Alan Lomax, Primum Mobile of music in the second half of the Twentieth Century
“I’m not exactly sure what the Folk Music Revival was, and is, but I’m certain that Alan Lomax invented it. This collection is proof positive. Thanks, Alan.” (“Words” 11)
Dave van Ronk only slightly exaggerates in one of the shortest paeans to Alan Lomax in the seventy four-page booklet for the richly documented The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler (of the 150 CD Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder); there were, of course, other influences on revivalism. If Alan Lomax did not invent them, he certainly had a lot to do with most of the revivals and changes in musical taste from the 1940s to the 1990s—and through his recordings he may influence those in the coming decades. He was an extremely original thinker with huge plans, great charm with which to convince others that his plans were good ideas, and a tremendous capacity for hard work. Born in 1915, he died in the summer of 2002 after a long illness. This is not an obituary, however. It is an investigation into the motivation for producing “field” or ethnographic recordings of non-popular musical forms and an evaluation of the strategies for influencing culture through recordings.
Alan Lomax’s productions touched almost every aspect of contemporary American music and its expression. He was a field researcher and recorder, a radio personality, a concert organizer, a composer, and in his later years the visionary behind one of the largest comparative projects ever imagined for the study of music—even if it was considered by many colleagues to be totally wrongheaded. You can learn something about him on the Alan Lomax Website, view photos of him, and peruse a fascinating list of his field trips. Brilliant, a whirling contagion of enthusiasm, unafraid to go marching boldly in the opposite direction from hundreds of scholars, Alan Lomax has been deprived of the position he richly deserves as one of the ancestors of applied ethnomusicology, applied folklore, and active involvement in cultural politics. His influence on the folk revival, however, is far more widely recognized.
The Alan Lomax Collections
The Rounder Records series of Lomax recordings doesn’t really qualify as a stimulus to the 1960s folk music revival in the way that the Harry Smith collection on Folkways did in 1952, or some of the world music anthologies did around the same time, because it is now only a few years old and still growing. The Rounder Records series is also far more comprehensive than any of the series actually produced by Alan Lomax during his lifetime (view a list of them). Alan Lomax was a prodigious producer, however. He produced early commercial recordings of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Jelly Roll Morton. His five-volume anthology of the folk music of the United States, from recordings in the Library of Congress, was a milestone. He produced a ten-volume set of music of Great Britain on Caedmon Records, an eleven-volume set of the music of Spain on Westminster, an eighteen-record set of music of the world on Columbia Records, and a twelve-volume set, “Southern Journey,” on Prestige. Astonishingly, all of these appeared before 1960. They could not have failed to have an impact on those who were fortunate enough to come across them. I never did, for some reason—but most of them are now in the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.
People may not have seen these series because they went out of print fairly quickly. During the years I directed Smithsonian Folkways recordings, I often found that small companies did a better job distributing special projects like these than the major labels, for whom they were a definite sideline, rarely promoted and often quickly discontinued. Many of Alan Lomax’s 1950s releases appeared for a brief time and then were impossible to find. The strategy of Moses Asch, at Folkways Records, was entirely different. Asch knew he could not compete with major labels, but he sold extensively to libraries and kept all of his recordings in print (they still are at Folkways). Thus if you heard a Folkways recording thirty years after it was released, you could still get a copy. People hearing about Alan Lomax’s recordings have not been so lucky until now, with the Rounder releases. But Alan Lomax wanted to reach the entire population—not just scholars and aficionados.1
The Justification for Producing Ethnographic Recordings
Most of the early anthologies were produced by enthusiasts who wanted to expose the rest of the world to their enthusiasms in the hope they would be contagious. These enthusiasts were often supported by sympathetic record company executives who hoped (but probably didn’t expect) to sell enough of them to get their expenses back. Harry Smith was an inveterate record collector who was passionate about the regional recordings produced between 1927 and the mid 1930s. Samuel Charters wanted to expose the world to the rural blues. Henry Cowell wanted to expose the world to the many musical styles of the world’s peoples (through the Music of the World’s Peoples series on Folkways). Alan Lomax wanted to bring the music that was being marginalized by mass media to the general public using mass media. [Listen to a Lomax recording]
One might criticize influential anthology recordings for contributing to the establishment of a “canon,” or a consecrated group of styles and artists that operates to restrict further musical development. Influential collections would thus limit the music people reproduce. The argument against the canon is that people listen to a single anthology and don’t go beyond it. I personally find this a lot of speculative rubbish, only partially supported by events from 1950–2002. Certainly, each producer presents listeners with only part of a larger set of recordings. But to assume that audiences stop at a single recording is rather puerile—how many people bemoaning the creation of a canon have inventoried the recorded sound collections of the people they write about? (I have done this three times in the Suyá village in Brazil.) A lot of people heard the music and searched out the artists and new artists. Others became record collectors themselves, and produced more recordings. Folkways Records, County Sales, Rounder, and many other independent labels went far beyond the artists, periods, and styles on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. At Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, we considered not reissuing the Anthology of American Folk Music in the 1990s because there was so much more old-time music available in the 1990s than had been accessible in 1952—indeed most of the tracks on the Anthology were already available on CD somewhere else. We decided that what wasn’t available was Harry Smith’s selection and sequence, and his remarkable liner notes—and so proceeded with the reissue.
