Throughout the 20th century, folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax tirelessly combed the country -- and later the world -- seeking to discover and preserve the music of the people. He collected, recorded and archived thousands of old folk songs and interviews for the U.S. Library of Congress, earning his place as one of the fathers of the mid-century folk revival and a major figure in American and international music history.
In 2015, composer/banjoist Jayme Stone and a crew of musical collaborators released "Jayme Stone's Lomax Project," an album of songs originally collected by Lomax, presented in fresh new arrangements. Stone and Co. are bringing their act to Mountain View, sponsored by Redwood Bluegrass Associates, on April 16, giving locals a chance to experience the vintage repertoire live.
Though the material covered is in some cases hundreds of years old, Stone said the songs, which were passed on via oral tradition throughout generations, still resonate strongly today.
"Often the lyrics have stood the test of time. It just speaks to the fact that even though we live in this modern world where so much is ever-changing, a lot of the core human experiences we can all relate to haven't changed that much," he said. "Love and romance, strife, community, all those things are pretty steady through the ages, and so I think there's something really powerful seeing how relevant those lyrics still are."
Stone refers to the project as a "collaboratory" and said the group of musicians who've taken part in it are more like a family than a formal band, so the lineup, sound and setlists at live performances vary from location to location.
"Usually for a season or tour we come together in a particular configuration and make music that's unique to that recipe of people," Stone said. For the Mountain View show, Stone will be joined by Moira Smiley, a Los Angeles-based singer, accordionist and percussionist; Sumaia Jackson, a Santa Cruz native, on fiddle; and Canadian bassist Joe Phillips. All members also sing.
"We do a bunch of old-timey-style a cappella numbers, swarmed around a single microphone," he said. The group will perform songs that are on the record, as well as 14 additional tunes recently added to their repertoire.
"With the vastness of Lomax's field recordings, there are endless numbers to explore. It's very diverse at this point," he said.
Stone has released four previous albums that explore the banjo's role in world music and also works as a producer, music teacher and career coach. He said he's long been interested in field recordings and listened to Lomax's collections for much of his life, using old songs as a touchstone in all his modern work. But it was reading John Szwed's "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World" that really "connected the dots," as he put it, between his interest in folk music and some of the "unsung, understudied heroes of traditional music all over the country and the world," and inspired him to finally undertake his Lomax Project.
The goal was not to simply recreate the songs collected by Lomax but rather to refresh them with original arrangements, creating vital and interesting new versions not to replace the older incarnations but to stand alongside them, proving that the centuries-old songs have life in them yet.
"There are places where I need them to kind of be dusted off, or my musical sensibilities orientate me to coax new textures and layers out of them. But for the most part the songs really stand on their own two feet," he said.
Stone named the project's version of the well-known "Shenandoah" as a favorite example. The song, a school music-class staple, dates from at least the early 1800s and was first sung by French Canadian fur traders and then spread as a sea shanty, sung the world over. Some versions of the lyrics tell the tale of a white man who falls in love with the daughter of an Native American chief and courts her for seven years.
"Knowing that people had that song in their head already, I made an extra effort to create a very grand arrangement of it," Stone said. His six-minute version starts out with singer Margaret Glaspy's haunting, almost whispery vocals over lush, orchestral strings, then eventually doubles in speed, offering a dramatic banjo showpiece for Stone.
A new piece they've been working on, "Mwen Pas Danse" ("a dance song about not dancing"), comes from the small Caribbean island of Dominica and features lyrics in Creole, French and English. Smiley, bearing her accordion, takes the vocal lead in the group's exhilarating, spirited rendition.
The searching, soulful "What Is the Soul of Man" offers the listener the timeless, titular question.
"This beautiful deep sentiment, the question at the core of the song, remains true as it ever has," Stone said of the track.
"These well-worn melodies have lasted for a reason. There's something so elemental about them; they still speak. The original recordings are very compelling. I just hope ours are as well."
What: Jayme Stone's Lomax Project
When: Saturday, April 16, at 7 p.m.
Where: Mountain View Masonic Lodge, 890 Church St., Mountain View
Cost: Tickets in advance are $22/adults, $20/seniors, $12.50/students. Tickets at the door are $25/adults, $25/seniors, $15/students. Admission is free for kids under 13 and music students.