Alan Lomax’s Legacy

(The following is a story written by Stephen Winick, folklorist and writer-editor in the American Folklife Center, for the January/February 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. The issue can be read in its entirety here.)

Folklorist Alan Lomax at work at his manual typewriter, 1942.

Folklorist Alan Lomax at work at his manual typewriter, 1942.

A century after his birth, folklorist Alan Lomax is remembered for his preservation of the nation’s cultural heritage.

Of all the pioneering folklorists and documentarians whose work can be found in the American Folklife Center (AFC) in the Library of Congress, none is as well-known as Alan Lomax (1915-2002), both for the quantity and quality of his collections and for his influence on American culture.

Lomax’s career at the Library began in 1933, when his father, John A. Lomax, became a special consultant to the Library’s Music Division, in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song. Alan took over most of the day-to-day running of the archive, and by 1937 had a position at the Library and the title “assistant-in-charge.” He remained at the Library until 1942, when he left to serve in World War II.

Either alone or with his father, Alan spent his tenure at the Library traveling widely in the United States, carrying an instantaneous disk recorder and often a camera. His signature field trips resulted in some of the earliest documentation of traditional music in Louisiana (including Cajun music) and other parts of the American south (including ballads and fiddle tunes of the Appalachian Mountains and blues from the Mississippi Delta), Michigan and the Midwest (including music of numerous European ethnic communities).

With important collaborators, including his father, his wife Elizabeth, Pete Seeger and colleagues from other institutions (such as Fisk University’s John Wesley Work III), Alan was the first to record Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Aunt Molly Jackson and an enormous number of other significant traditional musicians. He also recorded many musicians at the Library, including a landmark series of 1938 recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, which yielded nine hours of music and speech. In 2006, “Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax” (Rounder Records) won a Grammy Award for best historical album.

Alan Lomax records the music and language of the people living in La Plaine, Dominica, in 1962. Antoinette Marchand, Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center.

Alan Lomax records the music and language of the people living in La Plaine, Dominica, in 1962.
Antoinette Marchand, Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center.

Lomax did not return to work at the Library after the war, but he did spend the rest of his life collecting and analyzing folk culture for a variety of organizations, including the BBC, PBS Television, Columbia and Atlantic Records, Hunter College in New York, and his own organization, The Association for Cultural Equity. During this time, many of the songs he collected on his Library of Congress field trips became iconic examples of American culture, from “Bonaparte’s Retreat” (which became famous as the hoe-down section of Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo”) to “House of the Rising Sun,” which was recorded by Bob Dylan, the Animals and a host of other musicians.

“Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music,” Dylan once said. “So if we’ve got anybody to thank, it’s Alan.”

In 2004, the American Folklife Center (AFC) in the Library of Congress acquired the Alan Lomax Collection, which comprises the unparalleled ethnographic documentation collected by the legendary folklorist over a period of more than 60 years.

The collection, which had been housed at Hunter College in New York City, includes more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of motion-picture film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 scholarly books and journals, hundreds of photographic prints and negatives, several databases and more than 120 linear feet of manuscript materials.

The acquisition was made possible through an agreement between AFC and the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) at New York City’s Hunter College and the generosity of Lillian and Jon Lovelace, members of the Madison Council (the Library’s private- sector advisory group). With this acquisition, the Alan Lomax Collection joined the material that he and his father, John, collected during the 1930s and 1940s for the Library’s Archive of American Folk Song, thus bringing the entire collection together at the Library of Congress.

To mark the centennial birthday of the influential folklorist Alan Lomax, the Library’s American Folklife Center is presenting a year-long series of projects, concerts and special events. The events will celebrate the Lomax family’s contributions to the preservation and promotion of traditional music and dance, and highlight the depth and diversity of the Library’s Lomax family collections.

Information about Lomax events at the Library and around the country can be found on the American Folklife Center’s blog, “Folklife Today,” and the Lomax centennial website. You can also read more about the centennial celebration here.

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