Today, we’re talking with Alan Lomax. Mr. Lomax is the founder of The Association for Cultural Equity and former Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress. He is a highly respected folklorist, ethnomusicologist and writer, as well as being a record producer, film maker, folk singer and guitarist.
sixstr stories: “Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Mr. Lomax. Between 1933 and 1947, you and your father, John A. Lomax, Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress, traveled the Southern states of America doing field recordings in the Black prisons of the then-segregated state prison system. Why did you decide to visit prisons?”
Alan Lomax: “We thought we should find that the African-American away from the pressure of the church and community, ignorant of the uplifting educational movement, having none but official contact with white men, dependent on the resources of his own group for amusement, and hearing no canned music, would have preserved and increased his heritage of secular folk music. And we were right.”
sixstr stories: “How so?”
Alan Lomax: “We discovered what I believe is America’s most moving song tradition, a deathless African-American heritage, created and re-created before our very eyes, as these caged composers bathed their souls with lovely melodies, sweet harmonies, lean and witty poetry, and a shared rhythmic play that psychologically empowered and sheltered them.”
sixstr stories: “What were those prisons like?”
Alan Lomax: “A chain of hellholes strung across the land like so many fiery crosses to remind the Southern blacks that chains and armed guards and death awaited them if they rebelled.”
sixstr stories: “Those were places where music flourished?”
Alan Lomax: “This vein of African-American creativity flourished in the state pens because there it was essential to the spiritual as well as the physical survival of the black prisoners.”
sixstr stories: “In July of 1933, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, you and your father were introduced to prisoner Huddie Ledbetter, who went by the name “Lead Belly.” Your father later wrote of this meeting: ‘We found a Negro convict so skillful with his guitar and his strong, baritone voice that he had been made a ‘trusty’ and kept around Camp A headquarters as laundryman, so as to be near at hand to sing and play for visitors. Huddie Ledbetter was unique in knowing a very large number of songs, all of which he sang effectively while he twanged his twelve-string guitar.’ It sounds like your father was quite pleased with your discovery of Lead Belly and his music.”
Alan Lomax: “We were looking for the genuine oral tradition – not a type of song, and we were experienced in recognizing it.”
sixstr stories: “During that first session with Lead Belly, you recorded him singing and playing eight different songs including “Take A Whiff On Me,” “Irene,” “Frankie and Albert,” “Angola Blues”…
Alan Lomax: “A remark of Lead Belly’s came back to me. ‘It take a man that have the blues to sing the blues.'”
sixstr stories: “Looking at the other titles on the list of songs he played for you during this visit and the eight additional songs that he performed during your second Angola recording session with him in July of 1934, it becomes obvious that Lead Belly’s repertoire went well beyond the blues.”
Alan Lomax: “He sang ballads and work songs and lullabies and children’s games and square dance tunes, the whole thing.”
sixstr stories: “Not long after his release from prison in August of 1934, Lead Belly went to work for your father. Starting on September 22, 1934, they set off together on a song-collecting/field recording trip, with Lead Belly driving. They held recording sessions in black state prisons first in Arkansas and then in Alabama. You, Mr. Lomax, joined this duo for similar prison visits in Georgia and the Carolinas. Finally, after stops in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, where Lead Belly gave performances, your trio pulled into New York City on December 31st.”
“On January 9, 1935, you, your father and Lead Belly set up residence in the secluded Wilton, Connecticut summer house of literary editor Margaret Conklin and English professor Mary Barnicle. With a three-day pause for Lead Belly’s first commercial recording sessions in New York City at the end of January, how did you spend the winter months of 1935 in Wilton?”
Alan Lomax: “We retired to the country, and I had the tremendous pleasure and excitement of recording everything Lead Belly knew. Sat there with an old-time aluminum recorder that engraved its images on an aluminum record, and Lead Belly and I worked at what he knew for three or four months.”
sixstr stories: “Lead Belly had been playing the guitar, learning songs and performing for over thirty years and you set out to record his entire repertoire? Something like this had never been done before. According to the discography of these Library of Congress recordings, you captured Lead Belly’s renditions of more than seventy-five different songs, with multiple versions of several of those pieces. Besides the fact that you celebrated just your 20th birthday on the 31st of that January, can you see how impressive it is that you pretty much reached your goal?”
Alan Lomax: “I think the most important work that I did in my own life was to be a really sensitive audience for Lead Belly.”
sixstr stories: “Coming from a man who went on to not only produce legendary recordings with Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and Jelly Roll Morton but to literally travel the world finding, interviewing, recording, filming and thus preserving nothing less than the musical culture of nations through the singing and playing of thousands of not-so-famous musicians, that’s saying something.”
Alan Lomax: “Lead Belly came before all the rest of us – busting down the doors for us all with his clarion voice, his tiger stride, his merry heart, and his booming twelve string guitar.”
sixstr stories: “On behalf of everyone here at sixstr stories, let me say thank you, Alan Lomax. Thank you very much.”
The following texts were the sources of the inspiration, information and quotes used in writing this post.
The Land Where The Blues Began (1993) by Alan Lomax.
Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded The World (2010) by John Szwed
The Life & Legend of Lead Belly (1992) by Charles Wolfe & Kip Lornell
Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural history of Recorded Music (2009) by Greg Milner.