Alan Lomax (1915-2002)

By Gregory, E. David; Kennedy, Peter et al. | Folk Music Journal, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview
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Alan Lomax (1915-2002)


Gregory, E. David, Kennedy, Peter, Collins, Shirley, Folk Music Journal


Alan Lomax died on 19 July 2002. Born in Austin, Texas, on 31 January 1915, Alan was the third child of John and Bess (nee Brown) Lomax. He spent most of his youth in Dallas and Austin, graduating with a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Texas in 1936. Introduced to folk song and folklore in the family home, he went on his first collecting trip with his father in 1933, visiting the infamous Parchman State Farm at Canton, Mississippi. During the next three years father and son made pioneering recordings of Cajun and Creole music, the Soul Stirrers, Aunt Molly Jackson, Leadbelly, and other inmates of Southern penitentiaries. Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly, jointly edited by John and Alan, was published in 1936. Alan also helped his father to compile American Ballads and Folk Songs, the first of several influential American folk-song collections edited by the Lomaxes.

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In 1937 Alan obtained the post of Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington. He catalogued a growing volume of field recordings contributed by such folklorists as Sidney Robertson Cowell, Herbert Halpert, and Vance Randolph. He hired the young Pete Seeger as his assistant in compiling a Checklist of Recorded Songs in the English Language in the Archive of American Folk Song to July, 1940. He also compiled, with Sidney Cowell, American Folk Song and Folk-lore: A Regional Bibliography. Research trips took him to the Southern Appalachians, the mid West, the Deep South, the Bahamas, and Haiti. Especially significant were his field recordings of blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta, including the young Muddy Waters, Son House, and Honeyboy Edwards. Other singers whom he recorded for the Archive included Sarah Ogan Gunning and Woody Guthrie. He also made an invaluable contribution to the history of jazz, interviewing at length jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. His Morton recordings would be issued as a twelve-volume L.P. set in 1950, to accompany the publication of his book, Mr. Jelly Roll. Another major project was the release of eleven albums of traditional music collectively titled Folk Songs of the United States. Charges of political bias resulted in Alan's resignation as archivist in the fall of 1942. He had encouraged the Almanac Singers to develop a repertoire that mixed traditional folk songs with union and other political material, formed a similar group (comprised of unionized office workers) called the Priority Ramblers, and participated in the famous 'Grapes of Wrath' concert that featured Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Will Geer.

Lomax's enormous energy and enthusiasm for folk music soon found other outlets. He began his career as a broadcaster in 1939, with a twenty-six-part series titled American Folk Songs on the CBS network's American School of the Air. A follow-up series, Wellsprings of America, ran for another twenty-six weeks during the winter of 1939-40. Then came Back Where I Come From, with regular performers Josh White and Pete Seeger. He also found opportunities to produce recordings by his favourite artists. Negro Sinful Songs performed by Leadbelly, the first commercial album of Afro-American folk songs, was followed by two influential releases on Victor: The Midnight Special: Songs of Texas Prisons and Guthrie's Dustbowl Ballads. Alan spent the remaining war years working for the Office of War Information and for the Special Services unit of the US Army. He produced and hosted a CBS radio series titled Transatlantic Call that was also broadcast in wartime Britain by the BBC. A by-product was his first radio ballad, The Martins and the Coys, which starred Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. Another was his first film script, To Hear My Banjo Play.

After the war, Lomax earned his living as a record producer, broadcaster, impresario, journalist, and freelance writer. Cognizant of the power of mass media, he tried to use it to win a larger audience for the music he loved, folk song and blues.

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