Alan Lomax PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 15 May 2009 11:28

Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina, sometime during the early 1940s.Alan Lomax

Born: January 15, 1915

Died: July 19, 2002

Age: 87

Cause of death:

Notable because: Recorded many amazing musical moments without which widened popular appreciation and understanding of musical cultures. Brought Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly together.

Alan Lomax  was an American folklorist and musicologist. He was one of the great field collectors of folk music of the 20th century, recording thousands of songs in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, the West Indies, Italy, and Spain.

Lomax was the son of pioneering musicologist and folklorist John A. Lomax, with whom he started his career by recording songs sung by sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Because of frail health he was mostly home schooled but for one year attended The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. He enrolled at Harvard at the age of 16, but upon his mother's death interrupted his education to join his father's folk song collecting field trips. He subsequently earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin and also did graduate studies with Melville J. Herskovits at Columbia and with Ray Birdwhistell at the University of Pennsylvania. To some, he is best known for his theories of Cantometrics, Choreometrics, and Parlametrics, elaborated from 1960 until his death with the help of collaborators Victor Grauer, Conrad Arensberg, Forrestine Paulay, and Roswell Rudd.

From 1936 to 1942 Lomax was Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress to which he and his father and numerous collaborators contributed more than ten thousand field recordings. During his lifetime, he collected folk music from the United States, Haiti, the Caribbean, Ireland, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy, assembling a treasure trove of American and international culture.

A pioneering oral historian, he also recorded substantial interviews with many legendary folk musicians, including Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, Irish singer Margaret Barry, Scots ballad singer Jeannie Robertson, and Harry Cox of Norfolk, England, among many others. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor he took his recording machine into the streets to capture the reactions of everyday citizens. While serving in the army in World War II he made numerous radio programs in connection with the war effort. The 1944 "ballad opera," The Martins and the Coys, broadcast in Britain (but not the USA) by the BBC, featuring Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, among others, was released on Rounder Records in 2000.alan lomax

He also produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows, in the U.S and in England, which played an important role in both the American folk music revival and British folk revivals of the 1940s and 50s. In the late 1940s, he produced a highly regarded series of folk music albums for Decca records and organized a series of concerts at New York's Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, featuring blues, Calypso, and Flamenco music. He also hosted a radio show, Your Ballad Man, from 1945-49 that was broadcast nationwide on the Mutual Radio Network and featured a highly eclectic program, from gamelan music, to Django Reinhardt, to Klezmer music, to Sidney Bechet and Wild Bill Davidson, to jazzy pop songs by Maxine Waters and Jo Stafford, to readings of the poetry of Carl Sandburg, to hillbilly music with electric guitars, to Finnish brass bands – to name a few.

Alan Lomax was not only the first to record the legendary Leadbelly, but he also discovered Woody Guthrie who he recorded extensively. I remember the excitement of listening to a boxed set of and interview Alan and Elizabeth Lomax recorded with Woody when Electra released it in 1964! This interview, recorded in March 1940, has since been released on CD (Rounder CD 1041-1043, 1989) and is a wonderful example of Alan Lomax's approach to his work. He worked with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger on a song book called "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People" and he wrote: "Woody, as a composer, believed that songs could change the world for the better. As a song editor, I believed that this collection was a testament to an unknown America, the folk poets who became politically active and still kept their gift for song-making. Together we put together this angry book. No publisher would take it then, because post-war America was afraid to look reality in the eye. But the songs seeped out, one by one. Even more importantly, the range and validity of the American folk song was established in the mind of Woody Guthrie and of Pete Seeger and many other singers of the day." Alan Lomax, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-hit People, p.366, 1967

Alan Lomax left the McCarthyism of the USA for most of the1950s to broadcast with the BBC in Britain and to collect songs on England, Ireland and Scotland. It was in Britain he worked with Peggy Seeger, Bert Lloyd, Shirley Collins and Edgar Waters on his influential collection "The Folk Songs of North America". He also collected in Spain and Italy. It seems wherever he went he boosted the local folk revivals as the many obituaries that have appeared across the globe attest.

The French paper Le Monde says he "discovered and recorded Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Jelly Roll Morton" and points out that the "Cajun and Zydeco which became a la mode in the 1980s had been recorded by the Lomaxes 50 years earlier". The New York Times obituary ends with this remarkable, and typically political, Alan Lomax quote: "We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they're not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency."

