Archive for the ‘Alan Lomax’ Category

John Ciardi, Alan Lomax, Ga. Sea Island Singers

June 21, 2015

Singing starts at 2:17.

A segment on the Georgia Sea Island Singers shot at St. Simons Island – featuring Bessie Jones, John Davis, Peter Davis, Willis Proctor, Mable Hillery, Emma Lee Ramsey, Joe Dixon, Joe Armstrong, and others unidentified, and guest host Alan Lomax – from the short-lived CBS educational program “Accent,” hosted by poet John Ciardi, 1962.

Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country

June 6, 2015


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
twentieth century.
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.

Alan Lomax and the civil rights movement

April 4, 2015



Alan Lomax – Songs of Freedom
To mark the centenary of the birth of folklorist Alan Lomax in 1915, Billy Bragg presents a new and original thesis. Billy argues that the legendary “song hunter” was a vital, but overlooked figure in the Civil Rights Movement, whose recorded archive would become the authoritative repository of black folk culture in America.

Alan Lomax is a towering figure in the history of music, afforded a front page obituary by the New York Times following his death in 2002. A pioneering musicologist, folklorist and broadcaster, in the 1930s Lomax extensively recorded American folk and blues musicians. Over the course of his career he collected over 3000 hours of music and in-depth interviews.

While Lomax’s influence in sparking the folk music revival of the 1960s is well known, in this programme Billy Bragg tells a story of far greater significance. His central thesis is that Lomax’s mission was to empower black Americans by awakening them to their folk culture. The politically charged nature of Lomax’s work resulted in him being hounded out of the US during the Red scare and the FBI kept a file on him for 30 years.

Interviews include Lomax’s former assistant the folk singer Shirley Collins, singer and Civil Rights documentarian Candie Carawan, Lomax’s biographer John Szwed and Lomax’s daughter Anna.

This programme was made with the help of Alan Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity and the Library of Congress who have supplied a wealth of stunning archive material – including Lomax’s field recordings, oral history interviews and groundbreaking radio broadcasts.

Listen here.

Treasures from the Archive Roadshow

March 9, 2015
The Down Hill Strugglers are proud to be a part of the forthcoming “Treasures from the Archive Roadshow: Celebrating Alan Lomax & The Folk Music Collections at the Library of Congress” – an outreach program of theAmericanFolklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The idea is that The Down Hill Strugglers, John Cohen (of the New Lost City Ramblers), Jerron “Blindboy” Paxton, Nathan Salsburg (Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive) and others will tour festivals, performing arts centers, colleges and universities, playing live renditions of songs and styles learned directly from the collections at the Library of Congress.
The Roadshow is also accompanied where appropriate by a museum quality panel display with more information about the American Folklife Center as well as a presentation of folklore-related films from the collections there.The intention of this project is to bring the beautiful diversity of music, songs and styles, faithfully preserved in this amazing archive, out to the general public.
The Roadshow will raise awareness about the existence of the Folklife Center itself and encourage people to take advantage of this amazing resource, just as we have.  By touring and playing live for audiences the Roadshow can introduce people in a live and immediate way to some of the kinds of songs and styles laid away by folklorists and collectors in this deep repository of our grassroots indigenous American music.The “Roadshow” honors the folk music collections at the Library of Congress and particularly in 2015 the seminal work of folklorist Alan Lomax who would have been 100 years old this year, and whose unparalleled collecting work formed the basis for the American Folklife Center’s holdings.  The first exhibition and performance of the Roadshow will take place Sunday, April 19th at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, with more performances TBA over the coming months.
The American Folklife Center was created in 1976 by the U.S. Congress as the national center for folklife documentation and research, with the mandate to “preserve and present American folklife.” The American Folklife Center Archive, established in the Library of Congress Music Division in 1928 and moved to AFC in 1978, is now one of the largest archives of ethnographic materials from the United States and around the world.



March 4, 2015

Cover of The Golden Record, currently scuttling through empty space.



In 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan was chosen by NASA to head a team to select contents of a record to be placed on the unmanned Voyager I spacecraft, which was designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn, but now, nearly 38 years later, has traveled further from Earth than any other man-made object. The idea behind the two-hour disc, to be played back at 16 2/3 RPM with a stylus and cartridge provided, was to preserve “presents from a small, distant world” to any extraterrestrials who could conceivably happen upon the spaceship. And you thought Dark Side of the Moon was trippy.

President Jimmy Carter provided an introduction to the record as, “A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” This two-hour, multimedia presentation of life on Earth was encoded onto a disc coated with copper and gold for protection, which gave it the nickname The Golden Record.

The selections from Sagan’s team were initially drawn solely from Western classical music, so Sagan enlisted the help of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who had just compiled an anthology of world music, consisting of 700 pieces that illustrated the full gamut of human musical expression. Lomax and his team of folklorists operated under the banner of “cultural equity,” the idea that music made on a Texas chain gang or a Spanish fishing village is as valid as that of the world’s great symphonies.

“Our job is to represent all the submerged cultures in the world,” Lomax told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991. “We give an avenue for those people to tell their side of the story.” Alan Lomax, inspired by his father John, spent six decades trying to restore the balance that wealth and privilege had taken away.

There was a bit of head-butting when Lomax was brought aboard and chucked DeBussy in favor of Peruvians and their panpipes and Chuck Berry playing rock n’ roll. In Murmurs of Earth, a book recounting the Voyager project, Sagan wrote that Lomax was “a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible.”

In the end, Lomax was responsible for 15 of the 27 musical recordings on Voyager 1, including Blind Willie Johnson’s moaning “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which accomplishes the rare feat of being eerie and emotional at the same time. Lomax said he included that guitar-sliding Crucifixion song as the best embodiment of loneliness. Space aliens from the future will no doubt relate better to the blind, guitar evangelist from Marlin, Texas than to Beethoven, who follows Blind Willie to close out The Golden Record.

See also here.

