Alan Lomax

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It is very safe to state, that the world of music would be highly different today if it wasn't for the work that Alan Lomax did, everything he did has had an influence on something that has caused important changes to what we all listen to now.


Alan Lomax (/ˈloʊmæks/; January 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002) was an American "ethnomusicologist", best known for his numerous "Field Recordings" of Folk music from the 20th century.

He was also a musician himself, as well as a Folklorist, Archivist, Writer, Scholar, Political Activist, Oral Historian, and Film-Maker.

Lomax produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows in the US and in England, which played an important role in preserving Folk music traditions in both countries, and helped start both the American and British Folk revivals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.

He collected material first with his father, Folklorist and collector John A. Lomax, and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress on aluminum and acetate discs.


After 1942, when Congress cut off the Library of Congress's funding for Folk song collecting, Lomax continued to collect independently in Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain, as well as the United States, using the latest recording technology, assembling an enormous collection of American and international culture. In March 2004 the material captured and produced without Library of Congress funding was acquired by the Library, which 'brings the entire seventy years of Alan Lomax's work together under one roof at the Library of Congress, where it has found a permanent home.'

With the start of the Cold War, Lomax continued to speak out for a public role for Folklore, even as academic Folklorists turned inward. He devoted much of the latter part of his life to advocating what he called Cultural Equity, which he sought to put on a solid theoretical foundation through to his Cantometrics research (which included a prototype Cantometrics-based educational program, the Global Jukebox).

In the 1970s and 1980s Lomax advised the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival and produced a series of films about Folk music, American Patchwork, which aired on PBS in 1991.

In his late seventies, Lomax completed a long-deferred memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began (1995), linking the birth of the Blues to debt peonage, segregation, and forced labor in the American South.

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Lomax's greatest legacy is in preserving and publishing recordings of musicians in many Folk and Blues traditions around the US and Europe. Among the artists Lomax is credited with discovering and bringing to a wider audience include Blues guitarist Robert Johnson, protest singer Woody Guthrie, Folk artist Pete Seeger, and Country musician Burl Ives, among countless others.

Early Life

Lomax was born in Austin, Texas, in 1915, he was the third of four children born to Bess Brown and pioneering Folklorist and author John A. Lomax, with whom he started his career by recording songs sung by sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

The elder Lomax, a former professor of English at Texas A&M and a celebrated authority on Texas Folklore and cowboy songs, had worked as an administrator, and later Secretary of the Alumni Society, of the University of Texas.

Because of childhood asthma, chronic ear infections, and generally frail health, Lomax had mostly been home schooled in elementary school. In Dallas, he entered the Terrill School for Boys (a tiny prep school that later became St. Mark's School of Texas). Lomax excelled at Terrill and then transferred to the Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Connecticut for a year, graduating eighth in his class at age 15 in 1930. Because of his mother's declining health, however, rather than going to Harvard as his father had wished, Lomax matriculated at the University of Texas at Austin. A roommate, future anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, recalled Lomax as "frighteningly smart, probably classifiable as a genius", though Goldschmidt remembers Lomax exploding one night while studying: "Damn it! The hardest thing I've had to learn is that I'm not a genius". At the University of Texas Lomax read Nietzsche and developed an interest in philosophy. He joined and wrote a few columns for the school paper, The Daily Texan but resigned when it refused to publish an editorial he had written on birth control. At this time he also he began collecting "race" records and taking his dates to black-owned night clubs, at the risk of expulsion. During the spring term his mother died, and his youngest sister Bess, age 10, was sent to live with an aunt. Although the Great Depression was rapidly causing his family's resources to plummet, Harvard came up with enough financial aid for the 16-year-old Lomax to spend his sophomore year there. He enrolled in philosophy and physics and also pursued a long-distance informal reading course in Plato and the Pre-Socratics with University of Texas professor Albert P. Brogan. He also became involved in radical politics and came down with pneumonia. His grades suffered, diminishing his financial aid prospects. Lomax, now 17, therefore took a break from studying to join his father's Folk song collecting field trips for the Library of Congress, co-authoring American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) and Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936).

His first field collecting without his father was done with Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in the summer of 1935.

He returned to the University of Texas that fall and was awarded a BA in Philosophy, summa cum laude, and membership in Phi Beta Kappa in May 1936. Lack of money prevented him from immediately attending graduate school at the University of Chicago, as he desired, but he would later correspond with and pursue graduate studies with Melville J. Herskovits at Columbia University and with Ray Birdwhistell at the University of Pennsylvania.

