Alan Lomax — the Long Journey

by William Ferris 
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Keynote address given at the American Folklife Center symposium, The Lomax Legacy: Folklore in a Globalizing Century, Library of Congress, on January 19, 2006.

It is a distinct honor to speak at this historic gathering at the Library of Congress to consider “The Lomax Legacy: Folklore in a Globalizing Century.” No two institutions have shaped my life more deeply than Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress. Their worlds are inextricably linked.

How can we wrap our arms around Alan Lomax? He was a force of nature who appeared superhuman. I thought of Alan as a Minotaur — half man, half supernatural —who defied life as we know it. His very walk seemed untouched by gravity as he slid gracefully with his distinctive gait. Sally Yerkovich recalls seeing Alan one day at the National Endowment for the Arts as he and his sister Bess Lomax Hawes walked side by side down the hall. Each held reading glasses in their extended right hand. They moved with that familiar Lomax stride that covered great distances and led them both to people and places that we celebrate today.

We should reflect on the appropriate symmetry of the Library of Congress’s acquisition of Thomas Jefferson’s library of 6,487 books in 1815 and of Alan Lomax’s library of 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, and over 120 linear feet of manuscripts. Standing two centuries apart, Thomas Jefferson and Alan Lomax are both icons in American culture, and their lives are intimately tied to this great library. Their respective collections are intellectual bookends that ground us both in our nation’s past and in its future. Thomas Jefferson and Alan Lomax chronicled written and oral traditions that together constitute our cultural birthright as Americans. Mr. Jefferson would be pleased to see that his library has grown to over 29 million books, and Alan must be wryly smiling to see old friends and colleagues gathered to honor his legacy.

Alan Lomax’s passion for folk music is part of an American tradition that historian Bryan Garman links with Walt Whitman’s celebration of the working-class hero. In Leaves of Grass Whitman dreams of a race of singers who will celebrate the working class as the heart of American democracy. Garman argues that Whitman inspired white male musicians such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. Tributes from Bob Dylan, Studs Terkel, and Nora Guthrie underscore the deep ties Lomax had with twentieth century American folksingers.

Alan Lomax confessed that “There is an impulsive and romantic streak in my nature that I find difficult to control when I go song hunting.” His love for poets like Carl Sandburg influenced the prose style of his writings on music and dance. Scorning what he called “chair-bound scholars,” he pursued an unending journey in search of truth and beauty that he found in folksong and dance.

The Library of Congress was a second home for both Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax. They worked at the Library’s Archive of Folk Song for many years, and each deposited thousands of recordings into the Archive. They captured songs like “Rock Island Line,” “Good Night, Irene,” and “John Henry,” which today are as familiar to every American as our national anthem.

As a teenager Alan Lomax traveled with his father to prisons, lumber camps, and black communities throughout the South. After John Lomax’s death on January 26, 1948, he continued to record, film, and study folk music throughout the South and around the world. Alan Lomax clearly saw his own work as a monument to his father’s life. They shared a tough love that was forged by worlds they knew in Texas.

The intimate relationship Alan Lomax shared with his father is paralleled by the love Pete Seeger felt for his father Charles Seeger. The Lomaxes and Seegers are the “first families” of American folk music. Coming from starkly different backgrounds, they were drawn together by a shared love of the music of the American South. John Lomax wrote that his family moved in an ox-drawn wagon from Goodman, Mississippi, to Texas in 1869. He declared that his family belonged to the “upper crust of the po’ white trash.” With deep roots in Mississippi and Texas both John and Alan Lomax were instinctively drawn to collect the songs of their region.

The Seeger family arrived in New England before 1700, and their worlds were far removed from those of the Lomaxes in the American South. Pete Seeger recalls that he studied at “a little alternative school in Connecticut. I first started learning about…a place called the South. We sang…’Oh, Susannah, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.’ It was a distant, romantic place, like the Far West or the islands of the Caribbean. And I didn’t think I’d ever go down there.”

Pete’s father Charles Seeger and his wife composer Ruth Crawford Seeger were both musicologists, and she wrote musical notations for many of the songs that the Lomaxes published. Charles Seeger explains how he met Alan Lomax and his father John was when he and the composer Henry Cowell were asked by MacMillan Publishers “to advise them on a manuscript that had come in from a man named Lomax….Well they came in,…John and Alan, and the manuscript was there, and Alan was just like ready to punch either Henry or me in the face. ‘These God damned expert musicians, they don’t know anything about folk music. They don’t know anything about music, anyway!’

