Alan Lomax – the man who saved folk music for the world
One of the most significant figures in modern music was born in Austin, Texas, just over one hundred years ago. Though not particularly renowned as a performer or a composer, he has influenced a range of musical genres, like folk and traditional, jazz, blues, rock and even pop music. Many celebrated performers in each of these genres have not only saluted the performers he recorded but also referenced his vital role as a collector.
Alan Lomax, who saw music, and especially song, as one of the most fundamental expressions of humanity in all its diversity, undertook a career spanning almost seventy years of recording and collecting the songs of the people – and especially the marginalised and dispossessed.
Lomax approached all this music with a recognition of its intrinsic value, which he believed, bore comparison with any of the so-called great music of the classical era. Accordingly he saw his mission as not only to preserve the people’s music for posterity and academic investigation – but to honour it so that it could be delivered back to an everwidening audience to enjoy through continuing performance.
As a result of the efforts of Alan Lomax, this music was no longer destined to die – preserved in amber in the dark recesses of an archive or museum – but it would live on in all manner of gigs, on albums and transmitting its DNA into other genres to create new musical forms to remain in the hearts of future generations.
He pioneered the concept of world music in the 1950s – long before it became fashionable through the efforts of Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and others. And the starting point for this journey into the music of the world beyond the shores of America was Ireland – with the remarkable Séamus Ennis as his guide.
Lomax began his career as a musicologist in 1933, when his father, John Avery Lomax, was asked to head up the Archive of American Folk Song, which had been established at the Library of Congress five years earlier. Soon after taking over, the elder Lomax who had written the best-selling Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, published in 1910, sought his son’s assistance to expand that the Archive by recording musicians and singers in the South, Southwest, Midwest and Northeast of America . During the course of these early travels Alan and John Lomax discovered the great blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.
A feature of their work was their willingness to engage with men and women on the margins of contemporary American society – including black communities and prisons. Their efforts produced a number of influential compilations including American Ballads and Folk Songs, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, Our Singing Country and Folk Song USA.
In 1937 the younger Lomax was officially appointed Assistant in Charge of the Archive. Often called the Archive’s first intern, his friend Pete Seeger, worked at the Library with Alan Lomax in the late 1930s, and assisted him on field trips in the South.
Following the success of his collaboration with Lead Belly, Alan Lomax developed a similar project with Jelly Roll Morton. Their lengthy interview in 1938 became the basis for the highly significant book, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz.”
On a field trip conducted jointly by the Library of Congress and Fisk University in 1941-1942, Lomax was able to explore African American music and culture in the South in even greater depth – recording dance styles as well as songs in Mississippi. In the Mississippi Delta he also interviewed and recorded a 29-year-old singer, McKinley Morganfield, later known as Muddy Waters.
Returning to the Mississippi Delta in 1947 with the first portable high-fidelity tape recorder, Lomax recorded church services and prisoners’ work songs at the state penitentiary, Parchman Farm, which he declared was comparable with the world’s great music. 1947 also saw the release of Blues in the Mississippi Night, an album of music and frank conversation from Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson.
Lomax left the Library of Congress in 1942 to work for the Office of War Information and the Armed Forces Radio Service – producing folk music programmes. This work brought him into contact with the BBC. After the war, Lomax worked with the People’s Songs organization in New York, organising a series of concerts such as Blues at Midnight, Ballads at Midnight, Calypso at Midnight, and Calypso after Midnight. He also worked on folk music projects for Decca Records and for the Mutual Broadcasting Network.
In line with his belief that this music should not only be recorded but publicised to the widest possible audience, Lomax produced several radio series for CBS including American Folk Songs, Wellsprings of Music and Back Where I Come From, which provided a national platform for a number of performers including Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Josh White, Aunt Molly Jackson, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives and the Golden Gate Quartet. Many of these performers also featured in the ‘Midnight’ concerts.
But Lomax’s fundamentally democratic approach to music – both in terms of its creation and its dissemination – put him at odds with many of the more right-wing elements in American society. As the growing tide of anti-Communist hysteria began to gain traction in the political establishment, Lomax’s activities in quite literally giving voice to the voiceless began to be viewed with increasing suspicion.
His association with groups like the Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers and People’s Songs, as well as his personal connections with Seeger and other suspected communists meant that Lomax was a target in the heightened hysteria of the post-war period.
In June 1950 a pamphlet, entitled Red Channels, was published by former FBI agents: it was to become a precursor to the entertainment sector blacklists of the McCarthyite era. It listed Lomax among a number of artists and broadcasters believed to be sympathetic to Communism. He was in good company on the list which also included Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Lena Horne and Dorothy Parker – as well as the usual suspects, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives and Josh White.
But with Congress considering proposals to legislate for the ‘detention of subversives’ and the House Un-American Activities Committee beginning to develop a paranoiac momentum, Lomax decided to expedite his plans to develop a library of world folk music for Columbia Records by heading over to Europe in September, 1950.
