Ethnomusicology is the study of music in its cultural context. Ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is but why it is: what music means to its practitioners and audiences, and how those meanings are conveyed.
—The Society for Ethnomusicology website
Born in Austin, TX in 1915, the life of Alan Lomax spanned most of the Twentieth Century. He was a musicologist, writer, producer, and musician and spent much of his life gathering field recordings of folk music.
Lomax’ passion didn’t spring up out of nowhere. His father was folklorist John Lomax, whose interest in cowboy songs led to his forming the Texas Folklore Society in 1909. (John’s daughter Bess was also a folkorist and musician.)
Lomax Sr. went on to collect more than ten thousand recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. (It was subsequently renamed the Archive of Folk Culture.)
John’s son Alan attended Harvard for a while but developed pneumonia and, losing financial aid, had to leave school. In 1932, during the Great Depression, the 17-year old Alan joined his father’s field trips for the Library of Congress.
He started his career by recording songs sung by sharecroppers and prisoners* in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. (Around this time he co-authored two books with his father, American Ballads and Folk Songs and Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly.)
Using whatever primitive sound recording equipment was available, Alan did interviews with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, ragtime and jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton** and bluesman Muddy Waters. (Whose first recordings were made by Lomax.) In the late Thirties, he hosted a nationally broadcast radio show that aired daily in schools. reaching 10 million students in 200,000 classes. In 1940, he recorded albums by both Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie.
In addition to making field recordings, Lomax had an impressive career as a broadcaster and a musical host. (He even played skiffle in England at one point.) He hosted shows at New York venues featuring blues, flamenco, and calypso music.
In 1949, he broadcast a radio show that featured everything from recordings of guitarist Django Reinhardt to saxman Sidney Bechet to Hank Williams to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (a nominee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.)
Post-World War II, America got itself caught up in a “Red” scare, seeing Communists not only as a threat from outside but also from within. And inevitably, given the company he kept with “Negros,” leftists, protest singers, and other unsavory characters, Lomax felt sure that the House Un-American Activities Committee of Douchebags would turn their attention to him.
And so rather than wait and get blackballed, in 1950 he fled to England. (But never really admitted that that was why he was going.) While in Europe, Lomax spent time in Spain making recordings. In London, he edited the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. Miles Davis and jazz arranger Gil Evans heard the Spanish numbers and incorporated some of them into Miles’ classic 1960 album Sketches of Spain.
Lomax returned from London in 1959 and hosted a show at Carnegie Hall called Folksong ’59. This was an eclectic (to say the least) show featuring folk, gospel, blues (Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim), bluegrass, Pete Seeger and the rock ‘n roll group, the Cadillacs.
Wikipedia: “According to Izzy Young, owner of the Folklore Center, and chronicler of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the audience booed when Alan Lomax told them to lay down their prejudices and listen to rock ‘n’ roll.
In Young’s opinion, “Lomax put on what is probably the turning point in American folk music . . . . At that concert, the point he was trying to make was that Negro and white music were mixing, and rock and roll was that thing.”” Seems to me that by 1959, that trend was already well underway. But this show turned a lot of Northerners on to bluegrass for the first time.
In that same year, Lomax and his then-girlfriend English folk singer Shirley Collins headed south and, using better equipment, re-recorded performers such as Bessie Jones and Mississippi Fred McDowell. These were released on an album called Sounds of the South.
Lomax was a consultant to Carl Sagan on the Voyager Golden Record sent into space in 1977. “Music he helped choose included the blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll of Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; Azerbaijani mugham performed by two balaban players, a Sicilian sulfur miner’s lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, and the Georgians of the Caucasus; and a shepherdess song from Bulgaria by Valya Balkanska in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more.”***
As of March 2012, 17,000 of Lomax’ recordings have been digitized and put online for free streaming at the Association for Cultural Equity, which Lomax founded in 1983. If you have a lot of time on your hands and a great deal of interest in the music of a variety of different cultures, this is the place for you. (There’s also an archive on YouTube which includes videos. )
Alan Lomax received the National Medal of Arts in 1986. the Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000 and a National Book Critics Circle Award for his book The Land Where the Blues Began. Lomax also received a posthumous Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 2003.
Alan Lomax died on July 19, 2002, at the age of 87.
*An original recording Alan and his father made, ‘Po Lazarus’ is used in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. This movie was filled with songs representative of the types of music the Lomax’ recorded. When the album became a best-seller, Alan’s daughter tracked down singer James Carter, gave him a fat royalty check and flew him to the Grammys. The album won soundtrack of year for 2001.
**Lomax’ recordings led to a book about Jelly Roll’s life which led to two plays, Jelly Roll and Jelly’s Last Jam.
***These would all have been my choices too of course.
Sources: Wikipedia, various ethnomusicologist sites.