Family Values: The Lomax Family and American Folksong

October 1, 1998

Alan Lomax Collection: SamplerSouthern JourneyThe Last Cavalier


The Alan Lomax Collection: Sampler. Rounder Records CD 1700.
The Alan Lomax Collection: Southern Journey, Volumes 1-13. Rounder Records CD 1701-1713.
The Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, by Nolan Porterfield. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. 580 pp. ISBN 0-252-02216-5

"The incredible thing is that when you would, could play this material back to people it changed everything for them. They realized that their stuff, and they, were just as good as anybody else. And I found out that what I was really doing, and my father was really doing, was giving an avenue to those people to express themselves and tell their side of the story." (Alan Lomax speaking with Charles Kuralt at the Association for Cultural Equity at Hunter College, NY, 1991.)

And what a story it is. This story is the grand narrative that sings wildly and freely, tenderly and ecstatically, of the loftiest ideals of equality, democracy, and humanity. This story is the extraordinary portrait of ordinary people passionately engaged in their labor, exultantly uplifted in communion with their God, jubilant in their communal recreation, and softly contemplative in their lonely introspection. This is the story told in the voice of generations of lives lived close to the soil, hard upon the sea, and clinging to the mountains—voices that well up from the deepest springs of human emotion, artful, without taint of artifice. From deep South work-driven shouts at the Parchman Penitentiary to a Scottish traveling woman's chilling ballad of fratricide, from the bubbling cauldron of polyphony vigorously spawned by longshoremen at Genoa to the rough-hewn psalmody of a Sacred Harp singing in Alabama, this is the voice—and the heart—of people making music as though their lives depended on it.

This is the story of a people and their music that stubbornly yet tenuously persisted in the shadow of music as it was fashionably fashioned and consumed in the twentieth century. This is music that was more comfortable swinging on porches and shouting in rural churches than decked out in formal attire on the concert stage, music that was more at ease by night in jook joints and on rough wooden dance floors than under the harsh glare of spotlights. This music—"folk," "traditional," or "roots"—favored a rural alto whose voice could split a rock over a Juilliard-trained mezzo soprano, valued a hand-fashioned cane fife above a platinum flute, articulated with hand claps and foot stomps rather than a complement of gleaming timpani, and embraced a simple steel jaw harp instead of an ornately carved gilt pedal harp.

This is the story of a people and their music inextricably tied to local and regional identity of home, hearth, family, and friend. It is the music that provided the cultural glue uniting families and communities in a common body of stories, morals, song, and dance. It is not popular music, although it can be considered a vital reservoir of that which was once popular. It is not popular music, although every national popular style—minstrelsy, ragtime, musical theater, jazz, blues, country, gospel, rock and roll, and hip hop—owes its very existence to this music. This is the story of a people whose voice was almost silenced by popular music as the twentieth-century music industry threatened to completely inundate the last islands of oral tradition and folk expression.

Jean Ritchie's comments on the advent of radio broadcasts in the mountains reflect the rise in popularity of popular song and the corresponding decline in value accorded traditional music.

They were getting to be all the fashion, those radio songs. The young folks went around singing "Pale Wildwood Flower" and "Zeb Turney's Girl," and "Sweet Fern." Hillbilly songs the radio called this music, and it claimed that these songs were sung through the mountains, but we never heard anything like them before. I guess if it hadn't been for the radio it's no telling how long it would have taken us to find out we were hillbillies, or what kind of songs we were supposed to sing. The radio soon fixed all that. It got to be that if you asked any younger person to sing "Barbry Ellen" whoever it was would look at you and laugh and look ashamed of you. "That old fashioned thing? Why I don't even remember how that goes, it's been so long." . . . Or if it was someone that got mad at being called a hillbilly. . . he'd be likely to say, "'Barbry Ellen?' Why folks laugh at you if you sing that old thing. Call you a hillbilly." And then he'd sing "After the Ball Is Over," a high-class song, a city song." (Jean Ritchie. Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. p.248)

