John A. Lomax

b. September 23, 1867 / Goodman, MS
d. January 26, 1948 / Greenville, MS

Folkmusic Historian

 

Though not widely known, the name Lomax is almost synonymous with American music scholarship, for the accomplishments of John and Alan Lomax in the field of musicology have been instrumental in the documentation and preservation of some of the most important chapters of American Music History.

The Lomaxes were, in short, song hunters. Part musicologists, part archaeologists, part folklorists, the song hunters scoured the land, recording the unheard music and stories of the people. In their years in the field, the father and son team travelled down seemingly every dusty backroad in America; into work camps and honky-tonks, into churches and penitentiaries and into the confidence of the common folk. With these recordings, the Lomaxes helped found the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress, and thereby "added the voice of the common man to the written history of America" (A.Lomax).

The elder of the two Lomaxes, John Avery Lomax, was born on September 23rd of 1867. Though born in southern Mississippi, John spent the majority of his childhood in Texas, where his family moved in 1869. In Texas he developed a love for the songs of the cowboy and as a young boy started a small collection of such songs which he transcribed onto loose paper and cardboard.

In his late twenties, John entered the University of Texas and began working towards a Bachelors Degree in English. Even as he enthusiastically thrust himself into academia, his passion for cowboy songs never diminished. When he decided to share the fruits of his hobby with one of his professors, the professor attempted to extinguish John's flame by telling him he should concentrate on classic literature instead of "tawdry, cheap, and unworthy" songs like the ones he had collected (J. Lomax).

Years later, when working on a Masters Degree at Harvard University, John once again showed his collection to one of his professors. This time, however, the results were positive. The Harvard professor strongly encouraged John to continue with his collecting. This inspired him to write to the public (via local newspapers requesting contributions of song. Once again, the response was positive. Readers responded, songs slowly started pouring in by mail, and John's collection grew.

Receiving his degree from Harvard, John returned to Texas and accepted a teaching position at the University of Texas, but only under the stipulation that, before starting his tenure, he could take a short leave of absence to travel around the state and add to his collection of folksongs. With funding from fellowships for the "investigation of American ballads", John set out on the first of many song hunting brigades. It was on those early sojourns through cattle country that John, with his primitive recording machine, discovered and captured such songs as "Git Along Little Dogies" and "Home on the Range". The songs gathered during those early trips through Texas rounded out his collection so that he could publish his first book, Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads , in 1910.

A few years later, John became president of the American Folklore Society. As president, he was instrumental in the formation of many individual state folklore societies. He further contributed to the growing interest in American folksong by continuous lecturing in colleges across the nation. During the breaks from his academic life, John, with his new wife, Bess, could be found around the campfires and saloons of the West, coaxing songs from the cowboys; adding to his collection.

On January 31st of 1915, Alan Lomax was born. By this time, John's song hunting trips had become sporadic. Diminishing salary increases and grants, coupled with the demands of a growing family, forced the elder Lomax to cut back on his folksong fieldwork. From 1917 to 1925, he switched careers several times. He moved his family from Texas to Illinois and back to Texas again, finally landing in an investment banking firm in Dallas. Despite the publishing of his second book in 1918 (Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp), his involvement in collecting songs had come to a halt.

Alan, as a young man, started following in the footsteps of his father. He stormed through elementary and college preparatory schools with great enthusiasm, and decided to pursue a Bachelors Degree in English at the University of Texas. He inherited a penchant for folksongs at an early age, and assisted his father in his gathering whenever possible.

In 1932, tragedy struck the Lomax family. Not only was John bedridden with an illness for eight months (which cost him his job), but as he was coming out of his sickness, his wife, Bess, died. In the late spring of that same year, "at the nadir of the general financial collapse", John organized a short lecture tour that concluded in New York City. It was there that he visited the Macmillan Publishing Company (publishers of his first two books) and proposed an idea for a third volume of folksongs. "Within two days, he had a contract for a book of American folksong and within six months had returned to the road to 'fill in the gaps' in his collection. He acquired enough funding from the Library of Congress and the American Council of Learned Societies to obtain a crude recording machine to use in the field. With Alan, at that time seventeen-years-old and about to enter his junior year of college, John loaded up the family Ford and set out for a summer of fieldwork in the Deep South.

In his book, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, John writes,

Stored in the rear of the car were two cots and bedding, a cooking outfit, provisions, a change of clothing, an infinite number of "etceteras" which will manage to encumber any traveller. Later, as a crown to our discomfort, we also carried a 350-pound recording machine--a cumbersome pile of wire and iron and steel--built into the rear of the Ford, two batteries weighing 75-pounds each, a microphone, a complicated machine of delicate adjustments, coils of wire, numerous gadgets, besides scores of blank aluminum and celluloid disks, and finally, a multitude of extra parts, of the purpose and place for which neither Alan nor I had the faintest glimmer of an idea (p.111).

