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Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax (January 15, 1915July 19, 2002) was an American folklorist and musicologist. He was one of the great field collectors of folk music of the 20th century, recording thousands of songs in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, the West Indies, Italy, and Spain.


Carnegie Hall, featuring blues, Calypso, and Flamenco music. He also hosted a radio show, Your Ballad Man, from 1945-49 that was broadcast nationwide on the Mutual Radio Network and featured a highly eclectic program, from gamalan music, to Django Rheinhart, to Klezmer music, to Sidney Bechet and Wild Bill Davidson, to jazzy pop songs by Maxine Waters and Jo Stafford, to readings of the poetry of Carl Sandburg, to hillbilly music with electric guitars, to Finnish brass bands -- to name a few (See Matthew Barton and Andrew L. Kaye, in Ronald D. Cohen (ed), Alan Lomax Selected Writings, p. 98-99).

Lomax spent the 1950s based in London, from where he edited the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, an anthology issued on newly-invented LP records. For the British and Irish volumes, he worked with the BBC and folklorists Peter Douglas Kennedy, Scots poet Hamish Henderson, and with Séamus Ennis in Ireland, where they recorded Irish traditional musicians, including some of the songs in English and Irish of Elizabeth Cronin in 1951. He also hosted a folk music show on BBC's home service and organized a "skiffle" group, Alan Lomax and the Ramblers (who included Ewan Macoll, Peggy Seeger, and Shirley Collins, among others) which appeared on British television. His ballad opera Big Rock Candy Mountain premiered December 1955 at Joan Littlewood's Theater Workshop and featuramblin' Jack Elliot. Lomax and Diego Carpitella's survey of Italian folk music for the Columbia World Library, conducted in 1953 and 1954, with the cooperation of the BBC and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, helped capture a snapshot of a multitude of important traditional folk styles shortly before they disappeared. The pair amassed one of the most representative folk song collections of any culture. From Lomax's Spanish and Italian recordings emerged one of the first theories explaining the types of folk singing that predominate in particular areas, a theory that incorporates work style, the environment, and the degrees of social and sexual freedom.

Upon his return to New York in 1959, Lomax produced a concert, "Folksong '59," in Carnegie Hall, featuring Arkansas singer Jimmy Driftwood; the Selah Jubilee Singers and Drexel Singers (gospel groups); Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim (blues); the Stony Mountain Boys (bluegrass); Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger (urban folk revival); and The Cadillacs (a rock and roll group). The occasion marked the first time rock and roll and bluegrass were performed on the Carnegie Hall Stage. "The time has come for Americans not to be ashamed of what we go for, musically, from primitive ballads to rock 'n' roll songs," Lomax told the audience. According to Izzy Young, the audience booed when he told them to lay down their prejudices and listen to rock 'n' roll. In Young's opinion, "Lomax put on what is probably the turning point in American folk music . . . . At that concert, the point he was trying to make was that Negro and white music were mixing, and rock and roll was that thing" (quoted in Ronald D. Cohen's Rainbow Quest, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, p. 140).

Alan Lomax was married Elizabeth Harold in February of 1937. They were married for 12 years. She assisted him in recording in Haiti, Alabama, Appalachia, and Mississippi, and who wrote radio scripts of folk operas featuring American music, broadcast over the BBC as part of the war effort, as well as conducting lengthy interviews with folk music personalities. He also did important field work with Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and the Bahamas; with John Work and Lewis Jones in Mississippi; with folksingers Robin Roberts and Jean Ritchie in Ireland; with his second wife Antoinette Marchand in the Caribbean; with Joan Halifax in Morocco; and with his daughter, Anna L. Chairetakis. All those who assisted and worked with him were accurately credited on the resultant Library of Congress, and other recordings, as well as in his many books and publications.

