Alan Lomax, 1915-2002
John Avery Lomax (1875-1948) was encouraged to collect songs while a student in Harvard by no less a luminary than George Lyman Kittredge. Securing a travelling scholarship, he began making cylinder recordings of the cowboys, poor blacks and generally disenfranchised labourers he encountered in the American Southwest. As some of these cylinders still exist from the early years of the last century, they must be among the earliest aural documentation of the vast cornucopia of folksong that bedizens the vast musical landscape of North America. Along with conventional paper documentation, the name Lomax continued to be added to many thousands more recordings, made on every new form of recording device, aural and visual, as they appeared, throughout the entire twentieth century.
John Lomax joined the American Folklife Centre in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which was founded by Robert W. Gordon in 1928. His job as curator in the Centre's Archive of Folk Culture included the gathering of recordings for that Archive. In 1933 he recruited the help of his son Alan, then only seventeen, to assist him on a field trip through the southern states. Such assistance would have been as much physical as cerebral, for the "portable" recording machine they were using weighed no less than 350 pounds. This cooperation continued for about ten years and culminated in the jointly published American Ballads and Folk Song (1934), Negro Folksongs as Sung by Leadbelly (1936), Cowboy Songs (1937) and Our Singing Country (1941). In 1936 Alan became a full-time member of the Archive staff, and worked with them until 1942. From then on his life became as multifaceted as a ballroom crystal. As well as his collecting and academic pursuits of musicologist and ethnologist, he became a maker of film documentaries, playwright, radio and television broadcaster, propagandist and, above all, a proselytiser spreading the word that there was so much to hear if we only learned to open our ears.
On the other hand, Hamish Henderson regretfully recalled Lomax's dismissing a couple of young singers whom he had invited to sing at a ceilidh in the mid-1950s because they were not, in Lomax's opinion, "real singers." And then there was his much reported fury when Bob Dylan introduced electric instruments to the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. All his life he was a paradox; an arch conservative with a pronounced preference for folk who would be generally seen as anti-establishment, a mould-breaker who was upset if the people he documented did not function within his perceived traditional norms. Did this mean he had a restricted or illiberal view of what constituted traditional music? Absolutely not, for he had the widest world vision imaginable. This manifested itself even back in the 1930s when he and his father made, in the words of D. K. Wilgus, "their unparalleled decision to visit the Negro prisons of the south." At a time when jazz was considered highly disreputable, he recognised it as a legitimate folk voice and made his celebrated recordings of Jelly Roll Morton in 1938, which resulted in the book Mister Jelly Roll (1950).
In the many tributes that have been paid to Lomax since his death, much has, rightly, been made of the fact that many superb folk artists were brought to national and international attention through his discovery of them and subsequent publicity through radio broadcasts, commercial records, concerts and, in later years, television. Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Brownie Magee and Sonny Terry, Memphis Slim, all were part of the Lomax stable and became known far beyond their original stomping grounds. Here we enter the area of paradox again, for although Lomax appeared to despise the world of commercial music, he was very much at ease in it and many of his proteges went on to be stars in that particular firmament. Whereas one can only wish well to those who achieved success and monetary security through their art, one can also quite understand the puzzlement of those with equal or superior (but less commercial) talent who did not. …