As the "high-class city songs" stifled the strains of "Barbry Ellen" a whole posse of scholars and musicians descended on the folk, particularly those dwelling in the southern Appalachian mountains, in an effort to preserve the endangered musical species. By the 1930s Cecil Sharp, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, George Pullen Jackson, John Jacob Niles, Frank C. Brown, and a host of others had published an arsenal of transcriptions and arrangements of ballads, lyric folk songs, and sacred expression intended for both scholarly preservation and commercial dissemination. In a similar vein, musicians such as Harry Burleigh and John Wesley Work mined the rich lode of African American oral tradition for their performance arrangements of spirituals. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, John Avery Lomax began collecting cowboy songs in the American west.

In 1906 Lomax entered Harvard University as a graduate student and came under the influence of literary professor George Lyman Kittredge, a ballad scholar and pupil of Francis Child whose The English and Scottish Popular Ballads defined the canon of balladry. Lomax, a self-described "upper crust of the po' white trash" at aristocratic Harvard, sought to parallel the venerable lineage of the British ballad with a romanticized notion of the indigenous narrative song of his native Texas. As he later wrote in the Book of Texas: Mr. [Theodore] Roosevelt has pointed out that the days of free grass were essentially similar to the days of medieval England, Jesse James taking the place of Robin Hood. The songs of the cowboys correspond to the ballads of the Scottish border, and the roping and riding contests of to-day are the lineal descendants of courtly tournaments. The knights of King Arthur's Round Table and the Texas broncho [sic] busters have been poured from the same mold. (200-201)

Lomax gathered together Western songs taken from scrapbooks, newspapers, by mail, and "from the lips of ex-cowboys, now in many cases staid and respected citizens," (153) and released the texts and tunes as Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads in 1910. In assessing Lomax's first collection, Nolan Porterfield observed:

Cowboy Songs occupies a vital place in American cultural history, but locating that place precisely is tricky business. Lomax's own statements about what he had achieved with the book and how he had gone about it are both plentiful and contradictory. That not to trouble anyone who understands the man himself. . . . Fine points and invidious distinctions aside, one hazards the plain assertion that what Cowboy Songs amounted to was—if not in fact, than certainly in substance and effect—simply the first important collection of American folksong. . . . The ultimate value of Cowboy Songs is measured not in scholarly abstractions but in what it gave us all, in those lovely, sad, and funny bits of tune and line now embedded in our lives: "Whoopee Ti Yi Yo, Get Along Little Doggies," "The Old Chisholm Trail," "Jesse James," "Sweet Betsy from Pike," and of course, "Home on the Range," among dozens of others which Lomax saved from doom or otherwise helped preserve and popularize. (152-153)

Despite Cowboy Songs and subsequent publications including American Folk Songs and Ballads (1934), Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936), and Folk Song U. S. A. (1947), John Lomax never really achieved a full measure of either popular or academic success. The commercial accessibility of his books coupled with his lack of academic credentials rendered his scholarly achievements suspect. At the same time, his complex personality and his social attitudes, particularly concerning race, made it difficult for the public to embrace him.

In the company of other scholar/performers, such as Bascom Lamar Lunsford, John Lair, and John Jacob Niles, Lomax was compelled to negotiate that fine—and often contradictory—line between popular recognition and academic respectability. He was never appointed a professor at the University of Texas despite years of dedicated service there in various administrative posts. He was never granted a salaried position with the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress despite having initiated the field recordings that constituted most of the Archive's collection. Even though he founded the Texas Folklore Society and served as president of the American Folklore Society, the only formal post he ever held as a folklorist was a political appointment as National Advisor for Folklore and Folkways for the Works Progress Administration. And yet, Lomax possessed the courage and persistence that enabled him to pursue his vision concerning the value of vernacular expression, wherever the truth of that expression carried him. For that reason, John Lomax may well be the single most influential American folklorist prior to his son Alan.

