Alan Lomax: the man who recorded the world… not always with the best practices.

CW: Race, racism and black culture representation.

All the blues was born and developed following the slavery of black communities, and it was only almost three centuries later that it became possible to hear the voice of this human mass, uprooted from their land, frustrated in the most elementary expectations of life, desperate in an inferiority maintained with weapons and defined by “black codes”.

At first it was poetry handed down orally. Then, around 1870, poetry met music.

Let’s go to New Orleans and down the Mississippi Delta. It is here that the sadness and daily pain mixed with a vague hope of the future laid the foundations for the great history that would later caracterize the blues. This geography quickly expanded, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee.

And above all the first rudimental elements that made for blues, quickly turned it into a style and a music genre.

If some of this heritage of music and poetry is known today to white audiences, it is due to the research work of Alan Lomax.

Born in Austin, Texas in 1915, Lomax began his research work in 1933, following his father, John Avery Lomax, a pioneer of folkloric documentation. Equipped with a bulky recording system mounted on a truck, father and son traveled throughout the South and Southeast of the United States for years, collecting from the field a harvest of precious musical materials.

The father John Avery Lomax was a traditional researcher: what was recorded in the field, in his aim, was meant to serve as a reference source for a series of transcriptions, both text and music for publication purposes. This work had led in 1910 to the publication of the Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads collection, a text that gave a cultural physiognomy to the so-called cowboy singing and the practice of country music in the United States, contributing in a decisive way, in the following years, to the development of the Archive of Folksong at the Library of Congress in Washington.

The son Alan Lomax, however, in addition to recording musical pieces, began to interview the musicians, not limiting his studying to the mere description of musical materials, but investigating public and private lives, the historical and social context, the traditions of other eras, sensing for certain events of American history and culture a political relevance that was often (and most likely voluntarily) lost.

I will go back to this later in this post, please keep reading till the end.

In 1934, together with his father, Lomax published American Ballads and Folksongs, followed, in 1936, by Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly, one of the first attempts in the history of white American literature to study a popular author.

In 1938, Alan Lomax, who in the meantime had continued to travel America together with his wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold, recorded in the wake of the work done with Leadbelly more than eight hours of conversations and performances of and with Jelly Roll Morton, that eventually gave life in 1949 to the volume entitled Mister Jelly Roll.

Between 1939 and 1940 he wrote and directed American Folk Songs, a radio broadcast produced by CBS involving artists such as Burl Ives, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Aunt Molly Jackson.

In 1946 he made a series of recordings and interviews with Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson which were collected under the title Blues in the Mississipi Night and constitute evidence of exceptional relevance on the history of American music.

Tireless traveler, this intellectual and researcher was, between 1950 and 1958, also in England, Scotland and Ireland, where his interest and his research on local folklore stimulated that folk revival that would soon spread throughout the country, extending its influence also on the commercial music of the place. Between 1954 and 1955 he even worked in Italy, where he established a collaboration with the ethnomusicologist Diego Carpitella.

The long journey made in 1959 throughout the southern United States gave birth to a very rich series of recordings, The Southern Heritage Series (reissued in 1993 under the name Sounds of the South) and Southern Journey.

In the sixties Lomax developed at Columbia University a series of techniques, Cantometrics, Choreometrics and Parlametrics, designed for a cross-analysis of the many musical traditions of folkloric origin, and in 1977 he was commissioned to choose the music included in the Voyager project, which would have brought into space evidence of human civilization. Lomax chose Blind Willie Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Andean and Navajo songs, polyphonic music of the Pygmies and songs of the Georgian Caucasus.

Awarded the National Book Award in 1993 for his memoir The Land Where the Blues Began, in the last years of his life he dedicated intense efforts to the Global Jukebox project, a software capable of collecting the highest possible number of testimonies on cultures popular of the planet, a real mapping of the human musical genome.

He died in Florida in 2002, but thanks to him the United States were able to know their most hidden history and the incredible contribution of those who were excluded, forgotten, segregated and persecuted by society.

Today, with the great help of technology, we are able to listen to his and his father recordings through the Lomax Digital Archive:

The Lomax Digital Archive provides free access to audio/visual collections compiled across seven decades.

