Musicologist Alan Lomax Dies
Alan Lomax, the celebrated musicologist who helped preserve America's and the world's heritage by making thousands of recordings of folk, blues and jazz musicians from the 1930s onward, died Friday atAlan Lomax, the celebrated musicologist who helped preserve America's and the world's heritage by making thousands of recordings of folk, blues and jazz musicians from the 1930s onward, died Friday at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, Fla. He was 87.
Lomax was the son of folklorist John A. Lomax, whose 1910 book "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads" was a pioneering work in the field of music preservation. Among the famous songs it saved for posterity was "Home on the Range." Two songs from the younger Lomax's collection were featured on the 2002 Grammy-winning soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
Alan Lomax was still in his teens when he began assisting his father's efforts to interview and record musicians of almost every stripe. Long before tape recording became feasible, the work entailed lugging around recording equipment that weighed hundreds of pounds.
Lomax said making it possible to record and play back music in remote areas "gave a voice to the voiceless" and "put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communications chain." Among the famous musicians recorded by the Lomaxes were Woody Guthrie; Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly; "Jelly Roll" Morton; Muddy Waters; and Son House. Much of their work was done for the Library of Congress, where the Archive of American Folk Song had been established in 1928.
As interest in folklore and minority groups' culture has grown in recent decades, experts and fans alike have been able to draw upon the recordings made so long ago. When interest in Cajun music and its cousin, zydeco, exploded in the 1980s, for example, a two-album set of the Lomaxes' recordings from the 1930s was issued.
Lomax recalled the Louisiana recording sessions vividly. "At the time, it was wonderful, but simply bewildering. All these new kinds of songs were simply mysteries," Lomax said. Citing one song with a particularly complex rhythm, he said, "When I recorded it, there had been nothing like it in America before."
His book "The Land Where the Blues Began" won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction. It documented the stories, musicians and listeners behind blues music.
In 1990, Lomax's five-part documentary series "American Patchwork" was shown on PBS, exploring such topics as the blues, Cajun culture, and the British roots of Appalachian music. The final episode, "Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old," featured elderly balladeers and musicians who pass their music to the young. "It's not preservation, it's process," Lomax said. "It's keeping things going."
In his research, Lomax would photograph the musicians and record their thoughts as well as their tunes, asking them where they learned the songs and what the songs meant to them. The 1994 off-Broadway show "Jelly Roll!" as well as the book "Mister Jelly Roll" were based in part on Lomax's 1938 interviews with Morton.
Lomax didn't limit his efforts to the U.S., doing extensive work in Spain, Italy, Britain, and the Caribbean. He worked to compile a world survey of folk songs, which deepened the understanding of the links between peoples.
Lomax believed our centralized electronic communications system is imposing "standardized, mass-produced and cheapened cultures everywhere ... If those absolutely important things are ignored, of how we speciated, how we adapted to the planet, then we're going to lose something precious," he said in 1990. "There won't be anywhere to go and no place to come home to."
Lomax, who moved to the Tampa area from New York in 1996 and is survived by a daughter and a sister, will be laid to rest tomorrow (July 23); details are available at his official Web site. In lieu of flowers the family has asked that donations be made to the Blues Music Foundation for the Willie Moore Fund (c/o Experience Music Project, 2901 3rd Ave., Seattle, WA 98121).
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