Fall 2002 Volume XXXII, No. 1

Alan Lomax: Citizen Activist
by Ron Cohen

Afro-Asian Crosscurrents in Contemporary Hip Hop
by Ellie M. Hisama

Musical Topics in Hale Smith's Evocation
by Horace J. Maxile, Jr.

Eileen Jackson Southern: A Tribute and a Mandate
by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.

ISAM Matters


Country and Gospel Notes
by Charles Wolfe

Gendering Jazz Narratives
by Susan C. Cook

Rorem on Everything
by Eleonora M. Beck


Alan Lomax: Citizen Activist

by Ron Cohen

Alan Lomax’s death in July 2002 marked the end of an illustrious seven-decade career that generated immense praise as well as occasional notes of discord. Jon Pareles led off in his New York Times obituary with numerous accolades, capturing the life of “a musicologist, author, disc jockey, singer, photographer, talent scout, filmmaker, concert and recording producer and television host,” which summed up much, but not all, of the Lomax story. Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe also stressed Lomax’s invaluable field collecting, as well as his role in documenting and promoting the careers of Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, Woody Guthrie, and Burl Ives. A New York Times Op-Ed piece stressed that “[h]is gift to all of us was to capture voice after voice, song after song that would have vanished into thin air otherwise.” The widely distributed Associated Press wire story remarked on his unparalleled collecting, but noted that “his abrasiveness alienated some of his contemporaries. His politics disgusted others and, in the 1950s, contributed to his seven-year trip to England. Others criticized him as they had his father for compiling ‘composites’ of folk songs—taking versions from several people and blending them into one.” Rock critic Dave Marsh has issued the harshest assessment so far, faulting Lomax on many fronts, particularly his elitist views. And David Hinckley captioned his critical piece in the New York Daily News, “Patronage—or pillage? Folk song collectors like Alan Lomax greatly enriched American music—if not musicians.” Lomax was indeed a fascinating provocateur, a highly influential and sometimes controversial cultural broker whose lifelong commitment to the wedding of people’s music and political activism has yet to be fully understood and appreciated by scholars and pundits.1

Born on 15 January 1915 in Austin, Texas, Alan Lomax was the youngest son of the esteemed folk song collector John Avery Lomax. Alan entered the University of Texas in 1930, and the following year he briefly attended Harvard University. But he soon returned to the University of Texas, where he graduated in 1936. In 1933 he began accompanying his father on collecting trips throughout the South for the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. The following year he published his first article, “Collecting Folk-Songs of the Southern Negro,” in the Southwest Review. In 1937 the twenty-two year-old was appointed Director of the Archive of American Folk Song, and for the next two years he conducted recording trips in Haiti and Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Vermont. In the meantime he and John published American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) and Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936), and eventually Our Singing Country (1941). In 1939 he recorded Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of Congress, followed the next year by Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly—all seminal interviews that captured not only the music, but also the lives and personalities of these highly influential artists. By the early 1940s he had relocated to New York City, where he produced a series of folk music shows for CBS radio, and promoted the careers of Burl Ives, Josh White, and the Almanac Singers.

During World War II, working for the Office of War Information and the Army’s Special Services section, Lomax continued his radio productions, promoting the war effort through exploring the lives of average Americans. Following the war he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and soon began working for Decca Records, issuing albums ranging from Carl Sandburg to square dance calling, as well as the two Brunswick compilations, Listen To Our Story (1947) and Mountain Frolic (1947). The Brunswick collections were reissues of earlier (1927-1931) country and blues recordings originally intended for white and black rural audiences, but now repackaged for city listeners.

Lomax usually tried to connect his left-wing politics with his various folk music activities. In May 1940 he persuaded Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to assist in editing a collection of protest songs that was subsequently published as Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967). He was not directly involved in forming the Almanac Singers in 1941, but convinced Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell that their informal, improvised way of arranging folk music was the best way to introduce traditional country music to city audiences. Later the group included Guthrie, Alan’s younger sister Bess, and Agnes “Sis” Cunningham. During World War II he organized the Priority Ramblers, a Washington-based musical group of unionized office workers. Workers rights and civil rights were always in the forefront of his activities.

Although Lomax possessed a modest singing voice and adequate guitar skills, he never viewed himself as a performer, but rather a chronicler of folk music and promoter of folk musicians. Radio, he quickly discovered, offered an ideal medium for the presentation of folk music. In a letter, he expressed the importance of his work on a CBS children’s radio show called School of the Air (1939-1941): “Through [these shows] Burl Ives and the Golden Gate Quartet became staff artists on CBS, Woody Guthrie became a well-known figure in broadcasting, Lead Belly, Aunt Molly Jackson, as well as many others, lumberjacks, Virginia fiddlers, French Canadian broadcasts, sea captains had their time with a large public, singing and talking about their lives.” His CBS nighttime show, Back Where I Come From, “wove together proverbs, sermons, folk tales, folk prose, and song in a poetic way, all performed by this same cast of genuine folk singers.… Because of the success of these shows I was able to find a market for the first commercial albums of folk music.” His show Your Ballad Man, on the Mutual network in 1948, featured recorded songs and displayed his wide-ranging knowledge of current country and folk performers, including Red Foley, Cousin Emmy, Josh White, Bradley Kincaid, Pearl Bailey, Bob Crosby and His Orchestra, Roy Acuff, Pete Seeger, Salty Holmes, Merle Travis, Uncle Dave Macon, and Robert Johnson. His radio work in England during the 1950s demonstrated a similar eclectic approach and interest. Lomax always stressed his radio work and publishing—his role as a musical interpreter, moderator, and promoter for a wider, general public—while his legacy as a field collector has dominated his popular biography.2

