Union Songs

Alan Lomax
January 31, 1915 - July 19, 2002

Mark Gregory (July 2002)

Alan Lomax's father John A. Lomax carried out the first broadscale survey of alan lomaxAmerican song and published his first book, "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads", in 1910. When Alan was 18 they began collecting together: "In 1933 I joined him in his new field work. Through the generosity of the Rockerfeller and Carnegie Foundations, we were equipped with a portable electric disc recorder, and with this instrument we were able to document the full vocal and instrumental richness of American folksong performance. These recordings formed the basis of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington. In the next decade, recording together and separately, we added more thousands of songs on discs to the Archive's collection. Publication of books and records, together with programmes on Columbia Broadcasting System, awakened national interest in America's living folksong tradition" Alan Lomax, The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, p.21, 1964

"The first recording we took on our new portable equipment was of the state's prisoner, Lead Belly, singing Irene Goodnight. We were powerfully impressed by his panther-like grace and his extraordinary good looks: his already snow-white hair set off the aquiline features and the proudly gazing eyes inherited from his African and Cherokee Indian ancestors. We were amazed by his mastery of his great, green-painted twelve string guitar, but we were deeply moved by the flawless tenor voice which rang across the green cotton fields like a big sweet-toned trumpet." Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America, p.580, 1960

Alan Lomax was caught up in the politics and struggles of his time and his collecting, broadcasting, archival and the books and records he was involved with reflect this. As a young man from Texas he was keenly aware of the debilitating effects of institutionalsed racism and the lynch mob. "Jim Crow roosts everywhere. He rides the trains. He sits in the jury in court. He goes into politics and is elected to the State Board of Education. He runs the biggest estate office in the U.S.A. He has the doorman's job at restaurants, hotels and the movies. He loves to hang about places that the public patronizes, like drinking fountains, toilets, and hospitals. He makes such a fool of himself sometimes that you can't help but laugh at him, wicked as he is. The South is full of tales about him. Down in Arkansas, if you're a Negro and need tobacco, don't ask the storeman for Prince Albert tobacco, Why not? Because of that white man on the can. Ask for Mister Prince Albert!" Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America, p.581, 1960

Along with so many creative Americans who lived through the1930s depression he took up the cause of equality and democracy. His political leanings allowed him to see the value of the songs and poems of the workers of America that he was recording and collecting. About his work he wrote: alan lomax"In the Washington of the New Deal there were many people, including the Roosevelts themselves, who wanted to know how the underprivileged people, how the people on the picket lines of America, felt about their times. In a sense we treasured these songs, because they to us they were symbols of the fighting, democratic spirit of a whole sector of the population that is too often viewed as faceless, voiceless, supine and afraid. Aunt Molly Jackson, Ella Mae Wiggins, Woody Guthrie, John Handcox and the people they inspired were none of these things. They were courageous and genuine folk poets, who were as deeply involved in political and social change as any politician, union organizer or social critic…
When, in the Spring of 1937, I ransacked the files of Columbia, Victor and Decca record companies for anything that had a folk flavor, I found not only the early Blue Grass, not only urban blues tradition, I found scores of songs of protest and social comment by urban and country folk singers. Some of these recorded topical songs praised the new deal, some damned it; some recited the woes of the poor, some bitterly protested, - but, considered as a whole, they proved again that American topical folk song tradition was alive and productive
" Alan Lomax, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-hit People, p.366, 1967

Alan Lomax was not only the first to record the legendary Leadbelly, but he also discovered Woody Guthrie who he recorded extensively. I remember the excitement of listening to a boxed set of and interview Alan and Elizabeth Lomax recorded with Woody when Electra released it in 1964! This interview, recorded in March 1940, has since been released on CD (Rounder CD 1041-1043, 1989) and is a wonderful example of Alan Lomax's approach to his work. He worked with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger on a song book called "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People" and he wrote: "Woody, as a composer, believed that songs could change the world for the better. As a song editor, I believed that this collection was a testament to an unknown America, the folk poets who became politically active and still kept their gift for song-making. Together we put together this angry book. No publisher would take it then, because post-war America was afraid to look reality in the eye. But the songs seeped out, one by one. Even more importantly, the range and validity of the American folk song was established in the mind of Woody Guthrie and of Pete Seeger and many other singers of the day." Alan Lomax, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-hit People, p.366, 1967

Alan Lomax left the McCarthyism of the USA for most of the1950s to broadcast with the BBC in Britain and to collect songs on England, Ireland and Scotland. It was in Britain he worked with Peggy Seeger, Bert Lloyd, Shirley Collins and Edgar Waters on his influential collection "The Folk Songs of North America". He also collected in Spain and Italy. It seems wherever he went he boosted the local folk revivals as the many obituaries that have appeared across the globe attest.

