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Feature [Issue #11]
: Alan Lomax: Ambassador To The Ages Part I
By Ken Micallef

In one of the greatest acts of artistic hubris since Dick James ripped off The Beatles, dance doyen Moby struck platinum with 1999’s 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 end.

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. America’s 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.

Lomax’s 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 D’Aosta 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 Lomax’s coding systems: Cantometrics, Choreometrics, and Parlametrics.

“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 didn’t study the notes ‘cause Alan knew that other cultures don’t use the 12-note system that we use in the West. He didn’t 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 York’s bleakest neighborhoods, close to Times Square. But once inside, it is easy to forget the City as you immerse yourself in Lomax’s life work. One room holds Lomax’s 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 Lomax’s analog field recordings into the modern digital medium. Lomax’s 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 Alan’s 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 from.”

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 father’s 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 started.

“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. Alan’s 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.”

Alan Lomax: Ambassador To The Ages Part I

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