Despite his hurried departure and FBI agents interviewing his friends and acquaintances, Lomax publicly rejected any suggestion that he was a the victim of a witchhunt – insisting that he was in Europe to work on his world music project for Columbia. With London as his base, Lomax set about co-ordinating the recording of the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music – which was to be issued in the newly developed LP format.
Having already worked with the BBC from America during the war, he took British folk song collector, Peter Kennedy’s advice to contact Séamus Ennis about recording in Ireland. In his work with the Irish Folklore Commission, Ennis had already identified a number of potential candidates who would be suitable for Lomax’s recording project.
So under the guidance of Ennis, Lomax and his partner, Robin Roberts, visited Irish singers and musicians along the Western seaboard as well as in Dublin and Dundalk, using their new portable tape recorder to capture the voices of Margaret Barry, Elizabeth Cronin and Cití Ní Ghallchóir, among others. The story of this Irish field trip is the subject of Declan MacGrath’s wonderful new film, Lomax in Éirinn.
The last notes of the old, high and beautiful Irish civilisation are dying away. A civilisation which produced an epic, lyrical and musical literature as noble as any in the world.Alan Lomax
Work on the English and Scottish albums followed with the assistance of Peter Douglas Kennedy and Scottish poet Hamish Henderson. In Scotland, Lomax is credited as an inspiration for the School of Scottish Studies, founded in 1951, the year of his first visit there. As before, Lomax not only recorded the music but also conducted in-depth interviews with performers about their lives.
From 1951 to 1958, Lomax and Reid made regular forays to different countries around Europe – on field trips lasting several months at a time.
In Spain they made three thousand recordings as well as hundreds of photographs. The resulting LP was given to jazz men Miles Davis and Gil Evans who incorporated some of the musical ideas into their 1960 album, Sketches of Spain. Working with Diego Carpitella in Italy in 1953 and 1954, Lomax documented many traditional folk styles before they disappeared.
In 1953 a young BBC executive commissioned Lomax to produce a six-part television series for the BBC, entitled The Song Hunter, which featured performances by traditional musicians from all over Britain and Ireland, as well as by Lomax, himself. The executive was David Attenborough.
In 1957 Lomax hosted a similar show for BBC radio called A Ballad Hunter. He also put together a group – Alan Lomax and the Ramblers – to perform on television. The Ramblers line-up included Pete Seeger’s half-sister, Peggy, Ewan MacColl, and Shirley Collins. Some backing band!
When I left this country in 1950 to go see what Europe was like, I was a total American provincial. But then I went to Ireland and I heard the Irish bagpipes and I heard those Irish girls who can sing like the foam on the sea or the smell of flowers in the evening… and I became an international citizen.Alan Lomax
Returning to America in 1958, Lomax undertook two more expeditions through the Southern states, accompanied for some of the journey by Shirley Collins. These field trips generated nineteen albums released on the Atlantic and Prestige labels in the 1960s.
In 1962 he returned to the Eastern Caribbean. Further recordings followed in Santo Domingo in 1967 – resulting in over 150 hours of music and interviews when added to the earlier recordings in Haiti and the Bahamas.
His anthology, Folk Songs of North America, published in 1960, highlighted his growing interest in the relationship between folk song style and culture. This interest underpinned a major research programme into various forms of expressive behaviour including song, dance and speech. The programme, which ran from 1961 to 1995, featured a multi-disciplinary team that included musicologists, choreographers and anthropologists based in Columbia University and later at Hunter College in New York. After the initial results were published in Folk Song Style and Culture in 1968, Lomax continued to publish journal articles, films and teaching materials during the 1970s and 1980s.
A final series of field trips to the American South and Southwest, with a film crew along with audio equipment, resulted in American Patchwork, a prizewinning television series, which was broadcast in 1990 on PBS.
An outspoken voice for diversity, Lomax had founded the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) at Hunter College. In a further extension of the principles behind ACE, Lomax led a team of developers in 1989 in planning the Global Jukebox – intended as a multimedia interactive database which would explore relationships between song, dance and social organisation. Lomax hoped that this project would further the concept of cultural equity – the idea that all cultures are entitled to an effective platform in the media and in educational curricula for the expression of their artistic forms and values.
Alan Lomax retired in 1996 to live with his daughter and grandson in Sarasota, Florida, where he died in July, 2002. His direct legacy has continued in the Association for Cultural Equity and in the many thousands of recordings collected in the Library of Congress in the USA. But beyond this extensive lifetime of achievement is his enduring influence on the world’s music – incalculable but unmistakable.
Following the re-release of some of his earlier albums during the 1990s, a major CD series, The Alan Lomax Collection, was released over a ten-year period from 1997 to 2007 – drawing on recordings taken from his entire career.
Tomorrow when it will be too late, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.Alan Lomax