Folklorist Alan Lomax: Everyone Has A Story Lomax, the subject of a new biography by John Szwed, spent more than a half-century recording folk music and customs around the world. In 1990, he spoke to Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the decades he spent compiling sound recordings from around the world.
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Folklorist Alan Lomax: Everyone Has A Story

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Folklorist Alan Lomax: Everyone Has A Story

Folklorist Alan Lomax: Everyone Has A Story

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The name Alan Lomax may or may not be familiar, but if not for his pioneering work seeking out and recording folk singers and other isolated rural artists, other names would be less familiar, as well, the names of Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and other artists whom Lomax was the first to record.

BIANCULLI: The Man Who Recorded the World." To note the book's publication and to salute one of the most important folklorists of the 20th century, today we're going to do a little audio archiving of our own and listen to an interview Terry Gross recorded with Lomax in 1990.

Alan and his father, John Lomax, traveled the South together making recordings, which introduced Americans to musicians in every type of folk music made on porches, living rooms, plantations, prisons and chain gangs. Their 1959 recording of a chain gang at Mississippi State Penitentiary is featured on the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack.


JAMES CARTER AND THE PRISONERS: (Singing) Well, the high sheriff, he told his deputy: Want you go out and bring me Lazarus. Well, the high sheriff told his deputy: I want you go out and bring me Lazarus. Bring him dead or alive. Lord, Lord. Bring him dead or alive. Oh, well, the deputy, he told the high sheriff...

BIANCULLI: When Alan Lomax and his father recorded musicians, they used one of the first portable recording machines.

ALAN LOMAX: The first machine that my father and I took out was a Thomas Edison cylinder machine, and then the Library of Congress kindly replaced that with a disc machine that embossed the groove on an aluminum disc.

But for a long time, I was a media bug, because I saw that the job of a folklorist was to make a bridge between people who had no voice and the big world of communication. And that's what I did for the first, oh, I don't know, half of my life, was simply run with a recording machine and record, and here, in the West Indies, in Italy, in Spain, in Great Britain and to encourage other people to do it and to publish the results, because this was the way that people could learn that other folks were out there just as interesting as they were. That's the first big lesson of the recording machine.

GROSS: When you first started recording, you were a teenager, and you were on the road with your father. What were your responsibilities in those very early days?

LOMAX: Well, basically, I ran the machine and lifted it and carried it. The whole thing weighed about 500 pounds, and I broke it down and put in the back of our Ford, Model A Ford, often two or three times a day. It kept the fat off of me.


GROSS: Your father had been fired from his position at the University of Texas for recording cowboy songs, which were considered very dirty at the time. What was the reputation of folk music then? Did people not really understand what it was about, I mean, so much so that your father would be fired for taking it down?

LOMAX: The Puritan West Europeans really haven't ever had much use for art or for recreation or for fun. And so the arts have always been something extra. And they had to mind their place. They had to conform to the rules of society.

So the big threat, of course, was that the subject of S-E-X would be mentioned. Remember, America in the 19th century was the most hung-up part of the whole world, or maybe ever had been, on the question of sex. Women were just untouchable.

So anyway, my father kicked out of the university for collecting cowboy songs on the grounds that some of them were dirty. They weren't, not in his book.

And then later on, at the Library of Congress, when I was running the folksong archive there, the archive was shut down by a rabid, born-again Southerner who attacked it because we had recorded that cantankerous, rambling ballad-maker Woody Guthrie.

He just then, by the way, composed recorded "This Land is Your Land," and I'd recorded it for the Library of Congress. But they were so severe about it that they cut the whole Library of Congress appropriation out. Later it was put back, but the archive didn't recover for many years. And I think that's just the kind of thing that's happened recently.

GROSS: Folklorist Alan Lomax is my guest. Let me get back to the days when you were on the road, traveling through the South, recording songs. You and your father were, I think, the first people to actually record in prison camps in the South. Why did you want to go there to record songs?

LOMAX: Well, there's always been an anomaly in the black community. All secular songs - then this follows up my Calvinist hypothesis - were considered sinful. Anything that wasn't religious was sinful, so that the whole of the secular, great secular songs art of the blacks, the blues, the hollers, the work songs, all the casual songs of amusement were forbidden.

You could be church. You could be kicked out of the church for singing them if you were a black person in a respectable black community. So it was difficult for us to get at this rich and unknown treasure trove of American music and lyricism without - in the normal black community. People were scared to sing them, scared of criticism.

So we decided to go where the devils were - I mean, the people who were beyond redemption. And we found them in the prisons, and we recorded a whole literature, which is still virtually unknown, an enormous song bag of beautiful tunes, new kinds of melodies and all sorts of things we found in the prison camps of the South.

