Bordered by ballads and folksongs

John and Alan Lomax, groundbreaking musicologists

He took to the road, first with son John Jr., then with Alan--always his favorite. Working with the Library of Congress, traveling an America devoid of interstates and often even asphalt, he and Alan traveled thousands of miles, sleeping outdoors, lugging primitive, unreliable recording equipment that weighed hundreds of pounds. Lomax visited ranches, prisons, fields, farms, and churches, gathering the material that would become his next major work--American Ballads and Folksongs. He discovered a black convict in Louisiana with uncommon musical ability. When the man--soon known to the world as Leadbelly--was released, Lomax took him to New York City.

The Leadbelly episode was a summary of much that would bedevil his reputation. He was genuinely interested in black American culture, but seemed to consider blacks childlike, incapable of getting along without more enlightened help. Lomax's association with Leadbelly didn't last long; soon questions about money--the Lomaxes took a healthy cut--arose. Leadbelly split from the folklorist after scarcely three months.

Such events tend to obscure the very real debt that American song owes to the Lomaxes. In American Ballads were found such taken-for-granted classics as "Down in the Valley," "Jesse James," "Cotton-eyed Joe," Yankee Doodle," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Dixie." It's most unlikely that they would be as pervasive now were it not for the efforts of John Lomax, supported by Alan. "He clearly saved a lot of national treasures," Porterfield says. "Whether somebody else would have eventually is a moot point. He was indefatigable in pursuing these songs, and the very fact that he was so active inspired a lot of people to follow his work. Maybe they thought that they could do better--sometimes they were right--but they wouldn't have gone down that road if not for him."

The Lomaxes put up with discomfort, an attitude that their work was little more than a collecting of "itinerant songs," condescension and jealousy from competitors, and outright hostility. "Lomax had this wonderful Victorian attitude, and he stayed true to it, even when it wasn't the thing to do," Porterfield says.

When John Lomax died, Alan was ready to take over. Although quite a bit more liberal--his father often worried about his "Communistic" tendencies--Alan was his father's son. "Alan inherited the mantle from his father, and he could be quite difficult," Porterfield explains. "People often took their cues from that." Armed with a tape deck, Lomax traveled first the country, then the world. In America he discovered Mississippi Fred McDowell and brought the work of Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson to a larger audience, but he was thinking on an even greater scale: He was soon off to the British Isles, Italy, Spain, Indonesia, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

Issued on countless LPs during the vinyl age, the archive he established is being re-issued by Rounder. The first seven of a starting 13-disc series are out now. The new Southern Journey contains all of his 12-LP Southern Heritage series, with a third more unreleased material. "Rounder was the only one to see the big picture," says Lomax Collection staff editor Matt Barton. "Other labels were interested, but only in this or that, just the blues or just the folk."

Lomax, debilitated by a series of strokes that started after he signed with Rounder, had to leave the actual assembly to others, including his daughter Anna. "The Southern Journey discs are relatively recent [1959-60] and in stereo," Barton explains. "They represent the last bunch of songs from the TV-less generation who'd grown up with these songs."

Some of the material in the series is pretty raw, and may be a bit hard to take at first, but little revelations await the careful listener: the guiding hand of sacred music and joy of surrender explained in the Sea Island Singers' "Sheep, Sheep, Don'tcha Know the Road"; the beautiful shaped-note singing of the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers; the old children's song "Little Sally Walker," accompanied by simple hand-clapping, with its familiar chorus of "Ride, Sally, Ride"; and Hobart Smith's "Sourwood Mountain," almost a dead ringer for Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."

Alan Lomax went on to become one of the very first aficionados of world music, and he was no dilettante; sometimes--as when recording in fascist Spain, continually shadowed by the Guardia Civil--his work took real courage. Lomax was one of the first to make larger connections through music, as when he noted the correlation between musical styles and sexual repression in the regions of Spain (the less repressed the attitude, the more relaxed the singing, which makes sense).

Although it's hard to imagine, in an era filled with Cuban salsa, reggae, and multi-album releases devoted to Indonesian gamelan music or the conjuntos of San Antonio in the 1950s, that there was a time not so long ago when music reflected but one--the dominant--culture. That such is no longer the case has much to do with the work of Alan Lomax and his father, John.

Regrettably, the Lomaxes somehow missed the old club owner's field holler "Listings Blues"--"Gonna send a fax to Street Beat (hunh!)/That column of renown (hah!)/But if we don't send another to Jimmy Fowler (hunh!)/The listing won't go down (hah!)"--but you may sing it whenever you contact us at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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