Alan 1957

Musicologist, writer, and producer Alan Lomax (b. Austin, Texas, 1915) spent over six decades working to promote knowledge and appreciation of the world’s folk music. He began his career in 1933 alongside his father, the pioneering folklorist John Avery Lomax, author of the best-selling Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910). In 1934, the two launched an effort to expand the holdings of recorded folk music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress (established 1928), gathering thousands of field recordings of folk musicians throughout the American South, Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast, as well as in Haiti and the Bahamas. Their collecting resulted in several popular and influential anthologies of American folk songs, including American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York: Macmillan, 1934); Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (New York: Macmillan, 1936), the first in depth biographical study of an American folk musician; Our Singing Country (with Ruth Crawford Seeger) (New York: Macmillian, 1941); and Folk Song USA (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce 1947).

After completing a philosophy degree at the University of Texas in 1936, Lomax conducted field research in Haiti with his wife, Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold. The next year, Lomax was appointed Assistant in Charge of the Archive of American Folk Song. In 1939, while doing graduate work in anthropology at Columbia University, he produced the first of several radio series for CBS. American Folk SongsWellsprings of Music, and the prime-time series, Back Where I Come From, exposed national audiences to regional American music and such homegrown talents as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger. Lomax also built on the interest created by his books, records, and broadcasts with concert series such as The Midnight Special at Town Hall, which brought 1940s New Yorkers blues, flamenco, calypso, and Southern ballad singing, all still relatively unknown genres. “The main point of my activity,” Lomax once remarked, “was... to put sound technology at the disposal of The Folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas.”[1]

His experience interviewing Lead Belly encouraged Lomax to further explore the genre of oral biography. His conversations with Jelly Roll Morton, recorded in 1938 in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, formed the basis for Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949) , a remarkable account closely following Morton’s narrative that is essential for anyone wishing to understand the history of jazz (and which has inspired two Broadway musicals). Lomax’s oral historical portrait of “Nora” in The Rainbow Sign (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1959) was based on the extensive interviews and recordings of Alabama folk singer Vera Hall he made in the late forties. Blues in the Mississippi Night (1947), an album of music and candid discussion by Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson, remains a classic recorded document of African-American social and musical history (it was reissued by Rounder Records in 2002). “Every time I took one of those big, black, glass-based platters out of its box,” Lomax wrote of the recording process, “I felt that a magical moment was opening up in time…. For me, the black discs spinning in the Mississippi night, spitting the chip centripetally toward the center of the table ... heralded a new age of writing human history.”[2]

A joint field trip conducted by the Library of Congress and Fisk University in 1941 and 1942, and described in Lomax’s 1993 memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began, took him even deeper into the musical and cultural world of the African American South. In the hill country of Mississippi, he documented styles of fife-and-drum and quills (panpipes) music, ground-hugging dance, and hocketing song that had kept remarkably close to their African roots. In the Delta he interviewed and made the first recordings of 29-year-old singer and guitarist McKinley Morganfield, later known as Muddy Waters. In 1947, for the fifth time, Lomax returned to Mississippi with the first portable tape recorder to make high-fidelity recordings of Delta church services and of the prisoners’ work songs at Parchman Farm (the notorious state penitentiary), which he ranked among the world’s great music.

In the 1950s, Lomax compiled and edited an 18-volume LP series for Columbia Records anthologizing world folk music (a project which anticipated a similar UNESCO world music series by several years). His collecting and his collaborations for this project — with Diego Carpitella in Italy, Seamus Ennis in Ireland, Peter Kennedy in England, and Hamish Henderson in Scotland — laid the foundations for folk song revivals in those countries. Lomax, Kennedy, and their colleagues introduced scores of listeners to British and world folk music through BBC radio and television.

Returning to the United States in 1958, Lomax set out on two more long field trips through the American South. His stereo Southern Journeyrecordings resulted in nineteen albums issued on the Atlantic and Prestige International labels in the early 1960s. In 1962 he made an extensive survey of traditional music in the Eastern Caribbean, also in stereo, under the auspices of the University of the West Indies. Together with his Haitian and Bahamian recordings of the 1930s, and recordings made in Santo Domingo in 1967, Lomax’s Caribbean corpus amounts to some 150 hours of music, interviews, and konts (story-songs).