The entirety of Alan’s photographs and open-reel tape recordings—made between 1946 and 1991—are available here, as well as transcriptions of his 1940s radio programs, and a selection of clips from his film and video-work of the 1970s and 1980s.

The LDA also contains several large audio collections the Lomaxes made, together and apart, on instantaneously recorded discs under the auspices of the Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Song between 1933 and 1942.

The catalogs are searchable and browseable by a range of taxonomies (person, instrument, location, genre, etc.) and every recording and image is described by extensive item-level metadata.

Now… If you got excited by this story, you should know that there are plenty of places where Lomax can, and should, be justly criticized. So to bring the glory back to its truth, blues wasn’t forgotten by all Americans and Lomax’s work wasn’t really meant to honor Black Americans. It was meant for white Americans, for press, for publications, for radio shows. Definitely not for Black Americans.

They way he approached folk music was not always respectful of the music and the culture. The time when he started collecting his recording was a time when the mainstream representation of African-Americans was a radio show, heavily stereotyping black characters. And also Lomax’s emphasis on the blues created a distorted and stereotypical picture of black culture to white audiences.

According to Karl Hagstrom Miller, the author of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, when Lomax would show up in a black community, “he didn’t ask, ‘Share the songs that you enjoy singing.’ He asked for them to find songs that fit into his idea of old time folk songs.”

For Lomax, the locus of authentic black expression was best found in prisons. “The black communities were just too difficult to work in with any efficiency and so my father had the great idea that probably all of the sinful people were in jail,” Lomax once said. “And that’s where we found them — that’s where we found this incredible body of music.” The people Lomax and his father approached were often reluctant to display their culture for an outsider with a recording machine. But when the Lomaxes were able to get the cooperation of a prison warden, their subjects could be coerced. “Presently the guard came out, pushing a Negro man in stripes along at the point of his gun,” Lomax wrote about one session. “The poor fellow, evidently afraid he was to be punished, was trembling and sweating in an extremity of fear. The guard shoved him before our microphone.”

Lomax wasn’t ashamed of his methods. On the contrary, he saw prisoners as the people most sheltered from outside influences, and therefore most authentic. And much of the music he recorded this way, including many blues and work songs, are powerful expressions of overlooked cultures. But his quest for a ‘pure’ black music untouched by white influences was problematic. “By nature of the close proximity that two different cultures have by living next to each other, it is inevitable that the music and the cultural products that they are producing are intertwined and interrelated,” says Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Throughout the history of the South, she says, “People were singing each other’s music, so to speak.” According to Karl Hagstrom Miller, this cultural mixing happened even under the brutally enforced segregation of slavery and Jim Crow. “White slave owners and black slaves lived together, worked together, and worked the plantation together,” Miller says. Black musicians played the waltzes, jigs and the reels at white people’s parties. During the Great Awakening, in the 1830s, blacks and whites went together to camp revival meetings, where Christian hymns mixed with African religious and musical practices to create the songs we know as spirituals. In the 1880s and ’90s, touring vaudeville shows and Tin Pan Alley music publishing created a nationwide music industry — long before the advent of radio. So, Miller says, “there was a difference between what folklorists were searching for and what people were listening to and enjoying.”

Although Lomax celebrated his blues artists as creative geniuses, and he championed performers like Leadbelly, who had been imprisoned, Reece says that those musical choices affirmed negative and dangerous stereotypes. Lomax’s selections suggested that “African-Americans are criminals, are illiterate. They are not serious, they are not smart. That ‘authenticity’ is rooted in having that kind of vision of what an African-American can or cannot be.” This much is undeniable: right at the time the Civil Rights movement was trying to bring whites and blacks together in a common cause, Lomax drew a hard line between white music and black music that — with help from the record companies — helped keep the two apart.

Now that the picture is more complete, please listen to the recordings from the archive but be aware of the whole story and of how many negative elements are in there. The end does not always justify the means.


Published by Bibi

Blues dancer, insegnante e dj - Viaggiatrice compulsiva - Amante della vita, della natura e dei gatti!

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