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Texas Originals

An American Field Collector Of Folk Music: Alan Lomax

A folklorist whose love of music led to a life's mission of collecting and recording folk songs performed in almost every state.


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Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage
Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina, between 1938 and 1950.

January 31, 1915 – July 19, 2002


Alan Lomax believed every culture has a "right … to equal time on the air and equal time in the classroom." As director of the Library of Congress, Archive of American Folk-Song and as a radio and television host, Lomax introduced folksong to popular audiences and promoted it among students and scholars.

His interest in traditional song started when Lomax was a teenager. In the 1930s, Alan accompanied his father, the prominent folklorist John Lomax, on trips to collect folk songs from prisoners, laborers, and cowboys.

As he matured and developed his own professional identity, Alan Lomax also collected oral histories about the stories behind the songs.

Lomax believed that oral traditions are critical to a nation's literary and cultural heritage. He feared that modern technology and the commercial music industry would erode traditional practices and deplete musical diversity. Lomax's work to preserve folksong also provided individuals and communities with opportunities to share their creative traditions with a wider audience.

When Alan Lomax died in 2002, his collection included tens of thousands of musical recordings, preserved for future generations. A contemporary wrote, "Alan was in it for the music, not the money … His gift to all of us was to capture voice after voice, song after song that would have otherwise, vanished into thin air."


Selected Bibliography

Cohen, Ronald D. Alan Lomax: Selected Writings 1934–1997. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

Filene, Benjamin, “Our Singing Country: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of the American Past.” American Quarterly 43 (1991): 602-624.

Hartman, Gary. The History of Texas Music. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.

Hirsch, Jerrold. "Modernity, Nostalgia, and Southern Folklore Studies: The Case of John Lomax." Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992): 183–207.

Kohout, Martin Donnell. "Alan Lomax." In The Handbook of Texas Music, edited by Roy Barkley. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003.

Lomax, Alan. Folk Song Style and Culture. New Jersey: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1968. Mead, Margaret. "Father and Son," letter to the editor. The New York Times, February 5, 1961, BR44.

Pareles, Jon. "A Man of His Time; Voices for All Time." The New York Times, July 28, 2002 A26.

Pareles, Jon. "Alan Lomax, Who Raised Voice of Folk Music in U.S., Dies at 87." The New York Times, July 20 2002, A1.

This article first aired on April 14, 2012.