This is the story told by Nolan Porterfield in his engaging and penetrating biography, Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax. Given the nature of his highly controversial and paradoxical subject, Porterfield has constructed a stunningly fair and objective portrait. Analytical, without being judgmental, Porterfield allows the "facts" of Lomax's story to unfold themselves with narrative eloquence and perceptive grace. This is most clearly revealed in particularly contentious occasions where Lomax's problematic political and racial views are presented in context, and allowed to remain in context without the author's (or the reader's) artificial resolution of a complex and unresolvable stance. Porterfield's summary of the relationship between Lomax and blues musician Leadbelly is characteristic of this sort of discussion:

Much has been made of the obvious differences between Lomax and Leadbelly, the oppositions in their race, culture, and temperament that led to the inevitable tragedy of their association and its equally inevitable end. But in fact their problems may have been rooted in circumstance that as mere humans, they really were more alike than different, as Lomax unwittingly detailed when he described Leadbelly as "an unbelievable combination of a brute, a poet; a shuffling servant and a supreme egomaniac, . . . an amazing mixture of craft, guile, cunning, deceit, ingratitude, suspicion, fawning, hypocrisy, and at times a charming companion and entertainer." Lomax's harsher critics might have used the same language to describe him. Both men were complex individuals, beset by social and cultural currents neither could comprehend, much less control, and the question of race plays back and forth in their relationship in strange and sometimes ironic ways. (359)

Porterfield allows Lomax's life to unfold in rich detail informed by his close acquaintance with the Lomax papers at the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, the Lomax Family Papers at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and through letters and interviews with many of the principal characters in this story. The details never threaten to choke the narrative, rather, they animate the story with compelling vibrancy and veracity. Were John Lomax able to read this biography today, he might well recognize it as his own life, and marvel that someone else had been able to connect seemingly random and remote events with such intuition and perception. Readers will be remunerated with a heightened awareness of America's vernacular cultural heritage, and will acquire a balanced portrait of "the last cavalier."

In fall of 1938 Lomax "told [his son] Alan that he was realizing that he had only a few years left to live and, lamenting his failures, touchingly urged his son 'to achieve in some such way as I have dreamed for myself.'"(412) The work dreamed by the father was indeed achieved, and crowned, by the remarkable career of his son. By age seventeen Alan was traveling with his father throughout the South to record vernacular music for the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song. In 1937, one year after graduating from the University of Texas, Alan was appointed Director of the Archive of American Folk Song, the first full-time salaried employee in this position. In the following years, the Lomaxes scoured the South, Southwest, Midwest, Northeast, and Haiti in search of traditional music armed with their new technological weapon—the tape recorder. As Alan remembered it:

The portable recording machine, which my father and I were the first to use, provided the first breakthrough. It was heavy (five hundred pounds) and it engraved a rather noisy sound groove on aluminum discs. Even so, by making it possible to record and play back music in remote areas, away from electrical sources, it gave a voice to the voiceless. It documented music, such as the complex polyphony of blacks, which notation could not represent. Thus, the portable recorder put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communication chain. (Alan Lomax. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. p. xi)

This collecting and recording process was difficult and demanding work. Travel was slow at best, and it could easily prove hazardous and even life threatening. Identifying subjects and creating an atmosphere of trust that enabled them to be recorded was an exacting art that required patience and sensitivity. The portable recorder was in reality anything but portable and it was an engineering nightmare to keep it functioning. Often delicate negotiations were necessary in dealing with suspicious prison officials, and local law enforcement in the "Jim Crow" South barely tolerated Alan and John's interest in African American musicians. Much of this story is engagingly recounted in Alan's reminiscences published as The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993) and documented with an accompanying four-compact-disc sound recording, Sounds of the South (Atlantic 7-82496-2). John and Alan's collaborative fieldwork yielded thousands of recordings for the Archive of Folk Song—an amazing document of vernacular culture as it had survived into the middle of the twentieth century. Still, these early recordings can not always be trusted as an unimpeachable source of accuracy. Porterfield observed sins of both omission and commission in the 1930s recordings.

