OnlineRock Blog

16 February 2012

Where Would We Be Without Alan Lomax? Opening The Vaults

By Tomi Mendel

On Monday, January 30, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress announced that the entire, enormous archive of music, film and photographs compiled by the late folklorist/archivist Alan Lomax will be made freely available online by the end of February. This exciting project is the spiritual completion of Lomax’s vision for a “global jukebox” of all his field recordings, an idea which he promoted until his death in 2002. Now, for the first time, his archive, which includes a whopping 17,000 music tracks, will be easily accessible for music and history fans everywhere.

I hope Lomax’s record collection is better organized than mine.

Alan Lomax is unquestionably one of the most important figures in 20th century music. It certainly is not difficult to find effusive praise of the man. Brian Eno said that without Lomax, “It’s possible that there would have been no blues explosion, no R&B movement, no Beatles and no Stones and no Velvet Underground.” According to Studs Terkel, “What Caruso was to singing, Alan Lomax is to musicology.” 

Lomax is also a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award, for The Land Where the Blues Began, an account of his experiences recording in the Mississipi Delta in the 1930s and 1940s. Beginning as an assistant to his father John Lomax in the ‘30s, Alan helped record music performed by the forgotten members of society: prisoners, cowboys, fishermen and many others. In doing so, he brought to light a rich history of traditional music and culture, often hiding in plain sight right here in the United States. Notable artists first recorded by Lomax include Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, two giants of the music world with legacies of incalculable influence. 

Lomax was a musical performer, as well.

These efforts to give voice to the marginalized were no easy task. With the horrible, ugly race relations of the era, the white Lomax would sometimes get his (often black) artists and himself in trouble for their social interactions. In The Land Where the Blues Began he tells of the need to converse with performers’ in the dark and hidden from view, for fear of being seen “fraternizing” or even shaking hands. Later, he recalls getting himself in hot water with a local sheriff by respectfully addressing blues legend Son House as “Mister.” Luckily, both the performers and Lomax were able to overcome these difficulties and create a vast treasure trove of traditional music not only in the United States, but in the Caribbean and Europe.

The Land Where the Blues Began, Lomax’s award-winning book.

It should be noted that Lomax was not entirely a heroic, benevolent figure, controversial in some circles where people feel that he exploited performers for his own gain. Still, wherever you stand on the question of Lomax’s ethics, one cannot deny that his archive of recordings helped provide the spark for the American and British folk revivals, as well as the world music craze, leading to artists like Bob Dylan, clearly one of the most influential figures in popular music history. 

In England, the new-found national obsession with classic American folk songs led to the creation of Skiffle, a pre-rock genre where artists like Jimmy Page, Roger Daltrey, and John Lennon got their starts. Obviously, Lomax was not the only field recorder and archivist working in those times, but he was certainly a significant and, more importantly, prolific figure. Much more than a mere recording technician, Alan also contributed to public knowledge of these works with his writings, as well as a series of radio shows and television programs throughout his lifetime.

Lonnie Donegan, Skiffle’s biggest star, covering a Woodie Guthrie song in awesome fashion. Check the drum solo.

These types of folk recordings have been a major influence on music artists for generations. Their visceral rawness and authenticity leaves an unshakable mark on any listener. Traditional music has touched not only Americana artists like the Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen, but also rootsy indie folksters like Bonnie “Prince” Billy. In addition, the efforts of Lomax and others to preserve and distribute folk songs from outside of the U.S. and Europe touched artists ranging from Van Dyke Parks to Paul Simon to Talking Heads. Covers of songs recorded by Lomax and his father show up in truly unexpected places, like Ram Jam’s goofy rock anthem “Black Betty,” or Moby’s dance hit “Honey.” 

Blam-a-lam! James “Iron Head” Baker with the original recording of Black Betty. You can find Lomax himself performing it on Spotify.

While the musical artists deserve the greatest credit for actually performing the songs, Lomax and his archivist peers provided an endlessly important service in preserving them and making them available for public education and enjoyment. Despite the mass of immeasurable lasting influence on modern artists, Lomax’s greater achievement is physical rather than abstract: the actual archive of music, films and photographs that preserve forever the unique voices of our world. To record is the quintessential act of modern existence, and there are few recordings more significant than those which illuminate the rich history and incredible talent of marginalized or forgotten cultures and traditions. In short, the approaching availability of Lomax’s entire archive of recorded material is an occasion worth celebrating whole-heartedly. 

Bessie Jones’ “Sometimes,” recorded by Lomax in 1960, is the basis of Moby’s “Honey.”


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