Lomax centennial box set

February 18, 2015

centennialherofrom and

Over the course of 70 years, Alan Lomax was one of America’s finest treasures as an honored music archivist who collected tens of thousands of songs from all over the globe. PledgeMusic is proud to partner with the Alan Lomax Archive for a proper celebration of Alan’s 100th birthday with a definitive Centennial box set that includes 100 songs on six LPs. We recently asked Nathan Salsburg, Curator of the Association for Cultural Equity, which Lomax founded, for further perspective on his legacy, his favorite pieces to listen to and the scope of the new box set.

Those who pre-order through PledgeMusic get behind-the-scenes access to the production of the box set.  Fans get access to rare exclusives including a 78-rpm record from Lomax’s own collection, a copy of the Grammy-winning set of Lomax’s 1938 Library of Congress recordings with Jelly Roll Morton, a series of fan-curated 7″ singles, and the opportunity to vote on which songs are included in the 7″ series, and the exclusive Alan Lomax Centennial T-shirt. For more information, head to the Alan Lomax PledgeMusic page here

Alan’s passion for music knew no bounds. Do you know if he had personal favorite artists, songs or even genres?

Lomax did have his favorites. Among singers, he was especially fond of Vera Ward Hall, a black washerwoman and nursemaid from Livingston, Alabama, and the Scots traveler balladeer Jeannie Robertson. I think it’s safe to say he found the work songs and hollers of the Southern penitentiary system — the songs he first recorded with his father in 1933, and returned to document again on three other trips over 25 years — among the most powerful (“noble” was an adjective he used) of America’s vernacular musics. But he was no purist. He later expressed much appreciation for Prince and Michael Jackson.

The scope of this project is what might be most impressive. What was the process like to distill down this collection into 100 songs?

It was no easy task. Lomax recorded over 3000 hours of music, and while one of our primary intentions is to adequately present the depth and breadth of his collections, we also want to make sure it’s fun to listen to. There are songs that have had profound cultural and musical influence and absolutely must be included in any consideration of Lomax’s legacy. At the same time, there are totally obscure performances from remote locations that are deeply and wonderfully idiosyncratic representations of the artists who sang them and the communities they sang them in. Striking that balance was both very difficult and very rewarding.

Alan earned a significant number of accolades both in his lifetime and posthumously. Do you still feel like there’s at least some aspect of his life or work that remains overlooked?

Alan’s progressivism is crucial to understanding his life’s work. His notion that preserving, promoting, and nurturing traditional and vernacular music isn’t antiquarianism but activism is one that we’d do well to remember and honor today. He once said that the felt the right of cultural equity should take its place among all the other fundamental rights of man.

Kentucky Repatriation

January 1, 2015




In the fall of 1937, Alan Lomax and his wife Elizabeth traveled throughout the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, documenting the region’s traditional music for the Library of Congress. Two months later they returned to the Library with over 32 hours of recordings of ballad singers and songsters; Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal hymns; children’s game songs and lullabies; and dozens of fiddlers, guitarists, harp-blowers, and banjo players.

The farmers, coal miners, preachers, housewives, public officials, and itinerant “musicianeers” who sang into Lomax’s microphone were the inheritors and practitioners of one of America’s – and the world’s – richest musical legacies. Until now, only a fraction of these recordings have been known to the public.

In late 2011, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress undertook the digital preservation of these priceless cultural documents, transferring the 228 fragile original acetate discs to WAV files.  UK Special Collections, the AFC, and ACE are now collaborating on the online presentation of these recordings in a searchable database of streaming audio. Launch is planned for early 2015, Alan Lomax’s centennial year.


Return to Coahoma County

December 3, 2014


excerpt from Nathan Salsburg (

Alan Lomax visited Texas Island, Mississippi twice, once in 1941, and again in August 1942, toward the end of his second summer documenting black vernacular song in Coahoma County, in the heart of the Delta.  According to legend, Lomax came calling at the plantation’s big house to seek permission from the patriarch, Guy Telford Mohead, to make his recordings. Placing a foot up on one of the porch steps, Alan made his case to Mr. Mohead, likely explaining his Library of Congress affiliation.

It’s said that G.T. then told Lomax to take his goddamn foot off the porch and his person off the property. That Alan, likely with his wife, Elizabeth, and Fisk professor Lewis Wade Jones, proceeded to surreptitiously drag his disc-recording machine into the church service (or, perhaps, that he had already done so, and was merely offering the polite tribute of a post-facto formality) is a testament to his boundless pluck. And his good luck. Somehow Lomax managed to never get himself shot.

Neither pluck nor luck—or any degree of secrecy, for that matter—was necessary for the four of us who compose the staff of the Alan Lomax Archive to visit the Mohead plantation this past October, after several heady days spent in the Mississippi Hill Country. We had gone to the Hills to donate Lomax’s original fieldwork from the region to the public libraries of Senatobia and Como.

We had met dozens of family members and friends of musicians whom Alan recorded on his trips there—musicians such as Sid Hemphill, Viola James, Miles and Bob Pratcher, Otha Turner, Napoleon Strickland—and we had marched with them down Como’s Main Street behind Turner’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, arguably the last of the Hill Country fife-blowers to learn via oral tradition, who leads the current iteration of Otha’s Rising Star Fife & Drum Band.

We followed Thomas past the Mississippi Blues Trail markers erected for her grandfather and Fred McDowell (whose debut recordings were made by Lomax in 1959) to the unveiling of a new marker for Strickland, whose son and extended family had come all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, for the ceremony. A large crowd was gathered. Como’s mayor spoke. An impromptu photo session lasted twenty minutes. In the thirteen years I’ve been employed by the archive, I have never felt Lomax’s work—to say nothing of my own—resonate with so much vitality, or relevance.

Driving  back to Clarksdale, my foot throbbed dully with each depression of the clutch, and the road was covered, blanketed, by tiny frogs. From the upper right of the windshield, a huge, bright white form descended, fast, like a lantern being hurled from a branch high above, and smashed into the front passenger-side wheel. It was an owl, engorged on frogs, diving for more. It made an appalling thud, my colleagues screamed, I swore, and then I felt sick. I don’t consider myself susceptible to that goofy, ersatz brand of Mississippi Delta hoodoo—crossroads and all the rest—but this felt like the worst kind of juju.

