John Lomax

John Lomax

John Avery Lomax (September 23, 1867 - January 26, 1948) was a pioneering musicologist and folklorist. Lomax was born in Goodman, Mississippi and grew up in central Texas, just north of Meridian in rural Bosque County. A Texan at heart, if not by birth, his early years on the family farm accustomed him to the hard work that, along with a boundless energy, became a hallmark of his life and career.

Early career

After teaching in rural schools for a few years, Lomax entered the University of Texas at Austin in 1895, specializing in English literature. In "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter", he recounts the story of his arrival at the university with a roll of cowboy songs he had written down in childhood. He showed them to an English professor, only to have them discounted as "cheap and unworthy," prompting him to take the bundle behind the men’s dormitory and burn it. His interest in folksongs thus rebuffed, Lomax focused his attentions on more acceptable academic pursuits. After graduation, he worked at the University of Texas as registrar, manager of Brackenridge Hall (the men’s dormitory on campus), and personal secretary to the president of the university. In 1903, he accepted an offer to teach English at Texas A&M University and settled down with his new wife, Bess Brown Lomax.

He still wished to improve his education, however and in 1907, jumped at the chance to attend Harvard University as a graduate student. Here he had the opportunity to study under Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge, two renowned scholars who actively encouraged his interest in cowboy songs. Both Wendell and Kittredge continued to play an important advisory role in his career long after he returned to Texas the following year, Master of Arts degree in hand, to resume his teaching position at A&M. Encouraged by Wendell, he applied for, and was awarded, a Sheldon grant to research and collect cowboy songs. The resulting anthology, "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads", published in 1910, with an introduction by President Theodore Roosevelt, made him famous. Included were "The Buffalo Skinners," which George Lyman Kittredge called "one of the greatest western ballads" and which was praised for its Homeric quality by Carl Sandburg and Virgil Thompson. [ "Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads" (Reissued, New York: Collier Books, 1938 (1910), p. xxi.] From the first, John Lomax insisted on the inclusiveness of American culture. Some of the most famous songs in the book — “Get Along Little Doggies,” “Sam Bass,” and “Home on the Range” — were credited to black cowboy informants.

Texas Folklore Society

Around the same time, Lomax and Professor Leonidas Payne of the University of Texas at Austin co-founded the Texas Folklore Society, following Kittredge’s suggestion that Lomax establish a Texas branch of the American Folklore Society. Lomax and Payne hoped that the society would further their own research while kindling an interest in folklore among like-minded Texans. On Thanksgiving Day, 1909, Lomax nominated Payne as president of the society, and Payne nominated Lomax as secretary. The two set out to marshal support, and a month later, Killis Campbell, an associate professor at the university, publicly proposed the formation of the society at a meeting of the Texas State Teachers Association in Dallas. By April 1910, there were ninety-two charter members (one of whom was Lomax's former student, John B. Jones). In the inaugural issue of the Publications of the Texas Folklore Society John A. Lomax urged the collection of Texas folklore: “Two rich and practically unworked fields in Texas are found in the large Negro and Mexican populations of the state.” He adds, “Here are many problems of research that lie close at hand, not buried in musty tomes and incomplete records, but in vital human personalities.” [John A. Lomax, “Unexplored Treasures of Texas Folk-Lore,” reprinted in Stith Thompson’s "Round the Levee" (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1935 (facsimile edition 1975), pp. 101–102.]

The society grew gradually over the next decade, with Lomax steering it forward. At his invitation, Kittredge and Wendell attended its meetings. Other early members were Stith Thompson and J. Frank Dobie, who both began teaching English at the university in 1914. At Lomax's recommendation, Thompson became the society’s secretary/treasurer in 1915. In 1916, Thompson edited the first volume of the "Publications of the Texas Folklore Society", which Dobie reissued as "Round the Levee" in 1935. This publication exemplified the society’s express purpose, and the motivation behind Lomax's own work: to gather a body of folklore before it disappeared, and to preserve it for the analysis of later scholars. These early efforts foreshadowed what would become Lomax’s greatest achievement, the collection of more than ten thousand recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

