Alan Lomax: 1915 to 2002
In 1997, at age 82, Alan Lomax signed a contract with Rounder Records that called for the release of over 100 albums of his life’s work. Rounder planned to methodically digitize, organize and release Alan’s field recordings, made from the 1930s to the 1990s, including much unreleased material. They have issued about 80 CDs to date. Rounder’s Bill Nowlin expects the Alan Lomax Collection eventually to encompass 150 CDs.
Lomax died July 19 in Florida. He was 87.
“The main point of my activity,” Lomax said in 1960, “was…to put sound technology at the disposal of The Folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas.” Lomax was then 27 years into a career that had already seen him help ignite “folk booms” on two continents, light the fuse on the skiffle music craze in England, and lay the kindling for the “English invasion” of the early 1960s, when a buncha young Limeys took American roots music, put hair on it and sold it back to our youth as the “newest thing.”
I’m not sure how old I was when I started to understand how crucial a role uncle Alan played in fostering the development of music on the world stage. I knew he’d been the first to record Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and Mississippi Fred McDowell; had worked with his father, pioneering folklorist John Avery Lomax, to present and popularize Lead Belly; trailblazed the world music field through his eighteen-volume Columbia Library Of Folk And World Music (1955); and had co-written three books before he graduated from college.
But to my brother Joe and me, he was just “Uncle Alan,” a large, loud, outspoken man who seemed to galvanize everyone at family gathering, adding technicolor dreams to our black-and-white lives and sucking us along in his slipstream as he drank deeply of life from a glass forever half full.
He was a man of contradictions, insisting on always having the most advanced equipment for his recordings, but vigorously opposing many artists and musical trends if they moved beyond the often imaginary genre boundaries. In an incident that has become rock legend, he and Albert Grossman grappled at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the purist Lomax so horrified at Bob Dylan’s high volume electrification of folk music that he was determined to pull the plug on the singer, backed then by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with Al Kooper guesting.
Alan spent his entire working life, some 60-plus years, recording artists and music that otherwise might have forever been lost to history. His goal was to “give a voice to the voiceless,” to engender “cultural equity” so that the little man and woman’s thoughts and feelings could be heard as clearly as those of the upper class who control the cultural spigots. In a beautifully written page-one obit in The New York Times, Jon Pareles closed with Alan’s words:
“Now we have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they’re not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency.”
Alan had a huge appetite for music and food, for wine and for life. He had such zest, such gusto about him, a twinkle always in his eye as he told stories and spread the word about the joy music gave him. I can still remember the tone of his voice when I was in adolescence, as he described artists and music he felt I should hear with such energy and passion that I was both intrigued and scared — what if I didn’t like them?
Musically we had our differences. I fell for rock ‘n’ roll in 1956; he, recognizing its sources in blues, country, folk and gospel, was not so enraptured. He argued on the side of purity, but I couldn’t hear him, not while rock’s visceral punch was delivering me into a whole new world of electric basses, six-string epiphanies and drum solos.
Some redemption came in the 1970s when I managed Townes Van Zandt, and later when I guided Steve Earle. But I lost this momentum when I endeavored to make a lead instrument of the mountain dulcimer by co-producing two albums with David Schnaufer. Alan roared that “a dulcimer is a rhythm instrument, it should be played with a noter,” lecturing me on folk purity in a loud voice, with a basic attitude of “I’m right, you’re wrong, how dare you.”
Alan was a swimmer, not a lap swimmer in a pool, but a saltwater guy who ventured way beyond anyone else, then swam parallel to shore for long stretches. One of his oldest buddies once asked him how he felt out there in full deep water, a quarter-mile offshore. “Scared,” was Alan’s reply. But he never stopped swimming alone, beyond the rest of us.
He was arrogant, opinionated, passionate and dedicated to his work. He defined his mission as collecting, preserving and presenting the music made by all those who make up our species, and assigned himself the territory of the world. No one has ever done it better.
Goodbye, sweet uncle Alan, it’s going to take a whole lot of feet to fill the shoes you left behind.
[Ed. note: John Lomax III also sent this article to Alan Lomax’s daughter, Anna Chairetakis, who offered the following additions and clarifications:]
My father did not pull the plug on Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival. Pete Seeger was with him and verified that. He did punch Al Grossman. Alan wasn’t so upset at the electrification as he was by what he saw as the opportunism of Dylan (and others) in using this venue for the “real” folks, which they’d all worked very hard to create and build, to focus the attention on himself for the sake of his individual career.
Also, my father did love lots of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly soul music, and lots of the early white singers too, whom he admired. In the 1980s he became a big fan of Prince, Michael Jackson, and others, and was making a film (sadly, not finished) about the roots of rap, which fascinated him. In fact, he did a whole separate study of urban pop music, based on Cantometrics, but with new parameters added to accommodate the innovative musical features of contemporary popular music.
In short, he was extremely interested in innovation; what he didn’t like were facile knockoffs of folk music, and the corporate, homogenizing tendencies of the market-driven industry. There is a big distinction there. He knew that a lot of rock musicians were/are extremely talented people right out there on the cutting edge of music, and he loved that. He followed the careers of many of these people and got to know some of them, like Bobby Darin. I know this because I helped to introduce him to the genre when I was 14 and we were traveling together, listening to the radio.
Also, it was not Rounder’s sole decision to issue his recordings. They offered the opportunity. They had been after him to do this for seven years before he signed the contract, days before he had his second stroke. It was (our attorney) Jeffrey Greenberg and I who decided then to take the project on, and we provide finished notes and mastering-ready production for every CD in the series.
— ANNA CHAIRETAKIS, PhD
Director, Association of Cultural Equity