When Alan Lomax and his father, John A. Lomax, set off across Texas in May 1933 to document folk songs for the Library of Congress, they probably didn’t realize the impact their work would have on the history of American music. Armed with a windup Ediphone dictation machine, the pair made their way across the South in a Model “A” Ford searching not for spirituals or popular tunes but for the “made-up” songs that they felt truly defined America. Alan Lomax was just eighteen.
Inspired by his father’s work, Alan continued to explore the far corners of the earth throughout his own lifetime in search of folk songs and those who created and performed them. Alan came to realize that the recordings themselves served as valuable documents, uniquely capturing the music and the stories of common people in their own words and voices. With this realization the younger Lomax set out to “record the world.”
During his travels, Alan Lomax created “personal history documents,” indeed some of the first ever oral histories of important American music legends. He carefully documented the lives of Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly) and Fred “Jelly Roll” Morton. He made a historic series of recordings on the Parchman Farm labor camps in Mississippi during the late 1940s, and collected American folk songs “on the highways, porches and prisons of the American south.” He introduced American and European audiences to the likes of Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, and countless others. He was the first to record such blues legends as McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Watters), Memphis Slim, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Indeed, Lomax was largely responsible for creating the American folk and blues music boom of the 1950s and 60s.
In Alan Lomax, The Man Who Recorded the World, noted biographer John Szwed tells the Lomax story in meticulous detail, from Alan’s early travels with his father through his seemingly endless treks across the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain. Szwed not only chronicles Alan’s achievements but also the many great challenges he faced, not the least of which included being singled out by the FBI as a “Communist agitator” during and after the 1940s.
Something I found particularly interesting was Szwed’s detailed discussion of Alan’s 1938 trek across Michigan, where he recorded the Irish, Native American, and German folk songs of the lumberjacks on Beaver Island, a place Lomax himself described as “the most purely Irish colony in the United States.” According to Szwed, Lomax then traveled to Posen in the northeastern Lower Peninsula to record Polish folk songs and fiddle tunes, and on to the Upper Peninsula where he recorded French singers in Champion and Baraga. In all, Alan Lomax recorded more than a thousand songs over a period of two and a half months in the likes of Calument, Charles, Grandville, Marinesco, Munising, Newberry, Greenland, Ontanogan, St. Ignace, and Traverse City. Amazing!
The American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress now holds the complete Alan Lomax Collection, called “one of the most important collections of ethnographic material in the world. It consists of more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings and thousands of videotapes, plus countless books, photos, documents, fieldnotes, manuscripts and journals.
Though perhaps not an easy or even exciting read, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World is a fascinating document of a man who greatly influenced (and preserved) the music of our time.
Additional items in the KPL collection:
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World