No individual has done as much to catalog and preserve traditional American music as American folklorist Alan Lomax (1915–2002). A folklorist, pub-lisher, author, and part-time musician, Lomax was a driving force in the folk and blues boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and helped the world discover such artists as Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and Muddy Waters.
If ever a man was born into the field of folklore and musicology, it was Lomax. Born January 31, 1915, in Austin, Texas, he was the son of John Avery Lomax, a onetime banker who became the preeminent collector of cowboy songs and Southwestern American folklore. Growing up in Texas, the younger Lomax listened to his father's many findings and became a confirmed advocate of America's true music. Along with his brother John, Jr., and sisters Bess and Elizabeth, young Alan often acted as an assistant, and learned his trade firsthand on many expeditions with his father. In a 1960 article for HiFi/Stereo Review , reproduced in Rounder's 1997 edition of The Alan Lomax Sampler Collection , Lomax wrote about his first major Library of Congress trip with his father. "In the summer of 1933, Thomas A. Edison's widow gave my father an old-fashioned Edison cylinder machine so that he might record Negro tunes for a forthcoming book of American ballads," he wrote. "For us, this instrument was a way of taking down tunes quickly and accurately; but to the singers themselves, the squeaky, scratchy voice that emerged from the speaking tube meant that they had made communicative contact with a bigger world than their own."
Eventually, the Library of Congress supplied the Lomaxes with a state-of-the-art disc-cutting recorder that was mounted in the back of his father's Model T-Ford. Armed with camping gear, cots, and cooking utensils, father and son covered 16,000 miles of a southeastern section of the United States in four months. The result of this hardscrabble music archaeology was the songs they gathered for the 1934 book American Ballads and Folk Songs . Subsequently, the Lomax family moved to Washington, D.C., so John Lomax could work full-time for the Library of Congress. Meanwhile, Alan attended one year of college at Harvard before transferring to the University of Texas where he earned his degree in philosophy in 1936. Upon graduation, he was appointed to head the Archive of American Folk Song, which he and his father helped establish at the Library of Congress, before he and his wife left on their honeymoon to do field research in Haiti. Later that year, he joined his father—now the honorary curator for the Library of Congress—as the first federally funded employee of that government office.
Working ceaselessly, the Lomaxes put out more song collections in the ensuing years, including the revised edition of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1938), Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly (1936), Our Singing Country (1941), and Folk Song: U.S.A. (1947). Together, the father-son duo changed the popular perception of folk music from archival nostalgia to a living expression of the common man and contemporary culture. In the process, they unearthed musical artists who would change the sonic landscape of the nation.
Aided Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger
Alan Lomax was with his father when he discovered legendary blues singer and guitarist Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, at Angola Prison in Texas. Ledbetter, who was serving time for murder, had always claimed he killed in self-defense, and the Lomaxes championed his cause. Among the seven songs they recorded by the fabled black artist upon their first meeting was an early rendition of a song that would eventually become an American standard, "Goodnight Irene." John Lomax was instrumental in securing the singer's release from prison and the whole family knew the singer well. Indeed, Leadbelly even taught young Alan, with whom he developed a genuine rapport, licks on his trademark 12-string guitar. Acting as comanagers, the Lomaxes introduced Leadbelly to other folk scholars, enthusiastic college audiences, and the mainstream music world, creating an interest in the performer and his songs that continues to this day. Moreover, their book about the singer's life and music, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly , was the first published biography specifically about a folk performer.
When the elder Lomax decided he could no longer tolerate the volatile singer's antics, he severed their association with Leadbelly. However, much to his father's dismay, Alan Lomax continued a friendly relationship with the seminal folk star, and continued recording the singer on his trusty disc-cutting machine for the Library of Congress. He also temporarily dropped out of the Columbia graduate program to raise bond money when the troubled star was arrested on assault charges, and arranged for him to be signed by independent MusicCraft label, and acted in an advisory capacity until the singer's death.
Lomax was important to other emerging performers as well, including jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, bluesman Josh White, and the granddaddy of American folksingers Pete Seeger. Through Lomax, Seeger also met Woody Guthrie, with whom he played under many different circumstances. Yet, it was Lomax who figured strongly in the revival of Guthrie's flagging career. Besides encouraging the hardluck performer to recommit to writing and getting him to record his works for the Library of Congress, Lomax featured him on a primetime CBS radio program he produced, Back Where I Come From . Years later, Lomax observed that the best years of his life were spent working with Guthrie and Leadbelly.
