Alan Lomax Collection Highlights Folk Music of the 20th Century


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More than 50 years ago, on a trip dubbed "the Southern Journey," folklorist Alan Lomax visited Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee, shedding new light on the little-known southern backcountry and the folk and blues music that is now considered uniquely American. Lomax’s camera was a constant companion, and his images of both legendary and anonymous folk musicians complement his famous field recordings.

Lomax (1915 –2002) was one of the great American field collectors of folk music of the 20th century. He was also a folklorist, ethnomusicologist, archivist, writer, scholar, political activist, oral historian, and film-maker. Lomax also produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows in the U.S and in England, which played an important role in both the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, '50s and early '60s. During the New Deal, with his father, famed folklorist and collector John A. Lomax and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress on aluminum and acetate discs.

"The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice."—Alan Lomax, 1972

After 1942, when Congress cut off the Library of Congress's funding for folk song collecting, Lomax continued to collect independently in Britain, Ireland, the Caribbean, Italy, and Spain, as well as the United States, using the latest recording technology, assembling a treasure trove of American and international culture. With the start of the Cold War, Lomax continued to speak out for a public role for folklore,  even as academic folklorists turned inward.

Book cover: The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs, and MusicPublished by the Library of Congress in association with W.W. Norton & Company, The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs, and Music is a new look at the legendary folklorist and his work. The photographs—many previously unpublished—show musicians making music with family and friends at home, with fellow worshippers at church and alongside workers and prisoners in the fields. Discussions of Lomax’s life and career by his disciple folklorist William Ferris, and a lyrical look at Lomax’s photographs by novelist and Grammy Award–winning music writer Tom Piazza, enrich this collection. An audio CD of many featured musicians accompanies the book. A preview of the book, including a slideshow of images, is available online.

Lomax recorded thousands of songs throughout the United States and Europe. From 1937 to 1942, he served as assistant in charge of the Library’s Archive of American Folk Song, the precursor to the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress, which was created in 1976 by the U.S. Congress.

In 2004, the American Folklife Center acquired the Alan Lomax Collection, comprising the unparalleled ethnographic documentation collected by the legendary folklorist over a period of more than 60 years (between his departure from the Library and his death in 2002). The acquisition was made possible through an agreement between the American Folklife Center and the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) at New York City's Hunter College.

With this acquisition, the Alan Lomax Collection joined the material that he and his father John collected during the 1930s and 1940s for the Library's Archive of American Folk Song.

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax, a 136-page hardcover book with 100 color and duotone images and an audio CD, is available in bookstores nationwide and through the Library of Congress Shop.

Woodie Guthrie, Lillie Mae Ledford and Alan Lomax perfoming together in 1944Lomax 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.

In 1983, Lomax founded The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE). It is housed at the Fine Arts Campus of Hunter College in New York City and is the custodian of the Alan Lomax Archive. The Association's mission is to "facilitate cultural equity" and practice "cultural feedback" and "preserve, publish, repatriate and freely disseminate" its collections. Though Alan Lomax's appeals to anthropology conferences and repeated letters to UNESCO fell on deaf ears, the modern world seems to have caught up to his vision. In an article first published in the 2009 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Barry Jean Ancelet, folklorist and chair of the Modern Languages Department at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, wrote:

"Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music. So if we've got anybody to thank, it's Alan. Thanks, Alan." —Bob Dylan

In 2001, in the wake of the attacks in New York and Washington of September 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 remarkably similar to those forcefully articulated by Alan Lomax many years before.

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[] Alan Lomax In Haiti: Recordings For The Library Of Congress, 1936–1937, issued by Harte Records and made with the support and major funding from Kimberley Green and the Green foundation, and featuring 10 CDs of recorded music and film footage (shot by Elizabeth Lomax, then nineteen), a bound book of Lomax's selected letters and field journals, and notes by musicologist Gage Averill, was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 2011.

Visit your local library to learn more about Alan Lomax:

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World
John Szwed, (2010).

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax
Alan Lomax; Tom Piazza; Floyd Batts; Texas Gladden; Hobart Smith; (2013).

Alan Lomax Collection at Library of Congress

A partial list of books by Alan Lomax includes:

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

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 0-679-40453-8); 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, 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).

Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. With John A. Lomax and Ruth Crawford Seeger. New York: MacMillan, 1941.

American Folksong and Folklore: A Regional Bibliography. With Sidney Robertson Cowell. New York, Progressive Education Association, 1942. Reprint, Temecula, California: Reprint Services Corp., 1988 (62 pp. ISBN 0-7812-0767-3).

Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. With John A. Lomax. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

American ballads and folk songs. With John Avery Lomax. (1934 1966).




1. Article illustration:Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina, United States.

2. Woodie Guthrie, Lillie Mae Ledford and Alan Lomax perfoming together in 1944.


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