The Lomax Blues
At his death in 2002, Alan Lomax’s mark on American popular culture was reviewed with justifiable awe. Folk music curator at the Library of Congress from 1936 to 1950 his recording expeditions, mainly across the Southern states, documented the idiomatic music of a rapidly vanishing rural America. Work songs, ballads, playground rhymes, street ditties, folk tales and personal histories, the collected work abides as a priceless sonic chronicle of recondite beauty and historic weight.
Mostly unappreciated were Lomax’s other occupations, as a player and singer of folk songs, radio show host, film maker, record producer, nightclub promoter, and festival director, the collective output of which made him the prime mover of a truly popular music that eventually ignited a counter culture and remains in force today in the broad commercial field called Roots music: traditional blues, Americana, Bluegrass, and old time country. Lomax discovered and recorded more musicians, traveled more miles, got the most attention, and made greater claims for folk music’s beauty and importance, than any other song collector.
At his best, beginning as a teenager on song collecting trips assisting his musicologist father, he strove to present Americans, urban and rural, black and white, with deep connections to each other; to articulate with song a grander sense of citizenship than anything offered by movies or, later, TV. This was also the dream sacred to the political left of the time, and it held great promise for most of Lomax’s working life.
Readers of John Szwed’s thorough and sympathetic 2011 biography also learn that he was arrogant, physically overbearing, and deeply self-involved, constantly calculating how his field work might also make some side money, or advance himself and his friends. Lomax’s last decades were spent promoting a methodology of folklore study hardly better than a pseudo science: objective criteria whereby vocal setting and dance movement are presumed to reveal psychological truths of whole societies. Ultimately Lomax saw folklore as a code that might be cracked and used by the right people as something between a weapon and a tool. While doing so he overlooked elements in American folk music that merited further investigation, a lapse that has stunted our understanding of the music ever since.
In 1932, Alan’s father, John Lomax came to Washington after a distinguished academic career at the University of Texas, where he’d earned a national reputation for his folklore work before leaving to become a bank executive. Losing in quick succession his job to the Great Depression and his wife to a fatal illness, the 66-year-old Lomax undertook to publish a collection of cowboy songs he’d gathered in Texas almost forty years earlier. Research at the Library of Congress convinced him its existing collection of recorded folksongs could be greatly improved. Securing an outside grant, he persuaded the library to lend him state-of-the-art equipment for an ambitious recording expedition.
Packing the heavy machine and the large aluminum disks it used to record sound into the trunk of a Model A Ford, John and Alan, then 18, set out on a collecting trip across the south in 1933. Seeking musicians untainted by exposure to records and radio, they eventually reached the Angola prison farm, Louisiana’s notorious state penitentiary, and there discovered Huddie Ledbetter, a convict calling himself Lead Belly, who played guitar and sang a broad repertory of songs with transfixing power.
Paroled soon after the visit, Lead Belly mistakenly credited John’s influence for securing his release (a persistent myth, uncovered by recent research, that was too good a story for Lomax ever to deny). The grateful Ledbetter contacted John and for a season took Alan’s place as driver on song collecting trips. Starting in 1935, he and Lomax toured eastern colleges and social clubs with a folklore performance program very much based on the wide publicity given the black convict who “sang his way out of prison”.
It was a professional arrangement saturated with paternalist racism in which Lead Belly was at first happy to participate, certainly viewing it as his main chance in show business. After a year-and-a-half however he grew tired of the control John Lomax presumed to keep over his life; what Lead Belly was paid and where he and his wife could live. A nearly violent quarrel over money following a show in Buffalo, NY was too upsetting for John. He retired to Texas shortly after, leaving his Library job, still funded by outside grants he had secured, to 22-year-old Alan.
Alan thrived in his father’s old office, gaining a modest salary from the institution and expanding the scope of material in the collection beyond field recordings to include commercial records and a priceless interview series, hours long, he conducted with Jelly Roll Morton. With Library permission, Alan also produced an educational CBS radio show from New York.
His work at the Library and on the radio fit very neatly into the broader New Deal mission to define a cohesive and confident national identity. Articulating his work on a political level, Alan fully intended his field recordings to give voice to communities, white and black, suffering from isolation, exploitation, poverty, and racial injustice. Alan told John, now back in Texas and increasingly upset by what he considered his son’s socialist agenda, that he was a Communist. Long investigated by the FBI, with a large file to show for it, Lomax was never deemed a security risk and served in the Army during WW2.