Alan Lomax met twenty-year-old English folk singer Shirley Collins while living in London. The two were romantically involved and lived together for some years. When Lomax obtained a contract from Atlantic Records to re-record some the U.S. artists he had recorded in the 1940s, using improved recording equipment, Collins accompanied him. Their folk song collecting trip to the Southern states lasted from July to November 1959 and resulted in many hours of recordings, featuring performers such as Almeda Riddle, Hobart Smith, and Bessie Jones and culminated in the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recordings from this trip were issued under the title Sounds of the South and some were also featured in the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Lomax wanted to marry her but when their trip was over, Collins returned to England and instead married Austin John Marshall. In an interview in The Guardian newspaper, Friday March 21 2008, Collins was miffed that Alan Lomax's 1993 history of blues music, The Land Where The Blues Began, barely mentioned her. "All it said was, 'Shirley Collins was along for the trip'. It made me hopping mad. I wasn't just 'along for the trip'. I was part of the recording process, I made notes, I drafted contracts, I was involved in every part". Collins decided to rectify the perceived omission in her memoir America Over the Water, published in 2004.

Lomax married Antoinette Marchand on August 26, 1961. In 1962, Lomax and singer and Civil Rights Activist Guy Carawan, music director at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, produced the album, Freedom in the Air: Albany Georgia, 1961-62, on Vanguard Records for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Lomax was a consultant to Carl Sagan for the Voyager Golden Record sent into space on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft to represent the music of the earth. Music he helped choose included the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll of Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; a Sicilian sulfur miner’s lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, and the Georgians of the Caucasus; and a shepherdess song from Bulgaria by Valya Balkanska ; in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more.

The 1944 "ballad opera," The Martins and the Coys broadcast in Britain (but not the USA) by the BBC, featuring Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, Sonny Terry, Pete Seeger, and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, among others, was released on Rounder Records in 2000.

Lomax's 1993 Atlantic recording, Sounds of the South: A Musical Journey From the Georgia Sea Islands to the Mississippi Delta, features several songs sampled in Moby's album Play, including "Natural Blues" ("Trouble So Hard").

Cultural Equity

As a member of the Popular Front and People's Songs in the 1940s, Alan Lomax promoted what was then known as "One World" and today is called multiculturalism. In the late forties he produced a series of concerts at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall that presented Flamenco guitar and Calypso, along with country blues, Appalachian music, Andean music, and jazz. His radio shows of the 40s and 50s explored musics of all the world's peoples.

Lomax recognized that folklore (like all forms of creativity) occurs at the local and not the national level and flourishes, not in isolation but in fruitful interplay with other cultures. He was dismayed that mass communications appeared to be crushing local cultural expressions and languages. In 1950 he echoed anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who believed the role of the ethnologist should be that of advocate for primitive man, when he urged folklorists to similarly advocate for the folk. Some, such as Richard Dorson, objected that scholars shouldn't act as cultural arbiters, but Lomax believed it would be unethical to stand idly by as the magnificent variety of the world's cultures and languages was "grayed out" by centralized commercial entertainment and educational systems. Although he acknowledged potential problems with intervention, he urged that folklorists with their special training actively assist communities in safeguarding and revitalizing their own local traditions.

Similar ideas had been put into practice by Benjamin Botkin, Harold W. Thompson, and Louis C. Jones, who believed that folklore studied by folklorists should be returned to its home communities to enable it to thrive anew. They have been realized in the annual (since 1967) Smithsonian Folk Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (for which Lomax served as a consultant), in national and regional initiatives by public folklorists and local activists in helping communities gain recognition for their oral traditions and lifeways both in their home communities and in the world at large; and in the National Heritage Awards, concerts, and fellowships given by the NEA and various State governments to master folk and traditional artists.

In 2001, in the wake of the attacks in New York of Sept. 11, UNESCO's Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity declared the safeguarding of languages and intangible culture on a par with protection of individual human rights and as essential for human survival as biodiversity is for nature, ideas first articulated by Alan Lomax.


Alan Lomax received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1986, a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from Tulane University in 2001 He won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award in 1993 for his book The Land Where the Blues Began, connecting the story of the origins of Blues music with the prevalence of forced labor in the pre-World War II South (especially on the Mississippi levees). Lomax also received a posthumous Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 2003. Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax (Rounder Records, 8 CDs boxed set) won in two categories at the 48th annual Grammy Awards ceremony held on Feb 8, 2006


