This year marks the 100th anniversary of musicologist, writer and producer Alan Lomax, who sadly passed away on 19th July 2002. In 1934, along with his father, they made an effort to expand the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, gathering thousands of field recordings of folk musicians throughout the American South, Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast, as well as in Haiti and the Bahamas.
He once said that the main point of his activity was “to put sound technology at the disposal of The Folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas.”
He interviewed Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Big Bill Broonzy and many others, including Muddy Waters (who made his first recordings with Alan). In 1947 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, which he ranked among the world’s great music. The haunting versions of worksongs from the Farm make time seem to grind to a halt and here we have selected a recording from 11th December 1947: “John Henry“, a song which we regularly use in our Blues classes.
In 1960 he published the groundbreaking anthology Folk Songs of North America and in 1968 methodologies for the comparative analysis of song, dance, and speech were published in Folk Song Style and Culture.
The Cultural Equity Research Center, where we could happily spend hours, days or weeks browsing the content can be found here.
He worked throughout the 70s and 80s and in 1989, together with a team of developers he began compiling the Global Jukebox, a multimedia interactive database that looks at relationships between dance, song, and social organization.
“Neighborhood investigation shows him to be a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folk lore music, being very temperamental and ornery. …. He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner, and paying practically no attention to his personal appearance. … He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results.” (from the FBI file on Alan Lomax, 1940–1980)