Alan Lomax was concerned with how modern societies stop people from being heard and how the people, however apparently powerless, found ways to get their feelings and desires a hearing. He was from an early age excited by what he and his recording machine could discover, and was convinced that what he found was of value to the whole world. In the songs of the people he saw not only an eloquent analysis of inequality, but a demand that things be changed. As he wrote in "The Land Where the Blues Began":

"Our species has never been more powerful and wealthy, nor more ill at ease. Homeless and desperate people in America and all over the world live in the shadow of undreamed-of productivity and luxury. So it was in the Mississippi Delta in the early years of this century. Boom times in cotton gave a handful of planters easy riches, while the black majority who produced the cotton lived in sordid shanties or roamed from job to job. Some blacks attempted to become free enterprisers, but were so hemmed in by caste barriers that very few succeeded in rising in the world. The rebellious were kept in their place by gun and lynch laws, ruthlessly administered by the propertied.

Lomax spent the 1950s based in London, from where he edited the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, an anthology issued on newly-invented LP records. For the British and Irish volumes, he worked with the BBC and folklorists Peter Douglas Kennedy, Scots poet Hamish Henderson, and with Séamus Ennis in Ireland, where they recorded Irish traditional musicians, including some of the songs in English and Irish of Elizabeth Cronin in 1951. He also hosted a folk music show on BBC's home service and organized a skiffle group, Alan Lomax and the Ramblers (who included Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Shirley Collins, among others) which appeared on British television. His ballad opera Big Rock Candy Mountain premiered December 1955 at Joan Littlewood's Theater Workshop and featured Ramblin' Jack Elliot.

Lomax and Diego Carpitella's survey of Italian folk music for the Columbia World Library, conducted in 1953 and 1954, with the cooperation of the BBC and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, helped capture a snapshot of a multitude of important traditional folk styles shortly before they disappeared. The pair amassed one of the most representative folk song collections of any culture. From Lomax's Spanish and Italian recordings emerged one of the first theories explaining the types of folk singing that predominate in particular areas, a theory that incorporates work style, the environment, and the degrees of social and sexual freedom.

Upon his return to New York in 1959, Lomax produced a concert, "Folksong '59," in Carnegie Hall, featuring Arkansas singer Jimmy Driftwood; the Selah Jubilee Singers and Drexel Singers (gospel groups); Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim (blues); the Stony Mountain Boys (bluegrass); Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger (urban folk revival); and The Cadillacs (a rock and roll group). The occasion marked the first time rock and roll and bluegrass were performed on the Carnegie Hall Stage. "The time has come for Americans not to be ashamed of what we go for, musically, from primitive ballads to rock 'n' roll songs," Lomax told the audience. According to Izzy Young, the audience booed when he told them to lay down their prejudices and listen to rock 'n' roll. In Young's opinion, "Lomax put on what is probably the turning point in American folk music . . . . At that concert, the point he was trying to make was that Negro and white music were mixing, and rock and roll was that thing."

alan lomaxAlan Lomax married Elizabeth Harold in February 1937. They were married for 12 years. She assisted him in recording in Haiti, Alabama, Appalachia, and Mississippi, and who wrote radio scripts of folk operas featuring American music, broadcast over the BBC as part of the war effort, as well as conducting lengthy interviews with folk music personalities. He also did important field work with Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and the Bahamas; with John Work and Lewis Jones in Mississippi; with folksingers Robin Roberts and Jean Ritchie in Ireland; with his second wife Antoinette Marchand in the Caribbean; with Joan Halifax in Morocco; and with his daughter, Anna L. Chairetakis. All those who assisted and worked with him were accurately credited on the resultant Library of Congress and other recordings, as well as in his many books and publications.

Alan Lomax met twenty-year-old English folk singer Shirley Collins while living in London. The two were romantically involved and lived together for some years. When Lomax obtained a contract from Atlantic Records to re-record some the U.S. artists he had recorded in the 1940s, using improved recording equipment, Collins accompanied him. Their folk song collecting trip to the Southern states lasted from July to November 1959 and resulted in many hours of recordings, featuring performers such as Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, Wade Ward, Charlie Higgins and Bessie Jones and culminated in the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recordings from this trip were issued under the title Sounds of the South and some were also featured in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Lomax wanted to marry her but when their trip was over, Collins returned to England and instead married Austin John Marshall. In an interview in The Guardian newspaper, Friday March 21 2008, Collins was miffed that Alan Lomax's 1993 history of blues music, The Land Where The Blues Began, barely mentioned her. "All it said was, 'Shirley Collins was along for the trip'. It made me hopping mad. I wasn't just 'along for the trip'. I was part of the recording process, I made notes, I drafted contracts, I was involved in every part". Collins decided to rectify the perceived omission in her memoir America Over the Water, published in 2004.