  • A character named Alan Lomax was featured in the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.
  • Lomax's works and collected songs are heavily sampled on Moby's album, Play.
  • From 1942 to 1979 Lomax was investigated and repeatedly interviewed by the FBI but nothing incriminating was ever found and the investigation was abandoned. Scholar and jazz pianist Ted Gioia uncovered and published extracts from Alan Lomax's 800-page FBI files in "The Red-rumor blues," Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2006.
  • A BBC news article on Sept. 4, 2007, about George Orwell's politics revealed that Alan Lomax was placed under surveillance by MI5 as a potential Communist, and his BBC TV shows in the early 1950s were monitored by Special Branch.
  • BBC Radio 4 aired a program on Saturday June 7 2008 in their Archive Hour strand narrated by Marybeth Hamilton on the sessions between Alan Lomax and Jelly Roll Morton in 1938 called "The Dreamtime of Jazz"


A partial list of his books includes:

  • Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997. Ronald D. Cohen, Editor (includes a chapter defining all the categories of cantometrics). New York: Routledge: 2003.
  • Brown Girl in the Ring: An Anthology of Song Games from the Eastern Caribbean Compiler, with J. D. Elder and Bess Lomax Hawes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997 (Cloth, ISBN: 0679404538); New York: Random House, 1998 (Cloth).
  • The Land Where The Blues Began. New York: Pantheon, 1993.
  • Cantometrics: An Approach to the Anthropology of Music: Audiocassettes and a Handbook. Berkeley: University of California Media Extension Center, 1976.
  • Folk Song Style and Culture. With contributions by Conrad Arensberg, Edwin E. Erickson, Victor Grauer, Norman Berkowitz, Irmgard Bartenieff, Forrestine Paulay, Joan Halifax, Barbara Ayres, Norman N. Markel, Roswell Rudd, Monika Vizedom, Fred Peng, Roger Wescott, David Brown. Washington, D.C.: Colonial Press Inc, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Publication no. 88, 1968.
  • Penguin Book of American Folk Songs (1968)
  • 3000 Years of Black Poetry. Alan Lomax and Raoul Abdul, Editors. New York: Dodd Mead Company, 1969. Paperback edition, Fawcett Publications, 1971.
  • The Leadbelly Songbook. Moses Asch and Alan Lomax, Editors. Musical transcriptions by Jerry Silverman. Forward by Moses Asch. New York: Oak Publications, 1962.
  • Folk Songs of North America. Melodies and guitar chords transcribed by Peggy Seeger. New York: Doubleday, 1960.
  • ''The Rainbow Sign'. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1959.
  • Leadbelly: A Collection of World Famous Songs by Huddie Ledbetter. Edited with John A. Lomax. Hally Wood, Music Editor. Special note on Leadbelly’s 12-string guitar by Pete Seeger. New York: Folkways Music Publishers Company, 1959.
  • Harriet and Her Harmonium: An American adventure with thirteen folk songs from the Lomax collection. Illustrated by Pearl Binder. Music arranged by Robert Gill. London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1955.
  • Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and "Inventor of Jazz". Drawings by David Stone Martin. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1950.
  • Folk Song: USA. With John A. Lomax. Piano accompaniment by Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, c.1947. Republished as Best Loved American Folk Songs, New York: Grosset and Dunlap 1947 (Cloth).
  • Freedom Songs of the United Nations. With Svatava Jakobson. Washington, D.C.: Office of War Information, 1943.
  • Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. With John A. Lomax and Ruth Crawford Seeger. New York: MacMillan, 1941.
  • Check-list of Recorded Songs in the English Language in the Archive of American Folk Song in July 1940. Washington, D.C.: Music Division, Library of Congress, 1942. Three volumes.
  • American Folksong and Folklore: A Regional Bibliography. With Sidney Robertson Cowell. New York, Progressive Education Association, 1942. Reprint, Temecula, CA: Reprint Services Corp., 1988 (62 pp. ISBN: 0781207673).
  • Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. With John A. Lomax. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

See also:



  • "Lomax, Alan" obituary in Current Biography, 2002.
  • Alan Lomax: Mirades Miradas Glances Photos by Alan Lomax, ed. by Antoni Pizà (Barcelona: Lunwerg / Fundacio Sa Nostra, 2006) ISBN 84-9785-271-0

  • L'Anno piu' felice della mia vita (The Happiest Year of My Life), a book of ethnographic photos by Alan Lomax from his 1954-55 fieldwork in Italy, edited by Goffredo Plastino, preface by Martin Scorsese. To be published by Il Saggiatore, Milan. 2008.

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