Triptych – part 1

ALAN LOMAX: b. Austin, TX; 31 January 1913/d. Tarpon Springs, FL; July 19, 2002.

What do blues singer Muddy Waters, the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and Moby’s multi-platinum album PLAY have in common? One degree of separation from Alan Lomax! They are not alone in that (1), while the list of those with two degrees of separation is even longer (Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan being two). And, you, dear reader, probably have only a fuzzy concept of who and what an Alan Lomax is, and why he is important. Not some faded pop star, no, Alan’s impact on the musics of the world was more than any pop star could imagine. To say that he was a notable individual in the world of the 20th Century is an understatement, for he reported on much of that world in a variety of ways. He was much more than the individual responsible for all of the “folk revivals” of the past century, or all the other things you might read about in his obituaries.

The headlines to those obituaries are somewhat confusing, and limited in properly describing him: “Dedicated chronicler of America’s musical traditions”(2); “Blues world mourns the ultimate collector”(3); “Alan Lomax, who raised voice of folk music in U.S., dies at 87”(4); “Blues archivist dies”(5). Even The Sydney Morning Herald’s “He gave voice to the voiceless”, while poetic and the best of them so far, is incomplete. Alan Lomax was more than blues, or folk music, or even America. He was the most significant figure in the past century in the fields of the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences (US definition) that the world has known. A one-off, the likes of which will never be seen again (and had not seen before, either)… cliched, but true. Lomax’s work reminds me of the lines of an old gospel hymn:

So high, you can’t get over it;                                                                                                             So low, you can’t get under it;                                                                                                               So wide, you can’t go around it;                                                                                                           You must come in at the door.

Certainly, Alan felt that “his” way was the only one and that all should come in through his door, but that is the way of the single-minded, isn’t it! One need not succumb to his monomania to appreciate what he had accomplished, for he was a cultural polymath – jack of all trades and master of most of them. A truly remarkable individual.

Consider the various “handles” that can be hung on him: Author, photographer, journalist, editor/compiler, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, sociologist, anthropologist, field recording technician, record producer, film maker, concert promoter/producer, talent scout, theatrical producer, oral historian, radio producer and personality, television host and producer, disc jockey, social activist, public servant, singer, philosopher… see what I mean? He is, of course, best known for the field recordings he made over half a century that indeed gave voice to the voiceless – that field-work alone marks him as an important individual. But what he did after making all those wonderful recordings takes Lomax into the realm of those few truly unique individuals of the century just finished. He wanted to “preserve”, yes, to document, but, even more, he wanted those folks he recorded to understand that their own unique forms of cultural expression (music included) were just as good and important to and for the world as the mass-produced and mediated forms of popular culture. And he subversively used those same media technologies to spread the word: recordings, radio, film, television, and print. Alan Lomax felt that all cultures were valid and valuable expressions of how human beings dealt with their world, and that all were necessary as examples of one’s humanity. They should, then, be honored, encouraged, and preserved.

Alan is best know for his recordings done through the American South in 1959 and 1960 (the sources of many of Moby’s samples), the region of his roots, and one he went back to time and again. But that ain’t all, folks! Beginning in 1933 (as a teen) with his father, John A. Lomax, Alan was engaged in a hands-on learning process of making recordings outside of formal recording studios. This was done under the aegis of the (then) Archive of Folk Song (now The Folklife Center) at the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC, an organization of which he became head curator during the second half of the thirties. Beginning with American Ballads and Folk Songs in 1934, he co-wrote and edited an important series of books with his father through to 1946’s Folk Song: USA. When he began having books published on his own, they ran the gamut from collections of American folk songs through oral history to an anthology of Black poetry, not to mention Folk Song Style and Culture (1968). His most recent book is the award-winning The Land Where the Blues Began, published in 1993 – it is part analysis and part memories of his field-trips.

Yet there is more to Lomax than the US-centered body of work from his years of collecting there, impressive though that may be. While he was terribly productive after leaving the Archive in 1942 (he was probably pushed) with various network radio series for CBS and Mutual that looked at the musical art of the people he had recorded, the political climate in the USA was not conducive or comfortable for Alan after WWII. With the beginning of The Cold War, even his efforts in the Army (radio broadcasts in support of the war effort) were not enough as the McCarthy era slid into place. In 1950 Lomax shifted his base of operations to England for almost a decade, where he took up his old habits once again… field recording and producing radio shows! This work was a major contribution to the English folk booms to come. He also was very busy recording outside of England: countries like Scotland, Italy, Ireland, or Spain, often with the assistance of the top folks in their region (7). He returned to the US at the end of the decade and was presented with his first stereo tape-recorder by Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun… that made possible the legendary trips of 1959/60 as he went back to his beloved South. As a result, Atlantic had first refusal and issued a set of seven LPs as “The Southern Heritage Series” (now issued on CD as “Sounds of the South” and reviewed in Rhythms #82, May 1999). Prestige Records tapped some of the remaining material for a dozen albums under their “Southern Journey” banner a bit later. In 1962, he went to the Caribbean for six months of island-hopping field-recording, and most recently he video-taped much “expressive folk behavior” for a great series of films, American Patchwork.

ALL of these sources of recorded sound are being presently utilized to create The Alan Lomax Collection of albums (the beginnings of which are covered in that same review) being assembled by Alan’s daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, and sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, through his organization The Institute For Cultural Equity at Hunter College in NYC. It is being lovingly released by Rounder Records (now distributed hereabouts by Planet Imports in Sydney). This series will probably get near 150 CDs(!) from all that Alan recorded or supervised in his more than a half-century career of field-recordings (save that owned by Atlantic). It includes previously released material, as well as “new” stuff, going all the way back to the 1930s, and it is all beautiful! “So high”, “so low”, “so wide” indeed.

