The Lomax Dynasty
From the edges of Western Frontiers to
The Lower Delta
A tribute to to the great musicologists John and
Featuring Interviews by the Lomax,s ,Mrs Shirley Lomax,and selected
Field Recordings from The John Lomax Library
Owens Slick Chain Gang,Valentine Alf Dad,Mc Donald Aunt Mollie,
Mrs Kate W Jones
Hule Hines,John Lomax,TommyWoods and group of convicts,
Abrahamm Powell,Huddie Leadbetter,Woody Guthrie
Lake N Porter Fiddle
Frank Mixon Gulfport Red Prisoners
Irvin Lowry Willie Williams
John B Jones
Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys
Valentine, Alf Dad
Children of Blalock School – Children of America
This portrait shows a unique and depht inside view
of highly cultural educated individual researchers as well
as featuring rare interviews spanning a couple of decades
in North american history….
John Avery Lomax (1867-1948)
John Avery Lomax was born in Goodman, Mississippi, on September 23, 1867, and grew up on the Texas frontier, just north of Meridian in rural Bosque County. A Texan at heart, if not by birth, his early years on the family farm accustomed him to the hard work that, along with a boundless energy, became a hallmark of his life and career.
After teaching in rural schools for a few years, Lomax entered the University of Texas in 1895, specializing in English literature. In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, he recounts the story of his arrival at the university with a roll of cowboy songs he had written down in childhood. He showed them to an English professor, only to have them discounted as “cheap and unworthy,” prompting him to take the bundle behind the men’s dormitory and burn it.1 His interest in folksongs thus rebuffed, Lomax focused his attentions on more acceptable academic pursuits. After graduation, he worked at the University of Texas as registrar, manager of Brackenridge Hall (the men’s dormitory on campus), and personal secretary to the president of the university. In 1903, he accepted an offer to teach English at Texas A&M University and settled down with his new wife, Bess Brown Lomax, to what promised to be a quiet life in the country.
Bucolic country living did not suit Lomax for long, however: in 1907, he jumped at the chance to attend Harvard University as a graduate student. Here he had the opportunity to study under Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge, two renowned scholars who actively encouraged his interest in cowboy songs. This experience changed the course of Lomax’s life and work. Both Wendell and Kittredge continued to play an important advisory role in his career long after he returned to Texas the following year, Masters of Arts degree in hand, to resume his teaching position at A&M. Encouraged by Wendell, he applied for, and was awarded, a Sheldon grant to research and collect cowboy songs. The resulting anthology, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, was published in 1910 to critical and popular acclaim.
Around the same time, Lomax and Professor Leonidas Payne of the University of Texas co-founded the Texas Folklore Society, following Kittredge’s suggestion that Lomax establish a Texas branch of the American Folklore Society. Lomax and Payne hoped that the society would further their own research while kindling an interest in folklore among like-minded Texans. On Thanksgiving Day, 1909, Lomax nominated Payne as president of the society, and Payne nominated Lomax as secretary. The two set out to marshal support, and a month later, Killis Campbell, an associate professor at the university, publicly proposed the formation of the society at a meeting of the Texas State Teachers Association in Dallas. By April 1910, there were ninety-two charter members (one of whom was Lomax’s former student, John B. Jones, who is featured in this collection).
The society grew gradually over the next decade, with Lomax steering it forward. At his invitation, Kittredge and Wendell attended its meetings. Other early members were Stith Thompson and J. Frank Dobie, who both began teaching English at the university in 1914. At Lomax’s recommendation, Thompson became the society’s secretary/treasurer in 1915. In 1916, Thompson edited the first volume of the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society, which Dobie reissued as Round the Levee in 1935. This publication exemplified the society’s express purpose, and the motivation behind Lomax’s own work: to gather a body of folklore before it disappeared, and to preserve it for the analysis of later scholars. These early efforts foreshadowed what would become Lomax’s greatest achievement, the collection of more than ten thousand recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.
