In June 1932, they arrived at the offices of the Macmillan publishing company in New York. Here Lomax proposed his idea for an anthology of American ballads and folksongs, with a special emphasis on the contributions of African Americans. It was accepted. In preparation he traveled to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. Lomax found the recorded holdings of the Archive woefully inadequate for his purposes. He therefore made an arrangement with the Library whereby it would provide recording equipment, obtained for it by Lomax through private grants, in exchange for which he would travel the country making field recordings to be deposited in the Archive. John Lomax was paid a salary of one dollar per year for this work (which included fund raising for the Library) and was expected to support himself entirely through writing books and giving lectures.Thus began a ten-year relationship with the Library of Congress that would involve not only John but the entire Lomax family, including his second wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, whom he married in 1934.
In July they acquired a state-of-the-art, 315-pound acetate phonograph disk recorder. Installing it in the trunk of his Ford sedan, Lomax soon used it to record, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a twelve-string guitar player by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly," whom they considered one of their most significant finds. During the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South.
|Prison Compound No. 1, Angola, LA.
Leadbelly in foreground.jpg
Through 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 Lomax (then eighteen years old) in tow. In their successful grant application they wrote, that prisoners, "Thrown on their own resources for entertainment . . . 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." They toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners. They also recorded music from many others not in prison.
From 1936 to 1942 Alan Lomax was Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress to which he and his father and numerous collaborators contributed more than ten thousand field recordings. During his lifetime, he collected folk music from the United States, Haiti, the Caribbean, Ireland, Great Britain, Spain, and Italy, assembling a treasure trove of American and international culture. Lomax was the first to record such legendary musicians as Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards, as well as an enormous number of other significant traditional musicians. He also recorded eight hours of music and spoken recollection with Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton in 1938, and four hours of the same format with Woody Guthrie in 1940.
Although John Lomax would partially retire in 1940, he continued to collect folk music for the remainder of his life and published his autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, in 1947. By the time of his death in 1948, Lomax had aided in the collection of over 10,000 folk songs for the Library of Congress.
|Blind Willie McTell, Georgia Hotel Room, 1940|
From the time he left his position as head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1942 through the end of his long and productive career as an internationally known folklorist, author, radio broadcaster, filmmaker, concert and record producer, and television host, Alan Lomax amassed one of the most important collections of ethnographic material in the world. After he left the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax continued his work to document, analyze, and present traditional music, dance, and narrative through projects of various kinds throughout the world. With his father and on his own he published many books, including American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) and Our Singing Country (1941). He received many honors and awards, including the National Medal of the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle award for his book The Land Where the Blues Began, and a "Living Legend" award from the Library of Congress. According to folklorist Roger Abrahams, he is "the person most responsible for the great explosion of interest in American folksong throughout the mid-twentieth century."
Lomax traveled through Stovall's Plantation in August of 1941 when he came acrass McKinley Morganfield, Latter to be know as Muddy Waters. Lomax recorded some two-dozen sides by Morganfield including a rendition of "I Be's Troubled," which became his first big seller when he recut it a few years later for the Chess brothers' Aristocrat logo as "I Can't Be Satisfied." Lomax returned the next summer to record him again. Lomax knocked on Son House's door in 1941 to record him for the Library of Congress on a tip from Muddy Waters. House rounded up Willie Brown, Fiddlin' Joe Martin and Leroy Williams for the session. They cut six numbers that day and next summer in July, House recorded, unaccompanied, ten more songs for Lomax.
Alan Lomax returned to Parchman Farm in 1947-48 and made some remarkable recordings, armed with state-of-the-art technology, a cassette machine. These sides were originally issued as the LP Negro Prison Songs and reissued on CD as Prison Songs Vol. 1: Murderous Home by Rounder. Lomax gathered the prisons best lead signers for these recordings, all simply known by their nicknames: men like Bama, 22, Alex, Bull, Dobie Red, and Tangle Eye.
In 1959 and 1960, Alan Lomax revisited the American South to record traditional music in newly developed stereo sound. He recorded Delta blues, fife-and-drum ensembles, Sacred Harp singers, Ozark and Appalachian ballad singers, and prison work gangs. English folksinger Shirley Collins assisted Alan Lomax on the 1959 trip, and his daughter, Anna, accompanied him on the 1960 trip. The endeavor resulted in a seven-album series issued on Altantic Records in 1960, reissued on CD as Sounds of the South, and in a twelve-volume series on Prestige International, reissued in 1997 on Rounder Records as the Southern Journey series of the Alan Lomax Collection.
The advent of new technologies opened up new worlds for Lomax, and in the 1970s and 1980s he made a series of journeys back to the South to videotape traditional musical performances for the PBS series American Patchwork, completed and broadcast in 1990. Throughout the 90s and into the twenty-first century, Rounder records steadily worked toward reissuing a 100-CD series showcasing Lomax' most legendary field recordings. Alan Lomax continued his work lecturing, writing, and working with the Association for Cultural Equity until his death at the age of 87 on the morning of July 19, 2002.