For the remainder of the decade, until his departure for England in 1950 because of political and other pressures, Lomax continued his crusade of popularizing folk music, connecting modern America with its musical roots within the context of his progressive politics. Following the war he became involved with People’s Songs, a national organization initiated by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and others to promote singing in unions and peace organizations. He arranged a biweekly concert series, “The Midnight Special at Town Hall,” for People’s Songs beginning in November 1946. A wide variety of performers were introduced to Manhattan audiences at “Blues at Midnight,” “Strings at Midnight, “Calypso at Midnight,” “Spirituals at Midnight,” “Honky Tonk Blues at Midnight,” “Ballads at Midnight,” and “Mountain Frolic at Midnight.” “Late Saturday evening, Alan Lomax plans to start a monumental project,” John Wilson reported in PM, the progressive daily. “He intends to bring America to New York. Fortunately for Mr. Lomax, he does not mean to move America into the city physically, tree by tree or mountain by mountain. He will do it culturally, folk song by folk song, folk singer by folk singer.”3

In his Foreword to The People’s Song Book (1948) Lomax wrote: “At first I did not understand how these songs related to the traditional folk songs.… Slowly I began to realize that here was an emerging tradition that represented a new kind of human being, a new folk community composed of progressives and anti-fascists and union members.” And he over-optimistically concluded: “Recently the fire of this people’s singing movement has begun to run across the country.… The singers have a national organization of their own with vigorous branches in many cities. This is their book and ours, a folio of freedom folklore, a weapon against war and reaction, and a singing testament to the future.” He enlisted as musical director for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace’s quixotic run for the White House in 1948, where he encouraged E.Y. “Yip” Harburg to write “I’ve Got A Ballot” for the campaign.4

Lomax’s leftist politics were somewhat shielded from public scrutiny, although this did not prevent his being listed in 1950 in the notorious Red Channels, which promoted the blacklisting of numerous show business people. He was identified as a folk singer, composer, and author of Mister Jelly Roll (1950), his influential story of the “father” of jazz that has remained in print for over fifty years.5

While McCarthyism and blacklisting held sway he went to England. Remaining in Europe for much of the fifties, Lomax pursued his developing interest in collecting and disseminating world music. He had been previously influenced by scholars such as George Herzog, Melville Herskovitz, Curt Sachs, and Charles Seeger, and before leaving for England he participated in the Midcentury International Folklore Conference at Indiana University, where many of the world’s leading ethnomusicologists gathered. His eight years abroad proved most fruitful. His field recording and photographing in the British Isles, Spain, and Italy, in conjunction with the work of other collectors, initially resulted in the seventeen volumes of The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, released in 1955.

He produced a brief series of radio shows for the BBC on American folk music that featured songs performed by himself and Robin Roberts, a young American singer then assisting Lomax with his collecting in Ireland. For the remainder of his stay in England, until his return to the U.S. in mid-1958, he was involved in numerous radio shows and a television program that helped stimulate the British folk revival. He also welcomed a string of visiting American performers, including Jean Ritchie, Burl Ives, Peggy Seeger, and Guy Carawan, who helped connect the British and U.S. folk scenes.

In the midst of his media work and public promotion of folk music, he also began to develop a theoretical construct to understand world music, first articulated in a three-page article, “Folk Song Style,” published in the International Folk Music Journal in 1956. This was the start of his cantrometrics project that would become an increasing part of his life. Anxious to return to the U.S., he ended his productive career in England in 1958 when he arrived in New York.6

Lomax eagerly plunged into America’s burgeoning contemporary folk scene. In early 1959 he organized “Folksong ’59” at Carnegie Hall, a concert including Jimmy Driftwood, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, the bluegrass group the Stony Mountain Boys, Mike and Pete Seeger, and the Cadillacs. “The time has come for Americans not to be ashamed of what we go for, musically, from primitive ballads to rock ’n’ roll songs,” Lomax declared, defending his eclectic approach and acceptance of change. He appeared at Circle Pines summer camp in Michigan with Shirley Collins, was interviewed by Studs Terkel in Chicago for his radio show, and spoke at the Berkeley Folk Festival. A two-month southern recording trip resulted in the 1961 release of seven albums for Atlantic Records’s Southern Folk Heritage series, with another twelve volumes issued by Prestige/International the following year. He continued to publish books, including The Rainbow Sign (1959), The Folk Songs of North America (1960), the long delayed Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967), and even the co-edited 3000 Years of Black Poetry (1969).7