“Something Extramusical is Being Communicated Here”

October 30, 2014


by Amanda Petrusich (edited from

In his film “Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass,” Alan Lomax  corners poor old Roscoe Holcomb, who’s just finished singing, and demands “Where does it hurt you?”

Holcomb, a patriarch of Kentucky’s high lonesome sound (and, it turns out, eternally well-mannered), points to his lower throat. Lomax leans forward, a little too close, white-knuckling a microphone stand, and asks him if he’s ever had to cough (“Ever do that?”).

Lomax is a divisive character (there are complicated arguments to be made about cultural imperialism and nationalist pedagogy) but anyone with a pair of functional ears would be hard-pressed to feel anything but grateful for his work. He is singularly responsible for many of the thousands of hours of interviews and field recordings held by the Library of Congress, and he worked tirelessly to collect and preserve strains of vernacular music that might not have endured otherwise.

The Lomax-founded Association for Cultural Equity, which controls his archive, remains in the source material game even now, a decade after his death. Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass is an official commercial release, but the organization’s YouTube channel, maintained by its young, percipient curator, Nathan Salsburg, proffers a vibrant, sometimes staggering array of footage for aspiring visionaries to mine.

What Lomax and his peers accomplished is of historical and archival import, but what is in some ways more compelling is what it inspired and continues to inspire, what people who suddenly have [via youtube] access to Mississippi Fred McDowell’s propulsive grooves, or to polyphonic vocal music from the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), might do with that information.

Obviously, the machinery is in place for a generation of self-documenting American artists to build their own mythologies and to borrow freely and anonymously from ancient and emerging traditions. And yet: seeing Lomax flit about his apartment, or catching the Tennessee fiddler Fred Price giving the camera side-eye, or watching Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers shush the room, or hearing Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim lock into some intense, iniquitous rhythm, it’s hard not to feel like something vital, something extramusical, is being communicated here.

John Work

September 24, 2014


from and

Two years ago, the book “Lost Delta Found” criticized the American folklorist Alan Lomax for giving short shrift to the work of three black researchers with whom he made some of his landmark field recordings in the 1940s. Maybe more important, the book argued that our appreciation of the black roots music of the era would have been greatly enriched had the writings of the researchers reached a wider audience. With the release of “Recording Black Culture,” an album consisting largely of newly unearthed acetates made by one of the collectors, John Work III, we now have the music itself to buttress this claim.

Work, the most eminent of the black folklorists, was not merely an acolyte of Lomax but clearly had ideas of his own. Where Lomax tended to treat black vernacular music as an artifact in need of preservation, Work sought to document it as it was unfolding. Thus on “Recording Black Culture,” instead of spirituals harking back to the 19th century, we hear febrile gospel shouting set to the cadences of what soon would become rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

As the story goes, the folklorist Alan Lomax was traveling around Mississippi with his recording equipment in the summer of 1941 when he came upon the house of a blues singer named McKinley Morganfield. Lomax recorded a few tracks for the Library of Congress and moved on, later mailing Morganfield a check for $20 and two copies of the record. What Lomax couldn’t have known at the time was that Morganfield, better known today as Muddy Waters, was to become one of the most famous blues singers of all time—the undisputed king of the electric Chicago sound.

Morganfield, along with Son House, went on to be known as one of Lomax’s greatest discoveries. And while it may be true that without Lomax, we might never have heard of these artists, it’s worth remembering that—despite what his own memoirs suggest—Lomax didn’t actually discover either of them. That credit falls to a little-known black folklorist named John Work III, who died 44 years ago this month.

The long history of famous men is haunted by forgotten heroes. There are those like Alfred Russel Wallace, the biologist who proposed the theory of evolution before Darwin did. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is not so much as the man who first conceived of evolution by natural selection, but as the man whom history forgot to credit—a historical nuance not fit for high school biology texts. In Wallace’s case, Darwin attempted to give him credit, but history was intent on forgetting him. Work’s absence from the historical record is more suspect: Lomax devoted only one sentence to him in his own writings.

John Work III, born in 1901 in Tullahoma Tennessee, was a folklorist at Fisk University for almost 40 years. He attended Julliard and held music degrees from Yale and Columbia. According to music writer Dave Marsh, Work was Lomax’s partner and guide in the early 1940s. He led Lomax first to Son House and later to Muddy Waters, where Lomax recorded part of what would later be released as Down on Stovall’s Plantation. “Lomax never credited Work, but recent research has established him as at least Lomax’s equal in the study,” Marsh writes.

Music of Williamsburg

July 8, 2014


by Shlomo Pestcoe, Banjo Roots Research Initiatives

Music of Williamsburg” (DVD dir. by Alan Lomax, 1960,
, was an educational period docufiction ‘short’ produced by Colonial Williamsburg to present, through costumed historical reenactment, the various different kinds of music and music instruments that might have been heard on a single day in 1768 in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Appropriately enough, a recreation of the early gourd banjo would appear in the film along with other early African American folk instruments – the cane fife, the  jawbone, and the ‘goombay’ drum – to provide the music for a dance gathering of the portrayed enslaved blacks.

The idea of recreating a slavery-era gourd banjo for use in Music of Williamsburg was the brainchild of trailblazing folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002). He had been brought on board to program music for the film[2] appropriate to the African Americans  of Williamsburg (mostly enslaved, though there were some free black families), who “probably constituted about one-half” of the population of Virginia’s capital during the colonial period. [3] In this capacity, Lomax would assemble “a remarkable cast of talented folk musicians representing early Southern music, including the Sea Island singers [Bessie Jones, John Davis, Henry Morrison, Alberta Ramsay, and Emma Ramsay]; Bahamian drummer Nat Rahmings, who had come up from Miami; Mississippi hill country fife player Ed Young; Virginia Tidewater jawbone player Prince Ellis; and Virginia mountain multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith.”

