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Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax - Musicologist,researcher,author,educator producer (1915 - 2002)

Musicologist, writer, and producer Alan Lomax spent over six decades working to promote knowledge and appreciation of the world’s folk music. He began his career in 1933 alongside his father, the pioneering folklorist John Avery Lomax, author of the best-selling Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). In 1934, the two launched an effort to expand the holdings of recorded folk music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (established 1928), gathering thousands of field recordings of folk musicians throughout the American South, Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast, as well as in Haiti and the Bahamas. Their collecting resulted in several popular and influential anthologies of American folk songs, including American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934); Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936), the first in depth biographical study of an American folk musician; Our Singing Country (with Ruth Crawford Seeger) (1941); and Folk Songs USA (1948).

After completing a philosophy degree at the University of Texas in 1936, Lomax conducted field research in Haiti with his wife, Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold. The next year, Lomax was appointed Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Song. In 1939, while doing graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, he produced the first of several radio series for CBS. American Folk Songs, Wellsprings of Music, and the prime-time series, Back Where I Come From,exposed national audiences to regional American music and such homegrown talents as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. Lomax also built on the interest created by his books, records, and broadcasts with concert series such as The Midnight Special at Town Hall, which brought 1940s New Yorkers blues, flamenco, calypso, and Southern ballad singing, all still relatively unknown genres. “The main point of my activity,” Lomax once remarked, “was... to put sound technology at the disposal of The Folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas.”

His experience interviewing Lead Belly encouraged Lomax to further explore the genre of oral biography. His conversations with Jelly Roll Morton, recorded in 1938 in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, formed the basis for “Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” (1949), a remarkable account closely following Morton’s narrative that is essential for anyone wishing to understand the history of jazz (and which has inspired two Broadway musicals). Lomax’s oral historical portrait of “Nora” in The Rainbow Sign (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1959) was based on the extensive interviews and recordings of Alabama folk singer Vera Hall he made in the late forties. “Blues in the Mississippi Night” (1947), an album of music and candid discussion by Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson, remains a classic recorded document of African-American social and musical history (it was reissued by Rounder Records in 2002). “Every time I took one of those big, black, glass-based platters out of its box,” Lomax wrote of the recording process, “I felt that a magical moment was opening up in time…. For me, the black discs spinning in the Mississippi night, spitting the chip centripetally toward the center of the table ... heralded a new age of writing human history.”

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