The difference between a fairly small anthology like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and the Alan Lomax Collection is one of scale and coherence. Harry Smith wanted to produce four volumes, representing (among other things) the four elements. He only completed the first three for Folkways, with six LP recordings and a total of eighty-three tracks. Most of Alan Lomax’s series were far larger than that and were organized by geography and genre rather than by some other kind of association. I believe the smaller anthologies are better remembered than the larger series, but that particular styles on any recording may suddenly infatuate listeners.
When I directed Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, I often likened myself to a fisherman—no doubt influenced by my many months having to fish for our supper on the Xingu River in Brazil. I would produce recordings and hope that someone, somewhere, would hear the sounds and find their lives changed by them. We published discographies and bibliographies with each recording so that people could explore beyond our CDs. My introductions to anthologies often urged people to attend live concerts or learn to play an instrument. I knew recordings could change people’s lives. Anthologies like Harry Smith’s and Alan Lomax’s certainly did so.
Writing in the Hi-Fi/Stereo Review at the end of that extremely productive decade, Alan Lomax brilliantly characterized the significance of recorded sound for the twentieth century in the language of the 1950s:
To the musicologists of the 21st century our epoch may not be known by the name of a school of composers or of a musical style. It may well be called the period of the phonograph or the age of the golden ear, when, for a time, a passionate oral curiosity overshadowed the ability to create a music. Tape decks and turntables spun out swing and symphony, pop and primitive with equal fidelity; and the hi-fi LP brought the music of the whole world to mankind’s pad. It became more important to give all music a hearing than to get on with the somewhat stale tasks of the symphonic tradition. The naked Australian mooing into his djebangari and [Joshua] Heifetz noodling away at his cat-gut were both brilliantly recorded. The human race listened, ruminating, not sure whether there should be a universal, cosmopolitan musical language, or whether we should go back to the old-fashioned ways of our ancestors, with a different music in every village. This, at least, is what happened to me. (43)
Alan Lomax always wanted to reach the largest possible audience. He and his father tried to write popular songbooks—but were overshadowed by the Fireside Book of Folk Songs. For two years Alan had a national radio show on which he introduced listeners to many musicians who became staples in the later revival, among them Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly. He produced some extremely influential concerts. He issued audio recordings in the 1950s, and the American Patchwork television series (and videotapes) in the 1980s.
The biggest Alan Lomax anthology of all began in 1996 and continues today. It is a massive endeavor, originally planned to exceed 150 CDs, and intends to present some of the most significant field recordings Lomax made during his long career. The project is spearheaded by Alan Lomax’s daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetikas, who is taking great care to make this a monument to her father’s work and also a contemporary series edited and annotated by some of the most knowledgeable specialists living today. The beautifully prepared sampler to the collection includes a statement of intention, words of support from luminaries, a brief biography of Alan Lomax, and the description of some of the major collections in nature in his life. In a sense, the piece you are reading is a discussion of an anthology not yet completed. The recordings have not yet become part of the canon of American folk music—although the collector certainly has.
Recordings are More than a Collection of Sounds
Alan Lomax was a brilliant collector. While stories of his methods abound, he certainly knew how to get good performances out of fine musicians and could capture them on recording equipment of varying quality. My aunt, Peggy Seeger, wrote: “as a collector he can make you feel as if you’re the best musician or storyteller and the world. As a catalyst and innovator, he inspires you to do your best—then to do even better” (“Words” 11). One of the things that impressed me when I listened to any of Alan’s productions was that he could identify good performers, get the best out of them, and select brilliant examples from among all he had recorded. I stood in awe of his ability when I produced recordings for Smithsonian.