In June 1910, Lomax accepted an administrative job at the University of Texas. Throughout the next seven years, he continued his research, and also undertook lecture tours, assisted and encouraged by his wife and children. All this came to an end in 1917, however, when Lomax was fired along with six other faculty members as the result of a political battle between Governor James Ferguson and the university president, Dr. R. E. Vinson. Lomax moved to Chicago to accept a job as a banker. Shortly afterwards, Ferguson was impeached and the Board of Regents rescinded its dismissal of the faculty, but Lomax did not return to his former job. Instead, he divided the next fifteen years between banking (first in Chicago and later in Dallas) and working with various University of Texas alumni groups. He also continued to lecture at major universities and sometimes taught individual folk song classes for his former professors at Harvard, thus maintaining his valuable network of contacts. He also became close friends with poet Carl Sandburg, who frequently mentions him in his book, "American Songbag" (1927).

Archive of American Folk Song

Tragedy struck the Lomax family in 1931, when Bess Brown Lomax died at the age of fifty, leaving four children (the youngest, Bess, only ten years old) and a devoted husband. In addition, the Dallas bank at which Lomax worked failed: he had to phone his customers one by one to announce that their investments were worthless. In debt and unemployed and with two school-age children to support, the sixty-five year old went into a deep depression. In hope of reviving his father's spirits, John Lomax Jr. encouraged him to begin a series of lecture tours. They took to the road, camping out to save money, with John Jr. (and later Alan Lomax) serving the senior Lomax as driver and personal assistant. In June 1932, they arrived at the offices of the Macmillan publishing company in New York. Here Lomax proposed his idea for an anthology of American ballads and folksongs, with a special emphasis on the contributions of African Americans. It was accepted. In preparation he traveled to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress.

By the time of Lomax’s arrival, the Archive already contained a collection of commercial phonograph recordings that straddled the boundaries between commercial and folk, and wax cylinder field recordings, built up under the leadership of Robert Winslow Gordon, Head of the Archive, and Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division. Gordon had also experimented in the field with a portable disc recorder, but had had neither time nor resources to do significant fieldwork. Lomax found the recorded holdings of the Archive woefully inadequate for his purposes. He therefore made an arrangement with the Library whereby it would provide recording equipment, obtained for it by Lomax through private grants, in exchange for which he would travel the country making field recordings to be deposited in the Archive. John Lomax was paid a salary of one dollar per year for this work (which included fund raising for the Library) and was expected to support himself entirely through writing books and giving lectures.

Thus began a ten-year relationship with the Library of Congress that would involve not only John but the entire Lomax family, including his second wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, whom he married in 1934. All four of John’s children assisted with his folksong research and with the daily operations of the Archive: Shirley, who performed songs taught to her by her mother; John Jr., who encouraged his father's association with the Library; Alan Lomax who accompanied John on field trips and in 1937 and became the Archive’s first paid (though very nominally) employee as Assistant in Charge; and Bess, who spent her weekends and school vacations copying song text and doing comparative song research.

Field recordings

Through a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, Lomax was able to set out in June 1933 on the first recording expedition under the Library’s auspices, with Alan Lomax (then eighteen years old) in tow. Then as now, a disproportionate percentage of African American males were held as prisoners. Robert Winslow Gordon, Lomax's predecessor at the Library of Congress, had written (in an article in the New York Times, c. 1926) that, "Nearly every type of song is to be found in our prisons and penitentiaries" [Ted Gioia, "Work Songs" (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 209.] Folklorists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson also had observed that, "If one wishes to obtain anything like an accurate picture of the workaday Negro he will surely find his best setting in the chain gang, prison, or in the situation of the ever-fleeing fugitive." [Quoted in Ted Gioia, "Work Songs", p. 205.] But what these folklorists had merely recommended John and Alan were able to put into practice. In their successful grant application they wrote, that prisoners, "Thrown on their own resources for entertainment . . . still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies." They toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners such as James "Iron Head" Baker, Mose "Clear Rock" Platt, and Lightnin’ Washington. By no means were all of those whom the Lomaxes recorded imprisoned, however: in other communities, they recorded K.C. Gallaway and Henry Truvillion.