The talents of all of these tradition-bearers would be showcased in a major scene in the film showing the portrayed enslaved blacks coming together after dark for an informal social dance gathering, traditionally referred to in African American folklore as a ‘frolic’. As Bessie Smith Jones (1902-1984), the Sea Islanders’ lead singer, would put it in her reminiscences about growing up in rural Georgia during the early 1900s: “In those days we didn’t have parties – so-called parties – we had frolics.”

For the film’s suppositious recreation of an 18th century slave frolic, Lomax chose Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rolling Under, a song that he had uncovered in his research that he posited as being “the oldest published black dance song from Virginia.”  He taught it to the performers, who embraced and ‘folk-processed’ the song, thereby making it their own:

“The Sea Islanders sang with slavery-era accompaniment; the [cane] fife, the one-headed drum, and a replica of the four-string, fretless banjo. Hobart Smith picked the bowl-shaped ‘slave’ banjo with abandon, Ed Young blew thrilling litany phrases on his cane fife, and Nat Rahmings played a drum of a type once used in St. Simons [the second largest of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the home of the Georgia Sea Island Singers] and still played in the Bahamas. I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed music, but the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.” (more…)

Voyager Golden Records

July 1, 2014

A gold-plated copper disc that contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. “ Sounds of the Earth includes 115 images, a variety of natural sounds, 90-minutes of musical selections from different cultures and eras (curated in part by folklorist Alan Lomax), and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages.


In 1977, as preparations were being made for the launch of the two unmanned Voyager spacecraft, Alan Lomax was contacted by Carl Sagan. Sagan had been tapped by NASA to chair a committee to gather images, sounds, and songs that would represent Earth on a set of phonographic records — to be affixed to the outside of both spacecraft along with stylii and graphic instructions on playing them — and he hoped Lomax would help make the musical selections. Alan ultimately suggested fifteen of the twenty-seven performances that were launched with the probes on what are now popularly known as the “Voyager golden records.”

Here are the selections ultimately included on the Voyager record. Items in bold signify Lomax’s selections.

  • Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor. 4:40
  • Java, court gamelan, “Kinds of Flowers,” recorded by Robert Brown. 4:43
  • Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle. 2:08
  • Zaire, Pygmy girls’ initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull. 0:56
  • Australia, Aborigine songs, “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird,” recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes. 1:26
  • Mexico, “El Cascabel,” performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi Mexico. 3:14
  • “Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry. 2:38
  • New Guinea, men’s house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan. 1:20
  • Japan, shakuhachi, “Tsuru No Sugomori” (“Crane’s Nest,”) performed by Goro Yamaguchi. 4:51
  • Bach, “Gavotte en rondeaux” from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux. 2:55
  • Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55
  • Georgian S.S.R., chorus, “Tchakrulo,” collected by Radio Moscow. 2:18
  • Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima. 0:52
  • “Melancholy Blues,” performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. 3:05
  • Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow. 2:30
  • Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor. 4:35
  • Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano. 4:48
  • Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor. 7:20
  • Bulgaria, “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin,” sung by Valya Balkanska. 4:59
  • Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes. 0:57
  • Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, “The Fairie Round,” performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. 1:17
  • Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service. 1:12
  • Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen. 0:38
  • China, ch’in, “Flowing Streams,” performed by Kuan P’ing-hu. 7:37
  • India, raga, “Jaat Kahan Ho,” sung by Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar. 3:30
  • “Dark Was the Night,” written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson. 3:15
  • Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet. 6:37

In 1990, the Voyager probes moved beyond the orbit of Pluto (then, of course, still considered a planet), and entered empty space. It will be 40,000 years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system and, as Sagan frankly stated, “the spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana

June 12, 2014

Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings
by Joshua Clegg Caffery, foreword by Barry Jean Ancelet (Louisiana State University Press, 424 pages)


Alan Lomax’s prolific sixty-four-year career as a folklorist and musicologist began with a trip across the South and into the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country during the height of the Great Depression. In 1934, his father John, then curator of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, took an eighteen-year-old Alan and a 300-pound aluminum disk recorder into the rice fields of Jennings, along the waterways of New Iberia, and behind the gates of Angola State Penitentiary to collect vestiges of African American and Acadian musical tradition. These recordings now serve as the foundational document of indigenous Louisiana music.

Although widely recognized by scholars as a key artifact in the understanding of American vernacular music, most of the recordings by John and Alan Lomax during their expedition across the central-southern fringe of Louisiana were never transcribed or translated, much less studied in depth. This volume presents, for the first time, a comprehensive examination of the1934 corpus and unveils a multifaceted story of traditional song in one of the country’s most culturally dynamic regions.

Through his textual and comparative study of the songs contained in the Lomax collection, Joshua Clegg Caffery provides a musical history of Louisiana that extends beyond Cajun music and zydeco to the rural blues, Irish and English folk songs, play-party songs, slave spirituals, and traditional French folk songs that thrived at the time of these recordings.

Intimate in its presentation of Louisiana folklife and broad in its historical scope, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana honors the legacy of John and Alan Lomax by retrieving these musical relics from obscurity and ensuring their understanding and appreciation for generations to come.


• Complete transcriptions of the 1934 Lomax Field Recordings in southwestern Louisiana

• Side-by-side translations from French to English

• Photographs from the 1934 field trip and biographical details about the performers

“Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass” online

May 31, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-07 at 7.10.11 AM

All 35 minutes of Alan Lomax’s “Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass” now viewable online at

More info here.

Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork Project

May 20, 2014
Alan Lomax and crew filming Dink and Julia Roberts, Haw River, N.C., 1983.
Photo by CeCe Conway. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center,
Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.


Introducing Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork Project

Today, in partnership with the Association for Cultural Equity, we are proud to announce Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork project and the launch of its digital map on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture. Contained therein are nearly one hundred performances, interviews, and folkloric scenes culled from over 400 hours of footage Lomax recorded in the American South and Southwest between 1978 and 1985 in preparation for his American Patchwork series on PBS. As this project develops, we will share further selections from American Patchwork and the outstanding Alan Lomax Archive channel on YouTube while also making connections to the contemporary artistic and cultural life within these communities.

Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook

July 13, 2013

Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook (Rounder CD)

reviewed by Gilbert Head (

It’s difficult to imagine a world without Alan Lomax. I’m not sure I’d want to try. Our friends at Rounder Records (whom some will doubtless think by now are my closet employers) have gifted us yet again with an indispensable piece of popular culture. Framed in the larger context of Rounder’s extensive Lomax catalogue, this sampler is essential for anybody who would seek to understand the evolution of popular music, both in the United States and in the wider world.

Before mentioning a few highlights and favorites, a word about the exceptional liner notes: masterful. Jeffrey Greenberg’s song notes are rich in detail and annotation, and the essay on Lomax’s role as the chronicler of modern popular music (by Gideon D’Archangelo, Anna Lomax Chairetakis and Ellen Harold) gives the listener the full context of what Lomax means to those of us who would understand how the music of yesterday has led to the music of today. Greenberg in particular will take exceptional delight in linking old prison-recorded tunes to the likes of such ’70s wunderkinder as Ram Jam. Even without the music, the notes provide an instant primer on the connectedness of the musical past to the musical present and the musical future.

The challenge in programming collections such as this is what to include and what to leave out. The smart producer recognizes that “getting it all” simply isn’t possible in the format of a single CD, and so it is with this disc. Instead, listeners are given a taste, a suggestion of possible avenues for further investigation. While any of us could have populated a disc with equally worthy cuts, this selection need apologize to no one.

The disc opens with “Joe Lee’s Rock,” a gutbucket blues piece recorded in 1959, and moves to a 1940 recording of “Do-Re-Mi” with a running commentary by Woody Guthrie. The congregation of the Independence Church in Tyro, Mississippi, next delivers solidly with the call-and-response “Jesus on the Mainline” (covered later by Ralph Stanley, Ry Cooder and others). The work of Leadbelly is introduced with a 1934 Angola Prison recording of “Midnight Special,” and Vera Ward Hall’s “Trouble So Hard” is heard in another powerful recording from 1959.

Further on down the line, we get the original recording of “Black Betty” here by James “Iron Head” Baker and other prisoners in Mississippi in 1933, later to be immortalized by the aforementioned Ram Jam. Again from 1959, Sidney Lee Carter offers “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” a tune that would be expanded to great effect in the recent film O Brother Where Art Thou. That same year of 1959 would also yield the whimsical “Join the Band,” rendered with exceptional gusto by the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The surprises continue, with an early working of “Sloop John B,” recorded by Clayton Simmons and friends in the Bahamas in 1935. As is the case for all of these tunes, Greenberg notes that later popular artists brought the work into the mainstream (in this case, by the Beach Boys, in 1966).

The wonders continue. A very rudimentary form of “If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life” appeared first as “Ugly Woman,” presented here in a 1946 recording by the Duke of Iron. It is noted that Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole” (1938) would ultimately find a wholly different audience in the 1970s when it was covered by Led Zeppelin. The work song “Rosie,” from a Mississippi Farm Penitentiary recording in 1947, documents a prime preoccupation of men behind bars, and is counterpointed strikingly with the haunting instrumental “Alborada de Vigo” (1942). The disc closes with Georgia Turner’s hard-edged 1937 version of “House of the Rising Sun” and Leadbelly’s “Irene Goodnight,” also from 1937 (later recorded as “Goodnight Irene” by damned near everybody).

All in all, this is a wonderful collection. It will lead you to music you never thought of exploring, and you may never listen to your Animals or Hendrix or Zeppelin records in precisely the same way again.


Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass (#2)

July 1, 2013




"Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass,"
directed by Alan Lomax (Cultural Equity, 2012)

reviewed by Michael Scott Cain (

In 1961, the Friends of Old Time Music threw a series of concerts in New York City, featuring the likes of Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashey and Doc Watson, as well as blues giants Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon. Folklorist Alan Lomax brought them all back to his Greenwich Village apartment for a party, where he directed this 35-minute documentary.

In the film, we see these established musicians perform, as well as next-generation folk artists such as Ernie Marrs, Peter LaFarge, the Greenbriar Boys, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and the New Lost City Ramblers.

As the film unfolds, we see these artists perform in an informal setting, singing for each other and the small group of attendees that included the likes of Maria Muldair. (Bob Dylan was rumored to be in attendance but in the film about the making of the film, John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers and one of the founders of the Friends of Old Time Music say flatly that Dylan wasn’t there. The cinematographer George Picklow, however, says Dylan was indeed on the premises, lurking in the background, but Picklow wasn’t allowed to film him.)

Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass is both a fine movie and a very much needed piece of history. It’s the only film of Peter LaFarge, a singer who wrings all of the drama out of his song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” and it also contains a rare appearance by Roscoe Holcomb singing a couple of old Appalachian tunes, including a hard-driving bluegrass version of “Old Smoky” that makes the song we all knew as kids sound as hokey and inauthentic as we always suspected it was.

When Holcomb does “The Cuckoo” we see a very young and unknown Doc Watson accompanying him. Holcomb is a treasure, and this opportunity to see him makes this film essential.

But Holcomb isn’t the only treasure here. Ernie Marrs, a man who lived his principles by working as a migrant fruit and vegetable picker, turns “Pop Goes theWeasel” into a protest song, an attack on the nuclear age called “Pop Goes the Missile,” while Ramblin’ Jack Elliot contributes his classic versions of “Candyman” and “San Francisco Bay Blues.” He then pays tribute to Woody Guthrie before he sneaks out of the party with a beautiful young woman on his arm and a lecherous grin on his face.

If there’s a flaw to the movie it is Lomax himself. His goal here was to sell the film to British television as the pilot for a series, so he conducts little mini-interviews with the talent, asking them self-evident questions designed to make academic points. These interviews are totally unnecessary, serving only to break the natural flow of the film.