During this period he also published the groundbreaking anthology Folk Songs of North America (New York: Doubleday, 1960), which signaled his growing interest in the relationship of folk song style and culture. This deepening preoccupation grew into a massive program of research into expressive behavior running from 1961 through 1995, housed first at Columbia University and later at Hunter College. Lomax and colleagues — including musicologist Victor Grauer, anthropologist Conrad Arensberg of Columbia University, Irmgard Bartenieff and Forrestine Paulay of the Laban Dance Notation Bureau — developed Cantometrics, Choreometrics, and Parlametrics, methodologies for the comparative analysis of song, dance, and speech. The initial results were published in Folk Song Style and Culture (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Publication No. 88, 1968; reprinted by Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ).

Throughout the seventies and eighties, Lomax published journal articles and teaching materials and films based on his work on expressive style. Cantometrics: An Approach to the Anthropology of Music, first published in 1976, represented a new and democratic approach to the study of world music. Three teaching films, Dance and Human History, Step Style,and Palm Play, produced in the 1970s, introduced students to Choreometrics. The Longest Trail (1986) combined historical data and Choreometric movement analysis to point out cultural continuities between Siberian peoples and Native North and South Americans.

As consultant to Carl Sagan for the audio collection accompanying the 1977 Voyager space probe, Lomax saw to it that the world’s music was carried to the stars with the blues and jazz of Blind Willie Johnson and Louis Armstrong; Andean panpipes and Navajo chants; a Sicilian sulfur miner’s lament; polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti of Zaire and Georgians of the Caucasus, in addition to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and more.

While in his sixties, Lomax embarked on a final series of field trips to the American South and Southwest, this time with a film crew and script ideas for exploring several fertile regional and ethnic American musical cultures. This resulted in American Patchwork, a prize-winning five-hour television series, which aired on PBS in 1990. Also in 1990, Blues in the Mississippi Night was reissued on Rykodisc, and Sounds of the South, a four-CD set of Lomax’s 1959 Southern recordings, was reissued by Atlantic Records in 1993. The Alan Lomax Collection (1997–2007), a CD series anthologizing Lomax’s six-decade recording career, numbers over a hundred volumes.

In 1989, in furtherance of his earlier research into expressive behavior, Lomax and a team of developers began compiling his most ambitious project, the Global Jukebox, a multimedia interactive database that looks at relationships between dance, song, and social organization. It was inspired by the Urban Strain, a 1980s study of twentieth-century popular music undertaken with jazz musician Roswell Rudd and dance ethnologist Forrestine Paulay. Lomax intended the Jukebox to serve both as a medium for scientific research into human expressive behavior and as a tool for social science, arts, and humanities education. With it, Lomax hoped to further the concept of cultural equity, which Lomax understood as the importance of giving all cultures a valid forum in the media and in educational curricula for the meaningful display of their arts and values.

Alan Lomax received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan in 1984; the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction for The Land Where the Blues Began (1993); the Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (1995); an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from Tulane University (2001); and a posthumous Grammy Trustees’ Award in 2003. In 2000 he was made a Library of Congress Living Legend. He retired in 1996 to live in Florida with his daughter and grandson, and died there on July 19, 2002.


[1] Alan Lomax, “Saga of a Folksong Hunter,” HiFi/Stereo Review, 4: 5 (May 1960): 38.

[2] Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Pantheon, 1993), p. xi.

