Stimulus Blues

There’s a lot of debate today about the so called Stimulus Package, and if the investment of this huge amount of public money will produce and save jobs and will effectively stimulate the american economy. While some spending seem to have a simple, obvious result (building roads will create new jobs in road construction), other are more dubious or indirect. There’s also much talk about if Obama’s economic measures resemble those deployed by Roosevelt in the 30s, in the phase known until today as The Great Depression. Here’s a little story about the long term effects of one of those measures – from Wikipedia:

Through a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, John Lomax was able to set out in June 1933 on the first recording expedition under the Library’s auspices, with Alan Lomax (then eighteen years old) in tow. (…) Robert Winslow Gordon, Lomax’s predecessor at the Library of Congress, had written (…) that, “Nearly every type of song is to be found in our prisons and penitentiaries”. Folklorists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson also had observed that, “If one wishes to obtain anything like an accurate picture of the workaday Negro he will surely find his best setting in the chain gang, prison, or in the situation of the ever-fleeing fugitive.” But what these folklorists had merely recommended John and Alan were able to put into practice. In their successful grant application they wrote, that prisoners, “Thrown on their own resources for entertainment . . . still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” They toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners such as James “Iron Head” Baker, Mose “Clear Rock” Platt, and Lightnin’ Washington.

In July they acquired a state-of-the-art, 315-pound acetate phonograph disk recorder. Installing it in the trunk of his Ford sedan, Lomax soon used it to record, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a twelve-string guitar player by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly,” whom they considered one of their most significant finds. During the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South.

That’s how the Blues was “discovered” by Lomax. There’s a heartbreaking account of Alan Lomax’s 1941 visit to Stovall, Mississippi (paid by the Library of Congress), where he found and recorded the then unknown Muddy Waters.

It might have not seem so at the time, but this is the best spent money in the history of stimulus packages. Not only it allowed the world to know the Blues (the most influential art of the 20th century), but these recordings spawned hundreds of musical genres that fed millions of americans for decades (and still do), producing more jobs than any major company has ever done – and the coolest music the world knows today.