Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was a major figure in folklore and ethnomusicology, known for his theoretical work, cultural advocacy, and seminal public programs. He played a key role in the development of the Center’s work.
Pete Seeger described him as “the man who is more responsible than any other person for the twentieth-century folk song revival.”
The son of pioneering American scholar and advocate of folk culture John A. Lomax, Alan, with his father, began a major effort in 1933 to record living folk music and to develop the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. The thousands of field recordings they collected revealed a wealth of folk music in the United States, Haiti, and the Bahamas, and led to the publication of popular folk song collections such as American Ballads and Folk Songs and Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Leadbelly.
Alan’s book, Mister Jelly Roll, was a milestone in oral biography and inspired two Broadway musicals. In Folk Songs of North America, Folk Song Style and Culture, and Cantometrics: An Approach to the Anthropology of Music he emerged as a leading theoretician for the cross-cultural analysis of music and culture. In the 1970s, he produced teaching films to introduce students to the anthropological analysis of dance. His 1993 monograph Land Where the Blues Began earned a National Book Critics Award and prompted Ossie Davis to state, “If the blues ever needed a Bible, this is it.”
Alan lamented the increasing homogenizing effects of mass commercial culture upon local, traditional cultures worldwide. “Cultural gray-out” is what he called the loss of distinctive local traditions. He coined the term “cultural equity” as a principle for advocating for the rights of local cultures. He saw the importance of the media in cultural work. “The main point of my activity,” he said, “was to put sound technology at the disposal of the folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas.”
In 1933, he produced American Folk Songs and Wellsprings of Music for the CBS School of the Air and the prime-time series Back Where I Come From, both of which introduced influential musical figures such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger to major new audiences. His Midnight Special concert series at New York City’s Town Hall in the 1940s brought media attention and introduced audiences to relatively unknown styles such as blues, flamenco, calypso, and ballad singing. Much later, in 1990, his award-winning PBS television series American Patchwork documented American regional cultures. And in the 1990s, he launched The Global Jukebox, a multimedia interactive database surveying the relationship between dance, song, and social structure.
Alan’s field recordings and his collaborations with like-minded scholars in England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere helped spark folk song revivals abroad. His recordings through the Library of Congress, Folkways Records, and Rounder Records enabled traditional musicians to reach broad audiences.
Working with the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s, Alan enlisted Ralph Rinzler to conduct field research on traditional music. Alan served as consultant to Jim Morris in the production of the American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. Later, Alan served as an advisor and presenter for the early Smithsonian Festivals. In 1968, the Festival was the first large-scale public gathering in the wake of civic unrest following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Alan, hosting the final concert for a huge and diverse audience on the Mall, declared:
“This is the Festival of the common man. This is the Festival of the democratic art the American people have made out of their experience. In affairs like this we realize our strength. We realize how beautiful we are. Black is beautiful. Appalachia is beautiful, and even old, tired, Washington sometimes is beautiful when the American people gather to sing and fall in love with each other again.”
Alan was a force to reckon with—skilled and smart, a man of his own mind with a strong and engaging personality who stood for the equity of people’s culture. In 1986, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts for his accomplishments.
“This is the Festival of the democratic art the American people have made out of their experience.”