In June 1910, Lomax accepted an administrative job at the University of Texas. Throughout the next seven years, he continued his research, and also undertook lecture tours, assisted and encouraged by his wife and children. All this came to an end in 1917, however, when Lomax was fired along with six other faculty members as the result of a political battle between Governor James Ferguson and the university president, Dr. R.E. Vinson. His academic career seemingly in ruins, Lomax moved to Chicago to accept a job as a banker. Shortly afterwards, Ferguson was impeached and the Board of Regents rescinded its dismissal of the faculty, but Lomax did not return to his former job. Instead, he divided the next fifteen years between banking and working with various University of Texas alumni groups. During that time, he did minimal song research; without ready access to a major library, most of the research he did do was through correspondence.
Tragedy struck the Lomax family in 1931, when Bess Brown Lomax died at the age of fifty, leaving four children (the youngest, Bess, only ten years old) and a devoted husband. The following year, in hope of reviving Lomax’s flagging spirits, John Lomax Jr. encouraged his father to begin a series of lecture tours. So the Lomaxes took to the road once again, with John Jr. (and later Alan) accompanying the senior Lomax as salesman, manager, and personal assistant. In June 1932, they arrived at the offices of the Macmillan publishing company in New York. Here Lomax proposed his idea for an all-inclusive anthology of American ballads and folksongs. It was accepted, and he traveled to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song.
By the time of Lomax’s arrival, the Archive already contained a collection of commercial phonograph recordings and wax cylinder field recordings of folksongs, built up under the leadership of Robert Winslow Gordon, Head of the Archive, and Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division. Gordon had also developed and experimented in the field with a portable disc recorder. Lomax made an arrangement with the Library whereby it would provide recording equipment (including recording blanks), in exchange for which he would travel the country recording songs to be added to the Archive. Thus began a ten-year relationship with the Library that would involve not only John but the entire Lomax family, including his second wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, whom he married in 1934. All four of John’s children assisted with his folksong research and with the daily operations of the Archive: Shirley, who performed songs taught to her by her mother; John Jr., who encouraged his father’s association with the Library; Alan, who accompanied John on field trips and in 1937 became the Archive’s first paid employee as Assistant in Charge; and Bess, who spent her weekends and school vacations copying song text and doing comparative song research.
Thanks to a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, Lomax was able to set out in June 1933 on the first recording expedition under the Library’s auspices, with Alan (then eighteen years old) in tow.
For larger image, click on picture
Image: caption follows Trunk of car with recording equipment
(Library of Congress, American Folklife Center)
John and Alan toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners such as James “Iron Head” Baker, Mose “Clear Rock” Platt, and Lightnin’ Washington. Lomax often recorded in prisons in the hopes of finding an isolated musical culture “untouched” by the modern world, where, “Thrown on their own resources for entertainment, they still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies.”2 Not all of those whom the Lomaxes recorded were imprisoned, however: in other communities, they recorded K.C. Gallaway and Henry Truvillion. In July they acquired a state-of-the-art, 315-pound acetate disc recorder. Installing it in the trunk of his Ford sedan (pictured left), Lomax soon used it to record a twelve-string guitar player by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly,” at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and during the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South. Like many early folklorists, Lomax sought to record traditional art forms that he saw as endangered by the widespread acceptance of popular music and the influence of radio and record players. Ironically, it was due to such modern inventions that he was able to preserve all that he did.
Lomax’s enthusiasm for the new recording technology greatly influenced his own collecting methodology. These relatively new devices allowed the singer’s own voice to be heard in every nuance and modulation, without, it was sometimes thought, the interference of the collector’s written interpretation. The machine assumed the role of stenographer, and because of its accuracy, some collectors paid little attention to secondary documentation.
In 1934, Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, and he secured grants from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, for continued field recordings. He and Alan recorded Spanish ballads and vaquero songs on the Rio Grande border and spent weeks among French-speaking Acadians in southern Louisiana.
