Alan Lomax, American field collector of folk music, Died at 87


Alan Lomax died on July 19, 2002 at the age of 87; he was an American field collector of folk music of the 20th century.

Born in Austin, Texas on January 31, 1915, he was the third of four children born to Bess Brown and pioneering folklorist and author John A. Lomax, with whom he started his career by recording songs sung by sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Lomax produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows in the US and in England, which played an important role in both the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.

He collected material first with his father, 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, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress on aluminium and acetate discs.

Because of childhood asthma, chronic ear infections, and generally frail health, Lomax had mostly been home schooled in elementary school.

In Dallas, he entered the Terrill School for Boys (a tiny prep school), where he excelled. He attended the Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Connecticut for a year, graduating eighth in his class at age 15 in 1930.

Because of his mother’s declining health, however, rather than going to Harvard as his father had wished, Lomax matriculated at the University of Texas at Austin.

A roommate, future anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, recalled Lomax as “frighteningly smart, probably classifiable as a genius”, though Goldschmidt remembers Lomax exploding one night while studying: “Damn it! The hardest thing I’ve had to learn is that I’m not a genius.”

At the University of Texas Lomax read Nietzsche and developed an interest in philosophy. He joined and wrote a few columns for the school paper, The Daily Texan but resigned when it refused to publish an editorial he had written on birth control.

At this time he also he began collecting “race” records and taking his dates to black-owned night clubs, at the risk of expulsion. During the spring term his mother died, and his youngest sister Bess, age 10, was sent to live with an aunt.

Although the Great Depression was rapidly causing his family’s resources to plummet, Harvard came up with enough financial aid for the 16-year-old Lomax to spend his sophomore year there.

He enrolled in philosophy and physics and also pursued a long-distance informal reading course in Plato and the Pre-Socratics with University of Texas professor Albert P. Brogan.

In addition to a wide spectrum of musical performances from around the world, it includes stories, jokes, sermons, personal narratives, interviews conducted by Lomax and his associates, and unique ambient artifacts captured in transit from radio broadcasts, sometimes inadvertently, when Alan left the tape machine running.

Not a single piece of recorded sound in Lomax’s audio archive has been omitted: meaning that microphone checks, partial performances, and false starts are also included.

In the 1950s, Lomax compiled and edited an 18-volume LP series for Columbia Records anthologizing world folk music (a project which anticipated a similar UNESCO world music series by several years).

His collecting and his collaborations for this project — with Diego Carpitella in Italy, Seamus Ennis in Ireland, Peter Kennedy in England, and Hamish Henderson in Scotland — laid the foundations for folk song revivals in those countries.

Lomax, Kennedy, and their colleagues introduced scores of listeners to British and world folk music through BBC radio and television.

In 1989, Lomax and a team of developers began compiling his most ambitious project, the Global Jukebox, a multimedia interactive database that looks at relationships between dance, song, and social organization.

It was originally inspired by the Urban Strain, a 1980s study of twentieth-century popular music undertaken with jazz musician Roswell Rudd and dance ethnologist Forrestine Paulay.

Lomax intended the Jukebox to serve both as a medium for scientific research into human expressive behaviour and as a tool for social science, arts, and humanities education.

With it, Lomax hoped to further the concept of cultural equity, which Lomax understood as the importance of giving all cultures a valid forum in the media and in educational curricula for the meaningful display of their arts and values.