Alan Lomax (AP Photo)
Once upon a time, folk music was not the respected genre it is today.
There were no Bob Dylans, Joni Mitchells or Paul Simons. Far from being household names, singers such as Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger were just getting by. Now-legendary bluesmen like Lead Belly and Muddy Waters were known, but only in certain segregated circles. Jazz – folk and blues music's most noted offspring – was still barely a teenager. For the most part, folk music was still down-home stuff, performed by residents of backwoods and hollers, and largely unknown or dismissed by the rest of the world.
Alan Lomax helped change all that.
"At a time when there was a strict divide between high and low in American culture, and Afro-American and hillbilly music were especially scorned," wrote Larry Rohter in The New York Times, "Lomax argued that such vernacular styles were America's greatest contribution to music."
Lomax devoted his life to going to the backwoods and hollers and recording the songs played there, helping to create a massive archive of folk music for the Library of Congress. He made the first-ever recordings of Guthrie's music; he preserved tracks by Lead Belly and Muddy Waters. And he presented this music to the public, teaching us about the origins and importance of the music our ancestors made.
In addition to recording folk music, Lomax interviewed the musicians, gaining insight into the way the music was passed down through generations, and learning more about the lives behind the music.
Lomax went beyond the borders of the U.S. to chronicle folk music – working with other historians, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists (such as Zora Neale Hurston), he traveled all over the world, with notable projects in Haiti and Europe.
Ten years after Alan Lomax's death, the tens of thousands of songs he recorded are still being released to the public, in large part thanks to Lomax's own efforts to digitize the recordings and make them widely accessible. According to the New York Times, Lomax "devoted the last two decades of his life to the Global Jukebox project. Looking for commonalities among musical styles from all over the world, he early on began using personal computers to help develop criteria to identify and classify such similarities, in the process creating something very much like the algorithms used today by Pandora and other music streaming services." Folk music fans are thankful, and so are folk musicians. But don't take our word for it – just ask Bob Dylan:
"Alan was one of those who unlocked the secrets of this kind of music. So if we've got anybody to thank, it's Alan. Thanks, Alan."
Written by Linnea Crowther