The French paper Le Monde says he "discovered and recorded Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Jelly Roll Morton" and points out that the "Cajun and Zydeco which became a la mode in the 1980s had been recorded by the Lomaxes 50 years earlier". The New York Times obituary ends with this remarkable, and typically political, Alan Lomax quote: "We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they're not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency."

Alan Lomax was concerned with how modern societies stop people from being heard and how the people, however apparently powerless, found ways to get their feelings and desires a hearing. He was from an early age excited by what he and his recording machine could discover, and was convinced that what he found was of value to the whole world. In the songs of the people he saw not only an eloquent analysis of inequality, but a demand that things be changed. As he wrote in "The Land Where the Blues Began":

"Our species has never been more powerful and wealthy, nor more ill at ease. Homeless and desperate people in America and all over the world live in the shadow of undreamed-of productivity and luxury. So it was in the Mississippi Delta in the early years of this century. Boom times in cotton gave a handful of planters easy riches, while the black majority who produced the cotton lived in sordid shanties or roamed from job to job. Some blacks attempted to become free enterprisers, but were so hemmed in by caste barriers that very few succeeded in rising in the world. The rebellious were kept in their place by gun and lynch laws, ruthlessly administered by the propertied.

Our times today are similarly out of joint, similarly terrorized. Technology has made the species rich and resourceful as never before, but the wealth and the resources rest with a few individuals, corporations, and favored nations. Most earthlings, most nations, are distanced from technological luxury, and that imbalance is presided over by armed forces capable of destroying the planet itself. Rage and anxiety pervade the emotions and the actions of both the haves and the have-nots. And the sound of the the worried blues of the old Delta is heard in back alleys and palaces, alike."

His interest in songs extended to the way they were sung and lead him into the world of cantometrics,“a method for systematically and holistically describing the general features of accompanied or unaccompanied song." In his songbooks and other writings there are many wonderful descriptions of the events surrounding the songs he was recording. My favourite is from "The Land Where the Blues Began":

"A long flatcar with a moving belt along its top poured out a stream of railroad ties, and as these heavy six-foot timbers rolled off the end of the car, they were caught one after another by the tie toters, who shouldered them like so many matchsticks and skipped off with them down the right-of-way. As each man reached the end of the growing file of ties, he tossed his down in order and came running back along the wobbling timbers, as surefooted as a squirrel. Five of these tie toters formed a human beltline, swiftly and skillfully laying down the line of ties for the steel rails that were soon to follow. One of them, a tall yellow-skinned man in a ragged coat, would now and again throw back his head and cry out a long series of wailing notes, each held out and ornamented with many quavers, the words something like

Ooo, baby, doncha go-oo, while the blood's runnin warm,
While the blood runnin warm in your veins,
Ooo, Lord Godamighty.

There was now a row of about a hundred ties along the roadbed. The human beltline paused, and the engineer in the control cab leaned back to light his pipe, but in moments the steel gang sprang back into action. Two men began levering a long rail of steel toward the edge of the flatcar. They heaved together till the breath burst out of their mouths and a twelve-foot steel rail rolled over the side of the car and fell into three steel arms below, then was shunted downward to, the track. As it came scooting out along the ties, the yellow man and his ebony partner grabbed it with huge iron pinchers and yanked it along until their buddies could catch it and lay it on the ties."

Alan Lomax believed that one of the most important things he ever did was to bring Leadbelly and Woodie Guthrie together. In an interview with PBS he describes how they used to spend their time together.

"Basically, they just loved to play together. Woody just absolutely venerated Lead Belly. You see, Lead Belly had gone through an experience that very few other people had gone through and even survived physically. And he came out of these American concentration camps that were the penitentiaries of the South at that time; he came out of it whole and laughing and joyous and confident. And who couldn't admire a person like that? And he had this incredible voice, he had a musical fire that just didn't exist in other people. Even by the 30s, American folk music was being commercialized. And what did that mean? That the guy in back of the glass there, a person who had no knowledge of what the songs actually signified emotionally, was saying, "Oh, put in a little bit more of that, do a little bit more this way. No, no, that's too long. No, speed it up! Slow it down! Stomp your foot harder!" and so forth. Lead Belly and Woody managed to escape that and brought their pure country style right to town. They liked each other for that reason. And Woody learned from Lead Belly. Some of his best things are based on Leadbelly tunes. And I think they were of enormous help to each other, because they were, aside from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the only folk singers in the city at the time."

His book "The Land Where the Blues Began" was published in 1993, and since 1995 Rounder Records has begun to release their massive 100 CD "Lomax Collection" so his extraordinary musical influence will undoubtedly continue to grow. Read more about him on the web by searching for "Alan Lomax". Start with http://www.alan-lomax.com/. He was a prolific writer and I'd recommend anyone to start with "The Land Where the Blues Began" which is jam packed with his humour, his scholarship, his political and philosphical wisdom. And get you hands on some of those CDs!

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