Folk Hero

He practically built Woody Guthrie’s career and growled when Bob Dylan went electric. Meet Alan Lomax, the Austinite who changed American music.

November 1998By Comments

NOT EVERYONE HAS HEARD OF ALAN LOMAX, but the Austin native has been one of the most influential men in American music this century. As a teenager, he helped his father turn the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song into a true repository of American music. On his own, he expanded that collection with tens of thousands of field recordings of country, cowboy, black, Chicano, and other ethnic styles. He captured the first recordings of such future legends as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hobart Smith, and Son House—recordings that provided the basis for the American folk music movement of the forties and its revival in the early sixties and reverberated on into the rock explosion. He also recorded the diverse music of European and Caribbean nations, the first significant world music collections in this country. He wrote nearly two dozen books, everything from academic treatises to oral histories, on traditional American and world music and dance. Eventually he bound all his recordings and studies together through his own system of cantometrics, which attempts to codify traditional music around the globe.

Today, at age 83, Lomax lives with his daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis in the Greek fishing village of Tarpon Springs, Florida. He suffered two strokes in 1995 and has had a difficult time speaking ever since. Two days before he was felled by the second stroke, though, he signed a contract with Rounder Records that will result in the release of more than one hundred CDs of his recordings. The first thirteen, covering the music of the South, came out last year and this year, including two volumes of prison songs from the American South, single-artist “portrait” sets featuring calypso singer Growling Tiger and Mississippi bluesman Fred McDowell, a volume of Caribbean children’s songs, and a collection of Christmas songs from around the world. The next two years should see more portrait sets, some twenty volumes in a series from the Caribbean, a series of black music from the U.S. and the Caribbean called Deep River of Song that includes a set of cowboy songs titled Black Texicans and a set of work songs called Big Brazos, and music from Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and Venezuela. In addition Rounder is distributing videos of Lomax’s five hourlong documentaries on American music, which were shown on PBS in 1990 as the American Patchwork series. And several of his books are being republished, including Our Singing Country and Hard-hitting Songs for Hard-hit People. With all this and much more to come, and with renewed interest in American folk movements of the mid-century, everyone will soon learn who Lomax is—and why he’s so important.

His story begins with that of his father, John Lomax, who was born in Mississippi in 1867 but was raised from the age of two on a farm on the Bosque River in Meridian. After earning his degree in English literature from the University of Texas at Austin in 1899, John took a series of on-campus jobs. In 1906 he moved to Massachusetts to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard. Four years later, fascinated by the singing he first heard back on the Bosque, he published his first collection of songs, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, which included a version of “Home on the Range” sung by a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio. Though controversial—John collected and copyrighted some “folk” songs that had already been copyrighted—the book was generally well received and inspired a new generation who went “into the field” to find songs rather than waiting for the songs to find them. John hit the lecture circuit while continuing to collect and publish songs as time permitted, but by the late twenties, needing to support a wife and three children, he took up banking in Dallas. When the stock market crashed and the Depression set in, he lost his job and was free to pursue song-collecting exclusively.

In 1933 he hit the road with his third child, eighteen-year-old Alan, who had enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and then transferred to Harvard University. They visited lumber camps, prison farms, and other primarily black institutions isolated enough that the folk songs there would presumably be untarnished by contact with outsiders. From the beginning, father and son had serious differences. Conservative John thought that liberal Alan viewed their black subjects too idealistically. Stern and formal, John objected to Alan’s politics. When it became clear that Alan’s inclinations were outright communistic—he’d been arrested for giving a communist speech at Harvard—John felt thwarted, even though Alan would make significant professional achievements, becoming the most revered traditional-music archivist in the land.

That trip in ’33 took them to Angola Prison, in Louisiana, where they first made contact with Leadbelly, the awesomely resourceful songster from the Caddo Lake area. Eventually, the burly con won parole and became John and Alan’s driver and aide; when they brought him to New York, he won immediate acceptance with songs like “Goodnight, Irene.” Also in 1933, John was appointed honorary consultant at the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Song (which had been established five years earlier). This meant the library would supply all of the recording equipment with the understanding that the Lomaxes would deposit the records they made there. Over the next three decades, this arrangement transformed the library from a repository for a few private collections into a true representation of the depth and breadth of traditional American music.

In 1934 Alan and John jointly published American Ballads and Folk Songs. As John (who died in 1947, at age eighty) decelerated his activities, Alan went into overdrive, bouncing between New York City, Washington, D.C., and the field. He was always on the move, with little time for small talk unless it involved a stiff drink and a woman. In 1935, traveling through the island communities of Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas with black novelist Zora Neale Hurston, he blackened his face. In 1938, while tending the Archive of Folk Song, he staged eight hours of recordings by aging New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton and interviewed him to create the oral history Mr. Jelly Roll. After heading into the Mississippi Delta in 1941 to find the elusive and, it turned out, late bluesman Robert Johnson, Alan recorded the first songs ever by Muddy Waters, at Stovall’s Plantation outside Clarksdale. (This trip was later documented in the American Patchwork episode “The Land Where the Blues Began,” which was the basis for the 1993 National Book Critics Award winner of the same title.)

