A Splice Original Compilation: The Old Lonesome Sound
In Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, Jim White’s documentary on Southern folk music, storytelling, and religion, banjoist Lee Sexton describes the traditional music of his native Kentucky hills as “the old lonesome sound.”
“These old hills are kind of sad looking,” Sexton says. “You get to feeling down and out, looking at these old hills, sitting on your front porch, and you get to playing these old tunes and it helps you. It builds your morale up a little bit.”
The old tunes that Sexton was talking about are the ones that have been with us for hundreds of years: hymns and gospels, murder ballads, protest songs, African-American spirituals, old bluegrass and country standards. Whether you hear them on albums by Dylan or Springsteen, or in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Cold Mountain, they are songs that get reworked again and again, that cut to the heart and soul of the American story.
In his memoirs, Alan Lomax recalls the days on the Lower East Side of New York when Lead Belly and a young Woody Guthrie would stay up all night trading off on such songs, coming home after a show and playing for hours: “They had their whole, fresh, powerful, pure folk repertory intact: living, vibrant, and with the impact of a country mule ready to kick a hole into the future.”