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Musicologist Alan Lomax Dies

Second generation historian recorded Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie

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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