Alan Lomax married Elizabeth Harold Goodman, then a student at the University of Texas, in February 1937. They were married for 12 years and had a daughter, Anne (later known as Anna). Elizabeth assisted him in recording in Haiti, Alabama, Appalachia, and Mississippi. Elizabeth also wrote radio scripts of Folk operas featuring American music that were broadcast over the BBC Home Service as part of the war effort. During the fifties, after she and Lomax divorced, she conducted lengthy interviews for Lomax with Folk music personalities, including Vera Ward Hall and the Reverend Gary Davis. Lomax also did important field work with Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and the Bahamas (1935); with John Wesley Work III and Lewis Jones in Mississippi (1941 and 42); with Folk singers Robin Roberts and Jean Ritchie in Ireland (1950); with his second wife Antoinette Marchand in the Caribbean (1961); with Shirley Collins in Great Britain and the Southeastern US (1959); with Joan Halifax in Morocco; and with his daughter. All those who assisted and worked with him were accurately credited on the resultant Library of Congress and other recordings, as well as in his many books, films, and publications.

Assistant in Charge and Commercial Records and Radio Broadcasts

From 1937 to 1942, Lomax was Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress to which he and his father and numerous collaborators contributed more than ten thousand Field Recordings.

A pioneering oral historian, Lomax recorded substantial interviews with many Folk and Jazz musicians, including Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton and other Jazz pioneers, and Big Bill Broonzy. He also initiated some of the first (if not the very first) "man-on-the street" radio interviews of ordinary citizens.

On December 8, 1941, as "Assistant in Charge at the Library of Congress", he sent telegrams to fieldworkers in ten different localities across the United States, asking them to collect reactions of ordinary Americans to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war by the United States. A second series of interviews, called "Dear Mr. President," was recorded in January and February 1942.

In late 1939, Lomax hosted two series on CBS's nationally broadcast American School of the Air, called American Folk Song and Wellsprings of Music, both music appreciation courses that aired daily in the schools and were supposed to highlight links between American Folk and Classical orchestral music. As host, Lomax sang and presented other performers, including Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Josh White, and the Golden Gate Quartet. The individual programs reached ten million students in 200,000 U.S. classrooms and were also broadcast in Canada, Hawaii, and Alaska, but both Lomax and his father felt that the concept of the shows, which portrayed Folk music as mere raw material for orchestral music, was deeply flawed and failed to do justice to vernacular culture.

In 1940 under Lomax's supervision, RCA made two groundbreaking suites of commercial Folk music recordings: Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads and Lead Belly's Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs.

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Though they did not sell especially well when released, Lomax's biographer, John Szwed calls these "some of the first concept albums".

In 1940, Lomax and his close friend Nicholas Ray went on to write and produce a fifteen-minute program, Back Where I Came From, which aired three nights a week on CBS and featured Folk tales, proverbs, prose, and sermons, as well as songs, organized thematically. Its racially integrated cast included Burl Ives, Lead Belly, Josh White, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. In February 1941, Lomax spoke and gave a demonstration of his program along with talks by Nelson A. Rockefeller from the Pan American Union, and the president of the American Museum of Natural History, at a global conference in Mexico of a thousand broadcasters CBS had sponsored to launch its worldwide programming initiative. Mrs. Roosevelt invited Lomax to Hyde Park. But despite its success and high visibility, Back Where I Come From never picked up a commercial sponsor. The show ran for only twenty-one weeks before it was suddenly canceled in February, 1941. On hearing the news Woody Guthrie wrote Lomax from California, "Too honest again, I suppose? Maybe not purty enough. O well, this country's a getting to where it can't hear its own voice. Someday the deal will change". Lomax himself wrote that in all his work he had tried to capture "the seemingly incoherent diversity of American Folk song as an expression of its democratic, inter-racial, international character, as a function of its inchoate and turbulent many-sided development".

While serving in the Army in World War II Lomax produced and hosted numerous radio programs in connection with the war effort. The 1944 "ballad opera", The Martins and the Coys, broadcast in Britain (but not the USA) by the BBC, featuring Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, among others, was released on Rounder Records in 2000.

In the late 1940s, Lomax produced a series of commercial Folk music albums for Decca Records and organised a series of concerts at New York's Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, featuring Blues, Calypso, and Flamenco music. He also hosted a radio show, Your Ballad Man, in 1949 that was broadcast nationwide on the Mutual Radio Network and featured a highly eclectic program, from gamelan music, to Django Reinhardt, to Klezmer music, to Sidney Bechet and Wild Bill Davison, to Jazzy Pop songs by Maxine Sullivan and Jo Stafford, to readings of the poetry of Carl Sandburg, to hillbilly music with electric guitars, to Finnish brass bands – to name a few. He also was a key participant in the V. D. Radio Project in 1949, creating a number of "ballad dramas" featuring Country and Gospel superstars, including Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (among others), that aimed to convince men and women suffering from syphilis to seek treatment.

