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Biography John Avery Lomax (1867-1948)

Image: John A. Lomax (left) and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Mrs. Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Alabama.
John A. Lomax (left) and Uncle Rich Brown at the home of Mrs. Julia Killingsworth near Sumterville, Alabama. Photo by Ruby Terrill Lomax, October, 1940. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsc-00356.

John Avery Lomax was born in Goodman, Mississippi, on September 23, 1867, and grew up on the Texas frontier, just north of Meridian in rural Bosque County. A Texan at heart, if not by birth, his early years on the family farm accustomed him to the hard work that, along with a boundless energy, became a hallmark of his life and career.

After teaching in rural schools for a few years, Lomax entered the University of Texas in 1895, specializing in English literature. In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, he recounts the story of his arrival at the university with a roll of cowboy songs he had written down in childhood. He showed them to an English professor, only to have them discounted as "cheap and unworthy," prompting him to take the bundle behind the men's dormitory and burn it.[1] His interest in folksongs thus rebuffed, Lomax focused his attentions on more acceptable academic pursuits. After graduation, he worked at the University of Texas as registrar, manager of Brackenridge Hall (the men's dormitory on campus), and personal secretary to the president of the university. In 1903, he accepted an offer to teach English at Texas A&M University and settled down with his new wife, Bess Brown Lomax, to what promised to be a quiet life in the country.

Bucolic country living did not suit Lomax for long, however: in 1907, he jumped at the chance to attend Harvard University as a graduate student. Here he had the opportunity to study under Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge, two renowned scholars who actively encouraged his interest in cowboy songs. This experience changed the course of Lomax's life and work. Both Wendell and Kittredge continued to play an important advisory role in his career long after he returned to Texas the following year, Masters of Arts degree in hand, to resume his teaching position at A&M. Encouraged by Wendell, he applied for, and was awarded, a Sheldon grant to research and collect cowboy songs. The resulting anthology, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, was published in 1910 to critical and popular acclaim.

Around the same time, Lomax and Professor Leonidas Payne of the University of Texas co-founded the Texas Folklore Society, following Kittredge's suggestion that Lomax establish a Texas branch of the American Folklore Society. Lomax and Payne hoped that the society would further their own research while kindling an interest in folklore among like-minded Texans. On Thanksgiving Day, 1909, Lomax nominated Payne as president of the society, and Payne nominated Lomax as secretary. The two set out to marshal support, and a month later, Killis Campbell, an associate professor at the university, publicly proposed the formation of the society at a meeting of the Texas State Teachers Association in Dallas. By April 1910, there were ninety-two charter members (one of whom was Lomax's former student, John B. Jones, who is featured in this collection).

The society grew gradually over the next decade, with Lomax steering it forward. At his invitation, Kittredge and Wendell attended its meetings. Other early members were Stith Thompson and J. Frank Dobie, who both began teaching English at the university in 1914. At Lomax's recommendation, Thompson became the society's secretary/treasurer in 1915. In 1916, Thompson edited the first volume of the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, which Dobie reissued as Round the Levee in 1935. This publication exemplified the society's express purpose, and the motivation behind Lomax's own work: to gather a body of folklore before it disappeared, and to preserve it for the analysis of later scholars. These early efforts foreshadowed what would become Lomax's greatest achievement, the collection of more than ten thousand recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

In June 1910, Lomax accepted an administrative job at the University of Texas. Throughout the next seven years, he continued his research, and also undertook lecture tours, assisted and encouraged by his wife and children. All this came to an end in 1917, however, when Lomax was fired along with six other faculty members as the result of a political battle between Governor James Ferguson and the university president, Dr. R.E. Vinson. His academic career seemingly in ruins, Lomax moved to Chicago to accept a job as a banker. Shortly afterwards, Ferguson was impeached and the Board of Regents rescinded its dismissal of the faculty, but Lomax did not return to his former job. Instead, he divided the next fifteen years between banking and working with various University of Texas alumni groups. During that time, he did minimal song research; without ready access to a major library, most of the research he did do was through correspondence.

Tragedy struck the Lomax family in 1931, when Bess Brown Lomax died at the age of fifty, leaving four children (the youngest, Bess, only ten years old) and a devoted husband. The following year, in hope of reviving Lomax's flagging spirits, John Lomax Jr. encouraged his father to begin a series of lecture tours. So the Lomaxes took to the road once again, with John Jr. (and later Alan) accompanying the senior Lomax as salesman, manager, and personal assistant. In June 1932, they arrived at the offices of the Macmillan publishing company in New York. Here Lomax proposed his idea for an all-inclusive anthology of American ballads and folksongs. It was accepted, and he traveled to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song.

