The Lomax Legacy:
Folklore in a Globalizing Century
A Symposium Presented by The American Folklife Center
and The Association for Cultural Equity, New York
January 18-20, 2006,
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
AFC Conference Celebrates Alan Lomax
in Story, Song
(reprinted from the Library of Congress Gazette,
February 3, 2006)
an article by James Hardin
Alan Lomax had a genius for discovering genius. In his
travels throughout the United States, the legendary American
folklorist (1915-2002) met and recorded blues musicians
Son House, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Muddy
Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy. He was the first to record
Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Aunt Molly Jackson.
In Washington, D.C., in 1938, working at the Library of
Congress as assistant in charge of the Archive of American
Folk Song, he recorded the flamboyant jazz pianist and
composer Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, whose
work the Library celebrated with a concert and lecture
during a Jan. 18-20 conference on Lomax.
Lomax's legacy of research, scholarship, preservation
and dissemination of the music and music-makers he cherished
lives on, in recordings such as the new release of his
Morton recordings at the Library, and in the conference, "The
Lomax Legacy: Folklore in a Globalizing Century," celebrating
the life and work of Alan Lomax and AFC's 2004 acquisition
of the Lomax Collection.
The conference was sponsored by the American Folklife
Center (AFC), in cooperation with the Association for Cultural
Equity in New York City (ACE).
Peggy Bulger, Director of the American Folklife Center,
said the purpose of the symposium was "to examine
the persistence of past scholarship in the present, and
the resonance of Alan Lomax's pioneering work for
Conference coordinator Guha Shankar added that the AFC
wanted to find out "who is working now in the same
arenas where Lomax worked, and how their work is similar
to or diverges from his."
Lomax's interest in finding and recording folk culture
was global. During his 60-year career that began in the
1930s, while working alone and with his father, John A.
Lomax, his sister Bess, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Elizabeth
Barnicle, John Work and others, Alan Lomax conducted recording
expeditions not only in the United States, but also in
the Caribbean, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Spain and
With the material he collected, Lomax produced folksong
anthologies, films, and radio and television programs.
He developed a system for analyzing and studying folk music
and dance tradition and devoted himself tirelessly to disseminating
the creative work of remarkable performers and cultural
communities, using the latest technologies and media outlets.
At a time when many folklorists were concerned primarily
with song and story texts, paying little attention to music,
dance or the performers themselves, Lomax fell in love
with the intense vitality and creativity of traditional
life and sought to capture that experience in film and
recorded sound, both to preserve it for future generations
and to share it with the world. His mission was "to
get the best singers and storytellers, and get them heard
everywhere," said Robert Baron, of the New York State
Council on the Arts. "He was bigger than life," says
Lomax biographer John Szwed. "He had a fan's
passion, even a teenage fan's passion."
At the opening session of the two-day symposium portion
of the conference, keynote speaker Bill Ferris took up
the theme of Lomax's folksong collecting: "His
greatest legacy will always be his Mississippi field recordings."
Ferris noted an intimate connection between the national
library, with its mission to preserve a record of the history
and creativity of the American people, the American Folklife
Center's mission "to preserve and present American
folklife," and Lomax's mission to document
American and world traditional cultures.
"Their worlds are inextricably linked," said
Ferris, who is Professor of History and Senior Associate
Director of the Center for the Study of the American South
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and
former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"The Library of Congress has had a long and very
valued association with Alan Lomax," said Associate
Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum, who welcomed
Marcum noted that Lomax's life-long mission -- to
give voice to the world's many diverse cultural communities
through the use of the latest technology -- coincides
with several recent Library initiatives, such as the Global
Gateways Project, which is providing access to the Library's
rich international collections and to the resources of
other libraries and archives throughout the world.
A diverse group of scholars, cultural workers and media
producers gathered in the Library's Mumford Room
on the morning of Jan. 19 to reflect on Lomax's life
and work and discuss their own research, publications,
productions and advocacy. Panelists discussed the care
and management of the Lomax Collection material (including
matters of preservation, cataloging and access); intellectual
property rights, with a special emphasis on the rights
of traditional performers and indigenous communities; Lomax's
theories of music and dance, which he called cantometrics
and choreometrics; and the dissemination of Lomax materials
through radio and television broadcasts, published recordings
and the Internet.