Lomax’s contribution to the documentation of folk traditions extended beyond the Music Division through his involvement with two agencies of the Works Progress Administration. In 1936, he was assigned to serve as an advisor on folklore collecting for both the Historical Records Survey and the Federal Writers’ Project. As the Federal Writers’ Project’s first folklore editor, Lomax directed the gathering of ex-slave narratives and devised a questionnaire for Project fieldworkers to use. This work was continued by Benjamin A. Botkin, who succeeded Lomax as the Project’s folklore editor in 1938, and at the Library in 1939.
Lomax’s involvement with the WPA brought him into contact with writers in the field, who in turn introduced him to a wider array of performers for his own song research. Two of these writers, Mrs. Genevieve Chandler, of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, and Ruby Pickens Tartt, of Livingston, Alabama, were instrumental in forming the content of the folksong collection made in 1939. Thanks to Ruby Pickens Tartt’s extensive knowledge of her local community, for example, the Lomaxes were introduced to such singers as Dock Reed, Vera Hall, and Enoch Brown.
As Lomax continued his work, his field expeditions reflected his broadening scope of interest, as can be seen in the wide variety of genres recorded during the 1939 Southern States Recording Expedition. Lomax rarely wavered from his quest for old songs, however, taking advantage of the latest technologies to preserve the past. The materials in this collection reflect his unstinting effort to document cultural traditions that he saw as threatened by an encroaching modern world.
(The Library of Congress)
The Man Who Recorded the World
In 1961, as a young graduate student at an ethnomusicologists’ meeting, John Szwed caught the eye of the master: Alan Lomax, the man whose tremendous body of work allowed previously unheard folk recordings to become universally well known. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Lomax remarked “Pygmies are a baseline culture.” Then he went on his way.
Years later, when they had gotten to know each other, Mr. Szwed accompanied Mr. Lomax to the Village Gate to hear Professor Longhair. The set began with “Jambalaya.” Lomax vanished. And then, as Mr. Szwed writes in his keenly appreciative, enormously detailed new Lomax biography, “I felt something brush by my leg, and when I looked down there was Alan crawling on the floor toward the bandstand so as to stay out of people’s vision.” Lomax reached the edge of the stage, knelt worshipfully until the set was over and then pronounced Longhair the greatest folk musician in the Western world.
Alan Lomax had astounding energy and enthusiasm. He was both an exhaustive and exhausting force in American music for almost 70 years. When he died in 2002, he left behind at least the following, which Mr. Szwed has dauntlessly tackled as source material: 5,000 hours of sound recordings; 400,000 feet of film; 2,450 videotapes; 2,000 books and journals; numerous prints, documents and databases; and more than 120 linear feet of paperwork. It’s not hard to see why detractors called Lomax “The People’s Republic of Me.”
On the evidence of “Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World” his enemies and admirers were equally well armed. Lomax may not have courted controversy, but his work and methods made argument inevitable.
When he started collecting musical artifacts, he was ahead of his time — almost. His father, the more culturally conservative John Lomax, was such a celebrated folklorist that Alan inevitably played hanger-on. Together, bearing the burdens of financial, ideological and father-son tensions, they roamed the country for the Library of Congress during the Depression with recording equipment, trying to talk strangers into sharing their songs.
Father and son shared an academic bent. But Alan saw a greater, more adventurous calling for himself, Mr. Szwed writes: “He was also to be a messenger for the masses.” This required Alan to decipher the songs’ larger meanings, find out about the cultures that produced them and witness the culture clashes that erupted as the music became more widely known.
When rural black musicians (with whom Alan was much more simpatico than his father was) were exposed to big-city audiences, as the ex-convict Lead Belly was when the Lomaxes brought him to New York in 1934, the press used epithets like “Murderous Minstrel,” “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands” and “a virtuoso of Knife and Guitar.” The world was not yet ready for what Alan Lomax planned to deliver.
