CLEVELAND, Miss.–If you’ve never heard of Alan Lomax, you’re missing out on a big piece of Mississippi history. Lomax worked from the 30s to the 90s recording almost anybody he met who could tell a story or sing a song. His tape recorder was responsible for a lot of Mississippi’s music being recorded and preserved and now it’s available online, all of it, at research.culturalequity.org.
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“Lomax was an incredible folklorist who has this marvelous collection, but it’s a two way street,” said Don Allan “Chip” Mitchell, associate professor of English at Delta State University and coordinator of the school’s new Delta Blues curriculum.
“The people being recorded got to hear themselves being played back.”
Mitchell said Muddy Waters, who was born in Rolling Fork and who is famous for taking the blues to Chicago and “electrifying” the music, first heard himself play and sing when he was recorded by Lomax.
INTERVIEW WITH PROF. MITCHELL
“He didn’t see himself ever leaving Mississippi. When Lomax played it back for him, that’s when Muddy Waters started telling himself I can do this. I can make a record. I can do this for a living.”
The Mississippi collection can be found here: http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-ix.do?ix=collection&id=0&idType=0&sortBy=abc
“A lot of these people have been lost to history, particularly the prison recordings. So this is their only historical record. So I think it’s kind of cool that these people are being preserved for all time.”
Lomax recorded not only blues and Delta music, but almost any one he came across who had a story. He also liked bluegrass and gospel. He took his tape recorder, which was a fairly new apparatus at the time, to Mississippi churches and recorded the services. He recorded prisoners singing work songs at Parchman as they used the music to keep the rhythm.
In Mississippi, Lomax, who was born in Austin, had help to get an inroad into some tight-knit communities.
“I can’t emphasize enough John Work,” said Mitchell. “He’s kind of a lost hero of Alan Lomax. John Work was an African-American folklorist. He was an entre to a lot of the African-American communities.”
The music that Lomax recorded came to influence the folk revival of the 50s and 60s. Bob Dylan’s catalogue grew each time he listened to the Lomax collection.
And the music people were hearing and can hear now on the web could be very old.
“Because it’s an oral tradition, we can’t really say that this song that they’re singing into Lomax’s recording apparatus is 25 years old,” said Mitchell. It could be 250 years old and it’s just been passed down. It’s also kind of interesting to hear what kind of pop music made it into Lomax’s recordings.”
Whether the music is very old or relatively new, it has influenced the musicians in the six decades since the Mississippi recordings. The extent of the influence is likely immeasurable.
Lomax died in 2002, six years after a stroke forced him to retire from making his field recordings. For Mississippians, the online archive is a lasting treasure of our state’s culture.