Interview: Jayme Stone’s Folklife

Interview: Jayme Stone 
Posted by Jenks Miller 

In 2015, banjoist and composer Jayme Stone released Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, a record featuring a selection of songs from Alan Lomax’s vast catalog of field recordings, re-imagined and recorded for a modern audience by Stone and a hand-picked ensemble of roots musicians. The success of the Lomax Project, which Folk Roots called “an essential album,” inspired Stone to continue his investigation of archival folk music traditions from around the world. The updated project, dubbed “Jayme Stone’s Folklife,” explores Sea Island spirituals, Creole calypsos, and Appalachian dance tunes. We spoke with Stone in anticipation of the Jayme Stone’s Folklife performance at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Friday, April 27th. Tickets for the performance are available here.

photo courtesy Jayme Stone

Jayme Stone’s Folklife is a touring ensemble show that grew out of your 2015 album, Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project. The updated name suggests that you’ve expanded the project’s repertoire beyond the scope of the heralded Alan Lomax collection to include songs from the larger folk tradition. Is that a fair characterization?

Yes, certainly that is a fair characterization. The project began focusing specifically on songs that Alan Lomax and his father, John, had collected. Over the years of doing the project, it evolved and expanded, and we started to include the work of other folklorists and open the aperture a little bit wider. More than anything, we focused more on the songs and the singers and traditions themselves, rather than the collectors so much.

Will Folklife be an ongoing project, or is your work under that name specific to this tour?

Folklife has been an ongoing project. The Lomax Project started almost five years ago. Historically I’ve made a new record every two years – that’s a vastly different concept in lineup and repertoire – I’ve done that, then I’ve done a one-eighty and made something completely new. But this project has lasted because it’s so deep – these archives are so vast, and I will never get to listen to all the songs as long as I live! It’s a very deep well.

And we are continuing, still. I’m beginning to work on a new project that is a big departure from anything that I’ve done, but the Folklife project will continue. The band is like a family now and we love to play together, unearth old songs and dust them off.

The lineup for your April 27th show at The ArtsCenter includes Moira Smiley, Sumaia Jackson & Joe Phillips, each an accomplished musician in their own rite. Your Lomax and Folklife projects feature collaborators from a diverse array of musical backgrounds. How did you choose the lineup for each of these projects?

I have met all the musicians that I’ve worked with in an organic way. There’s a loose-knit community of musicians who are interested in this old music. I keep my ear to the ground, and I’m always checking out new people and seeing who’s on the scene. These were all musicians that I was really moved by – both their musicianship, and they’re all wonderful human beings, which is a major criteria. Even though folks have to be interested in these old folk songs, the music draws influence form jazz improvisation and a certain connectivity that happens in chamber music playing as well as all kinds of other references coming in. I like to work with people that have a foot in the tradition and are willing to step outside and have varied interests.

Do you perform the same selections at each show? What can your ArtsCenter audience expect from your performance?

We tend to have a setlist for a tour or a season. It will slowly evolve and morph: certain songs might fall away for a spell and new ones are always being folded in. At this point we are playing most of the songs from the new Folklife record, a few that we are forever in love with from the Lomax Project record, and then there are a couple of new things that have never been recorded. And we’re still a month away so who knows what might evolve before then! But the last two records definitely will give people a clear idea of what to expect.

You’ve said that you hope your work with folk archives turns people on to the world of field recordings. What is it about field recordings that appeals to you, as a folklorist, musician, and/or a listener?

Although I’m someone with a modern sensibility in how I make music, I’m always interested in going back and learning from our elders and exploring the more arcane corners of the roots music tradition. So I try and find songs that are more undiscovered. And we like the concert to also feel educational, where people get introduced to traditions – you know, maybe they haven’t heard music from the South Carolina Sea Islands, or maybe they didn’t realize the banjo came from West Africa and you can hear all those influences in both Appalachian repertoire and things in the Carribean which have strong relations to the African American tradition here. So we definitely try and turn people on to the wide scope of this music.