Collins described her arrival in America 1959 in an interview with Johan Kugelberg :

Kugelberg: Lomax met you?

Collins: He was on the dockside with Anne, his daughter. . . .. I think I arrived in April and I don't think we went south until August. It took quite a long time to get the money together; it kept falling through. I think Columbia was going to pay for it at one point, but they insisted he have a union engineer with him and someone extra like that -- that in situations we were going to be in would have been hopeless. So he refused, and they withdrew their funding. It was very last minute that the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic gave us the cash and we were gone within days of getting that money. Alan had wanted to do it earlier, but there was just no money to do it with. He had no money, ever. He was always living hand to mouth.

Kugelberg: That's the nature of somebody who is making the path as he's going along. Also as a sidebar, considering who the Ertegun brothers were at that point in time, it's surprising to me that they greenlighted that project at that point in time. I love that series, I think it's one of the great series of albums ever. It's surprising that Atlantic Records made that leap of faith because the series is sort of outside of their paradigm. So, those months were spent in New York?

Collins: We went to another place actually, we went to California, to the California Folk festival in Berkeley, this was sometime in the summer. And we stopped off in Chicago and stayed with [Studs Terkel] who was a hospitable man and his wonderful hospitable wife. Caught the train out to San Francisco from Chicago, which was an incredible experience. Sang at the Berkeley festival and met Jimmy Driftwood there for the first time. We all hit it off wonderfully.

Kugelberg: Your friends in England were dying of envy.

Collins: No, they didn't know.

Lomax married Antoinette Marchand on August 26, 1961.

In 1962, Lomax and singer and Civil Rights Activist Guy Carawan, music director at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, produced the album, Freedom in the Air: Albany Georgia, 1961-62, on Vanguard Records for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lomax was a consultant to Carl Sagan for the Voyager Golden Record sent into space on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft to represent the music of the earth. Music he helped choose included the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll of Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; a Sicilian sulfur miner’s lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, and the Georgians of the Caucasus; and a shepherdess song from Bulgaria by Valya Balkanska[1]; in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more.

Musician Brian Eno had this to say about Lomax's later career:

[He later ] turned his intelligent attentions to music from many other parts of the world, securing for them a dignity and status they had not previously been accorded. The “World Music” phenomenon arose partly from those efforts, as did his great book, Folk Song Style and Culture. I believe this is one of the most important books ever written about music, in my all time top ten. It is one of the very rare attempts to put cultural criticism onto a serious, comprehensible, and rational footing by someone who had the experience and breadth of vision to be able to do it.”

As a member of the Popular Front and People's Songs in the 1940s, Alan Lomax promoted what was then known as "One World" and today is called multiculturalism. In the late forties he produced a series of concerts at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall that presented Flamenco guitar and Calypso, along with country blues, Appalachian music, Andean music, and jazz. His radio shows of the 40s and 50s explored musics of all the world's peoples.

Lomax recognized that folklore (like all forms of creativity) occurs at the local and not the national level and flourishes not in isolation but in fruitful interplay with other cultures. He was dismayed that mass communications appeared to be crushing local cultural expressions and languages. In 1950 he echoed anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who believed the role of the ethnologist should be that of advocate for "primitive" man, when he urged folklorists to similarly advocate for the folk. Some, such as Richard Dorson, objected that scholars shouldn't act as cultural arbiters, but Lomax believed it would be unethical to stand idly by as the magnificent variety of the world's cultures and languages was "grayed out" by centralized commercial entertainment and educational systems. Although he acknowledged potential problems with intervention, he urged that folklorists with their special training actively assist communities in safeguarding and revitalizing their own local traditions.

Similar ideas had been put into practice by Benjamin Botkin, Harold W. Thompson, and Louis C. Jones, who believed that folklore studied by folklorists should be returned to its home communities to enable it to thrive anew. They have been realized in the annual (since 1967) Smithsonian Folk Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (for which Lomax served as a consultant), in national and regional initiatives by public folklorists and local activists in helping communities gain recognition for their oral traditions and lifeways both in their home communities and in the world at large; and in the National Heritage Awards, concerts, and fellowships given by the NEA and various State governments to master folk and traditional artists.

