John Avery Lomax collected more than ten thousand folk songs throughout his life, providing a valuable archive for future use by scholars seeking to understand various forms of American music. Lomax asserted that his life’s work sought the “intimate poetic and musical experience of unlettered people,” and his efforts spanned decades and drew attention to the musical traditions of the American South and West.
Lomax was born near Goodman, in Holmes County, Mississippi, in 1867. Two years later, his family moved to a farm in Bosque County, Texas, because Lomax’s father, James, was having conflicts with his wealthier brother and was unwilling to raise his family near recently freed African Americans. John Lomax’s childhood experiences with music included church camp meetings and hearing the songs of cowboys on the Texas frontier, a fascination that shaped much of his work. Lomax studied for a year at Granbury College and then taught in rural schools for seven years. In 1895 he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and after graduation stayed on the campus, working several jobs. In 1903 he taught English at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College.
Lomax next enrolled in graduate studies at Harvard University with professors who encouraged his interest in cowboy songs. He received a Sheldon Grant from Harvard to record these songs, and he researched and wrote his 1910 Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads with the money from the award. At the same time, Lomax cofounded the Texas Folklore Society to preserve folk material against the perceived encroachment of mainstream commercial music.
In 1910 Lomax accepted an administrative job at the University of Texas, but he continued to record and began lecture tours, an endeavor he continued throughout much of the rest of his life. Lomax and other administrators were fired in 1917 as a consequence of a political conflict between the university president and the Texas governor, though the dismissal was later rescinded following the governor’s impeachment. In the interim, however, Lomax began work as a banker in Chicago, doing little collecting for the next fifteen years. In 1931 his wife, Bess Brown Lomax, died, and his four children—Shirley, John Jr., Alan, and Bess, all of whom later assisted their father with collecting—encouraged him to return to folk music to raise his spirits. He began a lecture tour, traveled to New York, and reached an agreement with a publishing company to produce an extensive anthology of folk material. After traveling to Washington, D.C., to review the Archive of American Folk Song, Lomax arranged to use the archive’s equipment to make recordings across the country.
He set out in June 1933 on his first recording trip, taking with him his eighteen-year-old son, Alan. In July they acquired a 315-pound acetate disc recorder, which they placed in the trunk of their Ford sedan. They began by visiting prison farms in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Lomax believed prisons provided the isolation necessary to gather what he perceived as “authentic” field hollers, blues songs, ballads, and songs left from slavery. While at Parchman Prison Farm in Mississippi in 1939, Lomax wrote in his field notes, “In the solitude and confinement the Negro recalls the songs that he learned as a child, and readily learns others from his prison associates as they work together.” Because the inmates at Parchman worked from four o’clock in the morning until dark, the Lomaxes had only the noon lunch hour and a short period of time before lights-out to record the men working in the fields, though they were able to record the spirituals sung by the female inmates as they worked at sewing machines in the mornings.
As a collector of folk songs, John Lomax was noteworthy for several reasons. First, he turned from the manuscript-based collection method advanced by Francis Child to the use of recording. Second, Lomax worked to popularize individual musicians (such as Louisiana bluesman Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter), crafting an image in the public eye of what a “real” folksinger looked like. While promoting Leadbelly, Lomax frequently encouraged him to make his singing more accessible, altering his accent and speaking during songs to better explain the lyrics. Lomax published several books, including Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads (1910), American Folksongs and Ballads (1934), Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads (1941), and Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (1947).
In 1934, the same year he married classics professor Ruby Terrill, Lomax was named honorary consultant and curator of the Archive of American Folk Song and worked to expand the archive. He was active in two New Deal programs, serving as adviser on collecting for both the Historical Records Survey and the Federal Writers’ Project.
In 1947 a friend from Greenville sought to arrange a celebration in Lomax’s birth state to coincide with his eightieth birthday. After an initial postponement, the event, which included John Lomax Day and a visit from Gov. Fielding L. Wright, was scheduled for January 1948. However, at an informal press conference on the day he arrived in Greenville, Lomax suffered a heart attack. He remained in a coma for several days and died at a Greenville hospital on 26 January 1948.
- Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (2007)
- Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (2000)
- John A. Lomax, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (1947)
- Nolan Porterfield, Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, 1867–1948 (1996)
- “Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax Southern States Recording Trip,” American Memory Archive of the Library of Congress website, www.memory.loc.gov
- Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues (2008)