“Well, Henry and I opened the things and said, ‘My God, these are marvelous songs.’ This was about 1933 or ’34. ‘These are perfectly marvelous songs, and the notations are terrible. There’s practically nothing there that doesn’t have mistakes, wrong clefs, wrong accidentals, and everything else.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to have these notations made over, and the book is going to be very successful.’ Well, it was American Ballads and Folk Songs, and it was published. Alan softened up a little bit towards the end, and we presently became very good friends. In fact he became a member of the family.”

Charles Seeger continued, “So when Peter became interested in playing the banjo and singing songs that were accompanied by the banjo, I sent him to study the recordings in the Library of Congress, which is about the best school that there is. In fact, it’s the only ‘school’ that I know of. You just go in there and listen to recordings and after you get sufficiently saturated with them, you know something.”

The Library of Congress played a central role in bridging the lives of the Lomaxes and the Seegers. Alan Lomax hired Pete Seeger for fifteen dollars a week to work at the Library of Congress. Pete Seeger recalls that Alan “had a lot of youth and energy and the experience of working as his father’s assistant for a number of years. I think within five years he did more than most other archives had done in fifty years. He was a whirlwind of energy, and with no budget to speak of.”

“He meets an actor named Burl Ives. He says, ‘Burl, why are you wasting your time being an actor. You should be giving concerts of folk songs’….he taught Burl ‘Blue Tail Fly.’ He says, ‘Take it lightly. Don’t push it.’ Got the song out of the book. He went to a night club owner, Max Gordon, of the Village Vanguard. He says, ‘Here’s Josh White. Why don’t you have him sing at your nightclub?’ And Josh had a very successful career as a nightclub performer. Alan started it off.”

Stories about Alan Lomax and his exploits are legendary. Joe Hickerson recalls that while doing research in the Library of Congress Music Division, Lomax sat at a table across from a student who was reading his classic Folksongs of North America. At one point the student looked across the table and asked, “Is Alan Lomax still alive?” Lomax replied, “Just barely.”

No other folklorist in the 20th century conducted fieldwork with black colleagues as Alan Lomax did throughout his career. Zora Neale Hurston, John Work, Wade Jones, Samuel Adams, and Worth Long all collaborated with Lomax on major collecting projects in the American South. And no other folklorist honored the lives of black artists and their musical legacy through books, films, and recordings as did Alan Lomax. These artists include Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, and Muddy Waters.

Alan Lomax was fascinated by the technology that allowed him to record songs. At first, he and his father used a portable recording machine that weighted 500 pounds and engraved a sound groove on aluminum discs. He later used a lighter machine that engraved acetate discs. Each generation of recorders was lighter, recorded for longer periods, and captured better quality sound. Lomax was clearly on a mission, and through his recorder he “gave a voice to the voiceless. It…put neglected cultures and silenced people into their communication chain.”

Throughout his life, Alan Lomax worked passionately for civil rights and at times risked his life to collect the music he loved so deeply. In a letter to Guy Carawan that is included in the liner notes of the album Freedom in the Air: A Documentary on Albany, Georgia 1961-2, Lomax wrote “It must be wonderful to be with those kids who are so courageously changing the South forever. I hope they feel proud of the cultural heritage of their forebears. It was a heritage of protest against oppression, of assertion against hopelessness, of joy in life against death.”

While Lomax recorded brilliant performances of blues artists in the Delta and within its dreaded world of Parchman Penitentiary, he was fascinated by fife and drum musicians whom he discovered in the hills around Senatobia, Mississippi. There he tracked down Sid Hemphill, a blind musician known as the “boar-hog musician of the hills.” Hemphill sang and played guitar, fiddle, mandolin, snare drums, fife, bass drum, quills, banjo and organ, and was the acknowledged musical patriarch of his community.

Hemphill taught younger musicians like Ed Young to play the pipes, and Lomax observed that when he played, Young assumed the position of Pan, the Greek god of pleasure. “He always danced as he played, his feet sliding along flat to the ground to support his weaving pelvis, enticing someone in the crowd to cut it with him, turning this way and that, always with dragging feet and bent knees, and always leaning toward the earth.”

