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Folklorist Alan Lomax: Everyone Has A Story

Alan Lomax spent more than a half-century recording folk music and customs around the world, and now he is the subject of a new book by John Szwed called Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.

In 1990, Lomax, who died in 2002, spoke to Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the decades he spent compiling sound recordings from around the world.

"For a long time I was a media bug because I saw that the job of a folklorist was to make a bridge between people who had no voice and the big world of communication," he said. "That's what I did for the first half of my life, was simply run with a recording machine and record — in the West Indies, in Spain, in Great Britain — and to publish the results because this was the way people could learn that other folks were out there, just as interesting as they were."

In the 1930s and '40s, Lomax and his father, John, were the first folklorists to travel around the American South documenting songs on portable recording machines. They both contributed thousands of field recordings to the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk Song, which John Lomax founded in 1941. The Lomax collection, which contains more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings and over 2,450 videotapes, contains the recordings Alan Lomax made on trips to the South, the Carribean, Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Spain and Italy.

Alan Lomax was the first person to record Leadbelly, Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie. He frowned on what he considered commercial music, but he recorded an important oral history with jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton.

"Naturally I wasn't a fan of jazz at the time," said Lomax, "because jazz was driving folklore into obscurity. But this man was so fascinating that I thought I would try to find out how much folklore there was in him. And within an hour, he said such wonderful things that I raced upstairs, got permission to work with him for a week and use any number of discs to take down his life."

Lomax introduced Americans to musicians in every type of folk music, through field recordings he made on porches, living rooms, plantations, prisons and chain-gangs.

A year after his death, in 2003, Lomax received a posthumous Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievements. He had received the National Medal for Arts from President Reagan in 1986 and a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000.

Interview Highlights

On why his father was fired from the University of Texas for recording 'dirty cowboy songs'

"Puritan West Europeans haven't really ever had much use for art or for recreation or for fun. So the arts have always been something extra. And they had to mind their place, they had to conform to the rules of society. The big threat, of course, was the subject of S-E-X. American in the 19th century was the most hung-up part of the whole world on the question of sex. So my father got kicked out of the university for collecting cowboy songs on the grounds that some of them were dirty. They weren't — not in his book."

On censorship he faced at the Library of Congress

"I was running the folk archive there when the archive was shut down by a rabid born-again Southerner who attacked it because we had recorded that cantankerous, rambling ballad-maker Woody Guthrie. He just then, by the way, recorded 'This Land Is Your Land,' and I recorded it for the Library of Congress. But they were so severe about it that they cut the whole Library of Congress appropriation out. Later it was put back, but the archive didn't recover for many years."

On why he went to prison camps to record songs

"The whole of the great secular songs of the blacks were considered sinful. You could be kicked out of the church for singing them. It was difficult for us to get at this rich and unknown treasure trove of American music and lyricism because people were scared to sing them. So we decided to go where the devils were — the people who were beyond redemption — and we found them in the prisons and we recorded a whole literature, an enormous song bag of new kinds of tunes and melodies and all sorts of things."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.