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arsclist NYT: Alan Lomax, Who Raised Voice of Folk Music in U.S., Dies at 87
Alan Lomax, Who Raised Voice of Folk Music in U.S., Dies at 87
New York Times, 2.7.20
By JON PARELES
Alan Lomax, the legendary collector of folk music who was
the first to record towering figures like Leadbelly, Muddy
Waters and Woody Guthrie, died yesterday at a nursing home
in Sarasota, Fla. He was 87.
Mr. Lomax was a musicologist, author, disc jockey, singer,
photographer, talent scout, filmmaker, concert and
recording producer and television host. He did whatever was
necessary to preserve traditional music and take it to a
Although some of those he recorded would later become
internationally famous, Mr. Lomax wasn't interested in
simply discovering stars. In a career that carried him from
fishermen's shacks and prison work farms to television
studios and computer consoles, he strove to protect folk
traditions from the homogenizing effects of modern media.
He advocated what he called "cultural equity: the right of
every culture to have equal time on the air and equal time
in the classroom."
Mr. Lomax's programs spurred folk revivals in the United
States and across Europe. Without his efforts, the world's
popular music would be very different today.
"What Caruso was to singing, Alan Lomax is to musicology,"
the oral historian Studs Terkel said in 1997. "He is a key
figure in 20th-century culture."
In an interview, Bob Dylan once described him as "a
Mr. Lomax saw folk music and dance as human survival
strategies that had evolved through centuries of
experimentation and adaptation; each, he argued, was as
irreplaceable as a biological species. "It is the voiceless
people of the planet who really have in their memories the
90,000 years of human life and wisdom," he once said. "I've
devoted my entire life to an obsessive collecting together
of the evidence."
To persuade performers and listeners to value what was
local and distinctive, Mr. Lomax used the very media that
threatened those traditions. By collecting and presenting
folk music and dance in concerts, films and television
programs, he brought new attention and renewed interest to
"The incredible thing is that when you could play this
material back to people, it changed everything for them,"
Mr. Lomax once said. Listeners then realized that the
performers, as he put it, "were just as good as anybody
Mr. Lomax started his work as a teenager, lugging a
500-pound recording machine through the South and West with
his father, the pioneering folklorist John A. Lomax. They
collected songs of cowboys, plantation workers, prisoners
and others who were rarely heard.
"The prisoners in those penitentiaries simply had dynamite
in their performances," Mr. Lomax recalled. "There was more
emotional heat, more power, more nobility in what they did
than all the Beethovens and Bachs could produce."
Discovering the Greats
One prisoner recorded by the
Lomaxes in Angola, La., was Huddie Ledbetter, known as
Leadbelly, who began his singing career after John Lomax
helped secure his release in 1934. Alan Lomax produced
Leadbelly's albums "Negro Sinful Songs" in 1939 and "The
Midnight Special," prison songs performed with the Golden
Gate Quartet, in 1940. The Lomaxes held part of the
copyright to his song "Goodnight Irene," and the royalties
they received when the Weavers' recording of it became a
huge pop hit in 1950 helped finance their research trips.
Alan Lomax recorded hours of interviews with the New
Orleans jazz composer Jelly Roll Morton in the 1930's, an
early oral-history project that resulted in both a classic
12-volume set of recordings and a 1950 book, "Mister Jelly
Roll," which remains one of the most influential works on
In the early 1940's, Mr. Lomax made extensive recordings of
songs and stories by Woody Guthrie, both for the Library of
Congress and for commercial release on RCA Victor as "Dust
Bowl Ballads." In 1941, he made the first recordings of
McKinley Morganfield, a cotton picker and blues singer
better known by his nickname, Muddy Waters.
In 1997, Rounder Records began issuing its Alan Lomax
Collection, a series of more than 100 CD's of music
recorded by Mr. Lomax in the deep South, the Bahamas, the
Caribbean, the British Isles, Spain and Italy. A recording
Mr. Lomax made in Mississippi in 1959 of a prisoner, James
Carter, singing the work song "Po' Lazarus," opens the
multimillion-selling, Grammy Award-winning soundtrack of "O
Brother, Where Art Thou?" (Universal).
>From Harvard to Texas Mr. Lomax was born in Austin, Tex.,
in 1915. He attended Choate and spent a year at Harvard.
But in 1933, he left to enroll at the University of Texas,
where he graduated in 1936 with a degree in philosophy.
Later, he did graduate work in anthropology at Columbia
University. He had already become a folk-music collector,
recording songs with his father.
"My father was fired from the University of Texas for
recording those dirty old cowboy songs," Mr. Lomax said.
"Cowboys were lowdown, flea-ridden and boozing, so a guy
who associated with them - even though he romanticized them
a lot, as my father did - was looked down on."
The Lomaxes' book "American Ballads and Folk Songs" was
published in 1934, followed by "Negro Folk Songs as Sung by
Leadbelly" (1936), "Cowboy Songs" (1937), "Our Singing
Country" (1938) and "Folk Songs: USA" (1946). John A. Lomax
became the curator of the Archive of Folk Song at the
Library of Congress; his son joined him there as assistant
director in 1937.
By the end of the 1930's, John and Alan Lomax had recorded
more than 3,000 songs on 78-r.p.m. discs. Generations have
grown up with these Library of Congress recordings.
