the lomax library

Blues fans have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. The year 2019 has indeed been an auspicious one for blues aficionados and researchers for at least two reasons: 1) Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s long lost book The Blues Comes to Texas (Alan B. Govenar, TAMU Press) was finally published and 2) Alan Lomax’s huge library of roots music recordings and interviews was placed online for free public listening and reading. The second curtain-raiser is particularly significant because Alan and his father were contracted back in the 1930s by the Library of Congress to travel around the deep South to make field recordings of music being sung in cotton fields, prisons and black churches.

Why was all this important? Blues and other roots music was practically unknown to the rest of the country at that time, so these recordings changed the nature of the music world after they were released. The world was introduced to such performers as Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Aunt Molly Jackson and many others. Although the blues had been performed in jukes and other black venues for decades, white audiences were unfamiliar with such sounds until they heard them played on the radio at first and then on black and white TV screens. There can be little doubt that the blues gave birth to rock and roll. “Blues is a big part of rock and roll. The best rock and roll got its birth in the blues. You hear it in Little Richard and Chuck Berry,” said AC/DC guitarist Angus Young.

Who, you may ask were the Lomaxes? The American Folklife Center website explains: “John A. Lomax, Sr., began a ten-year relationship with the Library in 1933, when he set out with his son Alan, then eighteen, on their first folksong gathering expedition under the Library’s auspices. Together they visited Texas farms, prisons, and rural communities, recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues. John Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, which in 1928 had been created in the Library’s Music Division.”

The father-son team met Lead Belly in a prison where the then completely unknown singer had written (and performed) such classics as “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special.” Perhaps Lead Belly was dreaming about a midnight prison escape in the latter song when he penned “Let the Midnight Special shine an ever-loving light on me.” After all, Lead Belly had spent nearly his whole life in prison (for murder) before being released to become John Lomax’s driver.

Alan Lomax’s work with Lead Belly, which is considered the first extended biography of an American folk musician, made him realize the importance of documenting not only music, but also the stories that went with it. Alan thus became a pioneer of recording oral histories of vernacular musicians such as Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, “Jelly Roll” Morton, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and many others. His work even extended to a project with astronomer Carl Sagan as they prepared recordings of traditional American music to be launched into deep space on the 1977 Voyager space probe.

So this is it: a huge treasure trove of songs and interviews recorded by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax from the 1940s into the 1990s have been digitized and made available online for free listening. The Association for Cultural Equity, a nonprofit organization founded by Lomax in the 1980s, has posted some 17,000 recordings.

“For the first time,” Cultural Equity Executive Director Don Fleming told NPR’s Joel Rose, “everything that we’ve digitized of Alan’s field recording trips are online, on our Web site. It’s every take, all the way through. False takes, interviews, music.”

For a blues researcher, this website is manna from heaven. You can spend days or weeks therein and not even scratch the surface. Who can resist its magnetic pull? Let the Midnight Special shine its light on this webpage. Posterity is the big winner of this launch. Great stuff!

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