Why you should care
Because Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and Beyoncé all have one man to thank.
Just a few clicks and you’re transported into musical history. Listening to Lead Belly or José María Rodriguez’s haunting strains crackle through ancient vinyl, you could be in the Mississippi Delta or rural Spain hundreds of years ago, rather than your 21st-century living room.
And we might have lost the essence of these artists — who celebrated the roots of American music and paved the way for every major artist since — had it not been for oral historian Alan Lomax.
Around the time of the Great Depression, music was going mainstream, with record labels forming and phonographs and radios increasingly piping tunes into people’s homes. But for most practitioners of American music, recording — let alone a record deal — was an unheard-of luxury. Music that started in rural places — blues, folk, country, gospel and bluegrass — didn’t reach much beyond local halls and front porches.
“Lomax’s genius … lay in his understanding of folk music as a performance art.”
Grammy-winning music writer and author Tom Piazza
Lomax, a tweedy, asthmatic white kid from Austin, Texas, was an unlikely savior for some of the greatest blues musicians of all time. Educated at a Connecticut prep school and interested in philosophy, he appeared set to follow in the footsteps of his academic father, John Lomax. But he also had his dad’s passion for folklore — plus an uncanny ear for great music.
At age 17, he stepped on a path that would shape the rest of his life. He and his father embarked on field-collecting trips for a groundbreaking project with the Library of Congress. Their mission? To write down the lyrics and record the music of as many folk artists as they could find in the American South.
Soon Alan was doing his own work for the archival project. His travels took him to Haiti with Zora Neale Hurston, remote swamps, packed dance halls and Southern jails, like the one where he met the formidable blues singer Lead Belly. Capturing music, he soon found, wasn’t just about sitting down with a microphone.
Grammy Award-winning music writer and author Tom Piazza tells OZY that it was Lomax’s approach that helped rescue more than a few captivating performances from obscurity.
“Lomax’s genius — what set him apart from the academic folklorists who preceded him — lay in his understanding of folk music as a performance art,” Piazza says.
Oral historians who preceded him, like Cecil Sharp and Francis Child, transcribed lyrics from old ballads. But that wasn’t enough for Lomax, who felt that “everything about the song’s performance, from vocal timbres and facial expressions, to the houses and communities where the performers lived, was part of the meaning of the song,” Piazza says.
The context, in other words, was the soul; and Lomax used audio recordings and photos to leave an indelible mark on a previously unexplored world of expression. When he sat down with his subjects, from Woody Guthrie to Muddy Waters, he was looking to have a conversation. He watched how people moved, held their instruments, squeezed their eyes shut and sweated against the power of the song. For Lomax, first hearing Lead Belly play was a revelation: “His hands were like a whirlwind, and his voice was like a great clear trumpet,” he recalled.
And he didn’t stop with North America, even when the money ran out and he came under fire for communist sympathies. He simply packed his recording equipment and headed for Europe. Upon returning to the U.S., though, Lomax came under scrutiny again for alleged subversion, and his staunch support of civil rights and social justice resulted in his being harassed by the FBI for more than 30 years.
But in the end, his work paid off, hailed by folks like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. By the time Lomax died in 2002, he’d produced thousands of hours of recorded music and years’ worth of interviews and videos. His legacy is within our grasps — not only online and in the living, breathing American history he preserved, but in every blues, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop, country and jazz song we’ve ever heard.