Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Searching the Globe Uncovers Folk's Roots

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Searching the Globe Uncovers Folk's Roots

Article excerpt

Musicologist Alan Lomax has been driven by a unique enthusiasm: He has combed the earth - microphone and tape recorder in tow - looking for opportunities to record music by folk performers.

Mr. Lomax's father, John Lomax, began this musical mission in 1933, a quest to preserve a disappearing art form. Alan picked up his mantle and has continued the project.

The impact of the field recordings Lomax has made during the past six decades is becoming richly evident through "The Alan Lomax Collection," a series of CDs released by Rounder Records. Nearly three-dozen discs are currently available, and the series will encompass more than 100 albums when completed.

A hint as to what makes this legacy worthy of such a massive outpouring of recordings is available in the form of a single disc, "The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler." These 38 concise musical selections span the breadth of Lomax's interests.

They include moving examples of blues, prison songs, and gospel music from the Deep South. Joyous calypsos and children's songs from the Caribbean abound, as do traditional ballads from northern Europe. A native American rain dance surprises listeners, as does a song by Japanese fishermen celebrating the season's first catch.

Lomax was far from an objective researcher; he was committed to a left-leaning political agenda in which folk music represented an avenue of empowerment for people outside the established elites. He was among the first musicologists to heavily record rural African- American blues and gospel performers, who were often denied commercial recording outlets because of Depression-era racism. His European recordings reflect the lives of blue-collar workers.

Few of the performers captured on tape thought of themselves as professional musicians. Many never had the opportunity to hear themselves recorded, and when Lomax played back their recordings, they would express amazement and delight.

"I found out that what I was really doing," commented Lomax in 1991, "was giving an avenue for people to express themselves and tell their side of the story. …

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