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Biographies Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002)

Alan Lomax (January 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002) spent almost 70 years as a folklorist and ethnographer, collecting, archiving, and analyzing folksongs and music in America. His career began in 1933, when his father, John Lomax, was asked to be the new head of the Archive of American Folk Song, which had been established at the Library of Congress in 1928. In this role, the elder Lomax took charge of a large repository of manuscripts and cylinders. Soon after taking over, John enlisted his son Alan’s aid in expanding that collection through disk recordings. After several years of collecting, Alan became the Archive’s “Assistant in Charge” in 1937, and he continued to make field trips and create recordings for the Library of Congress until 1942.

Alan Lomax (left), age 20, and an unidentified child on board a boat during the Library of Congress field trip to the Bahamas, 1935. Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division (LOT 7414-H, no. N251-1)

Either alone or with his father, Alan spent these Library of Congress years traveling all over the United States carrying an instantaneous disk recorder and often a camera. His signature field trips included some of the earliest to document traditional music in Louisiana External (including Cajun music), in Michigan and the Midwest (including music of numerous European ethnic communities), and in the American south (including ballads and fiddle tunes of the Appalachian Mountains and blues from the Mississippi Delta). One of his musical friends who came along to help was Pete Seeger, who is often called the Archive’s first intern. Seeger worked at the Library with Alan in the late 1930s, and assisted him with field collecting in the South. Along with important collaborators including Seeger, his father John Lomax, his wife Elizabeth, and colleagues from other institutions (such as Fisk University’s John Wesley Work III), Alan was the first to record Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Aunt Molly Jackson, and an enormous number of other significant traditional musicians.

During his years at the Library of Congress, Alan also worked to bring folk music to nationwide popular audiences. With his father and on his own, Alan published many books, including American Ballads and Folk Songs, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, and Our Singing Country (with Ruth Crawford Seeger). He produced radio shows for the Columbia Broadcasting System, which were among the earliest to present folk music to national audiences. Such figures as Seeger, Lead Belly, and Burl Ives were regulars on his programs.

Alan Lomax on the air as Your Ballad Man, Mutual radio network, 1948.

Lomax’s work with Lead Belly, which is considered the first extended biography of an American folk musician, made him realize the importance of documenting not only music, but also the stories that went with it. He became a pioneer of recording oral histories of vernacular musicians, which came to fruition in the eight hours of music and spoken recollections of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton that he recorded at the Library in 1938. He recorded four hours using the same oral history format with Woody Guthrie in 1940, and did similar recordings of other legendary folk singers including Vera Ward Hall, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson. These recordings became the basis of books, radio programs, record albums, and even Broadway shows, expanding the practice of oral history into the realm of popular culture. He also pioneered the recording of “man-on-the-street” interviews after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which were later the inspiration for such projects as StoryCorps External and AFC’s September 11, 2001 Documentary Project.

In the 1930s and 40s, Lomax frequently worked with concert organizers in New York and elsewhere, bringing folk music to the stage. These productions included a landmark benefit concert for Dust Bowl migrants held at the Forrest Theater in New York in March 1940. One of the performances was the stage debut of Pete Seeger. Another was by a gregarious Oklahoman named Woody Guthrie, whom Lomax had not met. After making Guthrie’s acquaintance, Lomax arranged the first extended recording session for Guthrie, the results of which are among the treasures of the AFC Archive. He also introduced Guthrie and Seeger, who became good friends and later traveled across the country together.

Lomax left the Library of Congress in 1942 to work for the Office of War Information and the Armed Forces Radio Service, producing folk music programming. He also worked with the BBC and other producers, bringing American folk music to allied troops. One of his projects was Transatlantic Call: People to People, in which he and Douglas Bridson presented man-on-the-street interviews on both sides of the Atlantic from all over Britain and the U.S. Another was The Martins and the Coys, a radio play written by his wife Elizabeth, and starring Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. It was about a bitter family feud in the southern mountains, whose participants decide to bury the hatchet and fight Hitler instead of one another. When the war was over, Lomax spent several years working with the People’s Songs organization in New York, for whom he organized concerts such as Blues at Midnight, Ballads at Midnight, Calypso at Midnight, and Calypso after Midnight. He also worked on folk music projects for Decca Records and for the Mutual Broadcasting Network.

