About Alan Lomax: American Music Historian, Field Collector, Producer, and Filmmaker (1915 

 December 26, 2021

About Alan Lomax: American Music Historian, Field Collector, Producer, and Filmmaker (1915 – 2002)


Alan Lomax (; January 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002) was an American ethnomusicologist known for his extensive field recordings of 20th century folk music. A musician himself, he is also a folklorist, archivist, author, scholar, political activist, oral historian, and filmmaker. Lomax produced recordings, concerts and radio shows in the United States and the United Kingdom, which played an important role in preserving the folk music traditions of both countries and helped launch the American and British folk revival of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. He first collected material with his father, folklorist and collector John A. Lomax, and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of pieces for the Library of Congress’s Archives of American Folk Songs songs and interviews, he is the curator of the archive. On aluminium and acetate discs.

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After Congress cut off funding for the Library of Congress’ folk song collection in 1942, Lomax continued to independently collect in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy and Spain, and the United States, using the latest recording technology to assemble a substantial American and international cultural collection . In March 2004, material captured and produced without LOC funding was acquired by the library, “Bringing together 70 years of Alan Lomax’s work under one roof at the Library of Congress, where it found a permanent home”. As the Cold War began, Lomax continued to speak out for the public role of folklore, even as academic folklorists turned inward. He spent much of the second half of his life advocating for what he called cultural equity, trying to lay a solid theoretical foundation through his Cantometrics research, which included a prototype Cantometrics-based educational program, the Global Jukebox. In the 1970s and 1980s, Lomax consulted for the Smithsonian Institution’s Folk Music Festival and produced a series of films about folk music, American Patchwork, which aired on PBS in 1991. In his seventies, Lomax completed a long-delayed memoir, where the blues begin (1995), linking the birth of Bruce to debt bondage, segregation, and forced labor in the American South.

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Lomax’s greatest legacy is the preservation and publication of recordings by many musicians of folk and blues traditions in the United States and Europe. Lomax is credited with discovering and bringing to a wider audience, including blues guitarist Robert Johnson, protest singer Woody Guthrie, folk artist Pete Seeger, country musician Burl Ives and country blues singer Lead Belly, among others. “Ellen has been struggling with nothing,” said Don Fleming, director of the Lomax Society for Cultural Equity. “He did it out of a passion for it and found ways to fund projects that were closest to his heart.”

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early life

Lomax was born in Austin, Texas in 1915, the third of four children born to Bess Brown and pioneering folklorist and author John A. Lomax.

A former professor of English at Texas A&M University and a noted authority on Texas folklore and cowboy songs, Lomax Sr. served as a University of Texas administrator and later as secretary of the alumni association.

Lomax was homeschooled most of his elementary school years due to childhood asthma, chronic ear infections and frailty. In Dallas, he attended Trier Boys’ School (a small preparatory school that later became St. Mark’s School in Texas). Lomax excelled at Terrill, then transferred to Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Connecticut for a year, graduating eighth in his class at age 15 in 1930.

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However, due to his mother’s declining health, Lomax did not go to Harvard, as his father had hoped, but attended the University of Texas at Austin. One roommate, future anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, recalls Lomax as being “very smart and probably classed as a genius,” though Goldschmidt remembers Lomax exploding while studying one evening : “Damn! The hardest thing I had to learn is that I’m not a genius.” At the University of Texas, Lomax read Nietzsche and became interested in philosophy. He joined and wrote several columns for the school newspaper, The Daily Texan But resigned after refusing to publish an editorial he wrote about birth control.

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At this point, he also began collecting “racial” records and taking dates to black-owned nightclubs, risking being fired. During the spring semester, his mother died and his youngest sister, Beth, 10, was sent to his aunt’s house. Although the Great Recession quickly decimated his family’s resources, Harvard provided Lomax, 16, with enough financial aid to spend his second year there. He studied Philosophy and Physics, and also took a distance informal reading course on Plato and Pre-Socrates with University of Texas professor Albert P. Brogan. He was also involved in radical political activism and contracted pneumonia. His grades suffered, denting his financial aid prospects.

