Remembering Alan Lomax
by Bruce Jackson
John and Alan
In the 1930s, when most academics interested in folklore spent their waking hours in libraries looking for printed versions of the 305 ancient British and Scottish ballads certified as authentic 40 years earlier by Harvard scholar Francis James Child, John and Alan Lomax were ranging the countryside looking for people singing their own songs about their own lives. They recorded scores or hundreds of those Child ballads; they also recorded thousands of songs of cowboys, convicts, miners, farmers, railroad workers, hobos, cotton pickers and other folks none of those library-ferrets gave a hoot about. The Archive of American Folk Song in the Library of Congress took its shape under their hands, and millions of Americans first learned about the great range of American folk music because of their work.
John Pareles, in his excellent obituary for Alan in the July 20 News York Times, wrote that "Mr. Lomax was a musicologist, author, disc jockey, singer, photographer, talent scout, filmmaker, concert and recording producer and television host. He did whatever was necessary to preserve traditional music and take it to a wider audience."
Alan was also a huge presence in the American musical and broader cultural scene. His contribution to our heritage, to our understanding of ourselves, was incalculable.
Much of the music urban participants in the folk song revival of the 1960s played came from recordings Alan and John had made thirty years earlier, recordings published on red vinyl by the Library of Congress. The most important performers the urban folksingers in those years were emulating—Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters—had been recorded by the Lomaxes. Pete Seeger is indebted to the Lomaxes' work, so is Bob Dylan, so was John Lennon. If you've listened to the six-times-over platinum CD Oh Brother, where art thou? you've heard one of Alan's recordings from the 1930s: the very first song on the album, James Carter and a group of convicts singing "Po' Lazarus."
There was a time when, if you were out studying traditional music in America, you could not help but cross a path Alan Lomax and his father had blazed. You probably still can't.
"That other feller"
In the summer of 1964 I was recording traditional singers and instrumentalists in Saltville, Virginia, a small mountain town north of Bristol, Tennessee. Someone I met in Saltville's gas station sent me to see Alec Tolbert, who lived in a place called Poor Valley. According to my notes from that trip, you get to Alec Tolbert's house in Poor Valley by going out route 91 about four miles to McReady's Gap, then you turn left at the red brick church, go three-quarters of a mile to the top of the hill, turn right, go about two miles to a little store. Then you go in the store and ask anyone where Alex Tolbert's house is. It was the most out-of-the-way place I had, to that time, been. Alec Tolbert and I talked for a bit and then he said, "That other feller had one a those machines."
"What other feller?"
"The one who had that machine like yours. He was here a while back. He was doing the same thing you're doing. His name was Lomax."
A few weeks later, I was down a red dirt road outside of Marshall, a small town in the Arkansas Ozarks, visiting Barry Sutterfield, a 73-year-old ballad singer, and his wife Nellie. The three of us sat on the porch talking for a while, after which Uncle Barry sang old ballads like"Cole Younger," "Barbry Ellen," and "The Little Rebel"
Then Uncle Barry said, "You know that other feller?"
"Which one?" I said.
"The one who was doing the same thing you're doing. Only he had a beard."
In a very real way, I owe my academic career to Alan and his father, John. One of my earliest books was Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons (Harvard University Press 1972). That book never would have come about had it not been for the prison worksong fieldwork by the Lomaxes in the early 1930s: I heard and was entranced by their recordings, got interested in the music, went off to see what was still around, then moved from the studies of music to studies of prisons themselves, and from there to studies of the criminal justice process. A few years ago, it all came around when Alan's daughter Anna asked me to do the booklet for Big Brazos: Texas Prison Recordings, 1933 and 1934, one of the 150 CDs in the astonishing Alan Lomax field series being produced by Rounder. While annotating those recordings I realized for the first time that Alan and his father had recorded some of the same men I'd recorded in Texas in the mid- and late-sixties.
I met Alan the next year, when Pete Seeger got me elected to the Newport Folk Festival board of directors. We used to meet every month at jazz producer George Wein's Riverside Drive apartment to plan the four-day festivals that took place in July and to figure out ways to give away the money left over from the previous year's concert.
Newport was based on a concept developed by Pete Seeger, George Wein and Theodore Bikel. Their idea was that if people came to hear music they already liked, they'd also listen to music they hadn't known existed, and the way to make that happen that was to let the popular performers underwrite the unknown performers. So everybody got $50 a day. If you were famous, like Pete or Joan Baez you got $50 a day. If nobody outside your town or village ever heard of you, you got $50 a day. The Foundation rented several of the big Newport mansions and put everybody up in them. (A few people, like Peter Yarrow and Bob Dylan were fancy and stayed in their own suites in the Viking Hotel in town, but they paid for that themselves.) Most of the famous singers never collected their payments; they just performed for the fun of it. Everything that was left over each year was donated to folk music performers and to support folk music projects.
I remember Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, Pete and Alan coming up with really interesting performers and projects. Most everybody was pretty calm, but Alan would often get really agitated if the rest of us didn't get enthusiastic about some plan or project he thought was absolutely necessary. He'd tell us that if we didn't see the necessity for this or that we could not claim to take ourselves seriously. Sometimes Alan's projects were great, sometimes they were balmy. In my first year or so, when I was new kid on the block, I'd mostly sit quietly while Seeger and Brand and Rinzler worked it out with him. They were wonderful discussions to watch and hear.
In 1968, after Martin Luther King was killed, Ralph Rinzler got the Newport Foundation to underwrite and help staff the music and children's programs at Resurrection City, the tent and shack camp next to Washington's Reflecting Pool. Resurrection City housed the participants in King's last project, the Poor People's Campaign.
