Pioneering musicologist and folklorist, John A. Lomax, did much for the preservation of American folk music. Thanks to Lomax, there are more than 10,000 original sound recordings to archive American Folk Song housed at the Library of Congress.
Lomax was a Texan at heart if not by birth. He was born in Goodman, Mississippi, in 1867, but grew up in rural central Texas. As a child, Lomax was exposed to cowboy song. At the age of nine, John Lomax befriended a former slave by the name of Nat Blythe. Lomax taught Blythe how to read and write. Blythe taught Lomax traditional song and dance steps.
John would later write, the friendship between he and Blythe is what gave his life it’s “bent.”
Saving his money, Lomax left the farm to attend college. He first began at Granbury working on a teaching degree but later moved to the University of Texas at Austin to major in English. Upon arrival in Austin he carried with him the book of cowboy songs that he had written as a child. The English professors of the time didn’t care for the songs. English professor Morgan Callaway discounted them as “Cheap and Unworthy.”
In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter , John Lomax memoir, he recounted how he took the whole bundle of songs behind the men’s dormitory and burned them.
Upon his graduation, John gained employment at the University of Texas, and then later took a position as an English professor at Texas A&M University in College Station.
John Lomax married Bess Brown June 9, 1904 and the two made plans to settle in College Station near the A&M campus. However, by 1906, aware of the deficiencies of his early education, John began to seek ways to improve himself.
John Lomax took advantage of a chance to attend Harvard University as a graduate student. Harvard was the center of American folklore studies of the time.
At Harvard, Lomax studied under Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge. Unlike his previous professors in Texas, these Scholars in Massachusetts actively encouraged his interest in cowboy songs.
It was Kittredge who pioneered modern methods of ballad study and encouraged collectors to get out into the country- side to collect ballads first- hand.
“Go ahead and get this material while it can be found… Preserve the words and music. That’s your job.”George Lyman Kittredge
Lomax later returned to Texas to resume teaching at Texas A&M. This time with a Master of Arts degree. His work was interrupted February 7, 1908 when “The Great A&M Strike” broke out. Unable to teach because of the strike, John Lomax resumed his work in gathering his collections of the cowboy song.
In November 1910, this collection would be published as an anthology. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Lomaxpast professor and first major supporter, George Kittredge, considered it as “one of the greatest western ballads.”
The collection of songs in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads gained Lomax national recognition. It emerged as a major collection of Western song and sparked a huge surge for interest in folk songs. Because of this collection, many other students gained the inspiration to search for folk music in all regions of the nation.
In 1909 John A. Lomax and University of Texas Professor Leonidas Payne founded the Texas Folklore society. The society focused on gaining interest and preserving folk music. Lomax used his prestige as a nationally known author to raise money for folklore studies and to establish other state folklore societies. These societies would become branches to the American Folklore Society. In 1912 John A. Lomax was elected as President of the American Folklore Society.
Thanks to a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies Lomax set out in June 1933 on his first recording expedition for the Library of Congress. With recording equipment supplied by the Library of Congress mounted in the back of his Ford sedan, John Lomax and his son Alan set out to tour the south.
The pairs travels took them to Texas Farms, prisons and rural communities. Lomax sought to record traditional music in its original form. They recorded work songs, ballads, and the blues.
Lomax was especially proud of his prison recordings. These recordings provided an isolated musical culture untouched by the modern world.
“Thrown on their own resources for entertainment they still sing, especially the long term prisoners, who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the old melodies.”John Lomax
Among the recordings housed at the Library of Congress are John Lomax original recordings of blues music by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), and McKinley Morgan, known professionally as “Muddy Waters.” Lomax and his son also made some of the first recordings of Folk Singer Woody Guthrie.
Folk music and Americana are songs about people. They are collections of song from the regions of where someone came from. In my opinion the greatest and most pure music comes from this original form.
I am thankful for men like John Lomax, who preserved the earliest music for a guy like me to kick back and continue to enjoy today.