Review | Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997, Ronald D. Cohen, ed.

Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997, edited by Ronald D. Cohen. New York: Routledge, 2005. [384 p. ISBN 415938546 $28.50 (hardcover)]

As life history projects go, Alan Lomax makes for a difficult subject. His prodigious output over six decades as a collector, writer, ethnomusicologist, promoter, and radio personality reached a range of popular, academic, and commercial audiences. His political beliefs informed this work, often in covert ways. And while Lomax cast himself simply as a collector and advocate of the songs and stories of ordinary folk, he was also always a storyteller, making the distinction between history and legend in his work a vexed one. While there is currently no full biography on Lomax, Ronald Cohen’s edited collection of Lomax’s writings suggests the scope and complexities of his career. This collection includes section introductions by Ed Kahn, Andrew Kaye, Ronald Cohen, Gage Averill, and Matthew Barton that provide general overviews of Lomax’s work in different eras, but the focus and strength of this book are the thirty-four essays collected here (most, but not all, previously published). These primary texts are divided into five sections: 1934-1950, Lomax’s early years as a collector and promoter; his work on world folk musics from 1950-1958; his writings on the 1960’s folk music revival; his academic work in the 1960s and 70s; and his final writings in the 1980s and 90s. Additionally, an eleven-track sampler CD provides both examples of the songs Lomax collected and his comments on these recordings, as well as excerpts from his radio programs. In sum, this collection allows scholars to examine the diversity of Lomax’s work within each period, and to trace the development of the themes central to his career.

While many readers will be familiar with Lomax’s field recordings and New Deal-era work with the Library of Congress, the breadth of this collection enables readers to compare these well-known works with Lomax’s writings across a range of different sites of publication. For example, the ten articles in the first section, “1934-1950: The Early Collecting Years,” include work Lomax published in specialized journals (Southwest Review and Modern Music), in popular magazines (New York Times Magazineand The American Girl), in folk song collections (Our Singing Country and 14 Traditional Spanish Songs From Texas), as well as a transcript from a radio program he produced (“Mister Ledford and the [Tennessee Valley Authority]”). This diversity of publications is also evident in the third section, “The Folk Revival (1960s),” which contains Lomax’s writings from the folk journal Sing Out!, popular magazines Esquire and House Beautiful, as well as the Journal of American Folklore and the preface to a collection of folksongs by roots musician Lead Belly. While Lomax likely reached different audiences through these popular and academic venues, his promotion of folk music and his writing style—a combination of what Kaye and Barton call an “ethnographic eye, a musicological ear, and a novelist’s pen” (102)—remained consistent across these different venues. 

In addition to these diverse sites of publication, the essays also highlight the principle concerns across Lomax’s work in different periods. Averill emphasizes this consistent focus, writing that:

The more one looks at the work of Alan Lomax, the more one sees the disparate parts of his praxis—collecting, academic analysis, folklore revivalism, advocacy, and education—as a coherent whole. Lomax was always a proponent of empowering the ‘folk,’ those who lived at a distance from power and wealth, and he had an innate trust of the cultural integrity of folk cultures (241).

Indeed, the articles collected here allow scholars to consider how Lomax worked to “empower the folk” through different research projects. Sections two and four (“The 1950s: World Music” and “Cantometrics and Cultural Equity: The Academic Years”), drawn primarily from Lomax’s academic journal articles, are especially useful in this regard. For example, a reader interested in Lomax’s ethnographic writing might contrast his piece on Haitian folklore in “Haitian Journey” (1938) with his Spanish field recording notes in Galicia (1960), his guide to “non-commercial” American folk music in “Getting to Know Folk Music” (1960), his promotion of cultural preservation in “Appeal for Cultural Advocacy” (1977), or to his recollections of southern field recording trips in “Sounds of the South” (1993). 


Along the same lines, a scholar interested in Lomax’s use of technology to analyze folk songs could examine how his ideas and notational methods developed over the sixty years covered here. In “Saga of a Folksong Hunter” (1960), Lomax describes how he benefited from advances in field recording technology, from the Dictaphone and disc recorder that facilitated his early collection trips in the 1930s and 40s, to the portable electric recording device that enabled his work in Europe in the 1950s. In “Folk Song Style: Notes on a Systematic Approach to the Study of Folk Song” (1956) and “Song Structure and Social Structure” (1962), Lomax outlines the ideas that would animate his comparative study of world music and dance styles, developed later in “Choreometrics: A Method for the Study of Cross-Cultural Pattern in Film” (1969) and “Cinema, Science and Cultural Renewal” (1973). And in these cross-cultural music projects, Lomax made extensive use of computers and ethnographic film to create databases that eventually provided the platform for his proposed interactive multimedia “Global Jukebox” (1992). Here again, access to writings in each era allows readers to track the development of Lomax’s thinking and methods on major projects. 

