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Guthries, Lomaxes, and Seegers

The “Great Folk Scare” of the 1930s-1950s had few surnames more prominent than Guthrie, Lomax, or Seeger. They were multi-generational families who today continue to practice folk music and illuminate tradition bearers. The American Folklife Center holds archival collections documenting these families and so we have produced guides to aid research access. Click the links below to view the new guides:

Seeger Family: Resources in the American Folklife Center

Lomax Family: Resources in the American Folklife Center

Woody Guthrie: Resources in the American Folklife Center

All three guides follow the four-page pattern of other American Folklife Center Topical Guides. The “Introduction” page is designed to spark interest in the topic. “Digital Collections” provides direct links to online content. “Related Online Resources” points to podcasts, blogs, and public programming about the topic.  The “Searching the Collections” page features predetermined searches of key resources such as the Library of Congress online catalog.

Having worked with these collections I know that they document, to give a few examples, the field work of Alan Lomax, the songwriting of Woody Guthrie, and the filmmaking of Pete and Toshi Seeger. I also know that the collections reveal interactions between these vibrant and intriguing people. Let’s look at the relationship between Alan Lomax and Woody Guthrie in 1940. The March 21, 1940, memorandum below is surely one of my favorite pieces in the AFC archive, evidence of the first recording session with Woody Guthrie.

memorandum about woody guthrie

In the memo, Edward Waters of the the Music Division requested approval from the Librarian’s Office to purchase discs so that Alan Lomax could record Woody Guthrie. With approval granted, the recordings were shortly thereafter made at the Department of the Interior studio and accessioned into the AFC archive as the Alan Lomax collection of Woody Guthrie Recordings (AFC 1940/007). A few weeks later Woody joined the cast of Alan’s twice-weekly radio broadcast CBS American School of the Air: Folk Music of America. For his first episode Woody acted the part of a farmer alongside Willie Johnson of the Golden Gate Quartet. Here is a page from that April 2, 1940, script:

radio script typewritten page

This broadcast is described in my guide Alan Lomax Radio-Related Materials, 1939-1969 and the discs are found in the Alan Lomax CBS Radio Series collection (AFC 1939/002). These two documents–the memorandum and the script–together with the audio recordings demonstrate a quickly evolving relationship between the two men that would last some years.

Ruth Crawford Seeger led a multi-faceted creative life. In the late 1930s she became the Music Editor to a Lomax book called Our Singing Country (1941). The book presented field recordings made by the Lomaxes on behalf of the Library of Congress through lyric and music transcriptions. Judith Tick’s biography Ruth Crawford Seeger: A composers search for American Music (1997) includes a chapter (“Lomax Country”) that provides greater context for this part of Seeger’s life.

Curious to learn more about the interaction and process between Seeger and the Lomaxes around Our Singing Country, I queried the online John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax papers. This collection was transcribed as part of the Library’s crowdsourcing endeavor, By The People, so it is full-text searchable. Knowing that the book was published in 1941, and that Ruth was almost always referred to as “Mrs. Seeger” by the Lomaxes, I looked for iterations of “seeger” in pre-1941 correspondence. A letter from John A. Lomax to Alan Lomax, October 24, 1939, has some useful information:

I am entirely willing for you and Mrs. Seeger to return the manuscript to Macmillans after the disagreeable task of reducing it is completed. I shall wish to see proofs. You might make many omissions where Mrs. Seeger thinks the music is distinctly less worthy than others.

handwritten correspondence page

 

John trusted Alan and–especially–Mrs. Seeger to make edits vital to the manuscript’s acceptance by the Macmillan Co. editors. Seeger’s eight-page “Music Preface” demonstrated the wisdom of this trust. The essay not only described her transcription process, it instructed the singer about how her notation reflected the original performance style.

I also searched the Lomax papers for the book title, “our singing country,” and found a number of folders that I decided to browse. The following piece of sheet music caught my eye. It is Mrs. Seeger’s transcription of “Samson” (aka “Sampson and Delilah”) as performed by Sylvester Johnson at the New Zion Baptist church, Knight, Louisiana, 1939 (disc number AFS 2659). The notation and lyrics appear on pages 6-8 of Our Singing Country with additional verses from two other field recordings. Click the player below to hear the recording and follow Seeger’s transcription:

 

sheet music of song

 

The new guides about the Guthrie, Lomax and Seeger family materials in the Folklife Center provide top-level information. They identify collections containing materials that relate to the individuals in these families, typically the kind of question asked at the beginning stages of research. The examples I give above about interactions among the individuals are more similar to queries we frequently receive as reference librarians, something along the lines of, “What is the genesis of the 1940 Woody Guthrie recording session by the Library of Congress?” Regardless the depth of your interest, these guides provide a foundational understanding of American Folklife Center archival holdings.