The Map Sings: Alan Lomax, 1915-2002
Earlier this evening, I was listening to a recording of a folk song called
"The Cruel Mother". It was sung in three different parts, by three different
singers, in three different years. In the midst of the second section – B.
Cecilia Costello recorded in Birmingham, England in 1950 – a cuckoo clock
rang. It was a real, genuine cuckoo clock — not a sound effect for general
effect, but because there was cuckoo clock hanging on the wall behind the
singer that happened to strike while the folklorist was recording. It's
haunting and simultaneously makes perfect sense and no sense at all. There's
little good in arguing, though, because the sound is indisputably on the
The recording, cuckoo and all, was released on an album titled Folk Songs
of England, Ireland, Scotland, & Wales, produced and edited by eminent
folklorist Alan Lomax, who passed away on July 19th at the age of 88. Truth
be told, the distribution of the sound of the clock going off probably ranks
among the most insignificant of Lomax's distinguished career. Along with
Harry Smith (who compiled Folkways' sweeping Anthology of American Folk
Music), Lomax is probably the man most singularly responsible for the
folk revival of the 1960s. And, if you concur with the logic of cultural
historians like Greil Marcus, he should then be held accountable for the
entire sequence of events which followed — which is to say things as
(apparently) varied as Bob Dylan going electric to the election of Bill
Lomax was born to be a folklorist. His father, John, collected the songs of
musicians near his childhood home in Mississippi, transcribing them on
whatever was handy — including envelopes, assorted papers, and cardboard.
The elder Lomax's methods gradually grew more scholarly. In 1933, at the
height of the Great Depression, he secured a book deal for his writings on
folk music. He and Alan, then 17 years old, built a primitive 350 pound
recording device into the back of the family car and set off to capture the
music of America. Like the songs themselves, the process of their collection
was a rich tradition passed on to Alan. "He was meticulous in his methods,"
his daughter Anna said in 1997. "Everything from microphone placement to
song selection" (Stambler 367).
After his father took a position at the Library of Congress in the late
'30s, Alan continued to travel, absorbing the sounds of the country, making
early recordings of musicians like Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie,
and countless nameless itinerants, convicts, and farmers. "The map sings,"
he wrote in the introduction to the Folk Songs of North America, a
meticulous volume chronicling literally hundreds of songs, but also the
stories behind them — the way a melody or rhythm migrated from immigrant to
community to traveler to an entirely new region. "The Texas cowboys roll the
little doughies north to Montana," he wrote, "singing Northern ballads with
a Southern accent".
It was a way of life that, by the early 1950s, was disappearing. Ironically,
the same breed of technological advances that allowed Lomax to capture folk
musicians also contributed to the decline of regionalism in American culture
and, ultimately, a death to that particular strain of folk tradition.
Musicians could hear themselves for the first time. And mirrors have a
strange way of transforming consciousness. Not only that, but musicians
could hear what people in other states were playing, even in entirely other
countries. Lomax spent much of the McCarthyist '50s abroad. Working from a
base in London, he made field recordings throughout Europe, and the
Caribbean. The United States he returned to was vastly changed.
The right wing anti-Communist scare tactics of the 1950s had only
strengthened the resolve of leftist activists involved in the Civil Rights
movement and other political causes. The songs of the fledgling
counterculture were songs of the people: work songs, fighting songs, gospel
songs. "The first function of music," Lomax suggested in the Folk Songs
of North America, "especially of folk music, is to produce a feeling of
security for the listener by voicing the particular quality of a land and
the life of its people." Where songs had once united localized groups
(workers on a chain gang, for example), they now united much broader
The meaning of the songs – and, indeed, of folk music – changed completely.
"The land" now meant America as a ragtag whole. Folk songs became protest
songs. Songs that once symbolized security now symbolized pleas for
rationality and common sense. In short, folk music became synonymous with
notions of authenticity, something to invoke at precise moments when one
wanted just such an effect.
In his last years, Lomax himself became heavily involved with a multimedia
project titled "the Global Jukebox" — a proposed "'computerized intelligent
museum' of nonverbal expressive behavior linking performance style and
culture in a multitude of ways". In other words: a complex database
connecting African dances with European vocal tics. If one is going to be
conscious of the music he is making, there's no reason to beat around the
bush. He should have access to everything. The staff of the Alan Lomax
Archives continues to assess and organize the vast collection.
The work of Alan Lomax pulls through all of this like a taut thread because,
when it comes down it, his recordings have not changed one iota. They are
still the same haunting songs as they were in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. For
that reason, Lomax's eclectic recordings (now being issued regularly by
Rounder Records) spend a good deal of time buried in obscure sections of the
record store. As values shift and new symbols are needed, Lomax's recordings
have sometimes found their way back to the surface — such as on the
(literal) soundtrack to the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art
Thou?, or in samples on Moby’s Play LP.
The latter of these has caused a great deal of controversy — not because
the electronic musician chose to integrate "pure" folk recordings into dance
music (that was all perfectly fine and post-modern) but because he chose to
license every single song on the record to various commercial interests.
Lomax's recordings had found themselves into the most unlikely of spots:
television. "I wasn't too thrilled about the idea of commercials," Lomax's
daughter Anna observed in early 2001, "but commercials have become part of
our popular culture, too. People watch commercials as entertainment, in a
sense. Often, they're much better done, and more clever and have better
music, than what's in between the commercials." An odd circle has been
The Amazing Global Jukebox. February 19, 2001.
Lomax, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. 1960.
Stambler, Irwin and Lyndon Stambler. Folk and Blues: The
Jesse Jarnow thinks the cuckoo is a