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Voices Fall-Winter 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the tribute to “Alan Lomax” by Ray Allen and Ronald Cohen with photos by Martha Cooper here.
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Volume 29
Fall-Winter
2003
Voices

Alan Lomax by Ray Allen and Ronald Cohen

Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas, on January 31, 1915, the son of the distinguished folk music collector John Avery Lomax. In 1933, eighteen-year-old Alan joined his father on a folk music collecting trip that took them across the American South to discover and record scores of black and white folk musicians, including the legendary Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. In 1935 Alan and his father brought Leadbelly to New York City, where they promoted him to leftist audiences as the living embodiment of American folksong—a move that helped spark the first urban folk music revival. The Lomaxes’ early folk music collections, including American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly (1936), and Our Singing Country (1941), brought significant attention to the underrepresented traditions of African Americans and ultimately redefined the popular and scholarly canons of American folk music.

Lomax Tribute Concert
The Lomax Tribute Concert finale featured (from left) Tracy Schwartz, Odetta Holms, Honey Boy Edwards, John Cohen, Mike Seeger, James Cecil Haga, Jean Ritchie, Arlo Guthrie, Spencer Moore, and Pete Seeger.
Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers
Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers was inspired as a youngster by John and Alan Lomax’s song books and field recordings.
In 1937 Lomax was appointed assistant archivist at the Library of Congress, and for the next five years he made hundreds of field recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song. He spent much of the 1940s in New York City, where he wrote and directed four national radio programs on folk music, produced commercial albums, including Negro Sinful Songs by Leadbelly and Dustbowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie, and wrote Mister Jelly Roll (1949), an oral history biography of jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton. During this period he helped promote the careers of numerous New York City-based folk singers, including Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Aunt Molly Jackson, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and the Almanac Singers.


Odetta Holms
Folk singer Odetta Holms was a pivotal figure in the early 1950s folk music revival.

Disillusioned by McCarthyism, Lomax spent much of the 1950s in England and Europe, where he expanded his research to include European folk music. He produced several BBC network shows as well as the first comprehensive audio survey of world music styles, the eighteen-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music (1955). In the late 1950s he returned to the American South for an extended documentation project that yielded the twelve-volume Southern Journey (1959) and the seven-volume Southern Folk Heritage (1960) recordings.

Upon his return to New York City in the early 1960s, Lomax plunged into the folk music revival. In 1961 he became a research associate at Columbia University and began his efforts to classify the world’s folksong styles (cantometrics) and folk dance styles (choreometrics). The result was his provocative book, Folk Song Style and Culture (1968), a pioneering effort to link folk music styles with social structure on a global scale. Lomax continued his collecting and media projects, visiting the Caribbean for an extended documentation project in the early 1960s and eventually developing the global jukebox, an interactive, multimedia database for tracking and comparing world folk music and dance styles. In 1990 he wrote and directed the five-part PBS-TV Series, American Patchwork, and three years later published Land Where the Blues Began, a stirring account of his early southern fieldwork trips. In 1997 Rounder Records began issuing The Alan Lomax Collection, a projected series of more than one hundred CDs drawn from the archive of Lomax field recordings.

Photo of Irwin Silber and Spencer Moore
Irwin Silber (left), the longtime editor of Sing Out! magazine, was a confidant of Alan Lomax during the 1940s and 1950s; Spencer Moore, a Virginia-born folk singer, was first recorded by Lomax in the 1950s.


Photo of Pete Seeger with Arlo Guthrie
Folk revival pioneer Pete Seeger, here performing with Arlo Guthrie, was a longtime friend of Alan Lomax.
His seven decades of relentless advocacy for “people’s music,” stretching from the Great Depression through his passing in 2002, made Alan Lomax a legend among scholars and enthusiasts around the globe. His efforts as a folksong collector and publisher, music promoter, world music researcher, and radio, record, and TV producer have immeasurably enhanced our understanding and appreciation of folk music and its place in the modern world.

John Cohen and Jean Ritchie
John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers accompanies Kentucky-born folk singer and collector Jean Ritchie; she coedited Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians with Alan Lomax in 1965.
In April 2003 a coalition of organizations including City Lore, the Lomax Archives, and the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College coordinated a two-day festival in honor of Alan Lomax’s enormous contributions to the field of folk music. The final concert featured many renowned folk artists with whom Lomax had worked—and whose work he had influenced—over his illustrious career.
David Honey Boy Edwards
David Honey Boy Edwards of Shaw, Mississippi, was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1942.

Arlo Guthrie
Folk music star Arlo Guthrie carries on the tradition of his father, the legendary songster Woody Guthrie, who was recorded and promoted by Alan Lomax in the 1940s and 1950s.


 






Ray Allen is an associate professor of music and American studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Ronald Cohen is a professor of history at Indiana University Northwest.



His seven decades of relentless advocacy for “people’s music,” stretching from the Great Depression through his passing in 2002, made Alan Lomax a legend among scholars and enthusiasts around the globe.




This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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