Re-creating events for posterity was nothing new to Lomax. In his first report to the Library of Congress (1934), he remarked that when it was impossible to make recordings of work songs on the spot, "we have successfully staged groups, with axes or hoes in hand, and secured on our records precisely the same musical effects of concerted blows with voice accompaniment." Miss Terrill recalled that Henry Truvillion's timber calls could not satisfactorily be miked outdoors, but Lomax was able to get "some good facsimiles when we set up our machine inside a building." Charles Seeger remembered Lomax instructing convict workers to blow out their breath and make the "hunh" sound at the end of each line. And anything that carried even the faintest whiff of jazz was quickly weeded out. Folksong purists complained that this was a distortion of the material, but Lomax, like the March of Time, made no bones about presenting his sources in the best possible light, the way he thought they should be recorded. (356)

Alan Lomax's whirlwind of a career was marked by a variety of activities all designed to promote his ideal of "cultural equity." He produced radio shows for CBS and the British BBC that spotlighted performers such as mining activist Aunt Molly Jackson, folk song writers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and the gospel-singing Golden Gate Quartet. In the 1950s he also inaugurated the "Midnight Special" series of live concerts in New York's Town Hall that introduced an eclectic mix of folk music, world music, and folk revival performers. By providing a public forum for their music to be heard, Lomax gave voice to musicians who had been marginalized by the homogenization of popular culture. This, in turn, nurtured a series of "folk revivals" that kept the music alive through subsequent generations.

Lomax also disseminated his ideas to the public in published form. In addition to the books written in tandem with his father, he compiled Mr. Jelly Roll (1949) based on interviews with the seminal jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, and later authored the sweeping collection The Folk Songs of North America (1960). Two other publications were designed to provide a theoretical framework for his fieldwork, Folk Song Style and Culture (1968) and Cantometrics: An Approach to the Anthropology of Music (1976). These both provide a useful tool for providing a pan-cultural analysis of folk speech, song, and dance.

Although best known for his audio documentation, Lomax also effectively coupled image with sound in the five-hour series American Patchwork produced for the BBC. One of these episodes, "The Jazz Parade: Feet Don't Fail Me Now," is particularly effective in communicating the correspondences between African and African American music and dance through parallel footage. This series, currently available on video, is a most effective means for engaging student interest in African American, Cajun, and Appalachian culture. Other episodes include "The Land Where the Blues Began" based on the book of the same title, "Cajun Country: Don't Drop the Potato," "Appalachian Journey," and "Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old."

Of all this activity, however, the sound recordings themselves must be considered the crown jewels in Alan Lomax's career. And for the first time, the full range and diversity of these recordings will be made available through a new series of compact discs released on the Rounder recording label. Produced and edited by Lomax's daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis and Jeffrey Greenberg, the entire Alan Lomax Collection will be released on approximately one hundred recordings divided into ten different series: "Southern Journey," "Prison Songs," "The Caribbean Collection," "The English, Scottish, and Irish Collection," "The Spanish Collection," "The Italian Collection," "The Columbia World Library," "Deep River of Song," "Portraits," and "The Ballad Operas."

To date, only the thirteen recordings that comprise the "Southern Journey" series is complete, but the Alan Lomax Collection: Sampler does succeed in providing a brief, tantalizing overview that is designed to whet the listener's appetite for the entire collection. The Sampler's thirty eight selections span a stunning smorgasbord of all ten series with riveting performances that include blues musicians Son House and Fred McDowell, prison work songs from the Parchman Penitentiary, a fuging tune from an Alabama Sacred Harp singing, calypso by Growling Tiger of Trinidad, Scottish song by Ewan MacColl and Jeannie Robertson, and "a swift goat-like dance" by the orchestra of Jesus Ordonez in Spain. The variety of fieldwork suggested by this sampler is nothing short of astounding.