In July they acquired a state-of-the-art, 315-pound acetate phonograph disk recorder. Installing it in the trunk of his Ford sedan, Lomax soon used it to record, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a twelve-string guitar player by the name of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly," whom they considered one of their most significant finds. During the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South.

It may seem ironic that Lomax used the most up-to-date technology in order to preserve traditional art forms that he saw as endangered by the new, commercial recording industry and by radio. Unlike, virtually all previous amateur collectors, however, Lomax was no mere antiquarian. For his books emphasized that folk music creation is a dynamic, artistic process that is still happening today. By making this music better known and appreciated by a broad public, he hoped to encourage its continuance. In contrast to earlier amateur collectors the Lomaxes were also among the first to attempt to apply scholarly methodology in their work, however much they may have fallen short of later standards.

John A. Lomax has also been accused of paternalism and of tailoring Lead Belly's repertoire and clothing. [See Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, "Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music", W. W. Norton: 2007. ISBN 978-0393060782] "But," writes jazz historian Ted Gioia, "few would deny the instrumental role he played in the transformation of the one-time convict into a commercially successful performer of traditional African American music. The turnabout in his life was rapid and profound: Lead Belly was released from prison on August 1, 1934; his schedule for the last week of December that year included performances for the MLA gathering in Philadelphia, for an afternoon tea in Bryn Mawr, and for an informal gathering of professors from Columbia and NYU. Even by the standards of the entertainment industry . . . this was a remarkable transformation." [Ted Gioia, "Work Songs", p. 207-208.] Three months later Lomax and Lead Belly had a parting of the ways, never to be re-united, but Lead Belly went on to a fifteen-year career as an independent artist.

After the departure of Robert Gordon from the Library in 1934, Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song (salary: one dollar a year), and he secured grants from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, for continued field recordings. He and Alan recorded Spanish ballads and "vaquero" songs on the Rio Grande border and spent weeks among French-speaking Acadians in southern Louisiana.


Lomax’s contribution to the documentation of American folk traditions extended beyond the Library of Congress Music Division through his involvement with two agencies of the Works Progress Administration. In 1936, he was assigned to serve as an advisor on folklore collecting for both the Historical Records Survey and the Federal Writers' Project. As the Federal Writers' Project's first folklore editor, Lomax directed the gathering of ex-slave narratives and devised a questionnaire for project fieldworkers to use. This work was continued by Benjamin A. Botkin, who succeeded Lomax as the Project's folklore editor in 1938, and at the Library in 1939 resulting in the invaluable compendium of authentic slave narratives: "Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery", edited by B. A. Botkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945)

John A. Lomax's autobiography "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter" (New York: Macmillan) was published in 1947 and immediately optioned to be made into a movie starring Bing Crosby in the title role, with Josh White as Lead Belly, but it was never made. He died of a stroke in January 1948, age 79. On June 15th of that year, Lead Belly gave a concert at the University of Texas, performing children's songs such as "Skip to my Lou" and spirituals (performed with his wife Martha) that he had first sung years before for the late collector. [Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, "The Life and Legend of Leadbelly" (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999 [1992] ), p. 254.]

Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Lomax's grandson John Lomax III is a nationally published US music journalist, author of "Nashville: Music City USA" (1986), "Red Desert Sky" (2001) and co-author of "The Country Music Book" (1988). He is also an artist manager and has represented Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Rocky Hill, David Schnaufer and The Cactus Brothers. He began representing the Dead Ringer Band in 1996.


External links

* [ "Lomax, John Avery" in the Handbook of Texas Online]
* [ Bio] , at the Library of Congress
* [ 1939 Southern Recording Trip Fieldnotes] , at the Library of Congress
* [ Notes on the John and Ruby Lomax 1930 Southern States Recording Trip] , at the Library of Congress

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