Alan Lomax was one of the greatest collectors of folk music in American history. He journeyed across America through dustbowls and backwater towns, capturing the songs, stories and voices of otherwise unheard men and women. In 1948 Lomax traveled to Mississippi where he made some of his most powerful recordings inside the region’s oppressive and violent prison system.
The conditions in these southern penitentiaries were similar to nineteenth century slave plantations. Both demanded hard, physical labour with a constant threat of punishment and beatings. The result is that the music of the plantations found its way into the culture prison. The songs are about hardship and struggle which is expressed in more than just the lyrics. Each song is sung by a chain gang of around twenty men. The beat of the songs aren’t made by a drum, but by the swinging of axes hitting wood or a pick slamming against stone. It’s the sound of hard work.
What does hard work sound like to you? Perhaps it’s the sound of the kettle boiling, ready for your first or fiftieth coffee. Maybe your day is punctuated by email pings and social media beeps, Facebook chat alerts and text vibrations. If you go to SCA it might be the sound of Marc taunting you about how busy you’re going to be this week and forever more.
But Lomax didn’t just pick up the sound of hard work in Mississippi. He documented people pushing the constraints of their situation to the limit. Men using their imagination to transform their situation and make it more bearable.
If someone was to record your day, what would it reveal? What story would it tell? Would people be able to hear your drive and passion crackling through the speaker? Unlike the men in Mississippi, we have the luxury of being able to alter our situation and goals almost at will. So if things don’t sound right, change them.
I’m not saying you should swing an axe in your agency, but what if you did?