Ever since I was a kid I always loved avidly reading liner notes, and if somebody would mention an influence or where they learned a song, I would look that artist up and in turn find out who they learned from. That’s how I found field recordings in the first place. They’re a great touchstone, as well as just being beautiful, raw, often very emotional, and unpolished in the most beautifully organic way.

You made your own field recordings when you traveled to Mali in 2008 to study the banjo’s African roots. I’ve read that you wanted to capture the sound of instruments like the n’goni for your own learning process. How does a folklorist determine how to use field recordings, and whether or not to release them commercially?

I did spend three months in Mali, West Africa in 2008. I didn’t make field recordings for any kind of public use – they were very much personal. I wasn’t super concerned with the quality, I just did the best that I could. Mostly I was making recordings because there weren’t very many that were available of people playing n’goni and other ancestors of the banjo. Much like the banjo in bluegrass music, the n’goni in West African music is part of the fabric of a band. It can easily get buried, so there wasn’t much solo n’goni music where you can hear what was going on. I was looking for recordings that I could bring back and study – whether it was a balafone player or a kora player or a singer, I wanted to be able to stop and just listen to what one person was doing and get some of the nuance and detail and polyrhythm. I never even thought to release them commercially, nor do I think I ever will! But I still go back from time to time and learn songs that I never got to learn in the last ten years.

Are there guidelines for how a musician featured in a commercially released field recording would be credited and compensated? Does that factor into the decision a folklorist makes about how he or she might use a recording?

You know, I’ve never gone about doing that. I have friends that have worked on, edited, or curated collections for Smithsonian Folkways who have a lot more experience. I typically think these things are negotiated one-on-one with individual artists. In some cases, artists are not paid and in other cases they make special arrangements. And of course, what was done in 1933 will be vastly different than what’s done now.

There are all kinds of complex legal issues with these old songs – it is a very, very complicated and philosophically complex issue. How the law works is based on precedent. So, somebody with enough gumption who’s lawyered up can go ahead and say, “Well, I wrote such and such traditional song,” and until they get challenged in court, they have the ability to say that whether it’s true or not. Oftentimes the origins of these songs are obscure, or there are many cases of songs where an artist has claimed publishing on them and yet in the recording itself they talk about where they learned them from! Or people just change the title or rewrite the lyrics to a melody or rewrite the melody to lyrics.

The Lomax Project benefited from the relatively recent digitization of Alan Lomax’s field recordings. (All seventeen-thousand-odd original field recordings are now available online at the Cultural Equity organization.) Can you talk about the impact that digitization and internet distribution have had on your work as a folklorist?

The work that I’ve done has been enormously helped by the fact that so much of the Lomax archive and the work of many other folklorists has been digitized. Even with Smithsonian Folkways, you’re able to stream or purchase most of their catalog now, digitally. And for free, they provide full liner notes on their website, which is a little-known fact that is an incredible benefit for people like me. It’s really an amazing resource. It’s not without its issues – it’s very different to scroll through a list of songs and click on them, listening through your computer speakers. It can have such a different experience to it than sitting at the foot of an elder musician or learning a song from somebody with whom you can spend time in their community or their home. And yet it’s such a good resource: the ability to access this vast, vast trove of songs. Yeah, I have relied on it heavily.

Also, wanting to have more of a first-hand experience, I have spent a bunch of time at the Library of Congress and the American Folklife Center, looking through card catalogs and wandering through the archives themselves down in the basement, pulling things off shelves and having a more tactile, curious relationship with the material. Also, I’ve had things digitized, or I’ve listened to things in their original format, and learned songs that have not been digitized. So all kinds of different processes are at work here, but yes, the internet is greatly beneficial to this process.

Jayme Stone’s Folklife performs at The ArtsCenter on Friday, April 27th
Doors: 7pm
Show: 8pm
Venue: Earl & Rhoda Wynn Theater
Tickets are available here

The ArtsCenter
Jayme Stone’s Folklife