Before joining, Lomax went to Coahoma County, in the Mississippi Delta, as part of a project set up by Fisk University. It was to be the first survey of a black community made by African American academics, initially proposed by John Wesley Work III, a music professor at Fisk and himself the son of a distinguished song collector, at first intended to catalogue “news” songs about a tragic nightclub fire in Natchez. Appealing to the Library of Congress for better recording equipment, Work and his colleague Lewis Jones were soon coupled with Lomax who greatly expanded the study.
Jones, Work and several research assistants from Fisk were now to make a thorough survey of Coahoma County life; Lomax to record and catalogue what they heard. The plan was for Jones, who undertook a broad social study, and Work, who concentrated on musical transcription and analysis, to assemble separate reports for a single publication. Lomax had plans for his own book, and he and Work clashed over what Work feared was Lomax’s commandeering of the project’s recordings for his own, possibly commercial, ends.
The Fisk professors completed first drafts of their papers. Further work on the Coahoma project ended after the main researchers joined the armed forces. A post war search of the university files for the Work and Jones draft reports came up empty, though carbon copies of them were discovered in Lomax’s voluminous archives, to be subsequently published, after his death.
Lomax spent the war years producing Army radio shows and returned to the Library in 1946. In 1950, with Red Scare threats to, and betrayals of, his friends and colleagues well underway, he decamped for England to spend nearly a decade working on projects for the BBC. His overwhelming personality, and instinct for self-promotion, prompted one British colleague to call him, referring to Orson Welles’ charming American gangster character in The Third Man, “the Harry Lime of folk song”. After a brilliant series of recording trips through the British Isles, Italy, and Spain, he returned to the U.S. after a nine-year absence.
Lomax’s 1993 memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began, presents some problems for informed readers. The first four chapters are a dramatic account of the 1942 trip to Coahoma County, presented here as his idea, with Lewis Jones as a very valuable assistant, and John Work hardly mentioned at all. Other inconsistencies include his claim of first discovering Robert Johnson’s death that year while interviewing Johnson’s mother, something known five years earlier. Mrs. Johnson’s account, as Lomax relates it, of Robert’s deathbed repentance also isn’t true. Worse, he repeats the long-debunked story that Bessie Smith died from a Delta car crash after her ambulance was turned away from a whites-only hospital.
The book brims with overheated writing, the density of which should have seemed excessive by 1993. Describing a quick meal, tamales are “slivers of red hot delight”; a watermelon was “redder than roses and sweeter than love”. Here’s a singer “guttural and hoarse with passion, ripping apart the surface of the music like his tractor-driven plow ripped apart the wet black earth in the spring time, making the sap of the earth song run”; and Haitian field workers: “rivers of sweat poured off gleaming black bodies and, with shouts and singing, the work was quickly and merrily done.” Jones was “an unflappable bronzed Dante”, his guide to the “denizens” of the Delta. Local whites are frequently “crackers”.
Clearly, Lomax wished to express a powerful African identity to the Delta, and so sees Africa nearly everywhere there. This is the book’s largest problem, most evident in this passage: “For a great majority of Delta women, battered or lonely, religion was the remedy, just as it had been for African woman.” Let’s assume that Lomax did not really think that the consolation of religion was uniquely African, or unavailable to women in Europe and Asia, only that his feelings could overpower his observations.
It’s mainly agreed now that blues music did not begin in the Delta, born as Lomax ever insisted from the field holler, but was instead a pentatonic song style that by 1900, with marked regional differences, was endemic across the south. Harder for people to accept is that nothing outside of assumptions connects the music to Africa. Starting in the early 1960s, musicologists fanned across western Africa looking for a proto blues music and in every case came up empty.
Without question, a rich African culture was brought across the Middle Passage, was established and maintained by African people in North America, and has contributing greatly to American life ever since. However, theirs were not the only outsider voices heard in the land in the three centuries before the Civil War. Our continent was inhabited by many nations, societies of enthusiastic singers and drummers, before any ships arrived. Furthermore, these nations, especially those below the Mason Dixon Line, defined settler life for a very long time.
Lomax briefly registers a Native American presence while recalling a black fife and drum group he discovers in the Mississippi hill country: “Now at last I was recording a music that suited the early days of this wild country when blacks and whites and Indians fished and hunted and swilled whiskey and ran from the great Mississippi in the shadowy edges of the American jungle.”
