the chance she took with Michael was finally leading to a career in music. Fresh out of high school, Della wrote a song she still believes should have been a country hit. Not that she intended it to be a country song (“I’m black,” she laughs. “I won’t sing country and western”). But the only way she could find into the music business was through a Nashville company advertising in the back of the pulp magazine, True Stories. Saving up eighty-nine dollars from her job at a hospital drawing blood, she mailed a set of lyrics to Music City and got back two 45s of her words set to a country arrangement. “I believe to this day I wrote a hit,” she says, “but there was no way for me to do anything with it.” She ached to be on the radio. “I used to say to myself, ‘I wish I could climb up a light pole and figure out how to play it and make it go into all these homes.’”

The lyrics came out of twin tragedies: her mother had died, and a man she thought loved her suddenly married someone else. “The name of the song was called ‘Mighty Jesus’ because no matter how hard I tried to get away from church, it was in me,” Della explains. She felt like “church music wouldn’t make me any money,” and she would have pursued a career singing in nightclubs if her strict mother had not stood in her way. But after she realized there was no way to get her songs on the radio even if she paid to have them recorded, Mt. Mariah and the other churches in her hometown became the only place to keep her dreams alive. “I just kept a-singing, kept a-singing, kept a-singing,” she remembers. “I used to want to think when I go ’round to churches and things to sing, who knows who’s visiting that church that day.” There was always a chance someone sitting in the back had ties to the music industry.

And now, some fifty years later, her improbable fantasy came true: a producer was in her church delivering a CD with her name on the back. Some of the musicians sitting in Mt. Mariah’s pews had been less ready than Della to take the chance. Della, whom Michael asked to find more singers for the 2006 session, originally wanted to charge other musicians twenty-five dollars to record as a way to raise money for Mt. Mariah. But the Pratchers were not the only family that felt they had been burned by music collectors. Only one group was willing to pay the fee. Even once she waived the twenty-five dollars, she had to coax singers like Brother Raymond Walker and his wife to join Como Now. Others before Michael had come to Como to record Brother Walker, who had crossed paths with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers when he sang on the gospel circuit in the ’50s, and nothing had come of it. But Della’s pleading convinced him to record a deeply moving call-and-response spiritual with his wife, Sister Joella Walker, which they wrote together in their youth while working the cotton fields. Now Daptone is planning to release another CD devoted to the Walker Family, along with one dedicated entirely to the Como Mamas.

The Walkers and the other musicians gradually left Mt. Mariah with copies of their CDs, until only the Como Mamas and a couple others remained. Robert Smith, a steward at Mt. Mariah who had been too skeptical of Reilly to sing for the record, was among those who lingered. Della offered him the microphone and coaxed him to sing. “I tried to get him to sing that night” they recorded, she told Michael. “Come on Robert, just sing him a verse of a song.” Maybe seeing the CD changed his mind—the stooped man carefully made his way to the front of the church where Della sat with Angela Taylor and another singer, Mary Moore. Robert quickly tested the microphone before turning loose a powerful vibrato. “Looooord, I hope I meet you!” he called. The three women answered in unison, their voices like bugles sounding a battle call for Jesus.

“When we sell all we can and can’t sell no more, they gonna come get you,” Della teased Robert. “Then you gonna make some money! It’ll start all over again.”

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