John Lomax, Sr., one of America’s most important folklorists, documented a variety of musical genres in his extensive studies, recording more than 10,000 songs for the Library of Congress. He was the man who brought Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) to national notoriety and he was also the father of the most famous and prolific folklorist of all, Alan Lomax. Born in Goodman, Mississippi, on Sept. 23, 1867, Lomax was raised on a Texas farm. While working as a teacher, college administrator, and investment broker, Lomax pursued his documentary interest in music — Texas cowboy songs at first — and published Cowboy Ballads and Other Frontier Songs in 1910 in addition to articles in various journals. He began a 10-year association with the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1933, traversing the South with a portable recording machine, joined by his son Alan or his second wife, Ruby. Their expeditions resulted in the first recordings of Lead Belly at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, and after Lead Belly was freed, Lomax hired him as his driver and assistant. Most of the other blues songs collected by Lomax were also from prisoners, including Bukka White at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Lomax wrote or compiled several more books, including Adventures of a Ballad Hunter and several co-authored with Alan. He and Alan were in Greenville, Mississippi, where they were to make some public appearances, to be followed by more field recordings in the area, when he suffered a heart attack on Jan. 23, 1948. He died at a local hospital three days later.
Alan Lomax, whose achievements were ever more far-ranging than his father’s, was born in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 31, 1915. In addition to his work with his father, Alan collected all sorts of black and white folk songs, folklore and oral histories on his own expeditions with various co-workers, in the deep South, the Appalachians, the Caribbean, the British Isles, Italy and other points around the globe. His blues work included recording Muddy Waters, Son House, Honeyboy Edwards and the first African-American fife and drum band ever recorded, led by Sid Hemphill, during a 1941-42 Fisk University-Library of Congress study in Mississippi, more Mississippi recordings in 1959, including the first by Fred McDowell, and The Land Where the Blues Began, the title of both of a documentary shot in 1978 and a book published in 1993. For a Blues in the Mississippi Night album he brought Memphis Slim, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy together to play and talk about the blues (released under pseudonyms because of their then-controversial comments on race). He got Jelly Roll Morton to perform and talk at length about the history of jazz and blues for another Library of Congress project, later released in various formats including a Rounder multi-CD set and also chronicled in a Lomax book, Mister Jelly Roll. Rounder’s Deep River of Song CD series was based on Lomax field recordings, as was Atlantic Records’ Sounds of the South. His credits include many other record productions, several books, radio shows, and the American Patchwork PBS series.
An outspoken political critic, Lomax left the country during the McCarthy era and continued his work in England before returning home. In 1983 he founded the nonprofit Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) with a mission ‘to stimulate cultural equity through preservation, research, and dissemination of the world’s traditional music, and to reconnect people and communities with their creative heritage.’ Lomax died on July 19, 2002, in Safety Harbor, Florida.
Although John and Alan Lomax were taken to task on accusations of exploitation, failure to acknowledge co-workers’ contributions, and errors in documentation, they were even more widely hailed for their unparalleled accomplishments. Among other family members who pursued the quest for folk music were Alan’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009) and brother John, Jr. (1907-1974). Alan’s daughter Anna continued his work with the ACE and in cooperation with the Library of Congress, thousands of Lomax recordings and photos are now available from the ACE Online Archive at http://research.culturalequity.org/.
— Jim O’Neal