Ralph started setting things up and I went down to Washington to help him. Alan heard about what we were doing and caught up with us at a meeting we were having with Jim Bevel and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff. Ralph (who was later founding director of the Festival of American Folklife in Washington and who the Smithsonian's Assistant Secretary for Public Service) was one of the most tactful people I ever met. He was saying to Bevel and the others, "Here are the resources we have. How can we help you?" when Alan jumped up and gave everybody a lecture on the power and importance of folk music, black folk music in particular.
It was a good lecture, but that was neither the time, place nor company for it. Bevel and the others listened to Alan in polite, stony silence, then went on to other business. When the meeting was over, Bevel beckoned Ralph and me to the side of the room and said, "You guys ought to do something about him."
"I wish we could," Ralph said. "He means well, and he knows a lot."
"I guess," Bevel said.
That night was, I think, the first night of real activity Resurrection City. A thousand or so of the six thousand people who would eventually inhabit the place had arrived. Bevel and several others made rousing speeches in the big community tent and Kirk gave a great performance, followed by some other musical groups.
Alan and I were standing at the back of the seats, listening to the music. When one group finished, Alan said, "Are there any academic studies of the high tenor in black male vocal music?" I said I had no idea. "I'm wondering where it comes from. Do you think it has to do with repressed homosexuality?"
He said that much more loudly than I would have liked. Several heads turned and stared. Another group sang. Alan tapped the shoulder of a woman in the back row and said, "Those boys sure do sing good, don't they, honey?"
I don't think he meant anything ill by it. It's just how he was. Several young men nearby had heard both his remarks and were looking at him hostilely. I was feeling more and more uncomfortable, and rather than have an argument with him about it, I just left the tent and started walking up the Mall toward the Capitol.
He caught up with me a few minutes later and said, "Why did you leave like that?"
"I didn't want to be there when you got them really pissed off."
"Ah," he said, seeming to find that a reasonable answer.
We walked along in silence, then I said, "Alan, why are you like that?"
He was quiet for a while. Then he said, "You don't know what it was like, growing up in the Library of Congress." For some reason, I thought I knew exactly what he meant.
I guess he had grown up in the Library of Congress. He joined his father in the pursuit of American folk music when he was 17, and that set the arrow of his life. Alan was a boy from Austin, Texas, who became the man who was more driven than anyone else I know for the world to understand and honor its own music. In the decades when academic folklorists in America and Great Britain were desperately seeking survivals from bygone centuries, Alan was insisting, "Listen to what people are singing now."
That night, walking along the Mall, the sounds from the tent fading out behind us, Alan talked about his early years in the Library, about being on the road with his father, about the thrill of finding and preserving bits and pieces of a musical world he knew was vanishing even as he recorded it.
I was staying at Ralph Rinzler's house, the other side of the Library of Congress. I don't remember where Alan was staying. I remember that when we reached the place where he went one way and I went another we stood there for a while, while he finished telling me something.
I heard him talk like that one other time.
In 1983, Diane Christian and I were in Nashville for a meeting of the American Folklore Society. Saturday night we got on the hotel elevator to go downstairs for the plenary session, the big speechifying meeting of the Society. I think I had just been elected the Society's president for the following year, so I was supposed to be at that plenary session. In the elevator, we met Alan's sister Bess Lomax Hawes, who was director of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, which meant she was supposed to be at that plenary session too.
Bess said she was stopping at Alan's room to fetch him."Come on along," Bess said, "and we'll all go down together."
I hadn't seen him for a while, so we joined her. It was one of those hotel rooms with two beds and one chair. Alan was sitting on one, talking on the phone, and all his stuff was on the other. There was an almost-full quart of bourbon next to the telephone. Alan motioned for us to sit down. We moved the stuff on the other bed around and one of us sat on the bed, one on the floor, one in the chair. When Alan was done with the call he said, "Let's have a drink before we go down." We all had some bourbon, which I hate.
Then Alan started telling stories. It was astonishing. I've known a lot of great storytellers but I remember no one ever doing anything like that. Alan talked for maybe three hours. Occasionally Diane or Bess or I said something, but almost entirely it was Alan, telling stories. Stories about working with his father, stories about people we all knew, stories about people only he knew, stories about doing the work. Three hours of it. It was just magnificent.
I remember one sentence out of all the sentences he said that night. He had gotten onto the subject of academic folklorists and he pointed down to the floor, toward the place however many stories below us they were doing their speechifying.
"They squoze and they squoze," he said, "and they produced another generation of pedants just like the generation of pedants they wanted to replace. But without the beautiful manners."
How can you not love somebody who can summarize a generation of ambitious and competitive pedants like that?
The four of us emptied that bottle of bourbon. None of us made it downstairs that night. After the bourbon was gone and Alan had wound down—or maybe it was we who had worn down—Bess, Diane and I went back to the elevator and went upstairs. Diane and I got off at our floor and Bess went on to hers. That was the best evening I ever had at an American Folklore Society or any other academic society meeting.
"They squoze and they squoze and they produced another generation of pedants just like the generation of pedants they wanted to replace. But without the beautiful manners." Goddamn!
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo. He was director of the Newport Folk Festivals 1965-69 and has been a trustee of the Newport Folk Foundation since 1968. He was president of the American Folklore Society (1995), editor of Journal of American Folklore (1986-1990), and trustee of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress (1984-1989, chairman 1988-1999).