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[Detail] Woody Guthrie

Alan Lomax and the Archive of American Folk Song

Growing up in Texas in the 1870s and 80s, John Lomax was fascinated by the songs he heard around him. Cowboys sang ballads and farmers sang work songs that helped pass the time and keep the spirits up. He wrote down the lyrics to these and other songs sung by the common people of Texas, convinced that this folk music was worth documenting and studying.

Throughout the 1930s, Lomax did just that, as the Honorary Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song. Along with his wife, Ruby, and his son, Alan, he traveled the U.S., recording folk songs onto wax cylinders for the Library of Congress. A trip to the southern United States is represented in the American Memory collection, Southern Mosaic.

Apprenticed to his father, Alan Lomax became the first federally funded staff member of the Archive of American Folk Song as its "assistant in charge." In 1937, he was appointed the Director of the Archive, which he ran until 1942. It was Alan Lomax who recorded Woody Guthrie for the Archive after hearing him perform at a concert in New York City in 1940.

Many of the letters in this collection reflect the relationship between Alan Lomax and Guthrie and the activity of the Archive during the 40s and 50s. Use the index of Titles to identify letters to or from Lomax or other Archive employees.

In a letter to Guthrie dated December 13, 1941, Alan Lomax thanks Guthrie for providing a "list of informants in West Texas" that he passed along to his father and mentions a project documenting wartime opinion. On January 21, 1942, Lomax tells Guthrie that he played some of his songs for First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and asks him to contribute a song to a record of American ballads for the National Council of Teachers of English.

  • What do these letters suggest about the goals and activities of the Archive of American Song?
  • What were Guthrie's "informants in West Texas?"
  • Why might Lomax have played songs by the Almanac Singers for various people including Eleanor Roosevelt? What might this suggest about the mission of the Archive or Lomax's goals?
  • Why might the National Council of Teachers of English have wanted a record of American ballads?
  • What does the Archive's creation of this record suggest about its mission?

In a letter dated February 20, 1941, Guthrie expresses his regret that a radio show that Lomax produced, and which had featured Guthrie and other folk musicians, had been taken off the air. He wrote:

"...I'm sorry as hell to hear that Back Where I Come From is kicked off of the air. I wired to Nick asking him if I could possibly go back to work and he wired me that it was all off. Too honest again I suppose? Maybe not purty enough. Oh well, this country's a getting to where it caint hear its own voice. Someday the deal will change. I catch myself pretty often setting around thinking just how hard a dam time you must have, trying to get some of our upper crusts to listen to the real thing."

From Letter from Woody Guthrie to Alan Lomax, February 20, 1941 (page 1).

  • What does this letter suggest about Lomax's mission and its challenges?

In a series of correspondence with his colleague, Harold Spivacke, Lomax attempted to arrange for a second recording session with Guthrie. In his memo of January 22, 1942, Spivacke questioned the usefulness of a second session and on the 26th Lomax responded:

"...the group with which Mr. Guthrie is working is continually experimenting with the development and extension of the medium of American folk-song, and the record of their experiments will have much historical significance.... no commercial company's release will provide for us the sort of material which will some day make a study of his repertory and his continual production of new songs possible."

From Memo from Alan Lomax to Harold Spivacke, January 26, 1942 (page 1).

  • According to this passage, why did Lomax think that it was important to record Guthrie's songs?
  • Why did Lomax think that it was important that the Library of Congress record Guthrie's songs even if commercial companies were also recording his material?

Later that year, on June 7th, Guthrie offered to give the Library the manuscripts of 200 of his songs. Lomax officially accepted the donation on August 7th promising, "some day, when you are about ninety, we will put them in a big glass case upstairs, beside the Constitution..." In 1946, Guthrie offered to come to the Library for another recording session, but on October 2, 1950, Duncan Emrich notified Guthrie that the Library lacked the necessary funds.

  • What is the tone of correspondence between Lomax and Guthrie?
  • What can you determine about their relationship from these letters?
  • What can you determine about Alan Lomax's character?
  • What did Lomax and the Archive ultimately do for Guthrie? How did they impact his life?
  • What did Guthrie do for Lomax and the Archive?