How the Lomax Family Helped Save American Folk Music, Part 1

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Steve Ember.

Lomax is a name well known to historians of American musical culture. Today we have the first of two programs about how the Lomax family helped keep American folk music from being lost.

John Avery Lomax was born in eighteen sixty-seven. He came from the state of Mississippi but grew up in Texas. His interest in cowboy music led him to research and collect examples of cowboy songs.

In nineteen ten he published a book called "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads." It contained not only the words to songs but some of the music as well. It began with an introduction by President Theodore Roosevelt.

"Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads" was an important research achievement. And it started John Lomax on his lifelong work.

The book included classics like "Sweet Betsy From Pike," "Git Along, Little Dogies" and "Home on the Range." Gene Autry was a singing cowboy in old films. Here he is singing "Home on the Range."

At the time the book was published, John Lomax helped found the Texas Folklore Society. He traveled around the country raising money to establish other folklore groups. He spoke about the importance of preserving folk songs for future generations. In nineteen nineteen, he published another collection, called "Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp."

His two sons, John Junior and Alan, traveled with him around the country. In nineteen thirty-two, the MacMillan Publishing Company agreed to help them create a collection of folk songs, especially from black Americans. The Lomaxes went to Washington to examine the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

The library agreed to provide John Lomax with the recording equipment he needed. In exchange, he agreed to travel throughout the United States to make recordings that would become the property of the archive at the library.

In nineteen thirty-four, John Lomax became honorary consultant and curator of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. He held the title until his death in nineteen forty-eight. In all, he collected more than ten thousand recordings. Another Lomax also took an interest: his daughter Bess.

Dan Sheehy is acting head of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution.

DAN SHEEHY: "The Lomaxes, John and Alan, thrfather and son team --and then Bess to a certain extent -- worked at the Library of Congress. And they were part of this very exciting groundbreaking work in the nineteen tens, twenties, thirties, into the forties and beyond, of showing the United States what it was, what it had in terms of grassroots cultural heritage.

"And so they would travel to places where certainly white people in the thirties and forties would not work too much in black communities, because there was so much antagonism between black and white at that time – racism toward African Americans. And Alan Lomax had some very compelling and really engaging stories to tell about actually painting himself up in blackface so that he could go into black communities, so that some of the whites wouldn't single him out and beat him up or whatever.

"In any case, John and Alan Lomax were very dedicated to locating these what they thought of as folk geniuses. They were looking for people who at the same time were representatives of a much bigger powerful tradition in the case of African-American music, but at the same time were really singular in their ability to express that tradition."

The Lomaxes found one of these "folk geniuses" at the state prison in Angola, Louisiana, in nineteen thirty-three. He was a twelve-string guitar player named-- also known as Lead Belly. One of his best known recordings is this one, "The Midnight Special."

Lead Belly was released from prison the next year, in nineteen thirty-four. That same year, John Lomax published a book called "American Ballads and Folk Songs." He included many of the songs gathered from prisons in the South.

After that, Lead Belly became a celebrity. He was offered recording contracts, concert performances and radio broadcasts.

Lead Belly worked for the Lomaxes as a driver and assistant. And John Lomax served as his manager, choosing performances and media appearances.

Some music writers say John Lomax paid himself too much out of Lead Belly's income. Dick Weissman is author of the book "Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America." He says half of Lead Belly's concert fees went to John Lomax. And when Alan was added, he says, all three shared the money, so Lead Belly got only a third.

But others say music like Lead Belly's would never have become widely known if it wasn't for the work of John Lomax.

(MUSIC: "Good Night, Irene")

Alan Lomax was eighteen years old when he started traveling with his father. They worked together in the South. But Alan also collected recordings himself in other parts of the country -- New England, New York and the Midwest.

And he did not stop there. His desire to increase understanding among people took him to other countries as well. He collected folk songs from the Caribbean and Europe, including this "Wedding Serenade" from Italy.

Alan Lomax has been called "the father of the American folk song revival." He brought attention to singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the nineteen thirties and forties.

He also made the first recording of a guitar-playing farm worker named McKinley Morganfield. Millions of blues fans around the world would come to know McKinley Morganfield by another name. Here is Muddy Waters is singing "Take a Walk With Me."

We will continue our story of the Lomax family next week. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver.

Go to the second part of our program about the Lomax family.