Bill Westerman, of the Chicago Cambodian American Heritage
Museum, noted Lomax's concern that "mass media
was supplanting local music traditions and local voices."
According to Robert Baron, folklorist at the New York
State Council on the Arts, Lomax believed that a profit-motivated
society destroys diverse cultures. Lomax prodded and encouraged
folklorists to advocate for the folk, provide access to
traditions to a broad audience, return copies of documentary
material to the places of origin, and disseminate generally
recordings of traditional culture.
Lomax believed in the "inherent genius and viability
of every cultural community," said Jake Homiak, Director
of the Smithsonian's Anthropology Collection and
In addition to the two-day symposium, there were three
public events. On Jan. 18, Lomax biographer and Professor
of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University
and Louis Armstrong Professor of Jazz at Columbia University,
John Szwed, presented a lecture on Jelly Roll Morton in
the Coolidge Auditorium, in which Lomax interviewed and
recorded the great jazz pianist in 1938.
Composer and pianist Dave Burrell played examples of Morton's
work, as well as one of his own. All nine hours of the
recording session are now available in a new, uncut, unexpurgated
release from Rounder Records, Jelly Roll Morton:
the Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax.
In the evening, filmmaker John Bishop presented "Oss 'Oss,
Wee 'Oss, a film made in 1951 by folklorist
Peter Kennedy about the annual May Day celebration in Padstow,
England. The film featured cinematography by George Pickow
and was written and directed by Alan Lomax. Bishop also
showed a film he made of the same event in the same Cornish
town, 50 years later.
On Jan. 19, the National Chorus of the Church of God and
Saints of Christ, a traditional African American a cappella
choir from Belleville, Va., performed in an evening concert
at the Coolidge Auditorium. Alan Lomax had recorded the
choir in 1960, while making a film in Colonial Williamsburg.
Among the choir members Lomax recorded was Solomon Carey,
whose children Solomon Carey Jr., Aaron Carey and Sabrina
Johnson, presented several songs in honor of their father.
Also on the program, singing songs from the Luso-Hispanic
tradition collected during her fieldwork in rural Spain
and Portugal, was Judith R. Cohen, ethnomusicologist, performer,
and professor at York University, Toronto. Cohen's
work in Spain today parallels that of Lomax's in
Speaking during the symposium was Anna Lomax Wood, the
daughter of Alan Lomax. She directs the Association for
Cultural Equity in New York City, which carries on her
father's mission to further what he called "cultural
equity," the concept that all local and ethnic cultures
and traditions should be represented in the media and the
"Alan Lomax believed in the importance of making
sure cultural materials -- especially oral cultural
materials -- would be available to people. [During
Alan's career], we were at a threshold where many
of the [cultural expressions that people had developed
over many years] were in danger of being flushed away," she
said. Now devoted to her father's cause, and handling
matters pertaining to licensing the use of materials from
the collection, Anna Wood is mindful of her father's
high standards and dedication. "He never felt satisfied
with his day's work," she said.
The American Folklife Center maintains and provides research
access to the Alan Lomax Collection -- a treasure
house of ethnographic documentation including recordings,
manuscripts, photographs, films, and more -- the largest
of its kind in the world. Collection curator Todd Harvey
said the AFC aims to employ the highest standards of archival
preservation and conservation, honor the intellectual property
rights of the performers, provide consistent and timely
access, and work closely with ACE on all matters of mutual
concern and interest.
According to the ACE Website, Alan Lomax was a controversial
and complex figure in American life, regarded with affection
by many, including those he recorded in the field, and
resented by others for his occasional high-handedness.
Nick Spitzer, public radio host of the program "American
Routes," called him the "gigantic model of
the 20-century ethnographer" and said, "it
is liberating to think of the many different roles he played."
Filmmaker John Bishop had a final enigmatic characterization,
which elicited nods of understanding from conference participants: "He
could be very irritating, but he turns out to be right
about most things."
-- James Hardin retired from the American Folklife
Center in 2005