Alan Lomax, 1915–2002
Anyone who has seen the Coen Brothers' film O Brother Where Art Thou? or has heard its popular soundtrack album is familiar with Lomax's work. Two of the films' music recordings were made by Lomax, including the work song "Po' Lazarus," recorded in 1959 during one of his many research tours of the American South. Over the course of a career that spanned seven decades, Alan Lomax recorded and archived thousands of blues, Cajun, zydeco, norteño, jazz, calypso, gospel, and cowboy songs. The rich tapestry of American folk music we now take for granted would have been considerably impoverished without his work.
Lomax's boundless energy and enthusiasm for his subject were expressed not only in countless recordings, but also in books and documentaries. His career encompassed the skills of field recording engineer, record producer, journalist, author, photographer, filmmaker, disc jockey, concert promoter, radio and television commentator, and academic researcher—whatever it took to spread the word about folk music's importance. Lomax was arguably the most significant non-musician to affect the evolution of 20th century music. Although he disparaged many modern varieties of music as corruptions of original forms, there is no question that popular music would have taken vastly different directions without his influence.
The son of pioneering folklorist and musicologist John A. Lomax, the younger Lomax began his career as a teenager, working alongside his father, traveling throughout the South and West with massive, primitive recording equipment. On delicate acetate masters, they captured for posterity the musical expressions of field hands, farm workers, fishermen, and prisoners, later releasing the recordings on 78rpm records. Their efforts formed the foundation for the Library of Congress' folk music archive. Bluesman Muddy Waters and folksinger Woody Guthrie were among the dozens of talents discovered by the Lomaxes.
A 1936 graduate of the University of Texas, Lomax did work in anthropology at Columbia University. In 1937, he joined the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress as assistant director; with his father John serving as curator. By 1939, Alan had a regular program on CBS Radio's American School of the Air and later hosted a network folk music program called Back Where I Come From. He also hosted the 1948 Mutual Broadcasting System show On Top of Old Smokey. That year, he appeared onstage singing with Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, supporting the presidential campaign of former Vice President Henry A. Wallace.
In the 1950s, while anti-communist hysteria swept the United States, and many workers in creative fields were blacklisted from working, Lomax lived in England, studying British folk music under a Guggenheim fellowship. His collections of Spanish and Italian folk music from the same period helped to revive interest in those traditions among music fans in their native countries, as well as around the world. From 1962 to 1989, Lomax worked at Columbia University as a research associate in the department of anthropology and Center for the Social Sciences. His work there included research in "cantometrics and choreometrics," according to Jon Pareles of the New York Times, who described these fields of study as "systems for notating and studying music and dance to discover broad patterns correlating musical styles to other social factors, from subsistence methods to attitudes about sexuality." During his tenure at Columbia, Lomax continued to be an imposing figure in the folk music field. Bob Dylan, whose legendary electrified set at the Newport Folk Festival provoked howls of protest from folk music purists, later called Lomax a "missionary."
The importance of his work was not initially acknowledged, especially during the 1930s, when academics steeped in the European intellectual tradition dismissed jazz and blues as "jungle music." In 1989, Lomax moved to Hunter College, where he remained until retirement. A lifelong champion of the powerless and downtrodden, he frequently attacked the music industry's star system and tendency to homogenize music into easily digestible bits of pabulum. "It is the voiceless people of the planet who really have in their memories the 90,000 years of human life and wisdom," Pareles quoted Lomax as remarking. "I've devoted my entire life to an obsessive collecting together of the evidence." The Alan Lomax Collection, a series of more than 100 CDs of recordings made by him in the US, the Caribbean, the British Isles, and Europe, is available from Rounder Records.