Native Americans appear in Lomax’s book mainly as the anachronistic inhabitants of river levee mounds. Yet the ethnic cleansing, barely a century before Lomax’s first visits to Mississippi, that forced the five so-called civilized (and slave-owning) tribes from the southern states to Oklahoma Territory overlooked several districts useless for cotton agriculture. These included large sections of northern Mississippi where, according to the WPA guide to that state (a book we can fairly assume Lomax was familiar with), some three thousand Choctaws “refused to leave [… and] still till the soil of their ancestors.”
The great Delta blues singer Chester Burnett proudly told interviewers later in life of his Choctaw grandfather who gave him the name Wolf, to which he applied the leading adverb Howlin’ when he entered show business. Even McKinley Morganfield told Lomax, who recorded him at the Stovall Plantation in 1942, that his name was the very Indigenous sounding Muddy Water (he added the ‘s’ later). Howlin’ Wolf was emphatic also in talking about his guitar teacher, Charlie Patton: “Charlie Patton was an Indian, and he was the baddest motherfucker in the world!”
Again and again, The Land Where the Blues Began unknowingly describes Delta folk performance elements that are endemic to Indigenous American song styles: Growling and falsetto singing; flatted notes in a pentatonic scale; the repetition of single line lyrics; the drawing out of key vowel sounds; whooping, as well as vocal and rhythmic mimicry. A Delta church choir he records exactly embodies the central facet of Indigenous group singing: “a remarkable kind of harmony, in which every singer was performing variations on the melody at his or her own pitch”. Even the Br’er Rabbit tales Lomax loved quoting come from a very rich Indigenous tradition of trickster animal lore.
Other central elements of Native American performance not found in the African tradition are heartbeat 2/4 and 4/4 rhythms, and the first-person, lord-hear-me testimony so central to the field holler. This Lomax admits: “The style of these solo, unaccompanied, idiosyncratic, melancholic hollers runs directly counter to the mainstream of black song in the South…”
The distinct possibility that modalities of African American performance accepted the weight of a new and strange music found on the slave shore during myriad encounters, over centuries, with Indigenous people just as musical and only slightly less abject than the dispossessed Africans themselves, deserves far greater consideration. How hard can it be to consider the idea that something once considered pure is in fact an amalgam; to accept the notion that the Blues, America’s essential music, is essentially American?
The end of Lomax’s de facto leadership of the folk music scene can be dated to the summer day in 1965 when he notoriously grappled with Albert Grossman, the manager of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Bob Dylan, backstage at the Newport Folk Festival, furious over the electrified performance of another Grossman client the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Dylan’s historic set with the same musicians was the following evening). Larger commerce, bigger ambitions (and greater sharks like Grossman) rapidly changed the music scene.
Retiring from the lists, Lomax devoted the rest of his working life to elaborate academic research, underwritten by the Guggenheim foundation and headquartered at Columbia University, attempting to define new methods of folklore studies; a modern anthropology of music that he insisted held critical insight into universal human behavior. His so-called Cantometrics presumed to chart the nature of societies by an objective study of singers’ vocal techniques; the related Choreometrics attempted the same by graphing the gestures and steps of dancers.
The formal publication of his group’s findings appeared in 1977 to some encouraging praise and much wider derision. Lomax’s sample sizes were too small, his conclusions broad, or worse — pointless. He had been too influential for too long, adept at wringing grant money to fund an array of projects — books, films, and anthropological surveys–that remained unfinished. An academic field he’d hoped to lead ignored him.
In evaluating his peerless field recordings, Lomax missed aspects of an American music hiding in plain sight. This failure is exactly where he claimed greatest expertise: the intimate knowledge of folk music played by rural people, black and white, in the early 20th Century and before. His conclusions, grounded in certain prejudices and assumptions, overlooked what that music signaled about the American past, and a deeper understanding of Americans themselves. Lomax, in all his pride and determination, desperately wanted to get that right, and maybe got it mostly wrong.
He had the first of several strokes shortly after the publication of The Land Where the Blues Began and was increasingly incapacitated for the last decade of his life. Lomax’s superb field recordings, now available to all online, remain his enduring epitaph.
Correction: an earlier version of this story stated the Lomaxes found Lead Belly at the Parchman prison farm in Mississippi. It also inverted the report subjects of Jones and Work.