Lomax understood that the fife and drum music he recorded linked Mississippi black music with its African roots. During slavery drums were outlawed throughout the American South because whites associated them with the slave revolt led by Toussaint L’Overture in Haiti. Few black drumming traditions endure today outside the Mississippi hill country, and Lomax was struck by dances performed with the music. He repeatedly returned to Mississippi to record black music and to search for his own roots within the state. While interviewing Alec Askew, a blues guitarist in the Mississippi hills, Lomax discovered a link to his grandfather. Askew had just performed “Emmaline Take Your Time” on the panpipes, when Lomax asked him:

“Where did you learn to play that?”
“I learnt from a cousin down in Como forty, fifty years ago, when I was a little boy. His name was Jeems Lomax.”
“My grandfather was named James Lomax,” I said in astonishment. “Where was your cousin from?”
“Oh, he come from down round Quitman County.”
“That’s where my grandfather lived before he went to Texas,” I said.
“Maybe you-all’s related,” said Blind Sid, beginning a laugh in which we all joined and which has lasted me until today.

While Land Where the Blues Began describes blues worlds close to Lomax’s heart, we must also remember that his early recordings in Mississippi formed the intellectual and artistic foundation for a career that spanned over sixty years. During this career he recorded extensively in Texas, Kentucky, Spain, Italy, and the British Isles. He worked with Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and collaborated with Archibald MacLeish, Carl Sandberg, and Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger. And he inspired young folksingers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan in their musical careers.

Alan Lomax is increasingly recognized by the nation as its chronicler of American folksong. In 1986 he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Ronald Reagan. Today Lomax’s books, field recordings, and films are used in classrooms, museums, and libraries, as well as in films and television productions. His musical legacy touches every aspect of our culture and will continue to grow over time. Alan Lomax reached out to the common man and woman and celebrated their life. He declared in a 1940 radio script that “The essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes….but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies.”

While Alan Lomax made major contributions as a writer, scholar, and radio announcer, his greatest legacy will always be his Mississippi field recordings. Far from the academy and the urban worlds where he lived most of his life, he renewed his spirit in those rural communities where on Saturday nights “The couples, glued together in a belly-to-belly, loin-to-loin embrace…Slowly, with bent knees and with the whole shoe soles flat to the floor, they dragged their feet along its surface, emphasizing the off beat, so that the whole house vibrated like a drum. It was that sound we had heard a mile away in the moonlit night.”

Each of us here today has been touched by the life and work of Alan Lomax in special ways. As an undergraduate at Davidson College in the early 60s I began recording blues musicians and black church services near my home on a farm in Warren County, Mississippi. When I discovered several of the Library of Congress records made by the Lomaxes in the Davidson library, they affirmed the importance of work that in my heart I already knew lay ahead of me. Several classmates and I began to play the guitar, and each evening after dinner we learned new songs from The Folksongs of North America.

As a folklorist, Alan was my hero and mentor. While teaching at Yale in the 70s I visited him at his home in New York and brought him to New Haven to speak to my students. It was his vision that inspired the work I later did at the University of Mississippi Center for Study of Southern Culture.

As I was leaving Yale in 1979, I wrote Alan that his spirit would be part of our Center, and he responded, “I’d rather get in with both feet.” His vision also inspired my work at the National Endowment for the Humanities as we developed regional humanities centers and on-line encyclopedias for states, cities and regions throughout the nation. While at NEH, I met with Bess Lomax Hawes and Anna Lomax Wood to get their counsel on our plans and to send my greetings to Alan.

In 1976, Alan wrote me a wonderful letter that in his characteristic voice was both critical and encouraging. “It seems to me that you are spread too thin and not digging deeply enough in the work you have collected or thinking hard enough about it. In my opinion, folklore is the hardest of all professions, and it takes a long time to make a good folklorist. I think you’re well on your way and I know you’ve got to publish or perish, but I think it’s a bad idea to settle for anything less than the best when what we do can and does count so much to the people, themselves….I feel more than a friend—I feel that, in a way, I have been a sponsor of yours….”

“p.s. Bill, I guess this is an older man’s letter to a younger colleague….What I’m asking you to do, no one has done, but it must be done.”


Used by permission of the author.