Alan Lomax examines photographs with a performer, Aragon, Spain, 1952.

In the 1950s, the political climate became difficult for Lomax. His association with leftist organizations such as the Steinbeck Committee to Aid Farm Workers and People’s Songs, and his personal connections with Seeger and other suspected communists, put him squarely in the sights of the blacklist. He appeared in Red Channels, which made it difficult for him to find work. As a result, he moved to England and spent the next eight years recording traditional music in Europe instead of North America. He worked extensively with the BBC, bringing American, British, and European folk music to British audiences. With the BBC’s backing, and that of Columbia Records (for whom he produced the Columbia Anthology of World and Primitive Music), Lomax collected traditional music in England with Peter Kennedy, in Ireland with Seamus Ennis, and in Scotland with Hamish Henderson. He also recorded on the European continent, especially in Italy, where he recorded with Diego Carpitela, and in Spain, where he worked with Eduardo Torner.

Lomax returned to the U.S. in 1958. He continued to collect traditional music, and his famous “Southern Journey” fieldtrip of 1959-60 resulted in early stereo field recordings of blues, ballads, fiddle tunes, and gospel, as well as little-known traditions such as African American fife-and-drum bands, ring shout and related traditions from the Georgia Sea Islands, and dance music played on the “quills,” an American version of the panpipes. Selections from these recordings were released on the Atlantic and Prestige labels in the 1960s, and on the Rounder label in the 1990s, making them among the most widely-known field recordings in the world. During this period, Lomax also collected extensively throughout the Caribbean.

Alongside his collecting projects, Lomax became more and more fascinated with analyzing traditional music. His trips to Europe and the Caribbean gave him a comparative perspective, and this grew in the 1960s into a methodology he referred to as “Performance Style Studies.” This discipline has subfields called Cantometrics, Choreometrics, and Parlametrics, which aim to objectively describe and analyze the world’s music, dance, and speech traditions, and to correlate them with other aspects of culture. These remained Lomax’s major analytical projects for the rest of his life, yielding books such as Cantometrics and Folk Song Style and Culture, and documentary films such as Dance and Human History, Step Style, Palm Play, and The Longest Trail.

Alan Lomax (right) and John Bishop run the Steenbeck film editing station during the Choreometrics project, 1970s.

From the 1970s until his retirement in 1996, Lomax continued his work as a collector and commentator; he returned to some of his greatest collecting locales with video crews, to create television programs such as American Patchwork. He also conceived of multimedia projects such as The Global Jukebox, a database of traditional music and dance performances, which includes metadata informed by choreometric and cantometric analysis, allowing the user to explore the intersections of song style, dance style, and culture. All this work was supported by a foundation he established in 1983, the Association for Cultural Equity, which still manages the intellectual property rights to many of Lomax’s recordings, and which maintains a website presenting some of his greatest collections. Lomax’s work wasn’t even confined to Earth; in 1977, he was a consultant to Carl Sagan, and assisted in putting together a playlist of great recordings, including a wide variety of traditional song and music, which were launched into outer space aboard the space probe Voyager!

Alan Lomax retired in 1996, and died in 2002. In 2004, through the generosity of an anonymous donor, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress acquired the Alan Lomax Collection, which comprises all the material Lomax collected after he left the Library in 1942. With the acquisition, the American Folklife Center was able to bring the entire life’s work of this extraordinary collector and ethnographer together under one roof.

During his lifetime, Alan Lomax received many honors and awards, including the National Medal of Arts, the National Book Critics Circle award for his book The Land Where the Blues Began, a special Grammy Award in 2002 for his lifelong contributions to music, and a “Living Legend” award from the Library of Congress.

“Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music,” Bob Dylan once said. “So if we’ve got anybody to thank, it’s Alan.”

Selected Works at the Library of Congress