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Alan Lomax: 1915-2002
Alan Lomax
Collector, record producer, musicologist, writer

Born: January 31, 1915 in Austin, Texas
Died: July 19, 2002 in Sarasota, Florida

Famous Collector of Music In The Field

Copyright © 2002 


Alan Lomax became the 20th century’s most famous collector of folk songs and folkloric material in the course of a life devoted to a fervent opposition to the homogenising forces of commercialisation. He saw collecting as a matter of process and development rather than purely preservation, and once said that he believed in a principle of "cultural equity", in which every culture was entitled "to have equal time on the air and equal time in the classroom".

Although he disapproved of Bob Dylan’s turn to rock music in the mid-60s, Dylan accurately describe him as "a missionary". His work in collecting the blues and folk songs of the Americas, begun initially with his father, John Lomax (who died in 1948), and carried on throughout his life, did much to foster world-wide interest in the preservation of authentic cultural practices.

Many of the artists he recorded later became internationally famous, including blues singer Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, but that was not his primary concern. His passion lay in capturing and preserving the songs of the ordinary people, from cowboys in Texas to migrant workers in the Caribbean, and he believed that the real cultural legacy of mankind lay in that vast oral archive.

He graduated from the University of Texas in 1936 with a degree in philosophy, and went on to do graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, where he taught for much of his career. His collecting career had begun even before his graduation, working with his father in collecting and publishing the songs of the Texas cowboys.

Using the primitive and cumbersome recording equipment of the day, they went on to criss-cross the South many times over in search of the store of music deposited in the songs of anyone from plantation workers to prisoners (Leadbelly was serving a prison sentence in Louisiana when they first came across him).

Alan Lomax’s work in the 1930s included assembling a famous archive of sound recordings with the jazz pianist and singer Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of Congress (where John Lomax was then head of the Archive of Folk Music). The archive included both music and many of Morton's extravagant tales, and Lomax later wrote an important book on the pianist's colourful life and career, Mr Jelly Roll (1950).

Other celebrated field recordings of the era included prison recordings with Leadbelly in 1933, and the first tapes made of the singing of Muddy Waters in 1941, then still a tractor driver in the Mississippi delta. Alan Lomax also recorded an extensive archive of the songs and tales of Woody Guthrie in the early 1940s.

Much of this material was issued on Library of Congress recordings, bringing the music to a vast new audience, and establishing the careers of many of the performers. Lomax also produced many commercial recordings. A share in the copyright for Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene later provided valuable research funds from the royalties accrued on The Weavers' hit recording in 1950.

A distaste for the McCarthy era combined with a curiosity about European music brought Lomax to Britain in 1950. He lived in England until 1957, and collected music in England, Scotland (he later described the Gaelic traditions of the Scottish islands as "the finest flower of Western Europe"), Ireland, Italy and Spain. His work was fundamental in inspiring revivals of interest in local folk cultures in all of these places.

By the time he returned to the USA in 1957, his longed for folk revival was well under way, and the songs he had collected and published were now common currency.

He made the first stereo field recordings of American folk music in new collecting trips in the South in 1959-60, including the first recordings by the country blues artist Mississippi Fred McDowell. He returned to the Caribbean in 1962, and set up the basis of an archive of Caribbean music at the University of the West Indies.

His own academic research of the period at Columbia University centred on developing systems linking styles of music and dance to other social factors. He remained associated with Columbia until 1989, and began work on the concept of the Global Jukebox, a database of thousands of songs and dances cross-referenced with anthropological data, using video, text and sound. He moved his work on the project to Hunter College in 1989.

His academic work went hand in hand with his collecting and recording, and he also explored the medium of film and television, notably in the documentary The Land Where the Blues Began in 1985, and American Patchwork, a series of programs on American traditions for the public television network in the early 1990s. His subsequent book under the title The Land Where the Blues Began, a memoir of his travels in the south, won the National Book Critics Circle award for non-fiction in 1993.

In the course of his life, he was at various times a musicologist, author, disc jockey, singer, photographer, talent scout, filmmaker, concert and record producer, and television host.

It is impossible to exaggerate the impact of his work in the preservation of folk cultures, and he remained actively involved in Rounder Records’ reissue programme of 100 CDs devoted to his collecting in the late 1990s.

He feared the growing globalisation of culture would lead to the loss of the vital diversity of individual micro-cultures, and fought against that invasive domination throughout his life in the most direct and practical way possible.

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