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A World Without Alan Lomax

The great American field collector of folk music inspired many of the world’s most famous songs.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It’s difficult to overstate Alan Lomax's influence on the music world. Lomax’s father, John, was a pioneering folklorist who brought along Alan on recording trips throughout the American South when he was a child and then later as a teenager. From 1937 to 1942, Alan Lomax worked in the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress, which he and his father and various collaborators contributed more than 10,000 field recordings. When Congress cut off funding for that part of the library, Lomax continued to independently record people’s stories and songs, fueled by his belief in the idea of “one world,” which is now known as multiculturalism. Lomax said in 1972, “The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice.” Lomax’s dream of a massive music archive was realized in 2012 with the creation of the Global Jukebox, which catalogued the 17,000 tracks he collected over the years.

Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie, as well as hundreds of folk singers and artists whose names aren’t recognizable. Those early recordings, in a ripple effect, came to influence and inspire musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. So without Lomax, bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin would exist without some of the most important influences or covers that became their biggest hits.

In an article honoring Lomax’s 100th birthday for Cuepoint, Soundcheck host John Schaefer writes:

“So, in our little game, say there’s no Alan Lomax. Muddy Waters stays in Mississippi; never goes to Chicago; never meets the great Willie Dixon, who wrote many of Waters’ finest songs while playing bass in Waters’ band; and five young Englishmen, having never heard his song “Rollin’ Stone,” are left without a band name or one of their best early songs.”

And, of course, without the Rolling Stones, there would be no Red Hot Chili Peppers, no Nirvana, no Coldplay, no Kings of Leon, no Radiohead, to name a few. Classic jazz, classic rock, folk rock, contemporary classical music, and of course, traditional folk, music fans and artists all have Lomax to thank for his thorough recordings of folk music throughout the US and even in Italy, Spain, and Haiti.

The Anatomy of Influence, a book by Yale literature professor Harold Bloom, seeks to trace and understand the dynamic and complex relationships of art and artists by highlighting the ecosystem of the world’s 30 most iconic writers. The book’s epigraph contains a quote from a Leo Tolstoy letter:

“For art criticism we need people who would show the senselessness of looking for ideas in a work of art, and who instead would continually guide readers in that endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art, and bring them to the laws that serve as the foundation for those linkages.”

Without Lomax, the links between different artists may not have been possible, and the music world would look nothing like the one we know today. Here are a few of the songs that Lomax had a role in:

Schaefer reports that this song was initially written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters, and it would become a hit for the band Foghat and the singer Etta James later on. However, the Rolling Stones would make the cover of this song their own in 1964.

Schaefer writes: “This was a Mississippi Fred McDowell song. McDowell was discovered pretty late in life—he was in his mid-50s when Lomax found him and recorded him for the first time. The Stones give a pretty authentic gutbucket flavor to this North Mississippi blues in their 1971 version.”

This song was a Woody Guthrie original, and now it belongs to everyone. Here’s the Boss covering the song we all knew and loved in elementary school.

This is another song that has become an everyman song. While it’s unclear who wrote it or when, it was first recorded by John and Alan Lomax back in 1933. They published this song in their printed anthologies, and it has been a staple in folk music, as shown by this rendition at the all star tour of Mumford and Sons, Old Crowe Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes in 2011.

You can read the original Cuepoint article here.

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