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Lomax, now 17, took a break from studying to join his father’s folk songs, field trips for the Library of Congress, and co-writing American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) and Black folk song by Lead Belly (1936). In the summer of 1935, he completed his first field collection without a father with Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. That fall, he returned to the University of Texas and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, with honors, and became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in May 1936. Lack of funding prevented him from immediately entering graduate school at the University of Chicago, but he later corresponded with Melville J. Herskovits at Columbia University and went on to graduate school with Ray Birdwhistell at the University of Pennsylvania.

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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 with recordings in Haiti, Alabama, Appalachia and Mississippi. Elizabeth also wrote the radio script for a folk opera featuring American music, which was broadcast on the BBC Home Service as part of the war effort.

In the 1950s, after her divorce from Lomax, she conducted lengthy interviews for Lomax with folk musicians including Vera Ward Hall and Reverend Gary Davis. Lomax also performed 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); in Ireland with folk singer Lomax Bing Roberts and Jean Ritchie (1950); with his second wife, Antoinette Marchand in the Caribbean (1961); with Shirley Collins in the United Kingdom and the Southeastern United States (1959) ; with Joan Halifax in Morocco; and his daughter. All those who helped and worked with him are accurately recorded in the resulting Library of Congress and other recordings, as well as in his many books, films and publications.

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Assistant to Supervisor, Business Records and Radio Broadcasting

From 1937 to 1942, Lomax served as assistant director of the Folk Song Archives at the U.S. Library of Congress, to which he, his father, and numerous collaborators contributed more than ten thousand field recordings. A pioneering oral historian, Lomax has recorded numerous interviews with many folk and jazz musicians, including Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Jelly Roll Morton and other jazz pioneers, as well as Big Bill Broonzy. During a trip in 1941, he went to Clarksdale, Mississippi, hoping to record Robert Johnson’s music. When he arrived, locals told us that Johnson was dead, but another local – Muddy Waters – might be willing to record his music for Lomax. Lomax recorded Waters’ music using a recording device full of car trunks. Listening to the Lomax recordings is said to have motivated Waters to leave the Mississippi farm to work, first in Memphis and later in Chicago to pursue a career as a blues musician.

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As part of this work, Lomax traveled through Michigan and Wisconsin in 1938, recording and recording traditional music from the region. The collection’s more than four hundred recordings are now available at the Library of Congress. “He traveled in a 1935 Plymouth sedan, carrying a Presto instant compact disc recorder and a movie camera. When he returned nearly three months later after traveling thousands of miles on barely paved roads, he was carrying 250 compact discs and Eight reel films about Michigan’s incredible racial diversity, documenting traditional and professional folk life.”

In late 1939, Lomax hosted two series on CBS’ national radio show american aviation schoolcalled American Folk Song and source of music, these two music appreciation courses are broadcast daily in schools and should emphasize the connection 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. Individual shows reached 10 million students in 200,000 classrooms in the U.S. and also aired in Canada, Hawaii, and Alaska, but both Lomax and his father felt that the program’s concept of depicting folk music as purely orchestral material was seriously flawed and failed to Treat local culture fairly.

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In 1940, under the supervision of Lomax, the RCA produced two seminal commercial folk recordings: Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballad and Lead Belly’s Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison SongsAlthough they didn’t sell well at release, Lomax biographer John Szwed called these “some of the first concept albums.”

In 1940, Lomax and his close friend Nicholas Ray went on to write and produce a 15-minute show, back where i came from, which airs three nights a week on CBS, features folktales, proverbs, essays, sermons and songs, organized by theme. Its racially integrated cast includes Burr Ives, Lead Belly, Josh White, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. In February 1941, Lomax spoke and demonstrated his program at a global conference of 1,000 broadcasters in Mexico with Nelson A. Rockefeller of the Pan American League and the director of the American Museum of Natural History. Sponsored the launch of its global programming program. Mrs. Roosevelt invited Lomax to Hyde Park.

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Despite its success and high profile, back where i came from Commercial sponsors have never been selected. The show ran for only 21 weeks before it was abruptly canceled in February 1941. After hearing the news, Woody Guthrie wrote to Lomax from California, “I thought, too honest again? Maybe not pure enough. Oh, well, …

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