Move to Europe and later life

In December 1949 a newspaper printed a story "Red Convictions Scare 'Travelers'", that mentioned a dinner given by the Civil Rights Association to honor five lawyers who had defended people accused of being Communists. The article mentioned Alan Lomax as one of the sponsors of the dinner, along with C. B. Baldwin, campaign manager for Henry A. Wallace; New York Times music critic Olin Downes; and W. E. B. Du Bois, all of whom it accused of being members of Communist front groups. The following June Red Channels, a pamphlet edited by former F.B.I agents which became the basis for entertainment industry blacklist of the 1950s, listed Lomax as an artist or broadcast journalist sympathetic to Communism (others listed included Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Yip Harburg, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Burl Ives, Dorothy Parker, Pete Seeger, and Josh White). That summer, congress was debating the McCarran Act, which would require the registration and fingerprinting of all "subversives" in the United States, restrictions of their right to travel, and detention in case of "emergencies", while the House Un-American Activities Committee was broadening its hearings. Feeling sure that the Act would pass and realizing that his career in broadcasting was in jeopardy, Lomax, who was newly divorced and already had an agreement with Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records to record in Europe, hastened to renew his passport, cancel his speaking engagements, and plan for his departure, telling his agent he hoped to return in January "if things cleared up". He set sail on September 24, 1950, on board the steamer RMS Mauretania. Sure enough, in October, FBI agents were interviewing Lomax's friends and acquaintances. Lomax never told his family exactly why he went to Europe, only that he was developing a library of world Folk music for Columbia. Nor would he ever allow anyone to say he was forced to leave. In a letter to the editor of a British newspaper, Lomax took a writer to task for describing him as a "victim of witch-hunting", insisting that he was in the UK only to work on his Columbia Project.

Lomax spent the 1950s based in London, from where he edited the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, an anthology issued on newly invented LP records. He spent seven months in Spain, where, in addition to recording three thousand items from most of the regions of Spain, he made copious notes and took hundreds of photos of "not only singers and musicians but anything that interested him – empty streets, old buildings, and country roads", bringing to these photos, a concern for form and composition that went beyond the ethnographic to the artistic". He drew a parallel between photography and Field Recordings:

Recording Folk songs works like a candid cameraman. I hold the mike, use my hand for shading volume. It's a big problem in Spain because there is so much emotional excitement, noise all around. Empathy is most important in field work. It's necessary to put your hand on the artist while he sings. They have to react to you. Even if they're mad at you, it's better than nothing.

When Columbia Records producer George Avakian gave jazz arranger Gil Evans a copy of the Spanish World Library LP, Miles Davis and Evans were "struck by the beauty of pieces such as the 'Saeta', recorded in Seville, and a panpiper's tune ('Alborada de Vigo') from Galicia, and worked them into the 1960 album, Sketches of Spain".

For the Scottish, English, and Irish volumes, he worked with the BBC and Folklorists Peter Douglas Kennedy, Scots poet Hamish Henderson, and with the Irish Folklorists Séamus Ennis, recording among others, Margaret Barry and the songs in Irish of Elizabeth Cronin; Scots ballad singer Jeannie Robertson; and Harry Cox of Norfolk, England, and interviewing some of these performers at length about their lives.

In 1953 a young David Attenborough commissioned Lomax to host six 20 minute episodes of a BBC TV series, The Song Hunter, which featured performances by a wide range of traditional musicians from all over Britain and Ireland, as well as Lomax himself. In 1957 Lomax hosted a Folk music show on BBC's Home Service called 'A Ballad Hunter' and organized a skiffle group, Alan Lomax and the Ramblers (who included Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and Shirley Collins, among others), which appeared on British television. His ballad Opera, Big Rock Candy Mountain, premiered December 1955 at Joan Littlewood's Theater Workshop and featured Ramblin' Jack Elliot. In Scotland, Lomax is credited with being an inspiration for the School of Scottish Studies, founded in 1951, the year of his first visit there.

Lomax and Diego Carpitella's survey of Italian folk music for the Columbia World Library, conducted in 1953 and 1954, with the cooperation of the BBC and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, helped capture a snapshot of a multitude of important traditional Folk styles shortly before they disappeared. The pair amassed one of the most representative Folk song collections of any culture. From Lomax's Spanish and Italian recordings emerged one of the first theories explaining the types of Folk singing that predominate in particular areas, a theory that incorporates work style, the environment, and the degrees of social and sexual freedom.

Return to the United States

Upon his return to New York in 1959, Lomax produced a concert, Folksong '59, in Carnegie Hall, featuring Arkansas singer Jimmy Driftwood; the Selah Jubilee Singers and Drexel Singers (Gospel groups); Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim (Blues); Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (Bluegrass); Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger (Urban Folk revival); and The Cadillacs (a Rock n Roll group). The occasion marked the first time Rock n Roll and Bluegrass were performed on the Carnegie Hall Stage. "The time has come for Americans not to be ashamed of what we go for, musically, from primitive ballads to Rock n Roll songs", Lomax told the audience. According to Izzy Young, the audience booed when he told them to lay down their prejudices and listen to Rock n Roll. In Young's opinion, "Lomax put on what is probably the turning point in American Folk music . . . . At that concert, the point he was trying to make was that Negro and white music were mixing, and Rock n Roll was that thing".