In 2001, in the wake of the attacks in New York and Washington of Sept. 11, UNESCO's Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity declared the safeguarding of languages and intangible culture on a par with protection of individual human rights and as essential for human survival as biodiversity is for nature, ideas first articulated by Alan Lomax.

From 1942 to 1979 Lomax was investigated and repeatedly interviewed by the FBI, although nothing incriminating was ever found and the investigation was eventually abandoned. Scholar and jazz pianist Ted Gioia uncovered and published extracts from Alan Lomax's 800-page FBI files. The investigation appears to have started when an anonymous informant reported overhearing Lomax's father telling guests in 1941 about his son's Communist sympathies. Looking for leads, the FBI seized on the fact that, as a teenager, Lomax had transferred from Harvard to the University of Texas after being arrested in Boston in connection with a political demonstration. In 1942 the FBI bizarrely sent agents to interview students at Harvard's freshman dorm about Lomax's participation in a demonstration that had occurred there ten years earlier (in 1932) in support of one Edith Berkman, viewed by the FBI as a "communist agitator" and threatened with deportation. Lomax had been charged with disturbing the peace and fined $25.00. Miss Berkman, however, had been cleared of accusations against her and was not deported. Nor had Lomax's academic record been affected in any way. Nevertheless, the bureau continued to try to show that in 1932 Lomax had either distributed Communist literature or made public speeches in support of the Communist Party.

According to Ted Gioia:

Lomax must have felt it necessary to address the suspicions. He gave a sworn statement to an FBI agent on April 3, 1942, denying both of these charges. He also explained his arrest while at Harvard as the result of police overreaction. He was, he claimed, 15 at the time – he was actually 17 and a college student – and he said he had intended to participate in a peaceful demonstration. Lomax said he and his colleagues agreed to stop their protest when police asked them to, but that he was grabbed by a couple of policemen as he was walking away. "That is pretty much the story there, except that it distressed my father very, very much," Lomax told the FBI. "'I had to defend my righteous position, and he couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand him. It has made a lot of unhappiness for the two of us because he loved Harvard and wanted me to be a great success there.' Lomax transferred to the University of Texas the following year".

Lomax left Harvard after a year because his father lost his job and all his money during the depression and could no longer afford to send him there and not for any political or academic reasons. He probably also had wanted to be close to his newly bereaved father, now a widower.

In June 1942 the FBI approached the Librarian of Congress, Archibald McLeish, attempting to have Lomax fired as Assistant in Charge of the Library's Archive of American Folk Song. At the time, Lomax was preparing for a field trip to the Mississippi Delta on behalf of the Library, where he would make landmark recordings of Muddy Waters, Son House, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards, among others. McLeish wrote to Hoover defending Lomax: "I have studied the findings of these reports very carefully. I do not find positive evidence that Mr. Lomax has been engaged in subversive activities and I am therefore taking no disciplinary action toward him." Nevertheless, according to Gioia:

Yet what the probe failed to find in terms of prosecutable evidence, it made up for in speculation about his character. An FBI report dated July 23, 1943, describes Lomax as possessing “an erratic, artistic temperament” and a “bohemian attitude.” It says: “He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results." The file quotes one informant who said that “Lomax was a very peculiar individual, that he seemed to be very absent-minded and that he paid practically no attention to his personal appearance.” This same source adds that he suspected Lomax’s peculiarity and poor grooming habits came from associating with the hillbillies who provided him with folk tunes".

Lomax, who was a founding member of People's Songs, was in charge of campaign music for Henry A. Wallace's 1948 Presidential run on the Progressive Party ticket on a platform opposing the arms race and supporting civil rights for Jews and African Americans. Subsequently, Lomax was one of the performers listed in Red Channels as a possible Communist sympathizer and was consequently blacklisted from working in US entertainment industries.