A Life on the Road
During the 1930's, Alan Lomax was on
the road regularly, gathering songs across rural America
and in the Caribbean. He recorded gospel choirs, Cajun
fiddling, country blues, calypsos, New Orleans jazz,
Tex-Mex music and Haitian voodoo rituals. The Depression
and labor-organizing songs he collected were released in
1967 as "Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People."
His recordings would include interviews with the
performers. He was determined to preserve not only the
music, but also the stories behind the songs and the
vanishing communities that produced them.
In 1935, he traveled with the writer Zora Neale Hurston and
the folklorist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle to collect music
from the Georgia Sea Islands and along the Florida coast.
Mr. Lomax and Ms. Barnicle blackened their faces with
walnut juice to escape hostile attention from white
neighbors. The music of black migrant workers in the Sea
Islands led Mr. Lomax and Ms. Barnicle to the Bahamas in
1935. While recording work songs from sponge fishermen on
Andros Island, Mr. Lomax interviewed them about their jobs.
When he returned to the Bahamas' capital, Nassau, he was
expelled by officials who believed he was stirring up
Mr. Lomax began a weekly radio program on CBS Radio's
"American School of the Air" in 1939, and then was given
his own network program, "Back Where I Come From." In 1948
he was the host of "On Top of Old Smokey," a radio show on
the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Mr. Lomax sang alongside Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson
during the 1948 presidential campaign of former Vice
President Henry A. Wallace. During the McCarthy period,
when Mr. Seeger and other left-wing performers were
blacklisted because of their political views, Mr. Lomax
left the country. He had received a Guggenheim fellowship
to study British folk music and lived in England from 1950
to 1957. He compiled an archive of British folk songs and
created programs for English radio and television. The
sound of rural American music was a major factor in the
British skiffle craze that yielded groups like the Quarry
Men, John Lennon's first band.
Mr. Lomax also collected folk music in Spain in 1953-54 and
in Italy in 1955, helping to spur folk revivals in those
countries. Those collecting trips also resulted in two
10-part BBC radio series, on Spanish and Italian folk
music. Columbia Records issued the 18-volume "Columbia
World Library of Folk and Primitive Music" in 1955, a
pioneering survey of world music. "Folk Songs of the United
States," a five-album set, was drawn from Mr. Lomax's field
recordings for the Library of Congress.
Fueling a Folk Revival
When Mr. Lomax returned to the
United States, the folk revival he had envisioned was
flourishing. His collection "The Folk Songs of North
America" was published by Doubleday in 1960. Young
musicians were learning the songs he had collected and
playing them for eager audiences. Mr. Lomax was a
consultant who helped choose performers for the annual
Newport Folk Festival.
He returned to the South in 1959-60 to make the first
stereo field recordings of American music; 19 albums were
released on Atlantic and Prestige Records, including the
first recordings by the country bluesman Mississippi Fred
McDowell. On a 1962 trip to the Caribbean, Mr. Lomax
recorded calypsos, Indo-Caribbean chaupai songs, work
songs, children's songs and steel-band music. He left an
archive of Caribbean music at the University of the West
Indies, which also shared in the royalties on recordings.
Mr. Lomax became a research associate in Columbia
University's department of anthropology and Center for the
Social Sciences in 1962, where he began research in
cantometrics and choreometrics. They were 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. He was associated with Columbia until 1989, when
he moved his work to Hunter College.
A Purist to the End
Mr. Lomax was displeased by the advent of folk-rock in the
mid-1960's, considering it inauthentic. When the Paul
Butterfield Blues Band performed at the Newport Folk
Festival, he belittled the music, leading to a legendary
fistfight with Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. He
also denounced Mr. Dylan's move from protest songs to rock.
To the end, he remained a vigorous defender of the old
ways. He may have appreciated gospel music, for example,
but he was also quick to point out the loss of the
improvised spiritual harmonies it displaced.
Mr. Lomax turned to film and television while continuing
his academic work. He made films about dance with
Forrestine Paulay, a movement analyst, in the 1970's. He
wrote, directed and produced a documentary, "The Land Where
the Blues Began," in 1985. And he wrote, directed, narrated
and produced "American Patchwork," a series of programs on
American traditions shown on public television in the early
1990's. For such efforts, he was awarded the National Medal
of the Arts.
A Musical Anthropology
In the 1980's, Mr. Lomax began work on the Global Jukebox,
a database of thousands of songs and dances
cross-referenced with anthropological data. With video,
text and sound, the Global Jukebox lets users trace
cross-cultural connections or seek historical roots. The
MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation
gave Mr. Lomax grants to create the jukebox, and in 1989 he
set up the Association for Cultural Equity at Hunter
College to work on the project.
Mr. Lomax's memoir of his Southern travels, "The Land Where
the Blues Began," was published in 1993 by Pantheon; it won
the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction.
Although he had two strokes in 1995, he continued to advise
Rounder Records on the Lomax Collection, a 100-CD series of
his recordings that the label began to reissue in 1997.
Mr. Lomax is survived by a daughter, Anna L. Chairetakis,
and a stepdaughter, Shelley Roitman, both of Holiday, Fla.,
and a sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, of Northridge, Calif.
"We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer
can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other
singers feel inferior because they're not like him," Mr.
Lomax once reflected. "Once that gets started, he gets
backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a
monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out
of all the other human possibilities. My life has been
devoted to opposing that tendency."
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