Field of Dreams: Alan Lomax and The American Folk Song

On a sultry summer afternoon, Alan Lomax passed through Clarksdale, MS and stopped in at the Stovall Plantation. There he found a young man picking a guitar, singing the rural songs Lomax came to town in search of. Before the sun went down, he had the first recordings of Muddy Waters in his hand, and the man who would define the electric blues was listening to his own voice wail back through a tin speaker. This was a normal occurance for Lomax, who is known as the most important folklorist in American music history. Alongside his father, John, he brought the likes of Muddy, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie and countless others into the modern American living room.

Alan Lomax was born January 31, 1915, the son of John Lomax. He would inherit his love of American folklore from his father, whom he traveled around the country and even the world, recording indigenous music and cataloguing it in the Library of Congress. Like so many of us, Alan grew up under the record player, listening to John’s recordings. Along with his brothers and sisters, he began helping his father collect music, travelling alongside him to uncharted places throughout the southeast. They had an old Edison cylinder machine that would record the songs played by passing artists. For many of the folks they recorded, it was the first time they had heard the sound of their own voice.

By 1934, the Library of Congress had given them a new disc-cutting machine that was mounted in the back of John’s Model T Ford. The plan was to expand the collection of recorded folk music for the Archive of American Folk Song. 16,000 miles, innumerable records, and a million songs later they had crisscrossed the nation, from north to south and east to west. Their findings were published in a number of influential anthologies, including American Ballads and Folk Songs.

Among the many personalities they came across John and Alan met Huddie Ledbetter, known as “Leadbelly”, at Louisiana’s Angola Prison. He played guitar for prisoners and guards alike, becoming popular with even the warden, so when the Lomaxes came in 1933, Leadbelly came highly recommended. They came on a few separate occasions to record him and out of these meetings came such standards as “Goodnight Irene”. After being released from Angola, Leadbelly accompanied the Lomaxes to other prisons, helping set up and demonstrate the equipment for other prisoners. He went on to become one of the most important figures in American folk music, inspiring the folk and blues revivals of the 50s and 60s.

Alan went on to meet and record other influential artists after his father came off the road. He became interested in recording oral biographies, which lead him to an interview with jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Meant for the Library of Congress Archives, it became the basis for Mr. Jelly Roll: The fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz”, a work dedicated to preserving the history of Jazz music.

While working as the Archive’s assistant in charge, Lomax met Woody Guthrie, who had left California in search of a richer wellspring of music. He produced radio programs focused on bringing the music of rural hamlets to the airwaves. He put Woody on Back Where I Come From and encouraged him to continue writing and performing. He also introduced him to Pete Seeger, whom Woody worked with on a number of different occasions, in a number of different roles for the rest of his life. They were part of The Almanac Singers, a group that would churn out some of the leading folk musicians to influence the folk revival of the 60s and the popularity of the protest song.

It was in the summer of 1941-42 that Alan met young McKinley Morganfield, known to the world as Muddy Waters. It was on a journey with John Work, musicologist from Fisk University, that the first recordings of the legendary blues artist took place. Going in search of African-American fife and drum bluesmen, Lomax and Work found Muddy on his front porch, quietly sliding his fingers over the dirty guitar strings. Lomax later recalled the meeting this way:

“I remember thinking how low-key Morganfield was, grave even to the point of shyness,” he wrote. “But I was bowled over by his artistry. There was nothing uncertain about his performances. He sang and played with such finesse, with such a mercurial and sensitive bond between voice and guitar, and he expressed so much tenderness in the way he handled his lyrics, that he went right beyond all his predecessors—Blind Lemon, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Willie Brown.” (The Land Where Blues Began, Lomax, 1993).

Throughout his career, Alan Lomax continued making long trips throughout the American south, plus trips to Haiti, the Caribbean, Spain, Africa and the West Indies documenting the music we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Cultural phenomena is most often born in the hidden landscapes the majority of us never think about. From the blues to british-isles folk, acoustic slide guitar to gut-pounding Chicago electric-blues, wayfaring strangers we associate with our masterpieces began simply as that: strangers. They were who we are. Fortunately, they were found by a man as interested in their culture as they were. He helped create a database for future generations to rediscover and reconnect to our heritage. He turned the volume way up on the highways and byways of the lost towns we can only imagine ever existed.

Don’t trust me, find out more for yourselves:

http://www.notablebiographies.com/supp/Supplement-Ka-M/Lomax-Alan.html

http://www.folkstreams.net/filmmaker,121

http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ledbelly.htm

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/

http://www.rockhall.com/inductee/muddy-waters

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muddy_Waters (check specific references at bottom of article)

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