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On the death of Alan Lomax

01:00 Mon 22nd Jul 2002 |

Alan Lomax (1915-2002)
Sadly, the great music archivist and celebrated ethnomusicologist passed away on July 19, 2002 at the age of 87. Like so many of the musicians he first recorded and brought to the attention of the world, he wasn't honoured as much in life as his good works deserved. There's little doubt that Lomax changed the direction of modern music - rock and pop as well as country, folk and the blues. Even Britney and her fans owe him a vote of thanks.

I never heard of a 'celebrated ethnomusicologist'.
Well, there has been no-one quite like Alan Lomax in the history of recorded music - except, perhaps, his father John (1867-1948) who collected cowboy songs in the early years of the 20th century, published in an anthology called Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Amongst the songs saved from extinction was 'Home On The Range'. By the time of John's death he had made more than ten thousand recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

And Alan continued his work
Father and son worked together at first - Alan going on the road with his father for the first time in June 1933. They installed a modern (but by our standards ridiculously bulky) acetate recorder in the boot of their car and drove across Texas and the South. In prisons, plantations and work-camps, they recorded blues and folk songs.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was one prisoner they recorded on that first field trip - the Lomaxes managed to get him released from a manslaughter sentence at the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana.

[Ironically, one of the reasons they went into prisons and penitentiaries was to find musicians who weren't influenced by the 'modern' sounds to be heard on the radio. The Lomaxes were, even then, collecting music on the verge of extinction. In doing so they preserved these songs but also ensured they would be heard - on the radio and elsewhere - in perpetuity].

Who else did Alan Lomax record
Thousands of 'unknowns', for a start - he had a mission to 'give a voice to the voiceless'. Some would achieve great fame themselves - Woody Guthrie, Aunt Mollie Jackson, the Soul Stirrers (a gospel group he first recorded in 1936, more than 20 years before a young Sam Cooke joined them) and Muddy Waters, who Lomax first recorded in Mississippi in 1942. Lomax was working by then for the Archive of American Folk Song but also recorded for radio shows and commercial recordings. He recorded the thoughts as well as the music of pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton, and wrote books as well as compiling audio collections.

As if we don't hear enough American music already...
Lomax lived and worked in England from 1950-1958, recording the traditional songs of London, Suffolk, Newcastle and elsewhere, as well as recording in Ireland, Spain and Italy. He also made field trips to the Caribbean both before and after World War II.

Why was he doing it
Lomax made several thousand hours of audio and video recordings over the course of some 60 years in an effort to preserve music and culture that was disappearing in an increasingly homogenised world. It was his way of recognising the achievements of local cultures.

And why is this important today
Take a specific case: Moby used many samples from Lomax's Sounds Of The South box set to create his multimillion-seller Play. And I mentioned Britney at the beginning, didn't I Well her recording of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' may not have quite the earthy, rough'n'ready quality of Lomax' earliest recordings, but if it wasn't for Lomax, the Rolling Stones might have had no chance to hear and emulate those early bluesmen.

The whole of modern music, from Elvis to Eminem, traces itself back to these recordings. Well, maybe not Celine Dion.

For more:

Alan Lomax website

John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Recording Trip

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