Alan had a knack for finding musicians overlooked by other ethnomusicologists, and he worked quite differently from those who preceded him. They generally tolerated inferior equipment; he kicked and screamed to see that he had state-of-the-art electronics. They set their gear up, put the musicians in front of the microphone, and stepped aside to listen; he was careful about mike placement, and when the music sounded good, he might smile, nod his head, and let out a little whoop of approval to keep the atmosphere ripe. When he played a recording back, most of these performers from the backwoods of America were hearing their voices for the first time, which fired them up for their next song. His combination of meticulousness and informality resulted in a clarity and liveliness seldom heard on musicological work. “I was always academic,” he insists, but his recordings hold their own technically against the commercial, major-label output of the day.

“I found out what I was really doing was giving an avenue for people to express themselves and tell their side of the story,” he said in 1991. Typical of the folkies of that era, Alan was equal parts student, teacher, and crusader, communist and idealistic patriot; he was zealous about folk music because it exalted the common American ignored by other art forms. He almost single-handedly built Woody Guthrie’s career, helping the Oklahoman get a record deal and booking him on radio and concert shows. On Lomax’s early forties radio shows Wellsprings of Music and American School of the Air, he brought out guests and played tunes himself, discussing each one. The 1940 show Back Where I Come From featured such radical music and casual mixing of blacks and whites that it never found a sponsor. His Greenwich Village apartment became an boardinghouse for the performers he was presenting in concert—especially the black ones, who couldn’t get rooms outside Harlem.

But just as the folk music scene looked to become a mass movement, McCarthyism stepped in. The Weavers, who best personified the folk movement—and actually had a number one hit with Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene”—were ripped apart by informers. John Henry Faulk, Alan’s best friend since his days at UT, was about to lose his New York radio show and end up on the blacklist. In 1950 Alan talked Columbia Records into funding a European song-collecting trip. He would ultimately be gone seven years.

His work in Europe went much as it had in America. Basing himself in England, he did a BBC radio show and opened his home to itinerant folksingers, while recording everyone he could; soon, a full-scale folk revival was under way. In Spain he moved around constantly to avoid Franco’s troops, but he recorded indigenous music that had never been documented before. (Miles Davis, at a loss for material for his landmark Sketches of Spain album with Gil Evans, turned to the Lomax recordings for two pieces.) In impoverished, post-war Capri, much of the population remained in mountainous areas, the folk music preserved. The commercially released recordings from this trip, which stayed in print until CDs replaced vinyl, were the closest thing to a world-music collection America had.

When he returned to the States, Alan was surprised to find that the pre-McCarthy folk movement had been replaced by a folk revival. And again, his work was at the center of it: “Abilene” and “House of the Rising Sun” are just a couple of the songs he first collected that later became commercial hits. With funding from Atlantic Records, Alan took off on new trips through the South in 1959 and 1960 and returned with material for another series of albums.

Folk music became so huge that, like all pop trends, it would soon be replaced by something cooler. In 1965 one of the heroes of that folk movement—a skinny, surly kid named Bob Dylan—played a set of electric music at the Newport Folk Festival. As Dylan wailed, Alan and Pete Seeger (who’d first entered the folk world as Alan’s assistant in 1939) scowled backstage. Next came folk-rock rock stars in garish clothes playing Alan’s cherished music-of-the-common-man so loud you couldn’t even hear the noble lyrics. He was through with field trips, so he took an apartment with Faulk on West End Avenue in Manhattan and concentrated on his writing.

Working with professors from Columbia University, he began shaping the discipline he calls cantometrics out of some ideas he’d been entertaining since his career began. “It took all that time to really understand it,” he says in his high-pitched voice, “because it was really complicated.” It’s a system that analyzes traditional music of the world for its rhythmic, melodic, and lyrical differences and similarities, which he finds are plentiful regardless of the cultures being compared. This, in turn, led to the creation of his Global Jukebox, a multimedia interactive database that explores relationships between song, dance, and social structure in more than six hundred cultures.

Alan was working on the database when the strokes hit. He never finished it, but the Association for Cultural Equity, a Manhattan foundation set up by Alan and Anna and overseen by staff editor and Alan Lomax Collection archivist Matt Barton, is searching for money so that someone else can. Meanwhile, old tapes of Alan’s are being restored so that more albums can be put together for the Rounder series. He’s well enough to listen to them and recommend particular tracks, but that’s about all he can do. “I did all those things, and I got pretty good at it,” he says of the recordings. That’s an understatement; he was the very best.

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