Folklorist Alan Lomax threw a house party at his New York City home in 1961 to fete the folk musicians -- Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson -- in town for a concert thrown by the Friends of Old Time Music. He wanted to mix it up a bit and invited blues musicians such as the songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon and the pianist Memphis Slim as well as the young interpreters of Appalachian music from the Northeast, the New Lost City Ramblers.
The party was filmed with the hopes of a British television broadcast, which never occurred, making the screening of "Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass" on June 19 at the Grammy Museum its world premiere. The screening is part of the Los Angeles Film Festival.
"It was just a party, but somebody in England said that if he could make a passable film on some aspect of the folk revival, they'd pay for it," says Anna Lomax Wood, Lomax's daughter who oversees the Lomax Archives of recordings and films made around the world. "They just improvised the whole thing. It's a little corny in spots but basically it's really good to see these wonderful people who were not filmed very often."
Wood's cousin, the filmmaker John Bishop, restored the film for the premiere and a DVD release through his Media-Generation company. Besides Lomax directing the original film, which runs only 35 minutes, the crew was equally makeshift -- George Pickow was cinematographer and his wife, the folk musician Jean Ritchie, handled the lighting. Wood, who edited the film, says "As a film, it's pretty crude."
The Friends of Old Time Music staged two concerts in 1961 to introduce New Yorkers to established and new folk musicians. Doc Watson, who died last month, made his first journey to New York that year; "Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass" is the oldest known footage of Watson performing.
Video of Watson performing "The Banks of the Ohio" with Clarence Ashley can be seen on the Lomax Archives channel on YouTube where the archives have been posting video for the last several years. Earlier this year, the LomaxArchive posted everything in its catalog that has been digitized -- about 17,500 recordings -- on its online Global Jukebox. They are also releasing vinyl LPs through the Portland, Ore., label Mississippi Records.
Wood says there are still more recordings to come, specifically ones Lomax recorded in Italy and Haiti, and are in the process of funding a significant project on the music of Kentucky.