GROSS: I think the best-known of the recordings that you made of prisoners was your recordings with Leadbelly, and you continued to record him after he got out.

LOMAX: Yeah, we did the first singer biography of him.

GROSS: Let me play one of the recordings you made by Leadbelly, and this is "Midnight Special." Would you like to say a few words about the circumstances under which you recorded it or the song itself?

LOMAX: Well, Leadbelly was - had been in the Texas pen a couple of times, but we found him in the Louisiana Penitentiary, where prisoners were not allowed to sing in the fields, but they could have their own entertainers. And Leadbelly was a camp entertainer. He had his guitar there.

And we went to Camp Number One, and when he heard we were there, he was - he ran 100 yards from his cell to where we were, arrived without even breathing hard and sat down and sang - "Irene Goodnight" was the first song he sang us. And he sang a song to appeal to the governor of Louisiana to let him out of there, because his woman was mourning for him.

BIANCULLI: Let the midnight special shine his ever-loving light on you.

I think of prisoners who don't know whether they'll live through the next day, who are working from dawn in the morning to dark at night, if they fall afoul of a guard, may be beaten to death, hanging on the bars, absolutely stone weary and watching the headlight of some on-rushing train flash across the walls of their prison and into their faces. That's the mood of the song.


LEADBELLY: (Singing) Yonder come Miss Rosie, how in the world do you know? Well, I know her by her apron, and the dress she wore. Umbrella on her shoulder, piece of paper in her hand, well, I'm going to ask the governor, please turn a-loose(ph) my man.

Let the midnight special shine your light on me. Let the midnight special, shine her ever-loving light on me.

When I gets up in the morning, when that big bell rings, go a-marching to the table, see the same old thing. Knife and fork are on the table, and nothing in my pan. Never say anything about it, having trouble with the man.

Let the midnight special, shine her light on me. Let the midnight special, shine her ever-loving light on me.

GROSS: That's Leadbelly. And that was recorded by you and your father?

LOMAX: Well, I don't know. I've recorded it so many times with him, I don't know which recording was which.

GROSS: I see. OK. Right. When Leadbelly was released from prison, he traveled with your father for a couple of years, and your father put on a lot of concerts for him. Do you have any memories of what it was like for Leadbelly going from the South to the North and suddenly, like, performing for folklorists, for intellectuals, performing at Harvard University? Was there a period of culture shock and serious adaptation for him?

LOMAX: Not at all. He was just in triumph. He - in his mind, and it was true, he was the best in the world. He was the king of the 12-string guitar players in the world. He had a voice you could hear for a mile - absolutely beautiful, silvery, tenor voice.

He's never been heard, by the way. It's only on our first recordings. It began to go as he lived in the city.

GROSS: When you were recording musicians, did you ever take co-composer credit for one of their songs? I know that was often the case with people.

LOMAX: No. That came very much later. See, what happened was that we gave out our songs from the Library of Congress in our books for everybody to use. And then along came, oh, a lot of new people in the field who simply copyrighted them completely. Lonnie Donegan, in England, copyrighted all of Leadbelly's songs.

And in order to protect the material, the only way that the publishing industry saw that I could do it was for me to co-claim them with some of the singers, and I did that. And that made it possible for the singers and their families to get royalties and for money to be - to come into my hands so I could continue to do research.

BIANCULLI: Alan Lomax, speaking to Terry Gross in 1990. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1990 interview with folklorist Alan Lomax, who died in 2002 at age 87.

GROSS: I want to ask you about I think what's considered to be among the most important recordings you've ever made, and I'm thinking of the recordings you made with Jelly Roll Morton, the Library of Congress recordings, which features both him singing and playing, as well as talking about his life. How did you get to make those recordings with him?

LOMAX: Well, as I used a recording machine in the field, I began to discover that what an artist would say about the song at the end of a performance was usually psychologically and emotionally very revealing.

And I began to record more and more of these codas to songs. And gradually, the codas began to stretch out longer and longer, until I was recording whole life histories.

And I was - I had done a number of these by the time Jelly Roll came to the Library of Congress, anxious to prove to the world that jazz was not from Memphis - as Handy said it was in a Billboard interview - but was from New Orleans.

And Jelly Roll, an extraordinary intellectual he was, had the whole story worked out when he came to me in my office, which was backstage of the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress.

On the stage was a grand piano. Around the hall, there were the busts of Bach and Beethoven. Jelly Roll sat down at the piano completely at home with his peers - because he was, after all, our first literate native composer - and began to tell the story of jazz.

