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An Appreciation

He Heard America's Distinctive Songs

For 70 years, archivist Alan Lomax believed that the voice of the common man needed to be heard.

July 24, 2002|RICHARD HARRINGTON | WASHINGTON POST

Alan Lomax recognized what Walt Whitman heard--America singing a distinctly American folk song.

But what Lomax heard in the 1930s lacked popular support, critical acclaim and academic recognition. European traditions of classical music and popular song, and the emerging home-grown idioms of blues and jazz, were held in far greater esteem.

For Lomax, however, folk music, handed down through generations and inspired by common experience, was the truest expression of America's character. For 70 years, he single-mindedly championed it with recordings, songbooks and radio programs that propelled the music into the commercial mainstream, helping spawn the folk renaissance of the '40s and the folk revival of the '60s.

The first to record Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters, Lomax had a mission "to put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communications chain." In addition to discovering, instructing and otherwise championing artists, he helped establish such institutions as the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk Song and the Global Jukebox, an interactive database that explores the relationship between dance and song.

Lomax, who died Friday at age 87, once insisted that "a folksinger can reveal the character of his whole country." He was not much of a singer himself. But as a documenter and disseminator of folk culture, he was unparalleled, ceaselessly promoting the notion that "the voice of the common people" needed to be heard, recognized, appreciated and, most important, carried forward.

Thanks to Alan Lomax, it was.

Pete Seeger has been the most public face of the American folk movement, and Harry Smith, curator of the "Anthology of American Folk Music," has become its cult figurehead. However, it is impossible to imagine the preservation of that music, and the unearthing of myriad songs and singers, without acknowledging the lifelong commitment of Lomax.

Lomax first came to Washington in the early '30s when his father, John Lomax, also a folklorist, was chosen to curate the still young Archive of American Folk Song (Alan succeeded him in 1940). John Lomax's 1910 book, "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads," had been a pioneering work in the field of music preservation, codifying western themes and images that became the root of the "singing cowboy" movement and country music. Its introduction (by former President Theodore Roosevelt) outlined the guiding principle of Alan Lomax's life--that folk songs and folklore were the true expression of a people's culture.

That lesson was further ingrained when a teenage Alan accompanied his father through the South and Southwest in 1932. With a 500-pound recording machine built into their car's trunk, they were among the first folklorists to take recording equipment into the field. Alan helped his father record and interview musicians, investigating not just the songs, but also their histories, cultural contexts and personal meaning.

Alan Lomax was a product of the left-leaning populist idealism of the '30s, centered in New York's intellectual-radical circles. That's where the folk artists of the '40s and '50s gravitated, drawing from the wellspring of American music the Lomaxes uncovered. Pete Seeger, one of those acolytes, once said Lomax "purposely tried to infect us with those songs" and political passion. On Saturday, Seeger told NPR that "Alan was a young fellow who was out to make America more democratic, and he thought American folk music could help do the job."

Lomax also bought into Whitman's vision of the U.S. as "a teeming nation of nations" whose strength lay in its ability to absorb different traditions. Long before it was popular, he saw the interaction of African and Anglo cultures, noting "the profound influence of this music on American culture.... With every passing year, American music becomes more definitely an Anglo African blend."

"The Land Where the Blues Began," Lomax's detailed recollection of his work in the South, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1993.

At the Library of Congress, Lomax embarked on several seminal recording projects. In 1938, he found New Orleans jazz composer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton performing in relative obscurity in Washington. Lomax recorded Morton, a genuine innovator who claimed to have invented jazz at the turn of the century, in performances and interviews at Coolidge Auditorium. This documentation formed the basis of Lomax's 1950 biography "Mister Jelly Roll."

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