Folklorist Alan Lomax spent his career recording and documenting folk music traditions across the globe. Along the way, he was able to jumpstart the careers of now world-renowned musicians like Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger. Now thousands of the songs and interviews he recorded are available for free online, many for the first time.
Alan Lomax got his start as a folklorist thanks in part to his father, Goodman, MS native John A. Lomax. The senior Lomax was also a folklorist by trade who, in the 1910s, had found success writing about the folk music traditions of Texas.
Although the family was left destitute in the wake of the Great Depression, they retained possession of a Ford car and a contract to write a book called American Ballads and Folk Songs. To fulfill their book contract agreement, the father and son team set out across the South to research the roots of American music. In addition to recording and documenting the music at churches and other musical gatherings, they made the decision to also document the songs being sung by inmates at various prisons. Always on the lookout for the “rawest” music, John Lomax opined that “all the sinful people were probably in jail.”
During one of their many treks across the South, they were driven by a man whom they had recently lobbied to be pardoned from Louisiana’s Angola prison by the name of Huddie William Ledbetter. Mr. Ledbetter would eventually find enduring musical fame in his own right under the stage name “Lead Belly.”
By the summer of 1941, Alan Lomax took to the road on his own to find an enigmatical yet incredibly important Mississippi blues musician named Robert Johnson. Lomax wanted to include Johnson’s recordings in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.
Along the way, Lomax found scant traces of Robert Johnson (Johnson had actually died in 1938 unbeknownst to Lomax at the time) but he managed to make several remarkable discoveries. Lomax made the first recordings of a young guitar player named McKinley Morganfield at Stovall Farm near Clarksdale. Mr. Morganfield would later become better known to the world as “Muddy Waters”.
Later that year, Alan Lomax found blue musician Son House on a plantation near Robinsonville in Tunica County. When Lomax asked Son House to record a few songs, Son House said he had to go and get his band together. Lomax recalled, “I don’t know where House took me. Down dirt roads, along a railroad track into the back of an aging country store that smelt of licorice and dill pickles and stuff.” The “aging country store” was Clack’s Grocery, located near Highway 61, where Lomax recorded a session of Son House and his friends playing on the front porch of the store. As it turned out, Son House had taken Lomax to Clack’s Grocery not only because that’s where the rest of the band was to be found but also because it was the only location at the time that had running electricity to power the recording equipment.
In 1947, 1948 and 1959, Lomax documented and recorded prison work songs at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. A recording Lomax made in Mississippi in 1959 of a prisoner named James Carter, singing the traditional work song ”Po’ Lazarus,” opens the 8x platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Alan Lomax would also record in Greenville, Senatobia, Como and several other Mississippi towns over the course of his career.
Lomax died in 2002 at the age of 87, leaving behind a personal collection of about 5,000 hours of sound, 3,600 feet of film, over 2,000 videocassettes and other documents that have now been digitized by the Cultural Equity Association that he founded years earlier.