I was aimlessly browsing the aisles of a record shop when the title of a somewhat unassuming CD caught my eye: Prison Songs, V. 1: Murderous Home. I didn’t know anything about Alan Lomax at that point, but the whole concept was captivating to me — a collection of field recordings of real-deal chain gang chants from 1947-48. I picked it up and bought it without a second thought. It was a life changer. The recordings sound just the way they would seem — a vintage lo-fi analog recording done in the middle of some hot sweaty field, but they speak so much. I was instantly transported and I could practically feel the muggy heat, the earth shaking with every timed strike of the pick axe, and I could see the inmates in their stripes, shackled, weathered, but not broken. Needless to say, I was blown away and was completely hooked on Alan Lomax’s breathtaking audio archives.
Alan Lomax was born in 1915 to his father John A. Lomax, who himself was a leading ethnomusicologist and folklorist pioneer. Lomax not only traveled the US capturing the sounds of anyone from Woodie Guthrie and Jellyroll Morton to chain gangs and finnish immigrants, but stretched all across the world (Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Caribbean) to capture and forever preserve the songs of the people. He also, aside from audibly documenting his subjects, took hundreds of stunning photographs, some of which are posted above. He was without a doubt, one of the most important figures in folk music worldwide, as well as an early proponent of cultural diversity.
I think this quote sums him up pretty well:
“The Alan Lomax Collection contains pioneering documentation of traditional music, dance, tales, and other forms of grassroots creativity in the United States and abroad” – James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress
Lomax was repeatedly interrogated and investigated by the FBI for fear of communist sympathies, although nothing incriminating was ever found and the case was abandoned. Here’s a great clip from his FBI file:
“Neighborhood investigation shows him to be a very peculiar individual in that he is only interested in folk lore music, being very temperamental and ornery. …. He has no sense of money values, handling his own and Government property in a neglectful manner, and paying practically no attention to his personal appearance. … He has a tendency to neglect his work over a period of time and then just before a deadline he produces excellent results.”
Brian Eno on Lomax:
“[He later ] turned his intelligent attentions to music from many other parts of the world, securing for them a dignity and status they had not previously been accorded. The “World Music” phenomenon arose partly from those efforts, as did his great book, Folk Song Style and Culture. I believe this is one of the most important books ever written about music, in my all time top ten. It is one of the very rare attempts to put cultural criticism onto a serious, comprehensible, and rational footing by someone who had the experience and breadth of vision to be able to do it.”
His catalogue on Rounder Records
Picture captions in descending order:
1. African American convicts working with axes and singing in woodyard, Reed Camp, South Carolina. December 1934. Photo by Alan Lomax.
2. Convicts. Handwritten on back: “Angola, Louisiana”. 1934. Photo by Alan Lomax.
3. Convicts. Handwritten on back: “Prison compund No 1. Angola, La. Leadbelly in foreground.” c. 1943. Photo by Alan Lomax.
4. “Lightnin’” Washington, an African American prisoner, singing with his group in the woodyard at Darrington State Farm, Texas. Photo by Alan Lomax. April, 1934.
5. Moncalvo (Asti province), Piemonte, October 7, 1954. Photo by Alan Lomax.
6. Fishermen from Calabria, Italy, 1954. Photo by Alan Lomax.
7. Montemarano (Avellino province), Campania, January 1955. Photo by Alan Lomax.
8. Cinquefrondi (Reggio Calabria province), Calabria, August 1, 1954. Photo by Alan Lomax.
9. Rovasenda (Vercelli province), Piemonte, September 27, 1954. Photo by Alan Lomax.
10. Musicians playing in the street, Caffiano, Campania, 1955. Photo by Alan Lomax.
11. Unknown Fiddler from Southern US Field Trip, 1959. Photo by Alan Lomax.
12. Soldier performing with banjo. Photo by Alan Lomax.
13. John Avery Lomax (Alan’s father), Jasper, Texas, 1940.
14. Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax with Ann Lomax and Dorothy Botkin, 1946.
15. Sonny Terry (obscured), Woody Guthrie, Lilly Mae Ledford, Alan Lomax, New York, 1944.
16. Recording equipment in the back of John Lomax’s car, late 1930s.
17. The man at work.
18. Alan Lomax recording in Dominica, 1962.