Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


LOMAX, John and Allan

John Avery Lomax (b 23 September 1875, Goodman, Mississippi; d 26 January 1948, Greenville), and his son Alan (b 31 January 1915, Austin, Texas; d 19 July 2002, Safety Harbor, Florida), folklorists, song collectors, archivists, and authors.

John Lomax began collecting songs as a child. He obtained degrees at the University of Texas, where an English teacher told him that his collection was of no value, and at Harvard, where he was encouraged by George Lyman Kittredge (1860-1941), who had published books on English and Scottish ballads. (See also entry for Francis James Child.) Using Edison cylinder equipment and subsidized by a publisher, Lomax collected songs for three years; Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads was published in 1910 (containing 122 songs, 18 with music; revised 1937), and Songs Of The Cattle Trail And Cow Camp followed in 1917. He held academic posts, and also worked in banking; when the bank failed he became a full-time folklorist with teenaged Alan helping. The Library of Congress provided portable recording equipment in 1933, and American Ballads And Folk Songs was published in 1934, the same year Lomax became an honorary consultant and head of the LoC's Archive of Folk Music. (The archive was founded in 1928, supported by donations until 1937, and by 1990 had over 26,000 recordings from cylinders to tape, 3,000 78s made by John and Alan in the 1930s alone; also commercial recordings, books, periodicals, dissertations etc.) Working together and finally as Alan's career began, they recorded Leadbelly in a Louisiana prison in 1933, Bukka White at Parchman Farm in 1940 and Muddy Waters at Stovall in 1941-2, both in Mississippi, and many others. A biography, Last Cavalier: The Life And Times Of John A. Lomax, by Nolan Porterfield, was published in 1997.

John had co-authored a collection of transcriptions of field recordings called Our Singing Country in 1941, in which, for example, Aaron Copland found 'Bonaparte's Retreat', as played by a fiddler named Bill Stepp, which Copland then incorporated in his ballet score Rodeo. Folklorist Stephen Wade tracked down the descendants of twelve of the musicians who recorded for the LoC between 1934 and 1942, including Stepp, and published The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and American Experience (University of Illinois Press, 2012) about where some of the beauty came from.

Alan attended the University of Texas, Harvard, and Columbia; he began broadcasting on Columbia's School of the Air in 1939. As assistant archivist at the LoC 1937-42 he made one of the most valuable archive recordings in jazz history: the playing, singing, and reminiscences of Jelly Roll Morton, in 1938.

Alan subsequently studied on field trips and wrote about Haitian, Bahamian, English, Scottish, Irish, Italian, and Spanish folk music; he worked for Decca Records 1947-9, produced an 18-volume set of traditional material for Columbia in the mid-1950s, and co-edited a ten-disc set in Britain 1960-1; a seven-disc set of Southern Folk Music Heritage on Atlantic resulted from perhaps the last such field trip to take place in the U.S. (The British Folksinger Shirley Collins was his assistant.) His work in broadcasting included collaboration with Ewan MacColl on UK radio's Ballads And Blues. He lived in the UK 1950-7 and effected the first meeting of MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, of great importance to postwar Folk there. He was also occasionally a singer, but protested that his heroes Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, etc. were very much better at it. He produced concert/recitals and was a consultant for Folk festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, where in 1965 he temporarily forgot that he dealt with living art forms, disapproving along with many others of electric blues, long thriving on the south side of Chicago and elsewhere.

Alan's publications included Mister Jelly Roll (1949), a fictionalized biography of Morton; The Rainbow Sign (1950) (about a black American preacher and folksinger), The Penguin Book Of American Folk Songs (1961), and Folk Song Style And Culture (1968); The Land Where The Blues Began won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. He was engaged for many years in the cantometrics department at Columbia University, attempting to classify traditional songs and dances in a sort of global juke box (he said that Albert Einstein had told him to go for it).

Like a lot of people who have done important work -- John Hammond's name springs to mind -- Alan Lomax had a highly developed sense of his own importance. His attitude could be patronizing. Researching his biography of John Lomax, Porterfield read John's correspondence; during a 1933 trip to Texas, Porterfield wrote, 'Lomax observed that Alan was inclined to romanticize the conditions of the poor and rustic, and thus was disappointed that many of the blacks they had visited owned their farms and were relatively prosperous.' Alan's prize-winning last book contained some inaccuracies. Two field trips to Coahoma County, Mississippi, in the early 1940s were conflated into one. The project had been planned by Fisk University, but after Lomax got involved he took all the credit. John Wesley Work III, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., all black, all associated with Fisk, and all possessing scholarly credentials that Lomax lacked, were all deeply involved in the research, but they all got short shrift in Lomax's book 50 years later. In that segregated time and place, it was obviously an advantage to have a white man along from the LoC, but equally the black artists were going to relate differently to a black researcher; part of the way through Work's interview with Muddy Waters, Lomax jumped in and took over, and the whole tenor of the interview changed.

Work in particular was a trained musician as well as a scholar, whose grandfather, the first John Wesley Work, born a slave, had trained some of the singers who later sang in the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. That famous group was in turn organized by John Wesley Work II, who also led Fisk's male quartet, which recorded for Victor, Edison and Columbia, and published a book, Folk Song Of The American Negro, in 1915. Work recorded valuable observations and transcribed a great many songs in Coahoma County, and his manuscript was mislaid more than once by the LoC, but the research of Work, Adams and Jones has now been recovered, edited and annotated by Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov, and published as Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University - Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942, by Vanderbilt University Press in 2005 (from which some of this information has come).

The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler on Rounder in 1997 was an excellent taster for a projected series of up to 100 CDs of Alan Lomax's world-wide field recordings. A few of the tracks included in the series were actually made by Work.