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.

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

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