Miles Davis’s 1960 Sketches of Spain is one of those albums that takes on a whole new significance when you live in Mallorca and are dreaming of the island from afar.
I knew that Miles was connected to Deia through the covers of his albums that feature artist Mati Klarwein’s work but I had no idea there was another connection. Mati, as you probably know, lived in Deia for many years.
Twenty or so years ago, when I first started coming to the village, I was talking to Juan Graves and somehow the name Alan Lomax came up. Lomax was a pioneering American ethnomusicologist who helped bring blues legends Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, among others, above ground and championed Woody Guthrie. He was also a pretty fine singer and guitarist himself.
In 1949, an FBI-funded publication suggested Lomax was a communist sympathiser. With the vicious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) breathing down his neck, he sailed to Britain from the USA. He was to spend the 1950s in London.
Lomax formed a skiffle group in 1957. His band, The Ramblers, appeared on British TV and helped drive the skiffle boom that birthed British rock and roll. Together with Lonnie Donegan who kicked things off with his hell for leather ‘Rock Island Line’, Lomax inspired countless young men to pick up a guitar, make a tea-chest bass, wallop a washboard or use a biscuit tin as a drum kit when they bashed out blues and folk standards at a rate of knots.
Without skiffle, The Beatles, Stones, Who, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison and Bowie, as well as thousands of other rock and roll soldiers who also served, might never have found a way to make music. With its ‘Here’s three chords, now start a band’ ethos, even punk was a kind of ferocious electric skiffle.
While he was based in London, Lomax also travelled to Spain to record the country’s music for the BBC and Columbia records. In 1952, he came to Mallorca.
The sheer pleasure of living
Lomax loved Mallorca. He wrote: ‘This is a great country…The sea near. Figs, oranges, plums, pears ripening. The houses old and simple. The towns old and beautiful. The people the most pleasant I have ever met anywhere…Words, movement, ambition are conquered in the Balearics by the sheer pleasure of living…And if there is anything more pleasant than chatting with a black-eyed girl on the Ramblas…I never ran into it.’
In Mallorca, Lomax met Robert and Beryl Graves and they became friends.
During his travels in Mallorca and the Balearics, Lomax recorded all kinds of songs – agricultural and work songs, songs to mark occasions in life and the calendar year, as well as boleros, madeixas and copeos. These include ‘En Acabar de Segar’ (When I Finish Reaping) by Catalina Mateu and ‘M’Ho Deien I No Ho Creia’ (They Told Me and I Didn’t Believe It) by Pere Ferragut Lano, both recorded in July of 1952.
When American roots music specialist Rounder Records reissued Lomax’s Mallorca recordings as The Spanish Recordings: Mallorca: The Balearic Islands in 2006, they described the music he had recorded as ‘a treasure trove of beautiful performances with amazing sound for the time period and conditions’.
But how did these humble island songs influence Sketches of Spain?
Cool romantic Spain
Record producer George Avakian was at that time in charge of Lomax’s Spanish field recordings. He wanted Miles’s producer Gil Evans to work with flamenco because of Evans’s knowledge of Spanish composers. Avakian encouraged Evans to listen to Lomax’s Spanish recordings. I’d like to think that among these were the songs Lomax had recorded in Mallorca.
At the same time, Miles had discovered Joaquin Rodrigo’s ‘Concierto De Aranjuez’ and flamenco. Both men fell in love with the piece and decided to create Sketches of Spain around it.
I’m not sure what you’d call the album that resulted. Neither jazz nor classical music, it evokes romantic Spain while having a strange kind of cool distance to it. Maybe this is why it’s one of the albums I play when I’m away from Mallorca and feeling kind of blue.
Perhaps it’s enough to say that there’s nothing like Sketches of Spain, that it’s modern musical art.
Blown away in Deia
On a subsequent visit in 1960, Lomax recorded Graves singing what a commentator at the Association for Cultural Equity, founded by Lomax in 1983, calls ‘songs that are parodic in nature, leading to the suspicion that Graves – whom Alan Lomax admired greatly for his memoir Goodbye to All That – was putting Alan on somewhat’.
This must have been when Juan encountered Lomax. Although he couldn’t pinpoint the exact year, Tomás, Juan’s brother, later told me he remembered Lomax at Canellun, the Graves family home in Deia, ‘big steel string guitar in hand, belting it out, with his eyes fixed on Shirley’.
This would be Shirley Collins, legendary British folk singer and, at the time, Lomax’s girlfriend.
Twenty years ago, I was seriously impressed by the fact that Juan had met Lomax. ‘What was he like?’ I said.
Juan grinned. ‘He had the loudest voice I’ve ever heard,’ he said. ‘It blew me across the room and pinned me to the wall.’