Alan Lomax: Ambassador To The Ages Part I By
In one of the greatest
acts of artistic hubris since Dick James ripped off The Beatles, dance doyen
Moby struck platinum with 1999s Play largely on the back of prison singers,
Southern field workers, and itinerant blues musicians. Using sampling as his
modus operandi, Moby warmed his cool synth sounds and monotone vocals
with the black folk music of the Deep South recorded while they were playing
on porch steps, toiling in the fields, or working in work camps in a life without
In using the blues-drenched
songs of the field to add depth and soul to his calculated dance tracks, Moby
struck a mother lode of feeling and passion. Americas musical heart and
soul began in the songs of slaves, inheriting an aural tradition of songs passed
from one generation to the next. Moby found this music in Sounds of the South,
an Atlantic Records box set that was a reissue of an original seven-LP series
created in 1959 by Alan Lomax.
Alan Lomax has been called The Father of the American Folksong Revival,
for his work as an ethnomusicologist, record producer, and radio host/writer.
He exposed such legendary talents as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, and
Pete Seeger to US audiences on his radio programs in the 30s and 40s.
As a radio producer and field recordist at the BBC, Lomax initiated a British
folksong revival, which eventually helped spark the British pop-rock and blues
rock invasion. He went on to foster the careers of Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson,
Memphis Slim, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others.
As an anthropologist of the performing arts (for Columbia University and Hunter
College), Lomax produced a computerized intelligent museum called
The Global Jukebox, which compared the songs and dances of global cultures
using a broad scientific methodology (and in doing so, developed a cataloging
approach called Cantometrics (music), Choreometrics (dance), and Parlametrics
(language). The author of many books, films, and record releases, Lomax campaigned
for cultural equity, which aimed to gain fair play and media time
for the entire range of human cultures and experience.
Lomaxs work can be directly enjoyed in the many Rounder Records releases
that document his world travels and recordings, and the Lomax Archives in New
York City, where his vast collection of LPs, books, tape recordings, writings,
and films are stored. Much of this material has been digitized and sent to the
Library of Congress as well as local museums across the country whose communities
can trace a direct link to the various mediums that Lomax chronicled from the
50s to the 90s.
Alan understood that commercial music was encroaching into these local
cultures and homogenizing their music, explains Don Fleming, Assistant
Director of the Alan Lomax Archive and Director of Licensing for the Alan Lomax
Collection. That is why Alan went into prisons. Back then, prisoners were
not listening to radio. They were just singing work songs. They were isolated
and carrying on this oral tradition of music that had been passed down for years.
The latest Lomax releases from Rounder include Italian Treasury: Piemonte
and Valle DAosta and Spanish Recordings: Basque Country: Navarre.
These follow bestsellers like the soundtracks to Gangs of New York and
Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?, which contained many original Lomax recordings.
Of interest to blues fans, Lomax classics like Blues in the Mississippi Night
and the two-part Prison Songs are powerful documents, audio remnants from a
time when all music was local music, before radio coalesced the country under
the idea of hits.
A lot of what Alan recorded was work music, Fleming says, and
ballads that had been passed down aurally for hundreds of years from England
to America. Somebody with a banjo in Arkansas singing about King George, for
example. Alan would know that was a variant of something else. He knew that
when people were working in the field they would sing in certain patterns and
just by hearing the music from a certain culture he could figure out what kind
of agriculture they had. He had people recording tribes in different countries.
This global reach approached along scientific lines cataloging music, dance,
and language led to Lomaxs coding systems: Cantometrics, Choreometrics,
His coding system was used all over the world, Fleming continues.
For music it is all about the way different voices are used, the raspiness
in the voice, all these embellishments, and none of it had anything to do with
written notes. They didnt study the notes cause Alan knew that other
cultures dont use the 12-note system that we use in the West. He didnt
use that at all.
The Lomax Archives is a sprawling, multi-room library of sorts, located behind
the Port Authority Bus Terminal in one of the New Yorks bleakest neighborhoods,
close to Times Square. But once inside, it is easy to forget the City as you
immerse yourself in Lomaxs life work. One room holds Lomaxs LPs
and vast 78 collection, another stores reels of 16mm film and ancient transferring
equipment, still another houses computers and hard disc recorders used to bring
Lomaxs analog field recordings into the modern digital medium. Lomaxs
photos line the walls throughout the Archive.
We are working on a database that will have every field trip and audio
examples of every song from every one of Alans field trips, Fleming
says. That will be on the Internet as a research tool. Alan took thousands
of photos on the field trips in the 50s in Spain, Italy, and the US. Those
will be in there as well. We send copies of the music to different museums and
folklore centers that want a specific type of music, like we sent all the country
and bluegrass to the Appalachian center. It will be there as part of their research.
We want to get it out there, put it back in to the communities where it came
After six decades of folk song hunting, Lomax retired in 1996. He
passed away on July 19, 2002. Since then his daughter Anne Lomax has carried
her fathers torch. The Lomax Archives and Rounder records will release
more than 200 recordings in total, with upcoming projects including a Jelly
Roll Morton box set with artwork by Robert Crumb, two Scottish folk records
from 1957, and a reissue of the Chisholm Trail album (see pic) with Woody
Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But with perhaps years of digitizing, transferring,
and organizing in the works, the staff of the Lomax Archives is just getting
We have transferred hundreds of hours of tape to digital and culled it
down to these Rounder Records releases, says Fleming. We have put
out 100 since 96 and another 100 to come. That is the more commercial
side of what we do to try to get it out. Alans idea was that you do the
academic side but you also try to make it commercial. That is the only way it
is going to live on. Alan wanted Leadbelly to be Top Ten. He thought that could
happen. His peers were just collecting music to put on the shelf in the library,
but Alan would do the radio shows, put on shows at Town Hall, he was a real
promoter in many ways.