Naturally, I was no great fan of jazz at the time, because jazz was driving folk music into obscurity, in my view. But this man was so fascinating that I thought I would try to find out how much, well, folklore there was in him.

And within an hour, he'd said such wonderful things that I raced upstairs, got permission to work with him for a week and to use any number of discs to take down his life. That's how it all happened.

GROSS: Let me play a short excerpt of the oral history that you recorded. Jelly Roll Morton is talking about when he started to play in the Tenderloin District in New Orleans.

JELLY ROLL MORTON: In my younger days, I was brought into the Tenderloin District by friends - young friends, of course. Even before we were in long pants, we used to steal long pants from around the fathers and brothers and uncles, and so forth and so on.

LOMAX: Did you go down there before you had long pants on?

ROLL MORTON: Why, the policemen would run you right in jail. They'd run you ragged. Of course, we kids, from time to time, would climb those eight and 10- boarder - 10-feet-high board fences. We'd really climb them and get away from these people, but they kept us right out of the district.

They'd take the straps on the end of their clubs and just make switches out of them, cut our legs into ribbons. I was very frightened, very much frightened.

I happened to invade that section, one of the sections of the district, where the birth of jazz originated.

LOMAX: Where was that. How old were you?

ROLL MORTON: At that time, that was the year of 1902. I was about 17 years old. I happened to go Villere and Bienville, at that time one of the most famous nightspots after everything was closed. It was only a back room where all the greatest pianists frequented after they got off from work.

All the pianists got off from work in the sporting houses at around four or after, unless they had plenty of money involved, and they would go to this Frenchman's - hat was the name of the place - saloon. And there would be everything in the line of hilarity there.

They would have even millionaires to come to listen to the different great pianists, what would no doubt be their favorites maybe among them.

GROSS: Jelly Roll Morton, recorded by my guest, Alan Lomax, back in 1938.

How did you meet Woody Guthrie? I want to play one of the records that you made with him. How did you first meet him?

LOMAX: Well, at the time, I was doing a series of radio programs for CBS called "Back Where I Come From" in the evening, and then we had a morning series about the wellsprings of music. It was the first time that folk music was on a coast-to-coast radio network in the country.

And I was looking for people for that show. I was the master of ceremonies at a benefit congress - at a benefit evening for Loyalist Spain, and Woody was on the program. And he just got in from California, and this little dusty-headed man stood up there, and he told stories more than he talked at that time. He could hold an audience just like Will Rogers, and sang, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" and his other songs. And he went home with me that weekend to Washington. He spent a week at my house. And we cooked up the program that I put on CBS with him at the time.

GROSS: Well, let's hear some of "So Long It's Been Good To Know You." And we'll hear the end of "So Long It's Been Good To Know You," and then a little bit of Woody Guthrie talking about why he wrote the song.


WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) The church houses were jammed and packed, people was sitting from front to the back. It was so dusty, the preacher couldn't read his text. So he folded his specs and he took up collections, said: So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. So long, it's been good to know you. This dusty old dust is rolling me home, gotta be drifting along.

LOMAX: What did you people do then? What happened to your folks, your relatives and neighbors and acquaintances and people like you all through that country, from the panhandle to Nebraska?

GUTHRIE: Well, Alan, they didn't know what to do. They sat around and talked there for weeks and weeks, hated to give up what they'd worked there for for 50 years and been born and raised on and had their kids on, and their kids had been born and raised and married on and had their kids on this land.

They didn't know just exactly what to do, but they couldn't pay their debts. They owed the bankers 3,500, $4,000 on a combine harvester, $1,100 on a tractor. They owed them a year's fuel bill. That's always amounted to several hundred dollars. They owed a grocery bill for about a year. They owed all kinds of bills, seed bills and everything else.

When they couldn't pay them, well, naturally, they come down with the mortgage and took their land. These people didn't have but one thing to do, and that was just to get out in the middle of the road. Incidentally, the 66 Highway runs just about a mile...

GROSS: Woody Guthrie is featured on the Library of Congress recordings made by my guest, folklorist Alan Lomax.

BIANCULLI: How do you think the role of the folklorist has changed?

LOMAX: Well, so far as I'm concerned, I'm still doing the thing that I was inspired to do in my early recording sessions, when people would look at the microphone and say: Mr. President, I want you to come down here and help us people, where we are in our hard times in this place.

They looked at my father and myself as a channel to tell their troubles and to let their lives be known. That's what I've essentially tried to do all my life.

BIANCULLI: Alan Lomax, speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. John Szwed's new biography, "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World," has just been published.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. This is Fred McDowell, recorded by Alan Lomax.

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