Alan Lomax was extremely sensitive to timbre. This appears in his recordings long before he launched into a comparative study of vocal styles. Listen to his recordings of African American blues performers, or English ballad singers, or Spanish vocalists and you will appreciate how much he was able to get out of his performers and his machines. He must have been a genius at microphone placement. Listen to the Cantometrics Training Tapes for the most remarkable set of vocal timbres you will ever hear. People sang their hearts out for him, and he loved it. I think Alan could hear emotion in performances and picked the tracks he personally found most moving.2
Ethnographic or documentary recordings are far more than good sound. They are driven by ideology, and are part of larger social, musical, and commercial contexts. Alan Lomax was very aware of this, and wrote eloquently about what he felt his role was in making ethnographic recordings and bringing them to the public through commercial releases:
The recording machine can be a voice for the voiceless, for the millions in the world who have no access to the main channels of communication, and whose cultures are being talked to death by all sorts of well-intentioned people—teachers, missionaries, etc.—and who are being shouted into silence by our commercially bought-and-paid-for loudspeaker. It took me a long time to realize that the main point of my activity was to redress the balance a bit, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas. (44)… tomorrow, when it will be too late—when the whole world is bored with automated mass-distributed video-music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture. (56)
Those quotations, all from the same article which Rounder Records reprinted in the Alan Lomax Collection Sampler, are vintage Lomax. He spoke that way in person, too. Deeply aware of the influence of mass communication on our world, with a passion for people with little power or privilege, and a disdain for those who had it unless he wanted something from them, flaunting a Romantic’s concern that the disappearance of a tradition marks the end of a civilization, Alan Lomax was passionate, eloquent, and combative.3 A complex man, his biography has yet to be written (though there are some good articles and chapters about him, as in Benjamin Filene’s Romancing the Folk).
What Alan predicted in 1960 has to a certain degree become true in 2002. There is a great deal more interest in the music of other parts of the world on the part of the United States music-listening audience than there was in 1960. And since not everyone is enchanted by MTV, boy bands, dancing youth, and popular music radio, significant parts of the population—and certain age groups—are looking for more than that.
Is the Anthology Dead in the Twenty–first Century?
What will be the influence of these recordings in the twenty–first Century? Is the age of compilations over in a time when individual files are shared, often without any text, and often without neighboring tracks?
Most of the Alan Lomax anthologies, the Harry Smith anthology, and the Henry Cowell Music of the World’s Peoples all appeared in the 1950s. They were, to a certain extent, a product of a new medium, the Long Playing Record (LP). 78 RPM record albums had fewer songs (usually six songs or “sides”), were heavier and more fragile, and did not have to be played in sequence. In contrast, the LP record could hold six or more songs on a single side, in an order established by the compiler. This made compiling LPs a work of art—where the artistry was in the juxtaposition of the music that was included.
The CD increased the length of a compilation album from about fifty minutes to seventy-four minutes. It also eliminated the need to turn the LP over, and further enhanced the role of the producer—sequence became even more complex with that many songs to manage. It was, however, easier to skip around on a CD than on an LP, where clumsily “dropping the needle” on a track could destroy the recording.
Creating party mixes, file sharing, and other twenty–first century ways of listening to music have dramatically altered the scene. Albums may disappear altogether; individual tracks may reappear as the most important unit for purchase and appreciation. It may be that the effective life of anthologies is nearly over as technology presents the opportunity for making music available in other ways.
The Rounder series represents some of the best anthologizing found today. But do people need them now? Are there alternatives? A number of interesting alternatives have emerged, one of the most interesting of which is the appearance of extensive archival collections on the Internet. A dramatic contrast to the anthologized, re-mastered, newly annotated, and smoothly packaged reissue series on Rounder Records is the fascinating presentation of a field trip by Alan’s father, John Lomax, and his second wife, Ruby, to the American South from March 31st to June 14th, 1939, on the Library of Congress American Memory website.
The contrast between the anthologies and the field trip is dramatic. For readers of this online journal, the Library of Congress site is much more fun, and free. Although the 700 recordings are scratchy and have some nasty sonic problems, they are presented in full, including the shouted conversations between John Lomax and the musicians during the recording. Genres range from a fit of laughter to stories and songs in many genres. Important among them is a large number of Spanish language performances recorded in Texas. The sounds are hardly “cleaned up.” They are accompanied by 380 photographs and field journals. You can even try to read the writing on the sleeves of the discs on which the Lomaxes recorded—many of which have been scanned. You can read the report of the trip. I can’t give you direct links to specific songs because the URLs are treated as searches, but it is fascinating to explore this expedition (blues enthusiasts can listen to Washington White play “Sick ‘em Dogs On”).
Commercial Recordings and Archival Collections
Anthologies, of course, play a different role from complete field recordings. Anthologies are the prepared plate of antipasto; field collections are the smorgasbord. The former give you a pre-selected taste of what is available; the latter offer you an opportunity to sample everything or fill your plate with a single dish.