Always a strong advocate of racial equality, Lomax plunged into the civil rights movement, participating in a musical workshop in Mississippi in 1965, and in a subsequent gathering in Tennessee. A few years earlier he and Guy Carawan co-produced the album Freedom in the Air, documenting the Albany, Georgia civil rights movement. “While I was squirreling round in the past, you were busy with the present, and how I envy you,” Lomax wrote to Carawan, as quoted on the album cover. “It must be wonderful to be with those kids who are so courageously changing the South forever. I hope they feel proud of the cultural heritage of their forbears.”8

Politics were never far from Lomax’s consciousness. Indeed, he was directly involved in the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968. “Thousands of the black poor, many coming in mule-drawn wagons, converged on the Capitol to lobby for a better deal, meanwhile living in a village of tents in the parks adjoining the Washington Memorial,” Lomax recalled in The Land Where the Blues Began. “I had been asked to organize culturally relevant entertainment for the encampment, and there ensued a mighty singng of black folk music along the Potomac, where the black delegates rested after their marches on the Capitol and the White House.” He even arranged for Muddy Waters to perform. Here Lomax felt at home, with those who were “underemployed, badly housed, pushed toward despair and crime by poverty, sharing only crumbs from the rich table of America’s boom economy.”9

Through mid-decade he remained busy organizing and assisting in programming the Newport Folk Festival. In spite of his broad-reaching musical tastes, he still usually preferred the more traditional performers, whom he documented in three videos (now released by Vestapol): Devil Got My Woman: Blues at Newport, 1966; Delta Blues Cajun Two-Step: Music From Mississippi & Louisiana, Newport Folk Festival, 1966; and Billy in the Lowground: Old Time Music From the Newport Folk Festival, 1966. These films would foreshadow his five-part American Patchwork television series in 1990.

For the remaining years of his life Lomax focused on his ethnomusicological research and writings, with little obvious public political involvement. But there is no indication he ever abandoned his lifelong commitments to preserve and disseminate the music of the “people,” to promote a just society, based on economic, political, and civil rights, and to shape a world music sensibility that became more complex over time. Beginning as a most confident teenager with numerous early successes, he developed a personal style that often ruffled feathers—but perhaps this aggressive persona was necessary to allow him to accomplish so much in promoting and popularizing folk music among an increasingly sophisticated urban audience. His creation of the Association for Cultural Equity in 1985, the development of the Global Jukebox, and the current Rounder Record reissue project to release 150 CDs of his field recordings are testimony to his vision of spanning the world’s music cultures and his dedication to making folk music and dance accessible to all. Public appreciation and scholarly understanding of folk music in our modern world owe much to Alan Lomax’s amazing seventy-year career and his tireless efforts as a citizen activist.

—Indiana University Northwest

The author wishes to thank Ray Allen, Matthew Barton, and Pete Seeger for their invaluable editorial assistance.


Click on note number to return to its place in the text.

1 Jon Pareles, “Alan Lomax, Who Raised Voice of Folk Music in U.S., Dies at 87,” New York Times, 20 July 2002; Mark Feeney, “Roots Music Loses a Champion,” Boston Globe, 23 July 2002; “A Legendary Collector,” Editorial/Op-Ed, New York Times, 23 July 2002; Associated Press, “Alan Lomax, Folk Music Compiler, Dead at 87,” Post-Tribune, 20 July 2002; Dave Marsh, “Mr. Big Stuff: Alan Lomax: Great White Hunter or Thief, Plagiarist and Bigot?” Counterpunch, 21 July 2002,; David Hinckley, “Patronage—or pillage? Folk song collectors like Alan Lomax greatly enriched American music—if not musicians,” N.Y. Daily News, 28 July 2002.

2 Alan Lomax to Cohen, 6 December 1993, in author’s possession; E. David Gregory, “Lomax in London: Alan Lomax, the BBC and the Folk-Song Revival in England, 1950-1958,” Folk Music Journal, 8/2 (2002), 136-169.

3 John S. Wilson, “Lomax Brings in the Roots,” PM, 4 November 1946.

4 Alan Lomax, Foreword, The People’s Song Book (Boni and Gaer, 1948), 3. Lomax can be heard on Ronald D. Cohen and Dave Samuelson, Songs For Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs, and the American Left, 1927-1953 (Bear Family Records BCD 15720), disc 9.

5 American Business Consultants, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television (Counterattack, 1950), 103.

6 See Gregory, “Lomax in London,” for a detailed discussion of his years abroad.

7 “The Folksong Revival: A Symposium,” New York Folklore Quarterly, vol. 19, June 1963, 135.

8 “Freedom in the Air: A Documentary on Albany, Georgia, 1961/1962” (SNCC-1).

9 Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (Pantheon Books, 1993), 420-421.

ISAM home       Who we are       Contact us       Fall 2002 Newsletter
Monographs       ISAM Web Documents       Newsletters       Links