Approaching this collection from another angle, a reader might also examine the cultural politics and power at play in Lomax’s work. Another recent work on Lomax, Benjamin Filene’s Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music (2000), suggests such an approach. Filene argues that Lomax can be viewed as the most influential of a group of “cultural mediators” who were “[e]ager to promote the authenticity of the performers they worked with,” while they “depicted themselves simply as cultural funnels channeling the musicians’ raw, elemental power to popular audiences” (6). Indeed, Lomax’s idealization of the authenticity of the “true folk” is a recurring theme in this collection and is especially pronounced in Lomax’s writing on the folk revival. In an article in House Beautifulmagazine in 1960, Lomax offers:

Under the smooth bland surface of the popularized folk songs lies a bubbling stew of work songs, country blues, field hollers, hobo songs, prairie songs, spirituals, hoedowns, prison songs, and a few unknown ingredients. […] When the popular performer of today sings a folk song, he holds up a mirror that reflects a good deal of our familiar world. He shows us what he thinks we want to see. But the music of the grassroots folk singer is like a picture in a frame that shows the way it was, or is, in America for him and his people (204).

In this same article, Lomax suggests that folk songs “are the oral history of our country,” that they represent “the honest voice of the people” and that these “historical insights are not just interpretations by researchers; they are the words of those who were there” (206). Lomax also emphasized the importance of “giving voice” to the folk in a 1981 Smithsonian interview in which he recalled his recording of a sharecropper in the 1933: “For my part, I realized right then that the folklorist’s job was to link the people who were voiceless and who had no way to tell their story, with the big mainstream of world culture” (92-93). This conflict, between Lomax’s intention to preserve and empower the “real folk” while deemphasizing his role as a mediator in this process, flows through this collection and emerges as a central theme in Lomax’s career. 

The accompanying sampler CD suggests why this question of mediation is important. Although it may be obvious to say, hearing the field recording of “Go Down Old Hannah”is a different experience than reading that “[the prisoners] sang ‘Old Hannah,’ a song as slow and weary as a day in the fields under the lash and the gun with the ‘hot boilin’ sun’ overhead” (24). Yet, the benefit of the CD is not just getting to hear the “honest voices” of the folk; rather, the CD provides a more complete view of the complexities of Lomax’s role as a mediator. In this case, the CD includes Lomax’s comments on collecting prison songs and the prison recording itself, while the book supplies both his travel writing in “‘Sinful’ Songs of the Southern Negro” (1934), as well as his recollections of his early field work in “Folk Music in the Roosevelt Era” (1982). Though this combination of texts cannot resolve all of the questions surrounding Lomax’s work, it does suggest the importance of looking critically at the multiple aspects of mediation at play here.

While this question of mediation does not receive significant critical attention in any of the section introductions, Kahn moves in this direction, suggesting that:

Lomax always had a flair for the dramatic. In presentations, he often interwove pictures of the context of the material with the songs themselves. […] In [‘Reels and Work Songs’] he sets the stage and context for every recording he presents. […] It was Alan’s purpose in these lectures to change the way an audience listens to this material in the future (4). 


Kahn’s description of Lomax as a lecturer who used an array of material (e.g., song recordings, pictures, as well as his own personal stories and vocal inflection) to mediate folk songs is instructive, pointing to Lomax’s innovative research and presentation methods. Indeed, in addition to his innovative use of technology to record folk songs, Lomax’s oral history of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton was groundbreaking, and Averill notes that Lomax’s interest in the relationship between culture and musical styles anticipated the cultural studies work of the Birmingham School. Given this breadth, Averill concludes that Lomax was “more interdisciplinary than almost any ethnomusicologist writing today” (235). Kahn’s comment also speaks to the pictures, drawings, and ephemera that accompanied many of Lomax’s books, including the oral history Mister Jelly Roll(1950), the Depression era collection Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967), and The Leadbelly Songbook (1962), a tribute to one of Lomax’s first and most famous folk “discoveries.” While copyright restrictions prevented inclusion of such ephemera in this collection, the visual evidence presented in these other works give weight to Kahn’s comment, and like the CD, they could add depth to the articles and allow for a more nuanced reading of the politics of representation in Lomax’s work.

