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Sun, 01.31.1915

Alan Lomax, Ethnomusicologist born

Alan Lomax

*Alan Lomax was born on this date in 1915. He was a white-American ethnomusicologist, musician, folklorist, and filmmaker.

Lomax was born in Austin, Texas, the third of four children born to Bess Brown, folklorist and author John A. Lomax. The elder Lomax, a former professor of English at Texas A&M. Due to childhood asthma, and generally frail health, Lomax had mostly been home-schooled in elementary school. In Dallas, he entered the Terrill School for Boys, where he excelled, and then transferred to the Choate School in Connecticut for a year, graduating eighth in his class at age 15 in 1930. With his mother's declining health, however, Lomax enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. 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 began collecting "race" records and taking his dates to black-owned nightclubs. During the spring term, his mother died. 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 second year there. He enrolled in philosophy and physics and pursued a long-distance informal reading course in Plato and the Pre-Socratics with University of Texas professor Albert P. Brogan. He was involved in radical politics and came down with pneumonia. His grades suffered, as did his financial aid prospects. Lomax, now 17, took a break from studying to join his father's folk song-collecting field trips for the Library of Congress.

He co-authored American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) and Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936). His first field collecting was with Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in the summer of 1935. That fall, he returned to the University of Texas and was awarded a BA in Philosophy in 1936. Lomax married Elizabeth Harold Goodman, then a student at the University of Texas, in February 1937. They were married for 12 years and had a daughter, Anne (later known as Anna). Elizabeth assisted him in recording in Haiti, Alabama, Appalachia, and Mississippi.

During the 1950s, after she and Lomax divorced, she conducted lengthy interviews for Lomax with folk music personalities, including Vera Ward Hall and the Reverend Gary Davis. Lomax produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows in the US and England, preserving folk music traditions in both countries, and started the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. Lomax also did important fieldwork with John Wesley Work III and Lewis Jones in Mississippi, Joan Halifax in Morocco, and his daughter. All those who assisted and worked with him were accurately credited on the resultant Library of Congress and other recordings and in his many books, films, and publications.

He collected material first with his father, 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 aluminum and acetate discs. After 1942, when Congress terminated 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 an enormous collection of American and international culture. With the start of the Cold War, Lomax continued to advocate for a public role for folklore, even as academic folklorists turned inward.

He devoted much of the latter part of his life to advocating Cultural Equity, which he sought to put on a solid theoretical foundation through his Cantometric research. In the 1970s and 1980s, Lomax advised the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival and produced a series of films about folk music, American Patchwork, which aired on PBS in 1991. In his late seventies, Lomax completed a long-deferred memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began (1993), linking the birth of the blues to debt peonage, segregation, and forced labor in the American South. In March 2004, the material produced without Library of Congress funding was acquired by the library, which "brings the entire seventy years of Alan Lomax's work together under one roof at the Library of Congress, where it has found a permanent home."

Lomax's greatest legacy is preserving and publishing musicians' recordings in many folk and blues traditions around the US and Europe. Among the artists Lomax is credited with discovering and bringing to a wider audience include blues guitarist Robert Johnson, protest singer Woody Guthrie, folk artist Pete Seeger, country musician Burl Ives, Flora MacNeil, and country blues, Lead Belly, and Muddy Waters, among many others. "Alan scraped by the whole time and left with no money," said Don Fleming, Lomax's Association for Culture Equity director. "He did it out of his passion and found ways to fund projects closest to his heart." Alan Lomax died on July 19, 2002.

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