This DVD is the first release of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass in any form. You’ve got to see it.

“Out of the Rock”

May 27, 2013

kora and balafon and dancers

by Alan Lomax, from

When are we going to realize that the world’s richest resource is mankind itself, and that of all his creations, his culture is the most valuable? And by this I do not mean culture with a capital “C”- that body of art which the critics have selected out of the literate traditions of Western Europe –but rather the total accumulation of man’s fantasy and wisdom, taking form as it does in images, tunes, rhythms, figures of speech, recipes, dances, religious beliefs and ways of making love that still persist in full vitality in the folk and primitive places of our planet.

Every smallest branch of the human family at one time or another has carved its dreams out of the rock on which it has lived- true and sometimes pain- filled dreams, but still wholly appropriate to their particular bit of earth. Each of these ways of expressing emotion has been the handiwork of generations of unknown poets, musicians and human hearts.

Now, we of the jets, the wireless and the atom blast are on the verge of sweeping completely off the globe what unspoiled folklore is left, at least wherever it cannot quickly conform to the success-­motivated standards of our urban- conditioned consumer economy. What was once an ancient tropical garden of immense color and variety is in danger of being replaced by a comfortable but sterile and sleep- inducing system of cultural super-highways- with just one type of diet and one available kind of music.

Lomax Archives eBay Auction: 3/9/13

March 3, 2013


edited from Tad Hendrickson, The Wall Street Journal:

Traffic has darkened the façade of the Hunter College-owned MFA Studio Building on 41st Street, between the Port Authority and the Lincoln Tunnel. The interior, a picture of institutional indifference, doesn’t look much better. But a climb to the sixth floor reveals a glittering treasure called the Association of Cultural Equity (ACE), a vast and remarkable assemblage of field recordings, instruments, books, posters and other artifacts collected by the legendary American archivist Alan Lomax over the better part of the 20th century.

In 1983, Lomax founded ACE in this building as a command post for his lifelong mission, to compile and disseminate the sights and sounds of cultures from around the globe, hoping to preserve them lest they be extinguished. Twenty-four years later, and 11 years since Lomax’s death, the building is being sold, and ACE is preparing to move into a smaller space at Hunter’s Brookdale campus, on 25th Street and First Avenue.

The ACE offices still flow with a trove of relics and heirlooms, so the company is preparing an eBay auction, to begin March 9, as it begins the move from its 2,500-square-foot space to a 1,500-square-foot space. Items for sale will include much of Lomax’s old recording equipment, video/film editing gear and other tools he used to build this archive, as well as odds and ends like his guitar and a few 78s from his personal record collection.

On Feb, 14, ACE issued its first release in 12 months, “United Sacred Harp Convention: The Alan Lomax Recordings, 1959.” Mississippi bluesman Sid Hemphill’s “The Devil’s Dream,” recorded in 1942, will come out Thursday. The light-footed archive, with its $300,000 budget, may focus on historical recordings, but it is anticipating the CD’s demise, releasing almost all of them on LP and as digital files. The nonprofit uses the proceeds to help cover operating costs, but also to honor Lomax’s original contracts and make sure that artist royalties still go to their descendants if they can be found.

“We do like to monetize, and we do a lot of licensing, and in the past it’s been very lucrative,” said Anna Lomax Wood, Lomax’s daughter and the president of ACE. (Bruce Springsteen, for example, used two Lomax-derived field samples on his recent “Wrecking Ball” album.) “But we’ve never been in it to make money. My father always said, ‘If you want to make money, don’t go into folk music.’”

An Old Time Party

January 8, 2013


After a 1961 series of concerts featuring Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson, Alan Lomax invited the artists and a who’s who of the folk revival back to his West 3rd Avenue apartment for an impromptu song swap. Filming was arranged on the fly and a raw, many-layered evocation of the art and attitude of the period emerges from the footage, with some of the biggest names of the era, old timers and revivalists alike.

Southern Journey: the Book

December 28, 2012

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs, and Music

Alan Lomax (Author), Tom Piazza (Essay Author),  introduction by William Ferris (W.W. Norton & Co)


“A new look at the legendary folklorist and his work.”

More than fifty years ago, on a trip dubbed “the Southern Journey,” Alan Lomax visited Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee, uncovering the little-known southern backcountry and blues music that we now consider uniquely American. Lomax’s camera was a constant companion, and his images of both legendary and anonymous folk musicians complement his famous field recordings.

These photographs—largely unpublished—show musicians making music with family and friends at home, with fellow worshippers at church, and alongside workers and prisoners in the fields. Discussions of Lomax’s life and career by his disciple and lauded folklorist William Ferris, and a lyrical look at Lomax’s photographs by novelist and Grammy Award-winning music writer Tom Piazza, enrich this valuable collection.

Lomax’s Recordings Return to Haiti

December 21, 2012

This video is an except of a longer film showing Anna Lomax Wood returning in 2010 to one of the sites of Alan Lomax’s 1936-37 Haitian recordings, and playing the recordings for the villagers for the first time.


On December 21st, 1936, Alan Lomax sent a report to Herbert Putnam, the Librarian Of Congress, about his first impressions after arriving in Haiti.  This quote is published here…

“I have looked about enough to be sure this is the richest and most virgin field I have ever worked in. I hear fifteen or twenty different street cries from my hotel window each morning while I dress. The men sing satirical ballads as they load coffee on the docks. Among the upper-class families many of the old French ballads have been preserved. The meringue, the popular dance of polite society here, is quite unknown in America and has its roots in the intermingling of the Spanish and French folk-traditions.

The orchestras of the peasants play marches, bals, blues, meringues. Then mama and papa and kata tambours officiate at as many kinds of dances ⎯ the congo, the Vodou, and the mascaron. Then there seem to be innumerable cante-fables [oral tales punctuated by songs or rhymes performed by the audience]. Each of these categories comprise, so I am informed, literally hundreds of melodies ⎯ French, Spanish, African, mixtures of the three.

