Alan Lomax, who preserved musical heritage, dies at 87

He was an adventurer with boundless energy, scouring mountains and back roads for authentic American voices and carrying them home to the city, where performers with names such as Guthrie and Seeger and Dylan listened — and changed forever the way the country listened to music.

Unless you're in the record business or the folklore business, odds are you never heard of Alan Lomax. But it would be nearly impossible to find, anywhere, an American citizen untouched by his decades of work seeking out and popularizing the music of the masses.

Mr. Lomax, who died Friday at 87, was the popularizer of popularizers — a man who believed the American folk tradition was something to be preserved, passed on to the future in an age when technology and faster-paced lives were threatening to swallow it up.

And so he did, by the thousands, one song at a time.

Delta blues, Appalachian ballads, New Orleans jazz, English bawdy songs — Mr. Lomax was hungry for them all. Wherever they were sung, he and his bulky equipment were there, long before interstate highways and air travel made remote places accessible.

At first, he worked with his father, John Avery Lomax, a patriarch of folk-music collecting. He then worked for the Library of Congress, nearly doubling its folk-music archive. He hosted radio shows, issued records, compiled folk songs into books, and credited the men and women who had provided his bounty.

Mr. Lomax hit the road with his father in 1933, when he was 18. They traversed the South, stopping at prison farms, sawmills, general stores, anywhere people might be willing to share their very personal music with strangers — no easy task for an outsider, especially one from the East.

In these remote villages and settlements and patch towns, the Lomaxes found people still singing the songs their parents taught them, songs whose lives stretched back to the 19th, 18th, 17th centuries — and even across the sea back to England or Ireland or, in the case of the blues, West Africa.

By 1937, Mr. Lomax was embarking on his own trips. He set out for a wild, mountainous expanse of eastern Kentucky that few outsiders ever visited. In the car was his Presto reproducer, a needle-driven recorder that captured songs on heavy, fragile acetate disks. He was 22.

It was a bumpy trip. Battery cells went dead. He ran out of blanks. One county had received power just before he arrived; others lacked electricity entirely. One man attempted to stab Mr. Lomax, convinced the song collector was making moves on his wife.

But the excursion was fruitful, producing 228 new songs — such as "Rising Sun Blues," which would become popular within a few years as "House of the Rising Sun." Even not-so-memorable songs were viewed by Mr. Lomax with affection.

"I have made so far 32 records, some of them quite marvelous, some of them mediocre, but all necessary," he wired Washington, D.C., from Harlan, Ky., in September 1937.

A ubiquitous part of the New York folk scene of the early 1940s, Mr. Lomax passed the songs he had collected to the musicians who would become cornerstones of the Folk Revival. Among those who adopted Mr. Lomax's finds: Lead Belly, whom Mr. Lomax's father had "discovered" in a Louisiana prison, Woody Guthrie and the young Pete Seeger.

It was a heady time to be a folk musician. Politics — leftist, populist politics — had given many a sense of purpose. Performers needed material that echoed of the masses, and Mr. Lomax was thrilled to provide it.

"He purposely tried his best to infect us with these songs," Seeger recalled years later.

"One of the reasons we had a folk revival in this country was that Alan Lomax could recognize those qualities in a song that could make someone 1,000 miles from Kentucky want to sing them," Matt Barton, head of the Lomax Archives in New York, said.

Not everyone appreciated Mr. Lomax. His abrasiveness alienated some. His politics disgusted others and, in the early 1950s, contributed to his seven-year trip to England. Others criticized him as they had his father for compiling "composites" of folk songs — taking versions from several people and blending them into one.

Mr. Lomax said it boiled down to putting "neglected cultures and silenced people into the communications chain." His subjects still recall, years later, how exciting it was when he played back the recordings he had just made and they heard themselves play.

What Alan Lomax did was, in a way, inherently contradictory. He was terrified that recorded sound would eradicate the folk-singing tradition. Who needed to sing when you could play a record?

And yet Mr. Lomax used the very instrument he feared to accomplish his goals.

Today, any American can visit the Library of Congress and hear the voices of miners and railroad men and grandmothers and itinerant balladeers who sang long ago into machines long gone. Yesterday's America, today's ears.

Mr. Lomax put it this way in a 1940 radio script: "The essence of what makes America lies not in the headlined heroes ... but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies."

Alan Lomax, who used technology to give voice to the voiceless, is silent now. But the voices he preserved? In the records of yesterday and the music of today, we are hearing them still.