Alan Lomax, Primum Mobile of music in the second half of the Twentieth
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)
Alan Lomax, 1946. (American Roots Music
- 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
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 1990sand 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 Lomaxs 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 musiceven 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 doesnt 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 reasonbut most of them are
now in the UCLA
- 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 Lomaxs 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
Lomaxs recordings have not been so lucky until now, with the
Rounder releases. But Alan Lomax wanted to reach the entire populationnot
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 didnt 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 worlds
peoples (through the Music of the Worlds 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 dont go beyond it. I personally find this a lot of speculative
rubbish, only partially supported by events from 19502002. 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 puerilehow 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 Smiths 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 1952indeed most of the tracks on the Anthology
were already available on CD somewhere else. We decided that what
wasnt available was Harry Smiths selection and sequence,
and his remarkable liner notesand 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 Lomaxs 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 fishermanno 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 peoples lives. Anthologies like Harry Smiths and
Alan Lomaxs 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
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 mankinds
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.
Alan Lomax, 1941. (American Roots Music 79)
- Alan Lomax always wanted to reach the largest possible audience.
He and his father tried to write popular songbooksbut 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
Lomaxs daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetikas, who is taking great
care to make this a monument to her fathers 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
musicalthough 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 youre the best musician or storyteller and
the world. As a catalyst and innovator, he inspires you to do your
bestthen to do even better (Words 11). One
of the things that impressed me when I listened to any of Alans
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 peopleteachers,
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 latewhen 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.
- 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
Romantics 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 Filenes 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 populationand certain age groupsare looking
for more than that.
Is the Anthology Dead in the Twentyfirst Century?
- What will be the influence of these recordings in the twentyfirst
Century? Is the age of compilations over in a time when individual
files are shared, often without any text, and often without neighboring
- Most of the Alan Lomax anthologies, the Harry Smith anthology, and
the Henry Cowell Music of the Worlds 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 artwhere
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 producersequence
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 twentyfirst
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 Alans 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
- 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 recordedmany of which have been scanned. You
can read the report
of the trip. I cant 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 1940sin
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 Lomaxs
field trips throughout the Americas and Europe. It is to be hoped
that someday they, too, will be available for similar
Recording equipment in the back of John Lomaxs car,
late 1930s. (American Roots Music 60)
- 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 centuryreleases
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 erashort 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
twobut 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 yearsnot 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 arthe 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 dont 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 cant imagine how
4. 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.
5. 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
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: 3846. Rpt. in Booklet. The Alan Lomax
Collection Sampler. Rounder Records, 1997.
Porterfield, Nolan. Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A.
Lomax 18671948. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Words of Support for The Alan Lomax Collection.
Booklet. The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. Rounder, 1997. 1013.
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,