During the last few decades of the twentieth century,
it became fashionable in some circles to belittle the
work of Alan and John Lomax. As is often the fate of
intellectuals who reach beyond academia to a broader
public, they were considered somehow suspect, and
their work came to be misunderstood, neglected, and
often ignored by many scholars who would otherwise
be interested in traditional music.
Often, the two very different people—and very different thinkers—
were combined into one conglomerate Lomax, a sort of
golem that came to symbolize old-fashioned approaches
to folk music.
To the detriment of the study of American vernacular music,
however, misgivings about the Lomaxes and their missions
bled over into and contributed to a monumental failure to address the bulk
of their extensive collections. And while many famous
performers whose legacies were intertwined with the
Lomaxes became icons of American roots music (Lead
belly, for instance, or Muddy Waters), the broad scope of
even their earliest field collections largely overwhelmed
the assembled academic and archival apparatuses of the
In this century, however, things have changed with
respect to such collections and to the role of early field
collections in general. The gears of the old machine
have been oiled up, so to speak, and things seem to be
getting rolling again. There are a number of reasons
for this: first, technology increasingly provides more
efficient access to the media they collected.
It’s very easy to ignore something silently gathering dust in
an archive but substantially more difficult to neglect
important cultural performances when they are within
swiping distance, particularly when they undermine or
enhance inherited ideas about the character of major
genres of American music.
Second, a century or so after field recording became feasible,
it continues to become increasingly clear that the early era of recorded sound
did preserve something extraordinary and evanescent—a
moment in human culture (or at least Western culture)
before centuries of oral tradition became irrevocably
disrupted and in some cases eviscerated.
It should be clear to anyone today that John Lomax wasn’t just being
quaint and romantic when fretting about song styles
expiring, or that Alan Lomax was sounding an overly
shrill alarm about impinging threats to cultural diversity.
Songs traditions were submerged. Cultural diversity was
The Lomaxes were, more often than not, just
being realistic, and we can see this with clearer eyes today.
Handwringing about the Lomaxes or about the
importance of old songs, of course, has never been too
much of a concern in southern Louisiana.
Perhaps it’s the encroaching, filigreed coast, or the beautiful
French still surfacing and disappearing in everyday
life—whatever it is, there’s an awareness of the past
and candor about the realities of cultural change. In
some ways, Louisiana has been a model or at least
a test case for how vernacular traditions can adapt
and reconstitute themselves using tools of the sort
pioneered by John and Alan Lomax.
Eighty years after the Lomax trip to the area, for instance, we can
see that the songs they recorded have had a major
impact on the character and form of Cajun and Creole
music. A recent celebration of their work at the 40th
Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, which included a concert
performance as well as a compact disc of Lomax songs
performed at the festival over the years, for instance,
made this abundantly clear.
In addition to the region’s shared accordion/fiddle/guitar music with lyrics in
vernacular French, musicians have used the Lomax
materials to explore narrative and harmonic pathways
that enhance and expand the musical language of the
region, or at least keep it broad and flexible.
In an area with a cultural aesthetic grounded in reverence for
tradition, the Lomax collections and other archival
resources help ensure that this tradition remains
accessible, irrepressible, and endlessly recombinant.
In this collection, we’ve tried to look again at these
old fields explored by the Lomaxes and more fully
sound the resources they offer.
By digging into these older genres, there’s an attempt to expand the musical
future by enlarging the the musical past and perhaps
tweaking our understanding of what is or what might
be traditional and native in French Louisiana. As
it turns out, of course, what is traditional in French
Louisiana isn’t always French, and that’s OK. It’s a big
stretch, furthermore, to call many of these songs folk
Some of the songs recorded and sometimes
imagined as ancient Acadian ballads, not just by the
Lomaxes, but by the singers themselves, for instance,
were actually art songs written for upper crust parlors
by French aristocrats. Some were written for comic
operas of the eighteenth century.
This box set, therefore, is an eclectic mix of songs from
what John Lomax called Evangeline country—in
English and French, some hundreds of years old, some
new at the time they were recorded. Some were no
doubt once sung by peasants in the fields of Acadie,
and some in the Protestant churches of Crowley.
Whatever the case may be, they’re a reminder that the
music of Louisiana’s countryside has and always will
keep us guessing.