Hear 17,000+ Traditional Folk & Blues Songs Curated by the Great Musicologist Alan Lomax

For all its suc­cess with steam­rolling over entire pop­u­la­tions to build high­ways, fac­to­ry towns, and office cam­pus­es, the U.S. has also, since its ear­li­est days, pro­duced scores of com­mit­ted eth­nol­o­gists, musi­col­o­gists, and oth­er doc­u­men­tar­i­ans of human cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion in all its vari­ety. This cru­el para­dox has, most gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, left a dual lega­cy in both the country’s sto­ried vio­lence and its capac­i­ty for renew­al through the appro­pri­a­tion, trans­for­ma­tion, and amal­ga­ma­tion of oth­er cul­tures.

And we would have no nation­al trea­sure chest of folk music, art, sto­ry, and his­to­ry to draw from with­out jour­ney­men col­lec­tors like Alan Lomax. Where cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans like W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Boas, and Mar­garet Mead lent their find­ings to revivals in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy, Lomax, along with his con­tem­po­rary, folk­lorist Har­ry Smith, “unlocked the secrets of this kind of music,” as Dylan remarked, for hun­dreds of bud­ding folk and blues musi­cians in the for­ties, fifties, and six­ties.

With typ­i­cal­ly Dylan-like under­state­ment, the phrase “this kind of music” under­sells the diver­si­ty of Amer­i­cana in Lomax’s col­lec­tion, from Celtic Appalachi­ana to African Caribbeana. Lomax start­ed out record­ing folk music under the tute­lage of his folk­lorist father, John Lomax. Begin­ning in 1934, the two trav­elled the coun­try, “gath­er­ing thou­sands of field record­ings of folk musi­cians through­out the Amer­i­can South, South­west, Mid­west, and North­east, as well as in Haiti and the Bahamas,” writes the Asso­ci­a­tion for Cul­tur­al Equi­ty, which hosts a huge archive of Lomax’s folk record­ings. These were released in sev­er­al pop­u­lar antholo­gies of the time and housed at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Amer­i­can Folk Song, for whom the younger Lomax began work­ing in 1937.

Through­out the 30s and 40s, Lomax furi­ous­ly record­ed songs, jokes, sto­ries, inter­views, etc. and pro­duced films and radio pro­grams “which brought 1940s New York­ers blues, fla­men­co, calyp­so, and South­ern bal­lad singing, all still rel­a­tive­ly unknown gen­res.” A musi­cian him­self (hear him do “Ram­bling Gam­bler,” above), Lomax also dis­cov­ered and pro­mot­ed a num­ber of folk artists who would be stars. He “exposed nation­al audi­ences to region­al Amer­i­can music and such home­grown tal­ents as Woody Guthrie, Lead Bel­ly, Aunt Mol­ly Jack­son, Josh White, the Gold­en Gate Quar­tet, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger.” He made the first record­ings of Mud­dy Waters (then McKin­ley Mor­gan­field) and record­ed sem­i­nal ses­sions and con­ver­sa­tions with blues­men like Mem­phis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Son­ny Boy Williamson.

It’s safe to say that with­out Lomax’s tire­less curat­ing, we would have had no folk and blues revival of the fifties and six­ties, and thus, like­ly, no rock and roll. It’s easy in our cyn­i­cal and anx­i­ety-rid­den cur­rent cul­tur­al moment to dis­miss folk­lorists like the Lomax­es as pirates who prof­it­ed from the work of oth­ers. But it’s also easy to for­get how lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty the artists they worked with had to reach the world out­side their local cir­cuits, and how lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty the wider Amer­i­can pub­lic had to hear folk and local artists. In part because of Alan Lomax’s work in the begin­nings of the 21st cen­tu­ry, we nev­er need to lose touch with the coun­try’s tremen­dous cul­tur­al diver­si­ty, an essen­tial fea­ture of the U.S. through­out its his­to­ry.

A fair amount of con­tro­ver­sy roils over the busi­ness arrange­ments that folk­lorists came to with artists and col­lab­o­ra­tors like Lead Bel­ly, and there are good his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal rea­sons to fol­low these debates. Ideals of cul­tur­al equi­ty did not erase racial and eco­nom­ic real­i­ties. But the best of what sur­vives the meet­ings of Lomax father and son and the hun­dreds of men and women they encoun­tered in their trav­els is cap­tured on record, tape, and dig­i­tal for­mats, and pre­served for future gen­er­a­tions to redis­cov­er what the coun­try sounds like out­side the feed­back loops of cor­po­rate media. There are innu­mer­able ways to dis­cov­er Lomax’s record­ings. His own Asso­ci­a­tion for Cul­tur­al Equi­ty hosts hun­dreds of hours of audio and video record­ings, avail­able to stream for free at the site or on Youtube. The archive con­tains over 17,000 folk record­ings by Lomax.

And in the Spo­ti­fy playlist above, we’ve com­piled a playlist of Lomax’s com­mer­cial releas­es. In the first two, we hear Lomax him­self inter­pret­ing var­i­ous cow­boy and west­ern songs. Then a mas­sive album of record­ings he made in Haiti after doing grad­u­ate work in anthro­pol­o­gy (these include record­ings of his fel­low anthro­pol­o­gist Zora Neale Hurston). We have a com­pi­la­tion of ear­ly Delta blues record­ings or “Negro Prison Blues,” and an album of pop­u­lar Ital­ian folk songs like “Funi­culi, Funic­u­la” and “Come Back to Sor­ren­to.” Over­all it’s a playlist that rep­re­sents the sur­pris­ing breadth of Lomax’s inter­est in “this kind of music”—the kind, as he put it in his “Appeal for Cul­tur­al Equi­ty,” made by “each and every branch of the human fam­i­ly.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alan Lomax’s Music Archive Hous­es Over 17,400 Folk Record­ings From 1946 to the 1990s

Leg­endary Folk­lorist Alan Lomax: ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’

Woody Guthrie at 100: Cel­e­brate His Amaz­ing Life with a BBC Film

Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing the Bawdy Prison Blues Song “Uncle Bud” (1940)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • kerouac22 says:

    An excel­lent book was pub­lished in 2015 called Folk­songs of Anoth­er Amer­i­ca: Field Record­ings from the Upper Mid­west, 1937–1946, by James P. Leary. It comes with five CDs of music and a DVD called “Alan Lomax Goes North.” My local library has a copy, and I rec­om­mend check­ing your own library’s cat­a­log. Some real gems in there.

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