Alan Lomax

Musicologist, writer, and producer Alan Lomax (b. Austin, Texas, 1915) spent over six decades working to promote knowledge and appreciation of the world’s folk music. He began his career in 1933 alongside his father, the pioneering folklorist John Avery Lomax, author of the best-selling Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). In 1934, the two launched an effort to expand the holdings of recorded folk music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (established 1928), gathering thousands of field recordings of folk musicians throughout the American South, Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast, as well as in Haiti and the Bahamas. Their collecting resulted in several popular and influential anthologies of American folk songs, including American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York: Macmillan, 1934); Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (New York: Macmillan, 1936), the first in depth biographical study of an American folk musician; Our Singing Country (with Ruth Crawford Seeger) (1941); and Folk Songs USA (1948).

After completing a philosophy degree at the University of Texas in 1936, Lomax conducted field research in Haiti with his wife, Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold. The next year, Lomax was appointed Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Song. In 1939, while doing graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, he produced the first of several radio series for CBS. American Folk Songs, Wellsprings of Music, and the prime-time series, Back Where I Come From, exposed national audiences to regional American music and such homegrown talents as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. Lomax also built on the interest created by his books, records, and broadcasts with concert series such as The Midnight Special at Town Hall, which brought 1940s New Yorkers blues, flamenco, calypso, and Southern ballad singing, all still relatively unknown genres. “The main point of my activity,” Lomax once remarked, “was... to put sound technology at the disposal of The Folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas.”[1]

His experience interviewing Lead Belly encouraged Lomax to further explore the genre of oral biography. His conversations with Jelly Roll Morton, recorded in 1938 at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, formed the basis for Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949), a remarkable account closely following Morton’s narrative that is essential for anyone wishing to understand the history of jazz (and which has inspired two Broadway musicals). Lomax’s oral historical portrait of “Nora” in The Rainbow Sign (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1959) was based on the extensive interviews and recordings of the great Alabama folk singer Vera Hall he made in the late forties. Blues in the Mississippi Night (1947), an album of music and candid discussion by Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson, remains a classic recorded document of African-American social and musical history (it was reissued by Rounder Records in 2002). “Every time I took one of those big, black, glass-based platters out of its box,” Lomax wrote of the recording process, “I felt that a magical moment was opening up in time…. For me, the black discs spinning in the Mississippi night, spitting the chip centripetally toward the center of the table ... heralded a new age of writing human history.”[2]

A joint field trip conducted by the Library of Congress and Fisk University in 1941–1942, and described in Lomax’s 1993 memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began, took him even deeper into the musical and cultural world of the African American South. In the hill country of Mississippi, he documented styles of fife-and-drum and quills (panpipes) music, ground-hugging dance, and hocketing song that had kept remarkably close to their African roots. In the Delta he interviewed and made the first recordings of 29-year-old singer and guitarist McKinley Morganfield, later known as Muddy Waters. In 1947, for the fifth time, Lomax returned to Mississippi with the first portable tape recorder to make high-fidelity recordings of Delta church services and of the prisoners’ work songs at Parchman Farm (the notorious state penitentiary), which he ranked among the world’s great music.

In the 1950s, Lomax compiled and edited an 18-volume LP series for Columbia Records anthologizing world folk music (a project which anticipated a similar UNESCO world music series by several years). His collecting and his collaborations for this project — with Diego Carpitella in Italy, Seamus Ennis in Ireland, Peter Kennedy in England, and Hamish Henderson in Scotland — laid the foundations for folk song revivals in those countries. Lomax, Kennedy, and their friends introduced scores of listeners to British and world folk music through BBC radio and television.

Returning to the United States in 1958, Lomax set out on two more long field trips through the American South, resulting in nineteen albums issued on the Atlantic and Prestige International labels in the early 1960s. In 1962 he made an extensive survey of traditional music in the Eastern Caribbean under the auspices of the University of the West Indies, recording in stereo. Together with his Haitian and Bahamian recordings of the 1930s, and recordings made in Santo Domingo in 1967, Lomax’s Caribbean corpus amounts to some 150 hours of music, interviews, and konts (story-songs).

During this period he also published the groundbreaking anthology Folk Songs of North America (New York: Doubleday, 1960), which signaled his growing interest in the relationship of folk song style and culture. This deepening preoccupation grew into a massive program of research into expressive behavior running from 1961 through 1995, housed first at Columbia University and later at Hunter College. Lomax and colleagues — including musicologist Victor Grauer; anthropologist Conrad Arensberg of Columbia University; Irmgard Bartinieff and Forrestine Paulay of the Laban Dance Notation Bureau — developed Cantometrics, Choreometrics, and Parlametrics, methodologies for the comparative analysis of song, dance, and speech. The initial results were published in Folk Song Style and Culture (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Publication No. 88, 1968; reprinted by Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ).

Throughout the seventies and eighties, Lomax published journal articles and teaching materials and films based on his work on expressive style. Cantometrics: An Approach to the Anthropology of Music, first published in 1976, represented a new and democratic approach to the study of world music. Three teaching films, Dance and Human History, Step Style,and Palm Play produced in the 1970s, introduced students to Choreometrics. The Longest Trail (1986) combined historical data and Choreometric movement analysis to point out cultural continuities between Siberian peoples and Native North and South Americans.

As consultant to Carl Sagan for the audio collection accompanying the 1977 Voyager space probe, Lomax saw to it that the world’s music was carried to the stars with the blues and jazz of Blind Willie Johnson and Louis Armstrong; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; a Sicilian sulfur miner’s lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti of Zaire and Georgians of the Caucasus, in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more.

While in his sixties, Lomax embarked on a final series of field trips to the American South and Southwest, this time with a film crew and script ideas for exploring several fertile regional and ethnic American musical cultures. This resulted in American Patchwork, a prize-winning five-hour television series, which aired on PBS in 1990. Also in 1990, Blues in the Mississippi Night was reissued on Rykodisc, and Sounds of the South, a four-CD set of Lomax’s 1959 stereo recordings of Southern musical traditions, was reissued by Atlantic Records in 1993. The Alan Lomax Collection (1997–2007), a CD series anthologizing Lomax’s six-decade recording career, numbers over a hundred volumes.

In 1989, Lomax and a team of developers began compiling his most ambitious project, The Global Jukebox, a multimedia interactive database that looks at relationships between dance, song, and social organization. It was originally inspired by the Urban Strain, a 1980s study of twentieth-century popular music undertaken with jazz musician Roswell Rudd and dance ethnologist Forrestine Paulay. Lomax intended the Jukebox to serve both as a medium for scientific research into human expressive behavior and as a tool for social science, arts, and humanities education. With the Jukebox, Lomax hoped to further cultural equity, a concept calling attention to the importance of giving all cultures a valid forum in the media and in educational curricula for the meaningful display of their arts and values.

Alan Lomax received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1984; the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction for The Land Where the Blues Began (1993); the Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (1995); an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from Tulane University (2001); and a Grammy Trustees’ Award in 2003. In 2000 he was made a Library of Congress Living Legend. He retired in 1996 to live in Florida with his daughter and grandson, and died there on July 19, 2002.

[1] Alan Lomax, “Saga of a Folksong Hunter,” HiFi/Stereo Review, 4: 5 (May l960): 38.
[2] Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Pantheon, 1993), p. xi.

Biography provided by the Alan Lomax Archive & Association for Cultural Equity,