He gave 'a voice to the voiceless'

The musicologist followed in his father's footsteps, preserving the heritage of folk music in the U.S. and around the world

By POLLY ANDERSON
Associated Press with a report from Reuters in Globe and Mail, Monday, July 22, 2002  Print Edition, Page R7

NEW YORK -- Alan Lomax, the celebrated musicologist who helped preserve America's and the world's heritage by making thousands of recordings of folk, blues and jazz musicians from the 1930s onward, died Friday in Florida. He was 87. Mr. Lomax died at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, Fla. The cause of death wasn't released. When Mr. Lomax retired in 1996, he moved to Flordai from New York.

He was the son of folklorist John A. Lomax, whose 1910 book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads was a pioneering work in the field of music preservation. Among the famous songs it saved for posterity was Home on the Range. Alan Lomax was still in his teens when he began assisting his father's efforts to interview and record musicians of almost every stripe. Long before tape recording became feasible, the work entailed lugging around recording equipment that weighed hundreds of pounds. Mr. Lomax said making it possible to record and play back music in remote areas "gave a voice to the voiceless" and "put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communications chain."

Many were recorded in state penitentiaries and prison farms. One such recording, Po Lazarus, by James Carter and the Prisoners, appeared on the 2000 Grammy-winning soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (James Carter photo below)

Among the other prisoners they recorded was Leadbelly (born Huddie Ledbetter), a convicted murderer who was doing time for assault by the time they came across him at the Angola prison farm in Louisiana in 1933. They helped get him released and he became their chauffeur. In addition to Leadbelly, other famous musicians recorded by the Lomaxes included Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters and Son House.

Much of their work was done for the U.S. Library of Congress, where the Archive of American Folk Song had been established in 1928. After his father retired in early 1940, Mr. Lomax took over as curator of the archive. Following a stint in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, he worked for Decca Records and continued to collect songs. He also had his own radio shows. Some of the music that seemed exotic in the thirties had a profound influence on the development of rock 'n' roll. In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, critic Robert Palmer wrote about a black religious "ring shout" song, Run Old Jeremiah, recorded by the Lomaxes in a tiny rural church in 1934. "The rhythmic singing, the hard-driving beat, the bluesy melody and the improvised, stream-of-consciousness words of this particular shout . . . all anticipate key aspects of rock 'n' roll as it would emerge some 20 years later," Mr. Palmer wrote.

As interest in folklore and minority groups' culture has grown in recent decades, experts and fans alike have been able to draw upon the recordings made so long ago. When interest in Cajun music and its cousin, zydeco, exploded in the 1980s, for example, a two-album set of the Lomaxes' recordings from the 1930s was issued. The Lomaxes "were recording people who were old then, and taking machines to houses and recording home music," Louisiana folklore expert Barry Ancelet, who edited the album, said in 1988. Mr. Lomax recalled the Louisiana recording sessions vividly. "At the time, it was wonderful, but simply bewildering. All these new kinds of songs were simply mysteries," Mr. Lomax said. Citing one song with a particularly complex rhythm, he said, "When I recorded it, there had been nothing like it in America before."

In 1994, his book The Land Where the Blues Began won the National Book Critics Circle award for most distinguished non-fiction of 1993. It documented the stories, musicians and listeners behind blues music.

In 1990, Mr. Lomax's five-part documentary series American Patchwork was shown on PBS, exploring such topics as the blues, Cajun culture and the British roots of Appalachian music. The final episode, Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old, featured elderly balladeers and musicians who pass their music to the young. "It's not preservation, it's process," Mr. Lomax said. "It's keeping things going." In his research, Mr. Lomax would photograph the musicians and record their thoughts as well as their tunes, asking them where they learned the songs and what the songs meant to them.

Since many blues players' lives were shrouded in mystery, Mr. Lomax often relied on luck while on his travels. In 1940, while driving through Atlanta with his wife, Elizabeth, he saw a guitarist at a food stand. It turned out to be Blind Willie McTell, best known for his 1928 recording of Statesboro Blues. The next day, Mr. Lomax recorded Mr. McTell in a hotel room as he played and talked about his life.

In 1941, Mr. Lomax recorded a 26-year-old guitarist named McKinley Morganfield, a Mississippi plantation worker. Those recordings have since been released as The Complete Plantation Recordings under the name that Morganfield would later become known to millions of blues and rock fans by -- Muddy Waters. The Muddy Waters session was actually a consolation prize of sorts. Mr. Lomax's main objective on that trip was to find Robert Johnson, the near-mythical "King of the Delta Blues." Unfortunately, he was too late: Mr. Johnson had been fatally poisoned three years earlier.

The 1994 off-Broadway show Jelly Roll! as well as the book Mister Jelly Roll were based in part on Mr. Lomax's 1938 interviews with Mr. Morton.

Mr. Lomax didn't limit his efforts to the United States, doing extensive work in Spain, Italy, Britain and the Caribbean. He worked to compile a world survey of folk songs, which deepened the understanding of the links between peoples. A musical consultant for the 1977 Voyager space-probe project, Mr. Lomax sent to the stars the music 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. Mr. Lomax believed our centralized electronic communications system is imposing "standardized, mass-produced and cheapened cultures everywhere."

"If those absolutely important things are ignored, of how we speciated, how we adapted to the planet, then we're going to lose something precious," he said in 1990. "There won't be anywhere to go and no place to come home to."

Among Mr. Lomax's survivors are daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis, grandson Odysseus Desmond Chairetakis and sister Bess Lomax Hawes.