Whether serving as producer, writer, or singing host, radio proved an important educational tool for Lomax. Some projects, such as CBS's School of the Air , where he attempted to have folk music orchestrated and played like a symphony, simply did not work. Others like American Folk Songs, Wellsprings of Music , and the live Midnight Special broadcasts from Town Hall were successful in communicating what was special about folk and blues music to mass audiences. These shows also provided valuable exposure for such artists as Guthrie, Seeger, Leadbelly, White, the Golden Gate Quartet, and up-and-coming folk revivalist Burl Ives. However, such high profile projects did not quell his compulsive need to go out into the field and seek new recordings.
Traveling with Fisk University musicologist John Work, Lomax made a famous trek into the Deep South in 1941 and 1942, where he documented the music and stories of the fife and drum bluesmen, and conducted the first recordings and interviews with McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. In his 1993 book The Land Where Blues Began , Lomax described the sessions that would kick-start the singer's highly influential career. "I remember thinking how low-key Morganfield was, grave even to the point of shyness," he wrote. "But I was bowled over by his artistry. There was nothing uncertain about his performances. He sang and played with such finesse, with such a mercurial and sensitive bond between voice and guitar, and he expressed so much tenderness in the way he handled his lyrics, that he went right beyond all his predecessors—Blind Lemon, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Willie Brown." Although he was responsible for first fixing national attention on the bluesman, Lomax did not see Muddy Waters again for another ten years. When they met the former cotton chopper was driving a Cadillac, while Lomax was still driving an old Ford.
Innovated and Educated
When the Library of Congress decided they could no longer fund Lomax's expeditions, which were mostly done on a shoestring budget, he left them in 1943. Joining the army, he served in the Office of War Information and with the Army's Special Services until the end of World War II. As a civilian, he picked up where he left off, exploring the origins of the blues with Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim, and Big Bill Broonzey, and later hosting a folk music series On Top of Old Smokey for the Mutual Network in 1948. More importantly, he fed the fires of the burgeoning folk music revival by signing on as the director of folk music at Decca Records. From 1951 to 1957, he served as the editor for the Columbia Records World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. Yet, he spent most of the 1950s in Great Britain, where he began his hunt for the folk music of the British Isles, eventually releasing his findings on the ten-disc set Folksongs of Great Britain (1961).
When he returned to the United states, Lomax revisited the Deep South where he continued documenting African-American culture. Along the way, he also rediscovered bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell, who quickly became the darling of emerging rockers around the world. Like his father before him, Lomax was in demand as a lecturer and visiting scholar, but he also received occasional offers to record as an artist in his own right. However, the albums that featured his voice and guitar for Tradition (1958) and Kapp Records (1963) received mixed reviews at best.
Funded by numerous grants Lomax continued to travel the world, documenting music in Spain, Africa, France, the Caribbean, the West Indies, and various prisons around the world. The results of these trips have been steadily released by the Rounder label in what may be a series of 100 plus albums. In 1966, he began dabbling in film and accumulated enough footage to fill several documentary films, including the 1990 PBS series America Patchwork . Always innovative and forward thinking, he proposed the idea for the Global Jukebox, an interconnected database of music and dance cultures from all over world, so that people may more easily study them. Unfortunately, the idea, which is being carried on by the Association for Cultural Equity, was nearly stopped cold when Lomax suffered two strokes at the age of 80. Yet, working with his daughter Anna, he was somehow able to continue his many works until his 2002 death. In 2004, PBS told the story of some of his extensive travels with their documentary Lomax the Song Hunter .
Despite the many accolades and awards Lomax received during his lengthy career, he had his detractors as well. Respected rock writer Dave Marsh is among the critics of Lomax's methods. Responding to the glowing New York Times postmortem tribute by Jon Pareles, Marsh, wrote in Counterpunch , "As a veteran blues observer wrote me, 'Don't get too caught up in grieving for Alan Lomax. For every fine musical contribution that he made, there was an evil venal manipulation of copyright, publishing, and ownership of the collected material.'"
Like many publishers, promoters, agents, and even disc jockeys of his time, Lomax did impose his publishing imprint on a great many public domain songs. However, when a published song made money, Lomax proudly tracked down the writer in question and paid the royalties—something few of his contemporaries did. Further, the thousands of performers he captured on recordings would have never gotten a chance to share their culture and songs if he had not sought them out.
In a 1991 interview with Charles Kuralt, an audio snippet of which appeared on the 1997 Rounder release The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler , Lomax spoke of his work and how it changed the lives of the many artists he recorded. "The incredible thing was, when you could play this material back to the people, it changed everything for them. They realized that their stuff and they were just as good as anybody else. Then I found out that what I was really doing—and what my father was really doing—was giving an avenue for these people to express themselves and their side of the story."
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