Although the section introductions work to frame Lomax’s work in each period, their brevity and limited engagement with critical work on Lomax is frustrating at times, particularly since the collected essays highlight the many complex and controversial aspects of Lomax’s career. This is especially true regarding Lomax’s political beliefs and affiliations in the 1960s. While Lomax did not write overtly about his politics, Cohen suggests that Lomax’s “support of the Civil Rights movement was total” (191). Cohen continues, 

while [Lomax] adhered to his reverence for traditional sounds and styles, he did not avoid making political commitments during this volatile period, as he always remained committed to his belief in a people’s culture and democratic values. In particular, his exploration and appreciation of black music and culture never wavered, but also did not take on the paternalistic cast of his father, John (193-4). 

This may be true, but Cohen gives little evidence of Lomax’s work from this period to support this assertion. And in one of the few examples he does cite, a music workshop Lomax helped to organize in Mississippi in 1965 that intended to introduce local organizers to traditional and contemporary folk music, Cohen notes that “[m]any of the young black activists found the older songs strange, smacking of slavery and oppression, and Lomax’s remarks patronizing” (191). This moment, one of the few hints at the contentious aspects of Lomax’s work, is not explicated, and is seemingly resolved at the end of the same paragraph when Cohen writes that Lomax redoubled his collection efforts and “continued to believe in the transforming power—political, social, spiritual—of cultural preservation and rejuvenation” (192). This is not to suggest that critical analysis of Lomax need focus solely on the controversial and potentially exploitative aspects of his work, but the disjunction between Lomax’s intentions and the implications of his work for different people and cultures appears throughout the collected articles and deserves more attention regardless of the brevity of the introductions.

Greg Averill’s introduction to the writings from Lomax’s academic years is an exception in this regard. Averill works through the innovative aspects of Lomax’s work in these years—concern with issues of gender, style, and performance—without obscuring the value-laden classificatory schemes he brought to this work. Citing an early essay that sketched Lomax’s future academic work, Averill writes that:

Even at this early date, Lomax had a general sense of the relevant world culture areas for his study, including Pygmoid (communal, voices “rather childlike”); African (“frankly orgiastic”); Eurasian (control & individuality); Amerindian (muscular, throaty); and so on. It is obvious that Lomax was not listening with completely unbiased ears, as these descriptions partake of a long history of European representation of these world areas (235). 

Lomax’s desire to classify folk songs, singers, styles, and cultures reappears throughout the primary texts collected here—see also “America Sings the Saga of America” (1947), “Folk Song Style: Musical Style and Social Context” (1959), “Getting to Know Folk Music” (1960), “The Good and the Beautiful in Folksong” (1967), and “Appeal of Cultural Equity” (1977)—and Averill’s essay does the best job of balancing the innovations and flaws of Lomax’s methods.

In Lomax’s 1993 introduction to the reissue of Mr. Jelly Roll, one of the last articles in this collection, he writes that what his interviewees “had to offer was not literal history, as so many oral historians have mistakenly thought, but the fruit of their lifelong experience, the evocation of their periods, and their imagination and style—the things that every good writer brings us. I knew that Jelly Roll had given me, as Woody [Guthrie] and Leadbelly had done earlier, the living legend of his existence” (232). In suggesting the unstable terrain between history and legend, this essay serves as an appropriate endpoint to this collection. In the primary texts gathered here, Lomax appears as a collector, writer, and storyteller; and each of these texts provides insight into, and raises questions about, Lomax’s legendary career. In this way, this volume should certainly achieve Cohen’s goal of stimulating future studies across multiple disciplines.

Matthew Delmont
Brown University


Asch, Moses, and Alan Lomax, eds. The Leadbelly Songbook; the Ballads, Blues, and Folksongs of Huddie Ledbetter. New York: Oak Publications, 1962.

Filene, Benjamin. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Lomax, Alan. Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People: American Folk Songs of the Depression and the Labor Movement of the 1930’s. New York: Oak Publications, 1967.

———. Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz”. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950.