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World Music Legends

Alan Lomax

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005

Folk

When Alan Lomax died at age 87 in 2002, he left behind a musical legacy most people can only dream about, even if he made none of the music himself. A musicologist, he let us hear America and the globe, capturing traditions in a world that was changing as rapidly as the eye could blink. He introduced us to Leadbelly (and helped make him a star), Muddy Waters and many others.

            By the age of 18 Lomax was already on the road in the South, helping his father, John Lomax, gather material for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folksong. They recorded on a primitive Edison cylinder recorder, but even then Alan Lomax demonstrated the remarkable ear for songs and performances that would be the hallmark of his career—the pair gathered songs like “John Henry” and “Midnight Special,” which would become American folk standards.

            Lomax searched for representative traditional blues, folk, work songs and prison songs throughout the South, but he also hunted music in the Caribbean, Italy, Spain, Britain and Ireland, among the places he visited in the ’50s and ’60s.

            Lomax had a knack for getting the best songs and performances, capturing them with remarkable fidelity on crude, bulky equipment. It didn’t matter where he was, or what language the singers were using, his ears rarely failed. To hear his recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell, for example, is to get the same kind of insight into African-American history as listening to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson.

            While he’s best known for the work he undertook in the U.S., especially for his championing of the former Louisiana prisoner Huddie Ledbetter (whom the Lomaxes had first recorded in 1933), more popularly known as Leadbelly, much of Lomax’s most important work took place elsewhere. His travels to the Caribbean produced some exquisite work, showing the strong African influence still to be found there. In Britain and Ireland (thanks in part to the assistance of Ewan MacColl, the guiding light of the British folk revival), he taped several folk luminaries. But it was the largely unexplored territories of Spain and Italy that were especially fertile. Lomax’s was the first recorded survey of the entire country, and still stands as definitive.

            Definitive is a term that can be applied to almost everything Lomax did. He was also an acclaimed writer and broadcaster, introducing Americans to the rich musical traditions that were a part of their history, through recordings and guests, such as Woody Guthrie. In 1948 he became the writer and host of the show On Top Of Old Smokey, before moving to England in 1950

Recommended Recordings Alan Lomax Collection Sampler (Rounder). Caribbean Voyage: Caribbean Sampler (Rounder) World Library Of Folk and Primitive Music, Vol. 4: Spain (Rounder)