Folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was an influential figure in 20th century American music, producing archival and field recordings that significantly boosted public awareness of American Folk, Blues and Jazz traditions, and was instrumental in launching the Folk and Blues revivals that took place among young white musicians and listeners in the 1950s and 60s.
Lomax spent much of his life traveling and recording music, first traversing the backroads of the American South and eventually making his way around the world, interviewing musicians playing Folk, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Calypso, Cajun music, and other genres, and capturing their music for posterity. In the process, he recorded such now-legendary musicians as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Jelly Roll Morton, and Big Bill Broonzy.
The son of noted folklorist John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax first hit the road as a teenager in the 1930s, taking a break from his studies at Harvard to join his father’s song-collecting field trips for the Library of Congress. He recorded thousands of songs sung by sharecroppers and prisoners in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi for the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk Song. Alan also hosted several nationally broadcast radio shows designed to encourage music appreciation among younger listeners.
Until 1942, when Congress cut off the Library of Congress' funding for song collecting, Alan, his father, and various other collaborators contributed more than 10,000 field recordings to the archive. After that, Alan continued to collect and record indigenous music independently, traveling around the United States as well as Britain, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and the Caribbean.
After serving in World War II, Lomax produced a series of landmark Folk albums, including Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads and Leadbelly's Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs. He also organized a groundbreaking series of concerts at New York's Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, featuring Blues, Calypso, and Flamenco performers.
In the late '40s, Lomax's left-wing politics, and his advocacy for Civil Rights and multiculturalism, led to his being investigated by the FBI. For most of the 50s, he was based in London, where he worked for Columbia Records and assembled the 18-volume Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. Lomax returned to New York in 1959, producing Folksong '59, a Carnegie Hall concert that included Pete Seeger, Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, and the Doo Wop group the Cadillacs, marking the first time that Rock and Roll had been performed at that prestigious venue and one of the first instances of it being recognized as a musical form worthy of serious consideration.
Lomax remained active in music preservation through the 60s, 70s and 80. He advised the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival, and produced a series of films about Folk music, American Patchwork, that aired on PBS in 1991. He was in his late 70s, in 1995, when he completed a memoir, The Land Where the Blues Began. He died in a Florida nursing home at 87; since then Lomax's vintage recordings have continued to be reissued and enlighten new generations of listeners.