But under the New Deal “folklore as an activity, as a subject, as a calling rather than an academic study,” began rising in stature. And by the time of the 1939 World’s Fair Alan was its chief avatar. He issued advice about the fair’s folk exhibits with his trademark mixture of eagerness, excitement and pedantry. “Each table should be provided with a set of songs that will be sung in the course of the entertainment, and the audience naturally will be encouraged to join in the chorus,” he proposed, adding that this could “make the World’s Fair the simple and merry people’s festival that it was in the Middle Ages.”
Even to Pete Seeger, who did a stint as Lomax’s assistant, “Alan had a way of making proclamations and value judgments that could ring down the years.” Woody Guthrie’s “lumpenproletariat act is too much!” Lomax once complained to him; Lomax regarded Guthrie as “a self-made intellectual.”
Yet behind Lomax’s air of superiority were awful self-doubts. And he wrote about his inadequacies no less relentlessly than he did everything else. “What do I like? What do I think about? What do I want? Why am I born?” he wrote on one such occasion. “I know the kind of intellectual, moral and emotional structure that can be made out of folklore. It is a lack of personal conviction that is my problem.”
Mr. Szwed is an ideal match for his fretful, protean subject. He is thorough enough to document the Lomax earaches, colds and carbuncles, not to mention the many women who fleetingly assisted Lomax on his travels but then drifted away. This book’s lists of destinations (Haiti, Sicily, Spain, Scotland) and cultures (Gullah, Creole, Cajun, lumberjack) are made to sound almost like business as usual: after all, for Lomax, that’s what they were. In one remarkable and perhaps record-breaking paragraph, Mr. Szwed ticks off Lomax’s pie-in-the-sky plans for 75 new albums, including two reissues, three square-dance records with calls and two anthologies.
(Under these circumstances the glaring omission from “Alan Lomax” is a discography. And although this book deserved to be beautifully illustrated, it includes only one lousy picture.)
Mr. Szwed also ignores the enormous, ancillary opportunity to write about Lomax’s effects on the many, many musicians who reflect his influence. He stays within Lomax’s perspective. So there’s much more about Lomax in Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles: Volume One” than there is about Mr. Dylan here: “Alan would say that Dylan wanted to create a folk music for the urban middle class, which wasn’t a bad idea, but just seemed boring to him,” Mr. Szwed remarks. As for the folk boom of the 1960s, Lomax said, “New York had gone to sleep around the Peter Seeger banjo picking folknik image, and I was shocked to find that the kids here thought that folk music pretty much began and ended in Washington Square.”
Mr. Szwed’s own interests are as picky and academic as Lomax’s, and as ingratiatingly peculiar. When he brings up skiffle, the 1950s musical precursor to the British Invasion, he is primarily interested in how Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle version of “Rock Island Line” appropriated Lead Belly’s. (“Outright knavery,” Lomax complained.) And he takes care to point out not only the skiffle origins of assorted Beatles, Rolling Stones, Hollies, Yardbirds and so on, but also points out something extra: Spinal Tap was once a skiffle band, too (though its members called it “scuffle”).
(JANET MASLIN 2011 – Coutesy of The New York Times )
(Selected Archival Audio recordings courtesy of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. )
(Parts of Audio Courtesy of NPR)
(Parts of additional Audio Courtesy Alan Lomax Archieves)
All Media are part of a non-commercial webcast and only for educational purposes only (Ed.)
Sid Hemphill and the Devils dream
In The Land Where the Blues Began, the folklorist Alan Lomax recalls his epic field-recording voyage through the Mississippi Delta in the early 40s, undertaken at a time when, for Lomax, the stakes felt particularly high. “I knew this was to be my last song-collecting jaunt before the Army got me, maybe the last time I would ever hear the alley blues and the hallelujah spirituals that I believe are the best art our country has produced,” he wrote, and not without discernible yearning.
That urgency would eventually yield the first recordings of Muddy Waters and Honeyboy Edwards, and the first recordings of Son House since his Paramount days, but it’s hard not to feel like Lomax’s desperation– for ferocity, inventiveness, some kind of rapture– was probably best assuaged by his discovery of Sid Hemphill, the so-called “boar-hog musician of the hills,” a fiddler and string band-leader once described to Lomax as “the best musician in the world.”