Alan Lomax had met 20-year-old English Folk singer Shirley Collins while living in London. The two were romantically involved and lived together for some years. When Lomax obtained a contract from Atlantic Records to re-record some of the American musicians first recorded in the 1940s, using improved equipment, Collins accompanied him. Their Folk song collecting trip to the Southern states lasted from July to November 1959 and resulted in many hours of recordings, featuring performers such as Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, Wade Ward, Charlie Higgins and Bessie Jones and culminated in the discovery of Fred McDowell. Recordings from this trip were issued under the title Sounds of the South and some were also featured in the Coen brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Lomax wished to marry Collins but when the recording trip was over, she returned to England and married Austin John Marshall. In an interview in The Guardian newspaper, Collins expressed irritation that Alan Lomax's 1993 account of the journey, The Land Where The Blues Began, barely mentioned her. "All it said was, 'Shirley Collins was along for the trip'. It made me hopping mad. I wasn't just 'along for the trip'. I was part of the recording process, I made notes, I drafted contracts, I was involved in every part". Collins addressed the perceived omission in her memoir, America Over the Water, published in 2004.

Lomax married Antoinette Marchand on August 26, 1961. They separated the following year and were divorced in 1967.

In 1962, Lomax and singer and Civil Rights Activist Guy Carawan, music director at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, produced the album, Freedom in the Air: Albany Georgia, 1961-62, on Vanguard Records for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

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Lomax was a consultant to Carl Sagan for the Voyager Golden Record sent into space on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft to represent the music of the earth.

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Music he helped choose included the Blues, Jazz, and Rock n Roll of Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; Azerbaijani mugham performed by two balaban players, a Sicilian sulfur miner's lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, and the Georgians of the Caucasus; and a shepherdess song from Bulgaria by Valya Balkanska; in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more. Sagan later wrote that it was Lomax "who was a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western Classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible. There was, for example, no room for Debussy among our selections, because Azerbaijanis play bagpipe-sounding instruments [balaban] and Peruvians play panpipes and such exquisite pieces had been recorded by ethnomusicologists known to Lomax".


Alan Lomax passed away in Safety Harbor, Florida on July 19, 2002 at the age of 87.

World Music and Digital Legacy

Brian Eno wrote of Lomax's later recording career in his notes to accompany an anthology of Lomax's world recordings:

[He later] turned his intelligent attentions to music from many other parts of the world, securing for them a dignity and status they had not previously been accorded. The "World Music" phenomenon arose partly from those efforts, as did his great book, Folk Song Style and Culture. I believe this is one of the most important books ever written about music, in my all time top ten. It is one of the very rare attempts to put cultural criticism onto a serious, comprehensible, and rational footing by someone who had the experience and breadth of vision to be able to do it."

In January 2012, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, with the Association for Cultural Equity, announced that they would release Lomax's vast archive in digital form. Lomax spent the last 20 years of his life working on an interactive multimedia educational computer project he called the Global Jukebox, which included 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, and 5,000 photographs. By February 2012, 17,000 music tracks from his archived collection were expected to be made available for free streaming, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads. As of March 2012 this has been accomplished. Approximately 17,400 of Lomax's recordings from 1946 and later have been made available free online. This is material from Alan Lomax’s independent archive, begun in 1946, which has been digitized and offered by the Association for Cultural Equity. This is "distinct from the thousands of earlier recordings on acetate and aluminum discs he made from 1933 to 1942 under the auspices of the Library of Congress. This earlier collection — which includes the famous Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Muddy Waters sessions, as well as Lomax’s prodigious collections made in Haiti and Eastern Kentucky (1937) — is the provenance of the American Folklife Center" at the library of Congress.

On August 24, 1997, at a concert at Wolf Trap, Vienna, Virginia, Bob Dylan had this to say about Lomax, who had helped introduce him to Folk music and whom he had known as a young man in Greenwich Village:

There is a distinguished gentlemen here who came … I want to introduce him – named Alan Lomax. I don’t know if many of you have heard of him [Audience applause.] Yes, he’s here, he’s made a trip out to see me. I used to know him years ago. I learned a lot there and Alan … Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music. So if we’ve got anybody to thank, it’s Alan. Thanks, Alan.”

Steve Albini mentioned his admiration for Lomax as an influence on his production work. We're sure you'll know at least some of Albini's work.

External Links

Alan Lomax on IMDB

Archive of American Folk Song