Musicologist Alan Lomax Dies

Second generation historian recorded Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie

July 22, 2002 12:00 AM ET

Musicologist Alan Lomax, who made thousands of recordings by blues, folk and jazz musicians, including Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and myriad others, died on July 19th in Safety Harbor, Florida; he was eighty-seven.

The son of noted musicologist John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax was born into the trade of making field recordings, aiding his father's pursuit in his teens. Born in Texas, Lomax spent a few years in the northeast, before returning to the University of Texas in the Twenties. But the draw of continuing the family work was strong.

With his father, Lomax began recording Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, in the late 1930s. Lomax carried on his father's tradition recording the songs that would become Woody Guthrie's classic Dust Bowl Ballads in 1941, as well as capturing some of Muddy Waters' first recordings. He also recorded prolifically for the Library of Congress, where his father was the curator of the Archive of Folk Song, with many of those recordings having been issued on the Smithsonian's Folkways label.

While several of Lomax's subjects found international renown during their lifetimes, particularly during the Sixties folk music revival for which he was a catalyst, he relished the opportunity to find unheard musicians tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the country, untainted by the recording industry. "There was something friendly but competitive there," says fellow musicologist Chris Strachwitz, who, like Lomax, took to America armed with a microphone, tape deck and a sense of adventure, in founding his own folk music label, Arhoolie Records. "Lomax once asked me at Berkeley [Folk Festival] when Mance Lipscomb was playing, 'How did I not find him first?' He asked Mance, 'Mance, how come I didn't discover you?'"

Lomax's interests weren't confined to America, though, as he also made recordings in England, Spain, Italy, the Bahamas and numerous other locales, which were compiled into a Columbia anthology. In addition to making recordings, Lomax was a noted disc jockey, documentary filmmaker, photographer and writer. His 1993 book, The Land Where the Blues Began, which was in part drawn from a documentary of the same title that he wrote and directed, earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

And the success of the old-time music on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was both an homage to Lomax and anchored by his work. While the majority of the album was new recordings of older songs, the album's opening track was a late-Fifties recording of prisoner James Carter singing "Po' Lazarus." Lomax was also overseeing Rounder Records Lomax Collection, a reissue series expected to reach 100 recordings, which launched in 1997.

Lomax is survived by his daughter Anna Lomax Chairetakis, a step daughter, a granddaughter and a sister. Funeral services will be held tomorrow in Tarpon Springs, Florida. His family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Blues Music Foundation for the Willie Moore Fund, care of the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

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