Lomax found Hemphill in Senatobia, deep in Mississippi’s Hill Country. He’d driven across a crumbling bridge and approached a “sagging, unpainted door on a weathered-gray, warping house.” Before he could knock, Hemphill, then 65, swung it open. “No one had told me that Sid Hemphill was blind, but it was the last thing you’d recall about him,” Lomax explained. “His face blazed with inner light.”
On August 15, 1942, Lomax committed 15 tracks by Hemphill and his backing band (Lucius Smith, Alec “Turpentine” Askew, and Will Head) to acetate disc. Hemphill never recorded commercially, and only Lomax’s field recordings of his work are extant– meaning that unless you knew a guy (shoddy cassette tapes of Hemphill’s songs, sourced from Lomax’s discs, have been spotted in the damp palms of 78 collectors for decades, passed about like contraband), The Devil’s Dream is the first time anyone has been properly able to access or disseminate Hemphill’s brain-scrambling yawp.
The album’s release this month, over 70 years after its creation– as a download through the Alan Lomax Archive’s Global Jukebox imprint, or on LP via Mississippi Records– feels both long overdue and right on time.
Hemphill’s masterwork is “The Carrier Line”, a rambling, six-minute blues ballad about the owner of a local logging railroad and the engineer who ran his train too fast. “You want me to put the whole 21 verses in it?” Hemphill asks Lomax before raising his fiddle and announcing himself. “Sid Hemphill! ‘Carrier Song’ was made and played by him, his band!”
There is a wildness to Hemphill’s voice and playing that feels undeniable if not fully singular– every note is vehement, as if it were stampeded into being, as if it might trample you, too, if you don’t start running. Those propulsive, impatient rhythms make “The Carrier Line” feel literal, like an actual train is hurtling towards Hemphill and his band, only Hemphill is too fearless, too punk rock, to flee or even flinch.
Elsewhere, Hemphill’s giddiness at playing and being recorded is evident in his voice, and in the half-intelligible yarns he appears to find deeply hilarious. (“Arkansas Traveler” concerns a kid digging a hole and yellow corn and we-don’t-need-no-supper-in-Arkansas; the punch-line is Hemphill shouting “I know a place!” and it’s always funny, for reasons that remain unclear to me, but don’t much matter.) “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” is a raunchy, shambling ode to unflappable libido, and it features a heartbreaking (and unexpected) exchange between two of Hemphill’s backers, one of whom is so out of tune he temporarily stops playing (“You must be scared?” a voice asks. There’s a pause. “You must be scared.”)
Hemphill’s work incorporates attributes of the Mississippi Hill Country’s better-known traditions (the droning guitar blues mastered by McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough, and the fife-and-drum music practiced by Otha Turner, Napolian Strickland, and Hemphill himself), but part of its pre-eminence concerns its inimitability.
The title-track, which features vocals, a bass drum, and quills (a handmade instrument crafted from cane reeds that sounds a little like a panpipe, only flatter and more rudimentary) is a battle cry; Hemphill whoops and wheezes like a feral child lost in a shopping mall. It’s hard to imagine a more fundamentally exhilarating three minutes of music.
There are plenty of reasons to lament Hemphill’s relative obscurity, and his subsequent lack of a professional oeuvre: The exuberance of his performance that day (and it is a performance, rendered heartily and with intention) can sometimes obscure his extraordinary acumen as a songwriter, and there are all the expected fidelity issues (Hemphill and his band are often positioned in awkward proximity to the microphone, and are prone to vaguely acrimonious mid-song chit-chat). The songs themselves contain a preposterous numbers of verses, and aren’t short on impious bits.
But then there’s Hemphill, capable of the sorts of noises only generated in extraordinarily compromised positions, of reflecting our most unruly, un-tempered, subsumed exaltations– and even then, they don’t ever sound this ecstatic. Or this free.