A 2007 BBC news article revealed that in the early '50s, the British MI5 placed Alan Lomax under surveillance as a suspected Communist. Its report concluded that although Lomax undoubtedly held "left wing" views, there was no evidence he was a Communist. Released Sept. 4, 2007 (File ref KV 2/2701), a summary of his MI5 file reads as follows:

Noted American folk music archivist and collector Alan Lomax first attracted the attention of the Security Service when it was noted that he had made contact with the Romanian press attaché in London while he was working on a series of folk music broadcasts for the BBC in 1952. Correspondence ensued with the American authorities as to Lomax' suspected membership of the Communist Party, though no positive proof is found on this file. The Service took the view that Lomax' work compiling his collections of world folk music gave him a legitimate reason to contact the attaché, and that while his views (as demonstrated by his choice of songs and singers) were undoubtedly left wing, there was no need for any specific action against him.

The file contains a partial record of Lomax' movements, contacts and activities while in Britain, and includes for example a police report of the "Songs of the Iron Road" concert at St Pancras in December 1953. His association with film director Joseph Losey is also mentioned (serial 30a).

The FBI again investigated Lomax in 1956 and sent a 68 page report to the CIA and the Attorney General's office. However, William Tompkins, assistant attorney general, wrote to Hoover that the investigation had failed to disclose sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution or the suspension of Lomax's passport.

Then, as late as 1979, an FBI report suggested that Lomax had recently impersonated an FBI agent. The report appears to have been based on mistaken identity. The person who reported the incident to the FBI said that the man in question was around 43, about 5 feet 9 inches and 190 pounds. The FBI file notes that Lomax stood 6 feet tall, weighed 240 pounds and was 64 at the time:

Lomax resisted the FBI’s attempts to interview him about the impersonation charges, but he finally met with agents at his home in November 1979. He denied that he’d been involved in the matter but did note that he’d been in New Hampshire in July 1979, visiting a film editor about a documentary. The FBI’s report concluded that “Lomax made no secret of the fact that he disliked the FBI and disliked being interviewed by the FBI. Lomax was extremely nervous throughout the interview".

The FBI investigation was concluded the following year, shortly after Lomax's 65th birthday.

Alan Lomax received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1986, a Library of Congress Living Legend Award  in 2000, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from Tulane University in 2001. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award in 1993 for his book The Land Where the Blues Began, connecting the story of the origins of Blues music with the prevalence of forced labor in the pre-World War II South (especially on the Mississippi levees). Lomax also received a posthumous Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 2003. Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax (Rounder Records, 8 CDs boxed set) won in two categories at the 48th annual Grammy Awards ceremony held on Feb 8, 2006 

  • The famous "Hoedown" in Aaron Copland's 1942 ballet Rodeo was taken note for note from Ruth Crawford Seeger's 1941 piano transcription of the square-dance tune, "Bonypart" ("Bonaparte's Retreat"), taken from a recording of W. M. Stepp's fiddle version, originally recorded in Appalachia for the Library of Congress by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in 1937. Seeger's transcription was published in Our Singing Country by John A. and Alan Lomax and Ruth Crawford Seeger.
  • Miles Davis's 1959 Sketches of Spain album adapts the melodies "Alborada de vigo" and "Saeta" from Alan Lomax's Columbia World Library album Spain.
  • A character named Alan Lomax was featured in the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.
  • BBC Radio 4 aired a program on Saturday June 7 2008 in their Archive Hour strand narrated by Marybeth Hamilton on the sessions between Alan Lomax and Jelly Roll Morton in 1938 called "The Dreamtime of Jazz."
  • In June 2008, PBS's magazine Current announced the debut of the kid's show, Lomax: The Hound of Music (produced by: Sirius Thinking, Ltd., Executive Producers: Christopher Cerf, Norman Stiles, Richard Fernandes, and Richard Moore), on Connecticut Public Television. The show, aimed at an audience of children aged 3-7 years, features Lomax the dog and his sidekick Delta the cat (both puppets), along with their human companion Amy. They take a train ride across the country to discover the history of American roots music. Along the way they meet musical celebrities and learn tunes such as “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and “The Gooney Bird Song”. Arguably, these are humorous camp songs rather than folk or "roots" music. Alan Lomax's own functioning music education prototype: "The Global Jukebox", based on his Cantometrics research and intended as "an egalitarian showcase for the expressive arts and aesthetic values of all cultures", remains unfunded.
  • Moby's album Play sampled several songs from Lomax's 1993 Atlantic recording Sounds of the South: A Musical Journey From the Georgia Sea Islands to the Mississippi Delta, including "Natural Blues" ("Trouble So Hard").


Last Updated on Friday, 15 May 2009 12:10

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