Sunday, 24 February 2013

The essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes . . .

In keeping with the subject of American folk music, I bring you two other iconic names in American culture: John and Alan Lomax. Both father and son dedicated their careers to collecting and preserving folk music through the Archive of American Folk Song.
 John Lomax (1867-1948) was a pioneer musicologist, folklorist and teacher. Having been brought up in a farm, Lomax never stopped trying to improve his education, attending annual lecture-and-concert series at New York State's Chautauqua Institute, majored in English Literature and studied under George Lyman Kittredge, celebrated professor and scholar on Shakespeare and Chaucer, at Harvard University, the centre of the American folklore studies at the time. He published an anthology of Western songs, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, sparked a nationwide interest for folk material, and co-founded the Texas Folklore Society, a branch of the American Folklore Society.
Lomax began working with the Library of Congress in 1932 and continued until 1942. The entire Lomax family, namely his second wife and four children, assisted him in his folksong research. His son Alan went with him on field trips across the whole country, during which they recorded pieces of folk and blues songs from both famous musicians and social nobodies. They focused mainly on African-American community, because they considered it was there they could find a wider range of musical genres. However, since a disproportionate number of African-American men were held at prisons at the time, Lomax and Robert Gordon (his predecessor in the endeavour to create an archive of folk music) toured Texas prison farms. It was, in fact, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that John Lomax found Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Lead Belly, a twelve-string guitar player and folk/blues singer (By the way, this guy was very important for American folk music. Look him up.)
Alan Lomax followed in his father’s footsteps and contributed to further complete the Archive of Folk Culture, even after the Library of Congress had cut off funding for folksong collecting. While his father collected songs from 33 states within the US, Alan Lomax went searching for material outside American borders, touring Britain, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the Caribbean. He also devoted much of his life advocating Cultural Equity, which he tried to put on a solid theoretical foundation with his “Cantometrics” research (“song measurements”, a method developed for relating elements the world’s traditional vocal music with the social organization). But that’s a story for another day.
Here are some very helpful links if you want to know more about this subject. For once, Wikipedia is actually very informative. 
Unknown Fiddler from Southern US Field Trip, 1959. Photo by Alan Lomax.
Don't forget to be awesome,
Sara Santos.

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