The recording quality is likewise astounding. Lomax had a special genius for microphone placement, and the original stereo recordings capture the ambiance of "live" sound whether it is an intimate living room or an open farmyard. The sound quality has been further enhanced by twenty-bit digital sampling aided by computer enhancement and filtering. The sound presence is crisp and clear with no distracting hiss or background ambient noise characteristic of field recordings. In fact, a little bit of background sound or spoken introductions might be useful in establishing the live nature of the music since the sound clarity almost suggests studio conditions.

The liner notes are a fine complement to the music, providing a cursory biography of Lomax, brief comments on each musical selection, overviews of each of the series, and a reprint of an article, "Saga of a Folksong Hunter" from HiFi/Stereo Review (May 1960) that provides an eloquent rationale for his life's work reflected in this collection. The Sampler package is an excellent vehicle for introducing the breadth of the Alan Lomax Collection while the "Southern Journey" series provides an exploration of the depth represented in the recordings.

Lomax exhibited a special affinity for the South born of his Texas birthright and inculcated through numerous childhood fieldwork trips in the company of his father. Consequently the "Southern Journey" series represents some of his best workgood recordings of the strongest performance of the most characteristic songs by the most inventive performers representing both Anglo and African American traditions.

The recordings were drawn from eighty hours of tape documenting trips to the Georgia Sea Islands, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and Arkansas between 1959-1960. Some of this material was originally released as a seven-record set for Atlantic called "Sounds of the South" or on twelve monaural records for Prestige as a "Southern Journey" series, but this new Rounder series restores the stereo sound to the Prestige recordings, and presents a number of cuts that were not previously released by either Atlantic or Prestige. Displaying production symmetry and forethought, the contents of the first Rounder recording, "Voices from the American South" is a prelude to the "Southern Journey" series in much the same way that the Sampler introduced the entire collection. The contents of each subsequent disc are thematically designed around a location or genre.

There are regions such as the "Velvet Voices" of the Eastern Shore choirs and quartets, or "61 Highway Mississippi" blues and spirituals of the delta. There are also genres such as "Bad Man Ballads" or "Sheep, Sheep Don'tcha Know The Road" containing "sacred and sinful" songs. With the exception of Cajun music, nearly every style and region of vernacular musical expression in the South is documented in these recordings.

But the purpose of Alan Lomax is not just to document. As Pete Seeger noted "Lomax didn't just collect—he preached and converted." In his own words:

When are we going to realize that the world's richest resource is mankind himself, and that of all his creations, his culture is the most valuable? And by this I do not mean culture with a capital "C"—that body of art which the critics have selected out of the literate traditions of Western Europe—but rather the total accumulation of man's fantasy and wisdom, taking form as it does in images, tunes, rhythms, figures of speech, recipes, dances, religious beliefs, and ways of making love that still persist in full vitality in the folk and primitive places of our planet.

Every smallest branch of the human family at one time or another has carved its dreams out of the rock on which it has lived—true, and sometimes pain-filled dreams, but still wholly appropriate to their particular bit of earth. Each of these ways of expressing emotion has been the handiwork of generations of unknown poets, musicians, and human hearts. Now, we of the jets, the wireless, and the atom blast, are on the verge of sweeping completely off the globe what unspoiled folklore is left, at least wherever it cannot quickly conform to the success-motivated standards of our urban-condition consumer economy. What was once an ancient tropical garden of immense color and variety is in danger of being replaced by a comfortable but sterile and sleep-inducing system of cultural super-highways—with just one type of diet and one available kind of music. It is only a few sentimental folklorists like myself who seem disturbed by this prospect today, but tomorrow, when it will be too late—when the whole world is bored with automated mass-distributed video-music, our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture. ("Saga of a Folksong Hunter," Hi-Fi Stereo Review IV:5 pp. 38-46. As reprinted in liner notes for The Alan Lomax Collection: Sampler. Rounder Records CD 1700. p. 56)

The Rounder recordings of the Alan Lomax Collection constitute an incalculable contribution to replanting the "ancient tropical garden of immense color and variety." This remarkably vibrant vernacular music will provide an avenue for people to express themselves and tell their side of the story—and what a story it is.

2810 Last modified on October 18, 2018