Alan Lomax - Biography
Without Alan Lomax, the American folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which completely transformed American popular music, would never have happened. He also kick-started Britain’s skiffle craze, which led to England’s folk revival of the 60s and set the stage for the British Invasion. Although we was a competent singer and guitarist, Lomax never became known as a performer in his own right. It is his work as a musicologist, author, disc jockey, photographer, talent scout, filmmaker, concert promoter, record producer, television host, and defender of traditional music that changed the course of musical history in the United States, England, Spain, and Italy. Lomax was the first World Music visionary and a proponent of what he called “cultural equity,” the belief that all music should be respected regardless of its racial or cultural origins.
Lomax was the first to record Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and a young McKinley Morganfield (later known as Muddy Waters). He traveled the globe, recording folk songs and the stories of common working people, thereby shining a light on still vital traditions as well as those traditions on the brink of extinction. In the 1990s, with the aid of digital technology, he started work on his Global Jukebox — an attempt to cross reference the music of all the different cultures Lomax had recorded. He hoped the project would allow people to discover the mysterious ways that all the music of the world intersected with and influenced each other. Lomax was made a Library of Congress Living Legend in 2000 and was posthumously given a Grammy Trustees’ Award in 2003. He died in 2002.
Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas in 1915, the son of John A. Lomax, a pioneering musicologist and folk song collector. Alan graduated from the University of Texas in 1936 and pursued graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, but it was folk music that drove his interest. While still a teenager, he’d accompanied his father on treks across the Southwestern states to record cowboy songs for the University of Texas. His father was eventually fired from his university job because the songs they collected were too bawdy for academic tastes. By the end of the 1930s, John and Alan Lomax had recorded more than 3,000 songs onto 78 RPM discs with the heavy equipment that Alan had carried on his back.
In the 1930s, Alan Lomax tirelessly recorded folk songs and the stories his singers told about the songs all over the U.S. and the Caribbean islands. While traveling in the South, Lomax often blackened his face with walnut juice to avoid confrontations with racist whites. In the 40s, Lomax traveled through the South for the Library of Congress and recorded the first songs by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and McKinley Morganfield (before he moved to Chicago and became Muddy Waters). Lomax helped get Lead Belly paroled, hired him as his driver, and helped launch his career as a folksinger and bluesman. He also recorded four hours of Woody Guthrie’s music (released as Dustbowl Ballads [1940 Victor RCA]) and eight hours of Jelly Roll Morton playing piano and telling his life story (now available as Jelly Roll Morton: the Complete Library of Congress Recordings [2005 Rounder]).
In the 1950s, when the the House Committee on Un-American Activities was questioning folksingers for their leftist politics, Lomax moved to England and stayed from 1950 to 1957. He received a Guggenheim fellowship to study British folk music, and compiled folk song collections and produced programs for British radio and TV. The American folk songs he introduced to English listeners kicked-off the skiffle rage that led to the British folk revival. Lomax also visited Spain and England to document their folk traditions. He produced two ten-part BBC radio series, one on Spanish and one on Italian folk music. In 1955, he put together an 18-volume collection of 78 RPM records for Columbia called The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music (1955 Columbia), which is considered the first world music collection.
He returned to the States in 1960, just as his book The Folk Songs of North America was published by Doubleday. Along with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952 Folkways), Lomax’s book provided the soundtrack for the early days of the American folk revival — a movement that changed the face of American songwriting forever.
In 1959 and 1960, Lomax returned to the American South made the first stereo field recordings of American folk music. Atlantic Records released selections from his trips on some of the first 12-inch LPs for the collection The Atlantic Southern Folk Heritage Series, Vol. 1-7 (1960 Atlantic). Prestige (now part of the Concord Music Group) released Southern Journey, Songs of the White and Black South, Vol. 1 — 12 (1959 Prestige). In 1962, Lomax created an archive of Caribbean music for the University of the West Indies that included calypsos, work songs, and steel-band music. Later that year, he joined Columbia University’s department of anthropology and began studying folk music of the world, intent on discovering the correlations between musical styles and social trends. It would be the studies that led to his last great undertaking, the Global Jukebox project.
In the 70s, Lomax started making films and produced many documentaries including The Land Where the Blues Began, Jazz Parades: Feet Don’t Fail Me Now (a look at the second line tradition of New Orleans), Cajun Country, Appalachian Journey, and Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old. These documentaries were broadcast often on PBS stations between 1971 and 1985. In the early 90s, the documentaries were rebroadcast under the title American Patchwork.
In 1977, Lomax and Carl Sagan collaborated on creating the Voyager Golden Record, which was placed on the Voyager space probe to insure that the folk music of planet Earth would be carried into the endless universe. Keeping up universal concerns, Lomax began work on the Global Jukebox project in the early 80s, cross referencing the music he had collected with anthropological information contained in video, recordings, and books.
In 1997, Rounder Records began issuing the “Alan Lomax Collection” on CD, including recordings from the Deep South, the Caribbean, England, Spain, and Italy. Lomax was actively involved in the project until his death in 2002.
During his long career, Lomax hosted many radio shows including CBS Radio’s American Folksongs, Wellsprings of Music, and Back Where I Come From, and the Mutual Broadcasting System’s On Top of Old Smokey. In the 1940s he produced a series of Midnight Special concerts at Town Hall in New York with programs devoted to blues, flamenco, calypso, and a cappella Southern ballads. His books include American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936), Cowboy Songs (1937), Our Singing Country (with Ruth Crawford Seeger, 1941), Folk Songs: USA (1947), Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967), and the posthumously published memoir of his early days as a folklorist The Land Where the Blues Began (1993), which won the National Book Critic’s Circle award for nonfiction.
The Alan Lomax Collection is now at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress and includes over 5,000 hours of recordings on tape, records, and CD; 400,000 feet of film; 2,450 videotapes; 2,000 books and journals; and more than 120 linear feet of manuscripts, correspondence, field notes, and research files.