Lomax, Alan


Lomax, Alan
▪ 2003

      American ethnomusicologist (b. Jan. 15, 1915, Austin, Texas—d. July 19, 2002, Safety Harbor, Fla.), spent a lifetime crisscrossing the American countryside to document the nation's traditional songs and singers—the 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century music that might otherwise have been forgotten amid the rising flood of 20th-century technology and popular music. Some of the major folk music and blues singers he discovered included Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Josh White, and Burl Ives; Lomax also produced many record albums, concerts, and television and radio broadcasts and was an important figure in the postwar folk music revival that climaxed in the 1960s. He went on to collect hundreds more folk songs in Europe and the West Indies and to analyze singing styles. Lomax attended Harvard University and the University of Texas (B.A., 1936). In 1933, together with his father, folk-song scholar John Lomax, he began making folk music field trips—carrying bulky recording equipment—to the American South for the Library of Congress. The next year they first heard Leadbelly in the Angola, La., state prison and also published the collection American Ballads and Folksongs, the first of their five books together. Besides comprising folk songs gathered in the South, New England, the Midwest, and the Caribbean from 1933 to 1942, Alan Lomax's Library of Congress recordings included more than eight hours of reminiscences and songs by the great jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton; these sessions became the basis of Lomax's much-acclaimed biography Mister Jelly Roll (1950). During 1950–58 he lived in England, and he recorded folk music of the British Isles, Italy, and Spain before returning to the U.S. With Victor Grauer, Lomax developed cantometrics, the statistical analysis of singing styles correlated with anthropological data; his cantometrics work was the most comprehensive study of folk song undertaken. He videotaped performances of traditional music for the PBS series American Patchwork (1990) and developed the Global Jukebox, an interactive software project presenting world folk song and dance. His later books included The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language (1960), Cantometrics: A Handbook and Training Method (1976), and The Land Where the Blues Began, which won a 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award.

▪ 1998

      A monument of sorts was partially unveiled in 1997—The Alan Lomax Collection: Southern Journey, a set of six compact discs that included blues, hymns, and spirituals. Over the next five years, Rounder Records was to continue to issue in segments the complete collection of over 100 hour-long CDs from the Lomax Archive at Hunter College, New York City. These recordings formed the core of a truly monumental folk music archive built up over 60 years by Lomax. Prolific writer, tireless collector, and avid promoter of folk music from the American South and around the world, Lomax helped shape the musical landscape of the 20th century.

      Lomax was born Jan. 15, 1915, in Austin, Texas. His father, John Lomax, was a pioneer in folklore studies, one of the first to focus on contemporary folk music and to transcribe it. In 1933 Alan and his father lugged a 160-kg (350-lb) recording machine through the South in pursuit of folk music for the Library of Congress. For about a decade the Lomaxes traveled through small towns, farms, and prisons, making thousands of recordings. One early discovery was Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly"), a remarkable singer and guitar player who was serving a sentence for murder in a Louisiana prison. After his release in 1934, Leadbelly went with the Lomaxes to New York City, where the "sweet-singing convict" caused a minor sensation with such now-classic songs as "Goodnight, Irene" and "The Midnight Special."

      Alan Lomax went on to record numerous hitherto-unknown folk, blues, and jazz musicians. In 1938 he recorded jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, later writing a biography, Mr. Jelly Roll (1950). He was the first to record blues singer Muddy Waters. Lomax introduced the world to bluesmen such as Fred McDowell and folk singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. During the 1950s Lomax embarked on a project to collect folk music from around the world, including the Caribbean, the British Isles, Spain, Japan, and Italy. "Before Alan came along," said the British folklorist Peter Kennedy, "we really only knew American folk song. We didn't know we had anything in our own country."

      In the 1960s Lomax helped lead the American folk music boom and wrote many popular and academic books, such as The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs (1964) and Folk Song Style and Culture (1968). He went on to develop (with Victor Grauer) "cantometrics," a statistical method for comparing singing styles and anthropological data. In 1990 he produced the critically acclaimed television documentary series American Patchwork, and in 1993 he released his book The Land Where the Blues Began. Most recently Lomax was working on a "Global Jukebox," a multimedia database of song and dance styles, representing more than 600 cultures. Lomax's work earned him the National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur Foundation grant.

BENJAMIN SCHALET

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▪ American music scholar
born January 15, 1915, Austin, Texas, U.S.
died July 19, 2002, Sarasota, Florida

      American ethnomusicologist, one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable folk-music scholars (folk music) of the 20th century.

      After study at Harvard University, the University of Texas at Austin (B.A., 1936), and Columbia University, Lomax toured the prisons of the American Deep South with his father, John Lomax, also a noted student of folk song, recording folk-song performances for the Archive of American Song of the Library of Congress. During this tour they discovered the great blues singer Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) (“Leadbelly”). Later, Lomax was responsible for introducing to American audiences other folk and blues artists, including Woody Guthrie (Guthrie, Woody), Muddy Waters (Waters, Muddy), Josh White, and Burl Ives. In 1938 he made a series of recordings with the jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton (Morton, Jelly Roll). From 1951 to 1958 he was in Europe, recording hundreds of folk songs in Great Britain, Italy, and Spain.

      A profound folklorist who was also interested in the historical and social origins of jazz, Lomax wrote an outstanding biography of Jelly Roll Morton (Morton, Jelly Roll), Mr. Jelly Roll (1950). The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language was published in 1960. His work in cantometrics (the statistical analysis of singing styles correlated with anthropological data), which he developed with Victor Grauer, is the most comprehensive study of folk song as yet undertaken. Cantometrics: A Handbook and Training Method appeared in 1976. Lomax also wrote and directed the documentary The Land Where the Blues Began (1985). In 1997 the Alan Lomax Collection debuted on Rounder Records. The series featured more than 100 albums of music recorded by Lomax.

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Universalium. 2010.

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