1915 January 31, born in Austin, Texas, to Bess Brown Lomax and folksong and cowboy poetry collector John Avery Lomax. Educated at home and at Terrill Preparatory School, Dallas.
1929-30 Transfers to the Choate School, Wallingford, Connecticut.
1931-32 Attends Harvard University.
1932 Transfers to the University of Texas (B.A. Phi Beta Kappa 1936).
1933 Accompanies father John on their first field trip for the Library of Congress, recording in eastern Kentucky and the state penitentiaries of Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi.
1934 Publishes, with John A. Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs, and records Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.
1935 Collaborates with Mary Elizabeth Barnicle and Zora Neale Hurston on collecting in Georgia and Florida, and continues trip with Barnicle in the Bahamas.
1936 Marries Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold in Haiti, and records over 50 hours of the country’s urban popular and folk music and ritual. 
1937 Made first federally funded staff member of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, serving as “assistant in charge” and earning an annual salary of $620; publishes, with John A. Lomax, Negro Songs as Sung By Lead Belly, the first book devoted to an American vernacular musician; conducts extensive recording trip with his wife, Elizabeth, in Eastern Kentucky.
1938 Records the biography of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress.
1939 Performs, alongside the Coon Creek Girls and Kate Smith, at a White House concert put on by Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
1939-40           Writes, directs, and hosts American Folk Songs, a twenty-six week survey for the CBS radio series American School of the Air with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, the Golden Gate Quartet, Burl Ives, Aunt Molly Jackson, Alan himself, and field pickups of square dancing, French-Canadian and lumberjack songs; series was continued as Wellsprings of Music, which also ran for 26 weeks on the CBS radio network. Back Where I Come From, written and co-produced by Nicholas Ray (later to direct such films as Rebel Without a Cause) was a later, coast-to-coast broadcast featuring many of the above performers. Lomax continued to do special broadcast projects for the war effort while in the Army during WWII.
1940 Conducts 5-hour oral history session with Woody Guthrie at the Library of Congress. Appears in Will Geer’s Grapes of Wrath Evening, a concert staged on the set of the Broadway production of Tobacco Road and featuring Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and others.
1941 Publishes Our Singing Country, with John A. Lomax and Ruth Crawford Seeger.
1941-1942 Collaborates with Lewis Jones, John W. Work, and Samuel Adams of Fisk University on the Coahoma Country Survey, collecting sacred and secular music in the Mississippi Delta and making the first recordings of McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters) and David “Honeyboy” Edwards.
1942 Joins the U.S. Army and is assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Service, programming shows of American folk music for troops overseas.  
1943-1944 Takes a job at the Office of War Information producing morale-boosting radio programs such as “Bound for Glory,” featuring Sonny Terry and Woody Guthrie, and “The Martins and The Coys,” written by Elizabeth Lyttleton and starring Guthrie, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger, in which a fictional family feud is resolved for the sake of a united front against the Axis. Produces the series Transatlantic Call: People to People, for soldiers overseas. Daughter, Anna Lyttleton Lomax, born.
1946 Produces, with People’s Songs, Inc., a series of midnight concerts at New York City’s Town Hall, including Blues at Midnight, Ballads at Midnight, Strings at Midnight, and Calypso at Midnight. Works as advisor on folk music for Decca Records and, with Pete Seeger, who had assisted with a similar task at the Library of Congress in the late 1930s, combs through hundreds of old-time recordings in Decca’s catalog to find and reissue examples of authentic Americana.
1948 Host and co-writer with Elizabeth Lyttleton of “On Top of Old Smokey,” a folk music program on the Mutual Broadcasting radio network.
1950-58 Moves to Britain. While living in London, records the traditional music of England, Scotland, and Ireland, working with folklorists Peter Kennedy, Hamish Henderson, and Seamus Ennis, and other collections. Makes numerous radio and television broadcasts of folk music for the BBC and becomes a leading figure in the British folk revival.
1953-54 Makes first recorded survey of music in Spain.
1954-55 Makes comprehensive survey of Italian folk music with Diego Carpitella.
1955 Serves as editor of Columbia Masterworks’ World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, the first recorded survey of world folk song. 18 volumes will appear over the next several years. 
1956 Publishes first article on Cantometrics, based on his work in Italy and Spain, in Nuovi Argomenti, a journal founded by Alberto Moravia, Alberto Carocci, and Leonardo Sciascia. Lomax was proud of his association with leftwing Italian intellectuals, but said they were shocked by the “barbarity” of music on his recordings.
1958 Returns to the U.S. Presents views on singing style and sexual restrictions at meeting of the American Antholopological Association, by invitation of friend Margaret Mead.
1959-1960 Launches a major field trip sponsored by Atlantic Records, recording, in stereo, traditional music in Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and the Georgia Sea Islands, assisted by British folksinger Shirley Collins, and later his daughter, Anna Lomax. These recordings were released as the Southern Folk Heritage series on Atlantic Records and as Southern Journey on Prestige Records.
1960-1961 Receives American Council of Learned Societies fellowship to investigate vocal qualities and study communications theory with Ray Birdwhistell, Edward Hall, and George and Edith Trager.
1961 Launches, with Victor Grauer, the Cantometrics project, a comparative study of expressive styles and culture which broadened to include movement (Choreometrics) and speaking style (Parlametrics).
1962 On a six-month field trip to the West Indies, records traditional music of English-, French-, and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, as well as of Hindu community in Trinidad, sponsored by the University of the West Indies.
1962 The Cross Cultural Study of Expressive Style, with anthropologist Conrad Arensberg as co-director, becomes affiliated with Columbia University.
1966 Delivers, with the staff of the Cantometrics project, a day-long report entitled Frontiers of Anthropology: Cantometrics and Culture to the Anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
1967 Travels to Morocco with Joan Halifax to record traditional music, as well as speech samples for burgeoning Parlametrics project.
1968 Publishes, with Cantometrics staff, Folk Song Style and Culture, a collection and expansion of the papers delivered at the AAAS in 1966.
1977 Serves as musical consultant to the 1977 Voyager space probe project directed by Carl Sagan, including the blues and jazz of Blind Willie Johnson and Louis Armstrong, Andean panpipes and Navajo chants, polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti (Zairean pygmy tribe) and Caucasus Georgians, alongside the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.
1978-85 Makes field trips to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Arizona to videotape regional American culture for American Patchwork, a seriesthat aired on PBS in 1990.
1983 Founds the Association for Cultural Equity to support his research and film projects.
1986 Receives the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan.
1989-94 Develops the Global Jukebox, a multi-media system for exploring and cross-analyzing the music and dance of the world.
1993 Receives the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for non-fiction for The Land Where the Blues Began, a memoir of his work in the South from the 1930s to the 1980s.
1996-2002 Lives in retirement with his daughter and grandson in Florida.
2000 Named a “Living Legend” by the Librarian of Congress.
2001 Receives Honorary Doctorate from Tulane University.
2002 Dies in Holiday, Florida, at the age of 87.
2003 Posthumously receives Grammy Trustees Award.

