Alan Lomax

(1915–2002) Folklorist

Alan Lomax began his career by assisting his folklorist and academic father, Mississippi-born John Lomax, during extended trips made to record folk tunes. Alan became a prodigy as a collector, enthusiast, and promoter. Despite the scholarly emphasis of his later years, this array of activities remained his true focus.

Alan Lomax’s early fieldwork and attempts at advocacy inspired colorful reminiscences of the black South, Haiti, and Spanish-language Texas. He wrote book reviews and gave public lectures and radio shows, anticipating what public sector folklorists do today. Beginning in 1937 he served as head of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. In 1941–42 he joined with John C. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., all of whom were African American academics connected with Fisk University, in designing and executing a pair of fruitful collecting trips to Coahoma County, providing money and supplies from his position at the Library of Congress. The team recorded blues performances by Muddy Waters, David “Honey Boy” Edwards, and Son House, among many others.

In the 1950s Lomax lived in England, out of reach of McCarthyist hysteria, and completed fruitful collecting trips to Spain and Italy. In the 1960s he returned to the United States, where he arguably became more famous—and certainly had more success as a fundraiser—than any other American music academic before or since. He played numerous roles in the decade’s folk revival, functioning as a partial cause, an observer, an influential—and often controversial—participant, and a careful critic. While continuing to stimulate interest in what the public had come to call folk music, he cautioned enthusiasts against reproducing the sounds of folk performers without sufficiently understanding cultural contexts.

Later in his life, Lomax emphasized broad academic theorizing in his “cantometrics,” an all-encompassing scheme correlating culture with musical sound. He advocated moving beyond the pitches and words of songs to look more closely at performance, embodiment, timbre, gender, style, and the use of ethnographic film, topics, and techniques that the field of ethnomusicology did not fully embrace for decades. The system was far too general, but his narration of the nuts and bolts of cantometric coding, while never serving as a scholarly model, constitutes a rich thesaurus of terms to describe aspects of music and social organization.

Energetic collecting, vivid description, eloquent advocacy, and grandly intended theoretical syntheses all twined together in Lomax’s life and work. Above all, Lomax will be remembered for his calls to arms both in words and by example. He was personally and professionally eclectic, often arrogant, but always aggressively and endearingly populist.

Further Reading

  • Ronald Cohen, ed., Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934–1997 (2005)
  • Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (2000)
  • Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues (2008)
  • John Wesley Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Alan Lomax
  • Coverage 1915–2002
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2021
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 8, 2018