Typewriter of the moment: Alan Lomax, folk music historian, 1942


Alan Lomax at the typewriter, 1942 - Library of Congress photo

Alan Lomax at the typewriter, 1942, using the "hunt and peck method" of typing - Library of Congress photo

Who was Alan Lomax?  Have you really never heard of him before?

Lomax collected folk music, on wire recorders, on tape recorders, in written form, and any other way he could, on farms, at festivals, in jails, at concerts, in churches, on street corners — anywhere people make music.  He did it his entire life.  He collected music in the United States, across the Caribbean, in Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Spain and Italy.

Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Lillie Mae Ledford and an obscured Sonny Terry, New York, 1944 (Library of Congress Collection - photographer unknown)

Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Lillie Mae Ledford and an obscured Sonny Terry, New York, 1944 (Library of Congress Collection - photographer unknown)

Almost all of that collection is in the Library of Congress’s unsurpassed American Folklife collection, from which dozens of recordings have been issued.

Born in 1915, Alan Lomax began collecting folk music for the Library of Congress with his father [John Lomax] at the age of 18. He continued his whole life in the pursuit of recording traditional cultures, believing that all cultures should be recorded and presented to the public. His life’s work, represented by seventy years’ worth of documentation, will now be housed under one roof at the Library, a place for which the Lomax family has always had strong connections and great affection.

Were that all, it would be an outstanding record of accomplishment.  Lomax was much more central to the folk revivals in the both England and the U.S. in the 1950s and 19602, though, and in truth it seemed he had a hand in everything dealing with folk music in the English-speaking world and then some.  Carl Sagan used Lomax as a consultant to help choose the music to be placed on the disc sent into space with the exploring satellite Voyager, “the Voyager Golden Record.”

Have you listened to and loved Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” and the famous passage, “Hoedown?”  How about Miles Davis, with the Gil Evans-produced “Sketches of Spain?”  [Thank you, Avis Ortner.]  Then you know the work of Alan Lomax, as Wikipedia explains:

  • The famous “Hoedown” in Aaron Copland‘s 1942 ballet Rodeo was taken note for note from Ruth Crawford Seeger‘s piano transcription of the square-dance tune, “Bonypart” (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”), taken from a recording of W. M. Stepp’s fiddle version, originally recorded in Appalachia for the Library of Congress by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in 1937. Seeger’s transcription was published in Our Singing Country (1941) by John A. and Alan Lomax and Ruth Crawford Seeger.
  • Miles Davis‘s 1959 Sketches of Spain album adapts the melodies “Alborada de vigo” and “Saeta” from Alan Lomax’s Columbia World Library album Spain.

Lomax died in 2002.

Other resources:


“To Hear Your Banjo Play” featuring Pete Seeger, written and produced by Alan Lomax.
Trailer for the PBS P.O.V. film, “The Song Hunter,” by Rogier Kappers

more about “POV – Lomax the Songhunter | PBS“, posted with vodpod

Sing out!

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4 Responses to Typewriter of the moment: Alan Lomax, folk music historian, 1942

  1. […] learned from the Lomaxes at the Library of Congress, Pete recorded history in songs, preserving old tunes, making foreign […]

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  2. RBH says:

    Yeah, I knew he’d died. Sad, He was a really alive guy. And it’s been a long time since I’ve done any playing. I’ve still got a Fender acoustic, but my fingertips would turn to meatloaf now if I played for any length of time.

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Did you hear know Mike Seeger passed away two months ago? I should have done a tribute to him, and may do yet. I didn’t know Mike and I know his work a lot less than Pete’s, but he was an awfully fine picker, and I envy you your night backing him up. Heck, I envy your ability to pick guitar at all.

    Seegers and Lomaxes — the world’s a lot better off with them in it. Thanks for dropping by.

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  4. RBH says:

    This reminded me of meeting Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger’s half-brother. Like Lomax, Mike was a collector and performer (with the New Lost City Ramblers) of traditional music. The college at which I taught had an Appalachian Folk Arts festival in the mid-1970s, and via an English prof who had worked his way through grad school playing bluegrass banjo, we got Mike to help recruit and organize the music component. One of the highlights of my musical life was playing rhythm guitar behind Mike at the post-concert party that went all night. :)

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