By the time of Lomax's arrival, the Archive already contained a collection of commercial phonograph recordings and wax cylinder field recordings of folksongs, built up under the leadership of Robert Winslow Gordon, Head of the Archive, and Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division. Gordon had also developed and experimented in the field with a portable disc recorder. Lomax made an arrangement with the Library whereby it would provide recording equipment (including recording blanks), in exchange for which he would travel the country recording songs to be added to the Archive. Thus began a ten-year relationship with the Library that would involve not only John but the entire Lomax family, including his second wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, whom he married in 1934. All four of John's children assisted with his folksong research and with the daily operations of the Archive: Shirley, who performed songs taught to her by her mother; John Jr., who encouraged his father's association with the Library; Alan, who accompanied John on field trips and in 1937 became the Archive's first paid employee as Assistant in Charge; and Bess, who spent her weekends and school vacations copying song text and doing comparative song research.

Thanks to a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, Lomax was able to set out in June 1933 on the first recording expedition under the Library's auspicies, with Alan (then 18 years old) in tow. John and Alan toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners such as James "Iron Head" Baker, Mose "Clear Rock" Platt, and Lightnin' Washington. Lomax often recorded in prisons in the hopes of finding an isolated musical culture "untouched" by the modern world, where, "Thrown on their own resources for entertainment, they still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies."[2] Not all of those whom the Lomaxes recorded were imprisoned, however: in other communities, they recorded K.C. Gallaway and Henry Truvillion. In July they acquired a state-of-the-art, 315-pound acetate disc recorder. Installing it in the trunk of his Ford sedan (pictured left), Lomax soon used it to record a twelve-string guitar player by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly," at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and during the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South. Like many early folklorists, Lomax sought to record traditional art forms that he saw as endangered by the widespread acceptance of popular music and the influence of radio and record players. Ironically, it was due to such modern inventions that he was able to preserve all that he did.

Lomax's enthusiasm for the new recording technology greatly influenced his own collecting methodology. These relatively new devices allowed the singer's own voice to be heard in every nuance and modulation, without, it was sometimes thought, the interference of the collector's written interpretation. The machine assumed the role of stenographer, and because of its accuracy, some collectors paid little attention to secondary documentation.

In 1934, Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, and he secured grants from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, for continued field recordings. He and Alan recorded Spanish ballads and vaquero songs on the Rio Grande border and spent weeks among French-speaking Acadians in southern Louisiana.

Lomax's contribution to the documentation of folk traditions extended beyond the Music Division through his involvement with two agencies of the Works Progress Administration. In 1936, he was assigned to serve as an advisor on folklore collecting for both the Historical Records Survey and the Federal Writers' Project. As the Federal Writers' Project's first folklore editor, Lomax directed the gathering of ex-slave narratives and devised a questionnaire for Project fieldworkers to use. This work was continued by Benjamin A. Botkin, who succeeded Lomax as the Project's folklore editor in 1938, and at the Library in 1939.

Lomax's involvement with the WPA brought him into contact with writers in the field, who in turn introduced him to a wider array of performers for his own song research. Two of these writers, Mrs. Genevieve Chandler, of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, and Ruby Pickens Tartt, of Livingston, Alabama, were instrumental in forming the content of the folksong collection made in 1939. Thanks to Ruby Pickens Tartt's extensive knowledge of her local community, for example, the Lomaxes were introduced to such singers as Dock Reed, Vera Hall, and Enoch Brown.

As Lomax continued his work, his field expeditions reflected his broadening scope of interest, as can be seen in the wide variety of genres recorded during the 1939 Southern States Recording Expedition. Lomax rarely wavered from his quest for old songs, however, taking advantage of the latest technologies to preserve the past. The materials in this collection reflect his unstinting effort to document cultural traditions that he saw as threatened by an encroaching modern world.

  1. John A. Lomax, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (New York: Macmillan Co., 1947), 32. [back to biography]
  2. John A. Lomax, quoted in the 1933 annual report of the chief of the Division of Music, Carl Engel, in Archive of American Folk Song: A History 1928-1939. Library of Congress Project, Work Projects Administration, 1940, p. 24. [back to biography]

Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip (American Memory)