As a scholar who has directed archives for most of the past twenty years and run a record company for twelve of them, I can see the advantages of both. There is a richness and depth to the recordings in archives that is unparalleled by even the Alan Lomax collection on Rounder. Even though field collections are of course filtered by the preconceptions of the people making the recordings and taking the photographs, they have not undergone the further mediation of the market system (even non-profits cannot afford to lose money, and thus cannot issue everything in any collection). On the other hand, before the Internet, the capitalist market system was a reasonably efficient way of getting sounds to those who wanted to hear them.
If you made 1,000 copies of your field recordings, how would you get them to the people most interested in hearing them? After you have given them to your 250 friends (assuming you have that many friends who like your music), how do you find the others? Record companies like Rounder, Folkways, and many small independent labels are run by people who believe deeply in the significance of music they are producing. The market system is often treated as a means through which to achieve cultural, political, and personal ends, and not an end in itself .4
The Internet offers the general public a real alternative to commercially distributed sound. On the American Memory site visitors can explore for themselves the remarkable music as it was actually recorded by the Lomaxes is the 1940s—in the sequence it was recorded, with the shouted questions to the artists and the scrawled notes on the disc jackets. Imagine how exciting it would be to have that kind of material available for all of Alan Lomax’s field trips throughout the Americas and Europe. It is to be hoped that someday they, too, will be available for similar exploration.5
The Library of Congress has taken a different approach to memorializing the work of the Lomax family than Rounder Records. The difference between them is the difference between an anthology made to capture the ears of the broad general public and an extensive presentation of the remarkable sounds and sites of the American South as seen through the work of John and Ruby Lomax on a specific field trip. My enthusiasm for the American Memory site is not to belittle the work of Rounder Records, but it does suggest there are other methods for organizing information and presenting it than the one produced by the commercial recording industry of the late twentieth century.
Which approach will have the greatest impact on this century—releases of commercially distributed recordings or Internet access to deeper and quirkier collections? Only time will tell. It may be that the anthology was an artifact of the LP and CD era—short lived, extremely influential, but eventually supplanted by something even richer, more individual, more multimedia, and just as exciting. Or it may be that users will recoil from too much information and learn from commercially distributed recordings. More likely it will be a combination of the two—but which combination? Which will set pulses racing and send people to their rooms to create new, inspired music for the next millenium?
Anthologies had a tremendous impact on people during the second half of the twentieth century. Growing up during that period, I confess to having enjoyed many anthologies over the years—not necessarily because I liked everything on any of them, but because I was so often surprised by something wonderful I never imagined might exist. (I like samplers of chocolates, too.) Alan Lomax’s anthologies are doubly works of art—he made most of the recordings himself, and then selected and annotated them. If the Rounder series is the last great anthology to be produced, at least it will have been a marvelous end to the genre.
Next Essay (link to Titon article)
Filene, Benjamin. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Lomax, Alan. “Saga of a Folksong Hunter.” Hi-Fi/Stereo Review May 1960: 38–46. Rpt. in Booklet. The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. Rounder Records, 1997.
Porterfield, Nolan. Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax 1867–1948. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
“Words of Support for The Alan Lomax Collection.” Booklet. The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. Rounder, 1997. 10–13.
The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. Rounder, 1997.
The Alan Lomax Collection. 12 vols. to date. Rounder, 1997–.
Smith, Harry. Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways, 1997.
- The same tension, between major label distribution and independent label reliability, dictated policy at the Smithsonian in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sometimes we had great success with Sony Music, for example in the benefit album, Folkways: a Vision Shared. Sometimes we had less luck, and I tended to prefer to concentrate on autonomy rather than broad distribution in such things as selecting distributors and project partners. ↩
- Judith Cohen is working on the reissue of the Spanish music series. In a paper she delivered at the 2002 SEM meeting in Estes Park, Colorado, she said that everyone she located in Spain whom Alan Lomax had recorded in the 1950s remembered him, and remembered him fondly. ↩
- Combative indeed. Alan Lomax stories are nearly infinite. I remember a telephone conversation in the 1980s when he told me “You and three generations of Seegers have ruined American folk music.” Also charming, as when he later said “You Seegers don’t understand. You come from the north, from a privileged background. My father and I came from redneck Texas, and always felt inferior in Washington DC. You can’t imagine how it was.” ↩
- When Moses Asch referred to his label in later years, he sometimes called it a “public archive” of recorded sound. While there are tens of thousands of hours of recordings in audiovisual archives in United States, they are often hard to find, and the recordings difficult to listen to. By making some of the recordings in an archive collection available, even on small independent record labels, the archives can become public and its collections more influential. The Internet, however, can eventually reach a far larger population than record labels have ever reached. ↩
- Smithsonian Folkways and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage are experimenting with an international, multi-archive project for making collections available on the Internet, Global Sound. ↩