Harvard College, 1932–33
University of Texas, B.A. in Philosophy; Phi Beta Kappa, 1936
Columbia University, graduate work in Anthropology, 1939

Assistant Director of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress and Visiting Scholar (1979); Director-Producer for CBS (radio); Director-Producer for BBC (radio) London; compiler of folksong archives for the United States, Great Britain, and Italy; twenty years of recording and studying the performance of song; thirty years of comparative research on the prominent, redundant features of song and dance performance.

Director, Cantometrics and Choreometrics Research Project as Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology and Center for the Social Sciences at Columbia University. 
Director of the Association for Cultural Equity and Research Associate in Anthropology at Hunter College.


  • ACLS Grant, 1939
  • Guggenheim Fellowship, 1946
  • ACLS Fellowship, located in the Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, 1960–61
  • Rockefeller Research Grant, located at the University College of the West Indies. Survey of folklife in the West Indies, 1962, 1975, 1977–78
  • National Institute of Mental Health Grant, 1963–76.
  • For the Columbia Cross-Cultural Survey of Performance Behavior, located in the Bureau of Applied Social Research and Department of Anthropology, Columbia University Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Columbia University, 1968
  • Ford Foundation, Columbia University, 1968
  • National Endowment for the Humanities, (film) 1971, (tape) 1972, 1974
  • National Science Foundation, Columbia University, 1972
  • De Menil foundation, 1974, 1975–77 (for filmmaking)
  • Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Division Grant, Columbia University, 1975, 1977–79
  • National Endowment of the Arts Grant for a recorded treasury of Black Music, Columbia University, 1979
  • Blue Ribbon in the American Film Festival for Land Where the Blues Began, with John Bishop and Worth Long, 1985.
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Grant for gazetteers of world song and dance style, Columbia University, 1980
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Grant for “The Urban Strain, A study of the development of American popular music,” 1982
  • National Endowment for the Arts Grant for a six-part television series on regional American music and dance, entitled American Patchwork, Columbia University, 1984 
  • MacArthur Foundation Grant for the development of The Global Jukebox "intelligent museum" software project, a multimedia exploratorium and research tool looking at music and dance around the world, 1989
  • National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan at the White House, July 4, 1986
  • National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction for The Land Where the Blues Began, 1993
  • Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995
  • Living Legend of the Library of Congress, 2000
  • Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, Tulane University, 2001
  • Grammy Trustees’ Award, 2003