Alan Lomax was a larger-than-life individual who generated strong feelings pro or con from those who had dealings with him. At the American Folklore Society’s annual conference in the early eighties in Pittsburgh, people were handing out buttons with Alan’s face on them, with the international red circle and slash superimposed. When I worked with him at the Library in 1978/79, the late Gerry Parsons (of the Archive) dubbed him “The Ayatollah” in honor of his autocratic ways, a sobriquet that spread quickly behind his back. Yet Muddy Waters (then McKinley Morganfield) was eternally grateful to Alan for his encouragement: Alan’s 1941/42 recordings of him (of which he sent disc copies to Mr. Morganfield) made Muddy realize that he, too, could make records and so he left Mississippi for Chicago soon after. (And, the rest, as they say, is history.) On a personal note, I spent almost a year with Lomax in very close quarters (he was a big man!) for six days a week at The Library of Congress working and shaping the material that has now become “The Deep River of Song” portion of the Lomax collection. We parted as friends, each having gotten what they wanted, and that friendship lasted until his recent death. On the one hand, single-minded geniuses often find it difficult to consider possibilities outside of their own personal focus, and certainly do not suffer apparent fools gladly! On the other hand, he was at least equally as often a caring and sensitive soul – he could not have been so successful in the field if it were otherwise. Always a great audience able to be surprised and overjoyed by a (for him) previously unheard musical performance, he never lost his enthusiasm for the music or the people.

As a writer and a thinker, Alan has been one of the creators of “oral history” as an acceptable pursuit – just ask Studs Terkel! His lengthy sessions in 1938 with jazz legend “Jelly Roll” Morton (possibly stimulated by the slave narratives being collected by The Library) were the foundation for his 1950 book, Mr. Jelly Roll. He must have done something right as it’s still in print, a touchstone for all oral historians since then. (I’m not sure, though, what to make of his opinion that “real” jazz (i.e. New Orleans polyphonic) was destroyed by the German band-masters of the Southwest… he blamed them for section-playing and tight arrangements!) On the other hand, his application of anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell’s microanalytic approach to aspects of human behavior such as song, dance, and speech would only have been possible for someone as driven, focussed, and knowledgeable as Lomax. They may or may not be dead ends (the jury’s still out), but he gave it a real go, and his “cantometric”, “choreometric”, and “parlametric” forms of analysis are also important and useful parts of his vast legacy.

Let’s face it… Alan Lomax was a romantic at heart. One of his most endearing features (or most annoying… depending!) was his great love of the act of singing – it infused his whole being! Also, his love of the people who created that which he collected is also romantic – he treated them with respect and not merely as “informants”. He grew up in a time when intellectual activity was looking for broad generalizations, and much of Alan’s intellectual creations and pursuits are just attempts: Cantometrics, Oral History, Choreometrics, “The Global Juke Box”, Parlametrics are all romantic attempts at making broad generalizations about life, as well as getting the details right. “The Global Juke Box” was his last long-term project, initiated before the ’net and is an attempt at making all the music from all the world available to all peoples! He wanted to democratize the arts world and do away with concepts such as “high” art, “popular” culture, or “primitive” peoples. These are the impulses of a true romantic and are also indicative of his left-leaning political perspective – the latter seldom popular with the powers-that-be in the United States in the best of times.

Alan Lomax was an unique man, one of voracious appetites and intense focus, one to whom the world at large owes a massive debt of thanks for all that he did to celebrate man’s humanity during his lifetime of noble efforts. His works will be a great resource for all who come now to study the social activities of the human animal, including music, and we will miss him greatly. Thank you, Alan, for such a life’s work as that.


* Peter B. Lowry is a regular contributor to these pages who lives in the Sydney area, and is a card-carrying folklorist/ethnomusicologist/photographer as well as a journalist/record producer/field recorder/teacher who considers himself to be, at best, a “lower shelf” Lomax!


(1) the list also includes Leadbelly, Aunt Molly Jackson, W.C. Handy, Memphis Slim, Gil Evans, Josh White, Ewan McColl, Zora Neale Hurston, Pete Seeger, Sid Hemphill, Hobart Smith, Sonny Boy Williamson, The Copper Family, Son House, Burl Ives, The Golden Gate Quartet, The Weavers, Hamish Henderson, Bessie Jones, Big Bill Broonzy, Woody Guthrie, Fred McDowell, Almeda Riddle, Jelly Roll Morton, Seamus Ennis, Diego Carpitelli, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Jeannie Robertson, Nicholas Ray, Jean Ritchie, Roswell Rudd, Robbie Casey, Clarence Ashley, Shirley Collins, George Pullen Jackson, Albert Grossman… and so it goes.

(2) The Guardian: 23/07/02.

(3) The Observer: 21/07/02.

(4) The New York Times: 20/07/02.

(5) The Sun-Herald: 21/07/02.

(6) The Sydney Morning Herald: 27/07/02.

(7) These recordings were delved into at the time for various LP series: “Folksongs of Great Britain” (Caedmon); “The World Library of Folk and Primitive Music” (Columbia); plus a series of LPs of Spanish material (Westminster).

Published: RHYTHMS (Melbourne): #122; Sept. 2002; pp. 36-38.

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1 Response to Triptych – part 1

  1. Meda Lerner says:

    THE complete and definitive obituary of Alan Lomax. Thanks, Peter B., for providing such insight and such an objective and honest portrait of this cultural giant.


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