The Columbus of the Blues

Alan Lomax. Photo by Shirley Collins

 We owe a lot to Alan Lomax and his father, John. Folklorists record and preserve some of the best we humans have to offer. It is through their hard work that we have before us so many recordings of the great Bluesmen of the South — Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, and Jelly Roll Morton to name a few. Of course, we owe the musicians more. But oftentimes, without the dedication of the John and Alan Lomaxes of this world, we would never hear the joy of those musical legends. We would never know their genius first hand. It would be lost to us and to posterity.

Alan Lomax was himself a legend. He spent decades collecting folk art, making recordings, films, taking pictures, following in the footsteps of his father. His output was more than prodigious. It was downright astonishing. Not only did he help bring the Delta Blues to the consciousness of a nation and the world, he also made folk recordings in Italy, Spain, Ireland and the British Isles.

From the Library of Congress website, discussing the addition of new archival material collected by Lomax:

From the time he left his position as head of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in 1942 through the end of his long and productive career as an internationally known folklorist, author, radio broadcaster, filmmaker, concert and record producer, and television host, Alan Lomax amassed one of the most important collections of ethnographic material in the world.

The collection has been housed in several large rooms at Hunter College in New York City. It includes more than 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of motion picture film, 2,450 videotapes, 2,000 scholarly books and journals, hundreds of photographic prints and negatives, several databases concerning portions of the archive, and over 120 linear feet of manuscript such as correspondence, fieldnotes, research files, program scripts, indexes, and book and article manuscripts.

 Here’s Midnight Special, by Lead Belly. Lomax was essential in recording the great Bluesman.

“Midnight Special”

More collections of the Blues. More artists. And I wonder about all of the great musicians who never reached us. All of the great fiddle players, guitar players, harmonica players and singers who never got the chance to perform in front of thousands. And I wonder about the way those who did were treated back then. In the 1930s and 40s. What kind of obstacles did they have to overcome? The threats, the segregated country they tramped through. The folklorists who recorded them were frequently in danger as well. Many of the same people who discriminated against the Muddy Waters, the Lead Bellys, the Etta James . . . hated the intrusion of folklorists into their realm. It took courage to keep doing it. It took obvious courage for the musicians. But it also was tough for those recording them.

This is a nation of stark contrasts and immense puzzles. The richness, diversity and vibrance of our art . . . and the stubborn, ignorant, reactionary stance of too many of our citizens through time. Those artists perservered in the ugly face of that ignorance and stubbornness.

We are a nation of triumph and tragedy, one that seems to take a bit longer than it should to see the elephant in the room. In our better moments, on our best days, we do. We really hear the songs, really see the paintings, really understand the poem, the novel, the play. A sign of progress would be an increase in those moments, an increase in the number of those days . . . .


The Columbus of the Blues
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