The radio and the sound movie and the phonograph record have made practically no cultural impression, so far as I can discover, except among the petit-bourgeois of the coastal cities. And American jazz is hardly known here except among the rich who have visited America. Composition, by which I mean folk composition, is still very active. So I think I can say that unless a piece of sky falls on my head, this trip will mean some beautiful records for the Library’s collection.”

10 CD box set of Alan Lomax’s 1936-37 Haitian recordings available here.

Screen shot 2012-12-04 at 6.39.18 PM


“Ballads, Blues, and Bluegrass”

September 21, 2012


Shot in 1961
restored and released 2012

In the early 1960s, when Greenwich Village was bursting with a folk music revival, the Friends of Old Time Music made it their mission to introduce urban audience to some of the legends of pre-war American traditional music. After a 1961 series of concerts featuring Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson, Alan Lomax invited the artists and a who’s who of the folk revival back to his West 3rd Avenue apartment for an impromptu song swap. Filming was arranged on the fly and a raw, many-layered evocation of the art and attitude of the period emerges from the footage, with some of the biggest names of the era, old timers and revivalists alike: Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Jean Ritchie, Ernie Marrs, Peter LeFarge, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Guy Carawan,the Greenbriar Boys, and the New Lost City Ramblers.

Ballads, Blues, & Bluegrass is a remarkable portrait of a brief but fabled era that was widely documented in recordings but all too under-represented in moving image. This DVD is the film’s first release in any form.

It also includes interviews with the cinematographer, George Pickow, and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers reflecting on the film in 2010.

Ballads Blues & Bluegrass (35 min)
directed by Alan Lomax
filmed by George Pickow
sound by Jean Ritchie
edited by Anna Lomax Wood
produced by Alan Lomax, George Pickow, Jean Ritchie
restoration and DVD by John Melville Bishop

Making Ballads Blues & Bluegrass (25 min)
video by John Melville Bishop

Roots of Lomax’s Southern Journey

September 10, 2012

“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.

Lomax and Smith

July 10, 2012

Harry Smith accepting a Grammy award in 1991

from “Collecting, Collage, and Alchemy: The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music as Art and Cultural Intervention” by Kevin M. Moist

Whether intentionally or not, Harry Smith’s approach was distinctly different from that of most other contemporary proponents of folk music. The public image of folk that held sway at the time, consciously developed since the 1930s by public advocates such as the Lomaxes, was based in what scholar Benjamin Filene refers to as a “cult of authenticity” that tended to tame the music by exoticizing it.

Music writer Eric Weisbard describes the hallmarks of the Lomax approach as “romanticization of the primitive” and a “fear of modern contamination,” paradoxically coupled with “slick packaging” designed to appeal to middle-class mainstream culture. There was more than a bit of Popular Front politics in the mix as well, with the romanticized performers representing an idealized cultural or racial purity.However well-meaning, the overall effect of such an approach was to domesticate the music, casting it as a dying vestige of an authentic past in need of preservation rather than as a living.

By comparison, in Weisbard’s words, Smith’s “unruly, paradigm-busting set” effectively “pulls off an anti-Lomax: his work leaves the folk seeming more mysterious, not less so”. The Anthology made the music alive and complex, opening a window into subterranean cultural currents that called into question all kinds of taken-for-granted truths.

Folk music scholar Jon Pankake said that “these lost, archaic, savage sounds seemed to carry some peculiarly American meaning for us, albeit in a syntax we couldn’t yet decipher”, evoking what Greil Marcus famously called the “old, weird America”.

Cultural historian Robert Cantwell argues that, while the Anthology “recognizes the association between folksong and particular cultural communities” (racial, geographical, etc.), it also erases “the popular categories, and the stereotypes grown up around them,” and in the process it “confuses the classifying impulse” and finally signifies the “complete breakdown of the old cultural geography.”

Our Singing Country

July 4, 2012

“These are the people who still sing the work songs, the cowboy songs, the sea songs, the lumberjack songs, the bad-man ballads, and other songs that have no occupation or special group to keep them alive.  These are the people who go courting with their guitars, who make the music for their own dances, who make their songs for their own religion.  These are the story-tellers, because they are they are the people who are watching when things happen.  These are the great laughers and the great liars, because they now that life is so much more ridiculous than anyone can ever hope to tell.  These are the people who understand death, because it has been close to them all their lives.

These people have been wanderers, walking and riding alone into the wilderness, past the mountains and the broad rivers, down the railroad lines, down the highways.  Like all wanderers, they have been lonely and unencumbered by respect for the conventions of life beyond them.  Remembering the old songs in their loneliness, throwing up their voices against prairie and forest track, along new rivers, they followed the instincts and the old songs were changed so as to belong to their life in the new country.”

John and Alan Lomax,  from “Our Singing Country,” 1941.

Lomax, Skiffle, and the British Invasion

May 1, 2012

John Lennon and skiffle band

In the 1950s in Britain, commercial and field recordings of southern American music were extremely popular, including those of John and Alan Lomax. Skiffle bands proliferated, usually using homemade or improvised instruments such as the washboard, tea chest bass, kazoo, cigar-box fiddle, musical saw, comb and paper, and so forth, as well as more conventional instruments such as acoustic guitar and banjo. The Lomax’s 1934 recording of Kelly Pace’s “Rock Island Line” inspired Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 British  skiffle hit (via Leadbelly) which  sold an unprecedented 3 million copies, shooting into the British and American top ten.

The trajectory from skiffle to the British (rock) Invasion is described below, from “The Man Who Recorded the World.” (Alan Lomax’s biography, see previous post)

By the late 1950s….John Lennon’s skiffle band the Quarrymen was beginning its evolution into what would become the Beatles;  Mick Jagger, a member of the Chris Barber-Ken Colyer Skiffle Band, would soon meet Keith Richards…. Graham Nash and Alan Clarke, the core of the Hollies, had both started as a skiffle band called the Two Teens;  guitarist Jimmy Page worked in a skiffle band long before he would become part of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin; and Van Morrison started his musical career in the skiffle group called the Sputniks.