On that historic trip, the two Lomaxes covered 16,000 miles in four months. The greater portion of that journey was spent in southern penitentiaries, recording the worksongs of African-American prisoners. At that time, it was popular theory that such worksongs were still being handed down through generations. The Lomaxes proved this theory to be fact. Not only did they unearth such standards as "Rock Island Line", "Midnight Special", and "John Henry", but they were integral in the parole of a prisoner that went on to become a legend in folk and blues: A man named Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a.Leadbelly.

Alan's hiatus from college extended beyond that summer of 1932. He felt he had found his calling, and had advanced from being a mere observer to being a full-fledged assisstant. He even assumed the duties of editing the growing manuscript. The book, American Ballads and Folk Songs, was published in 1934. It was the first book wherein John and Alan shared authorship. Upon the completion of their endeavor, Alan had become a confirmed song hunter in his father's eyes, and John had come to be known as "the prototype of the roving American field collector" (D.K.Wilgus). The publishing of that third volume of Lomax fieldwork also led to grants from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. More important than the book's release, however, was the development of the Library of Congress Archive of American Folksong into a repository of traditional American song.

The Archive of American Folksong, founded in 1928, was established to "place songs in their historical, social, and psychological background" (A. Lomax). Previous to the Lomax involvement, the Archive was funded by private donations and was home to only a few small private collections. With the addition of the Lomax material, the Archive gained enough clout to be eligible for institutional support.

In 1934, John, newly married and relocated in Washington D.C., was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive. Alan returned to the University of Texas the following year (after a short stint at Harvard) and graduated in 1936. After a brief musicological expedition to Haiti, the younger Lomax returned to Washington D.C., where he was named Assistant Curator to the Archive in 1937. Due to a small congressional appropriation for the support of the Archive, Alan became the first Archive worker to be paid from Library funds. During the years following, the Archive was greatly enriched by the fieldwork of the two Lomaxes. Individually and together, they spanned the nation, recording the songs and stories of such performers as Vera Hall, Bukka White, Son House, and Jelly Roll Morton.

In 1939, CBS radio gave Alan a weekly morning radio slot on its Columbia School of the Air, so that he could "teach America's children their musical heritage" (A.Lomax). On his show, which was eventually called "Wellsprings of America", he would discuss folk music, play selections old and new, and even sing a few songs himself.

The elder Lomax went into semi-retirement in early 1940, handing the position of Curator of the Archive over to Alan. In that same year, a sizeable grant from the Carnegie Foundation made it possible for the Archive to establish a "recording laboratory", so that recordings could be made in the Library itself.

One of the first performers to be recorded in the Archive's new recording facility was another Lomax "discovery": A man named Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was also a frequent guest on Alan's second show for CBS radio, "Back Where I Come From", wherein several performers (including Alan) would sit around and play songs based of a particular subject that was chosen for the evening.

Our Singing Country, the last book to be co-authored by the two Lomaxes, was published in 1941. In 1942, Alan left the Archive and went to war, where he became involved with government-sponsored morale programs. Upon his return from the service, he took the position as Director of Folk Music at Decca Records. He still continued with his song hunting excursions, however, and in 1947 received a Guggenheim grant that would help finance field work well into the 1950's.

On January 26th of 1948, while on a song hunting trip near his place of birth in Mississippi, John Avery Lomax died at the age of 80.

Through the 1950's and 1960's, Alan carried on John's legacy by remaining active in musicology. He produced numerous multi-disk collections for different record labels, in addition to recording two albums of his own versions of traditional songs he and his father had unearthed. In tribute to his father, he produced concerts and festivals and travelled around the world, gathering folklore and lecturing on his collective findings. Beginning in 1963, he started a comprehensive study in comparitive musicology. The study, which Lomax calls "Cantometrics", is a cross-cultural survey using an elaborate system of classification to link cultures to musics. In Lomax's words, it is "a system for measuring song style on a global scale."

Today, Alan Lomax still carries on the family tradition publishing books with subjects ranging from Cantometrics to his field work in the pre-segregation South; directing the prize-winning folklore series, "American Patchwork" for PBS; and, most recently, converting the results of his research into a multimedia database called "The Global Jukebox".

The Lomaxes--directors, musicologists, authors, musicians, innovators, scholars. Across the miles and miles of tape and endless trails of stories, the work of John and Alan Lomax is of immeasurable importance in the realm of American music scholarship. Through their work in the field of song hunting, the Lomaxes have truly accomplished that which they set out to do all those years ago; They have given "a voice to the voiceless" (A.Lomax).

 

Books by John Lomax Title
1. American Ballads and Folk Songs (with Allan Lomax) (1935)
2. Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads (1938)
3. Cowboy Songs (with Allan Lomax)
4. Our singing country; a second volume of American ballads and folk songs (with Allan Lomax) (1941, 1949)
5. Best loved American folk songs (with Allan Lomax) (1947)
6. Folk Song; USA (1947)
7. Songs of the cattle trail and cow camp (1950)

 

Songs Credited to John A. Lomax Song Title
1. Goodnight Irene (with Ledbelly)
1. Tom Dooley (with Frank Warner and Allan Lomax)
2.  

 

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Last revised: February 23, 2006.