Roots of Lomax’s Southern Journey


“I’ll Meet You on that Other Shore: Field Recordings from Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey” (Mississippi Records)


In 1958, Alan Lomax returned to America. He had spent the decade recording the traditional music of Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Italy; producing radio and television series for the BBC; and compiling the eighteen-volume “World Library of Folk and Primitive Music” for Columbia Records. In no small measure he’d also been beating the heat of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts, which had a particular hunger for Lomax’s folk-music peers.

But drink had killed the junior senator from Wisconsin in 1957, and when Lomax arrived back in New York City, he found an urban folk revival in full bloom. Crowds of young banjo players, guitarists, fiddlers, and fans were gathering in Washington Square Park to pick and sing traditional songs and tunes, many of which Lomax had recorded years earlier from the likes of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Hobart Smith, and Texas Gladden.

That year the Kingston Trio had a number-one Billboard hit with “Tom Dooley,” based on a version of the murder ballad that folklorists Frank and Anne Warner had recorded from North Carolina banjo player and singer Frank Proffitt in 1940. The young revivalists were becoming proficient on their instruments, and with the help of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, they had access to hundreds of songs in albums, books (among them Lomax’s American Ballads and Folk Songs and Our Singing Country), and burgeoning folk-music magazines like “Sing Out!”

It was in “Sing Out!” that Pete Seeger announced Alan’s return: “Alan Lomax, considered by many America’s foremost folklorist left the U.S.A. an ‘enfant terrible’ and returns a legend…. I welcome back Alan Lomax, not just because he is an old friend, but because he is more responsible than any other single individual for the whole revival of interest in American folk music.”

Seeger concluded with a description of the cultural moment to which Lomax had returned and the unique place Lomax held in it. “Well, of course, the folk-song revival did grow, and flourishes now like any happy weed, quite out of control of any person or party, right or left, purist or hybridist, romanticist or scientist. Alan Lomax probably looks about him a little aghast.”

Next summer, Lomax wrote his own article for “Sing Out!” – an astute critique of Seeger’s “happy weed.” The revivalists might pick a banjo fluently or boast of a large repertoire of songs, but, Alan pointed out, when those songs are “ripped out of their stylistic contexts and sung ‘well,’ they are, at best, changed. It would be an extreme form of cultural snobbery to assert, as some people do, that they have been ‘improved.’ In my view they have lost something, and that something is important.” Writing forty years later, Lomax was more blunt:

Some of the young folkniks, who dominated the New York scene, asserted that there was more folk music in Washington Square on Sunday afternoon than there was in all rural America. Apparently, it made them feel like heroes to believe that they were keeping a dying tradition alive. The idea that these nice young people, who were only just beginning to learn how to play and sing in good style, might replace the glories of the real thing, frankly horrified me. I resolved to prove them wrong.

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