Hobart Smith and Georgia Sea Island Singers

April 27, 2012

Ed Young and Hobart Smith

by Nathan Salsburg
Alan Lomax’s “Southern Journey” field recording trip ended in October of 1959, but by April of the next year Alan was back recording in the South, this time in the capacity of music supervisor to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s film, Music of Williamsburg. The aim was to recreate the sound of African American music as it might have been heard in Colonial Williamsburg, and, according to a strikingly progressive 1962 press release from the Foundation, “to portray the important contributions of the Negro race to the nation’s heritage.”

Lomax assembled a novel cast, comprised of many musicians he’d recorded several months earlier, and drawn from disparate locales. Ed Young came north from Como, Mississippi, to provide the necessary fife-blowing. Hobart Smith traveled east from Saltville, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with his four-string banjo and a clawhammer technique learned, in part, from an African American. Nat Rahmings, a Bahamian drummer and drum-maker, was brought in from Miami. And the Georgia Sea Island Singers were the vocal group at the ensemble’s core.

After filming was completed, Lomax wrote, the “musicians stayed on for what turned out to be a day of extraordinary music-making and musical cross-fertilization.” Alan had turned up this tune years before, having gone looking for the oldest published black dance songs in Virginia—-its references to the drinking gourd evince its slavery-time origin—-and he taught it to the group. “I cannot swear to the authenticity of this reconstructed material,” Lomax continued. “But the musically conservative Sea Island singers gave it their enthusiastic approval.”

Hobart Smith, Bessie Jones, Ed Young, Nate Rahmings, and others play “Reg’lar, Reg’lar, Rollin’ Under”(1960):

“Ain’t Men Sharp?”

April 23, 2012

Wade Ward and Alan Lomax


from “Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934-1997,” edited by Ronald Cohen (Routledge, 2003):

Our dusty car and our recording equipment have seen strange places in our travels.  We have recorded songs in lumber camps, in the huts of share croppers, on ships smelling of tar and brine, among workers in cotton fields, and in automobile factories in crowded cities.  Often in prisons, we cut our records in the hospital because it is quiet there.  And once I even remember being solemnly ushered into the execution chamber, because it was the only sound-proofed room in the prison.  The only chair in the room — and somehow we all avoided it– was the execution chair.  That setting didn’t seem to bring out the best in a song.

It is always a dramatic moment for anyone when his own voice comes back to him undistorted from the black mouth of a loud-speaker.  Our old hard-bitten Mexican vaquero in the mesquite country of southwest Texas, when the song was played to him unexpectedly, said with soft amazement, “Madre de Dios!” then after a time, “Muy Hombre!”

A mountaineer, when asked if he would like to hear his record played back, said: “I reckon so.  Anything I’ll do oncet, I’ll do hit twicet.”

“Ain’t men sharp?” he added, when the record was finished.

Lomax’ Global Jukebox

February 1, 2012

by Larry Richter, from

The folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was a prodigious collector of traditional music from all over the world and a tireless missionary for that cause. Long before the Internet existed, he envisioned a “global jukebox” to disseminate and analyze the material he had gathered during decades of fieldwork.

A decade after his death technology has finally caught up to Lomax’s imagination. Just as he dreamed, his vast archive — some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts, much of it tucked away in forgotten or inaccessible corners — is being digitized so that the collection can be accessed online. About 17,000 music tracks will be available for free streaming by the end of February, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads.

Read entire article here.

Announcement from


Thousands of hours of international field recordings housed in the Alan Lomax Archive will now reach audiences through Global Jukebox, the Archive’s first independent music imprint. Global Jukebox will produce LPs, CDs and digital albums in partnership with other folkloric institutions, record labels, university presses, along with the global reach of the digital distributor IODA. These releases will engage and inspire audiences around the world with the ever-vital work that Alan Lomax documented, and help fulfill Lomax’s mission of “cultural equity,” the right of every culture to express and develop its distinctive heritage of songs, dances and stories.

Global Jukebox’s first releases commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lomax’s “Southern Journey” in the American South, the first stereo field recordings made of traditional music. The inaugural releases are: “Wave the Ocean, Wave the Sea”; “Worried Now, Won’t Be Worried Long”; “I’ll Meet You On That Other Shore”; “I’ll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down”; and “I’m Gonna Live Anyhow Until I Die.” Compiled and annotated by Nathan Salsburg, the albums draw on new transfers of the original tapes, and include considerable previously unreleased material and extensive booklets of photos and notes.

Forthcoming releases include: Lomax’s debut recordings of bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell; a companion album to the new John Szwed biography Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World; a hardback book and two-CD set dedicated to Lomax’s trip through Asturias, Spain – “the land at the end of everything”; and the launch of a series of artist-curated compilations, for which guest musicians “Play the Global Jukebox,” including an exclusive recording of their own.

To Hear Your Banjo Play

October 25, 2011

Here’s an amazing 16 minute 1947 film called, “To Hear Your Banjo Play.”  The story and dialogue were written by Alan Lomax.  The film is narrated by Lomax and features a young Pete Seeger guiding viewers through a brief history of the banjo, American Folk Music and its relevance to modern society.  It has the only footage of Woody Guthrie performing in his prime, Margot Mayo’s American Square Dance Group is featured, along with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Butch Hawes and others.  Texas Gladden makes an appearance as well.  (edited from

The Man Who Recorded the World

September 8, 2011

“The Man Who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax” by John Szwed

It may be hard, almost half a century later, to imagine the emotional turbulence experienced by a white, middle-class English schoolboy while listening intently to a recording of four black prisoners at the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, swinging their axes and intoning the overlapping lines of a work song with hoarse, urgent voices. But from such moments – the revelation of a new world of feeling, at once distant and exotic yet seeming more immediately relevant than anything the boy had absorbed from the voices of his own culture – a revolution, of sorts, would be made.

Alan Lomax was the man who made that particular moment possible when, in 1948, he persuaded the Parchman authorities to allow him to lug a cumbersome tape recorder to the place where the inmates were chopping timber. (from

See publisher info