Today is the birthday (1867) of John Avery Lomax, musicologist, folklorist, and collector of folk music across the U.S. He pioneered field recording techniques when other fieldworkers were using hand notation. He built up enormous collections of recordings in the Library of Congress, and brought African-American traditional music to popular attention. He promoted and managed Lead Belly who went on to international fame.
John Lomax was born in Goodman, Mississippi and in December 1869, the Lomax family traveled by ox cart from Mississippi to Texas. He grew up in central Texas, just north of Meridian in rural Bosque County. His father raised horses and cattle, and grew cotton and corn on the 183 acres of bottomland he had purchased near the Bosque River. The cowboy songs Lomax was exposed to during his childhood influenced him in his ultimate professional path. Around 1876, the nine-year-old Lomax met and became close friends with Nat Blythe, a former slave who had just been hired as a farmhand by Lomax’s father. The friendship, which Lomax considered a key moment in his life, lasted three years. Although Lomax’s own schooling was sporadic because of the heavy farm work he was forced to do, he taught Blythe to read and write, and Blythe taught Lomax songs like “Big Yam Potatoes on a Sandy Land” and dance steps like “Juba.” When Blyth was twenty-one, he took his savings and left. Lomax never saw him again and heard rumors that he had been murdered. For years afterward, he always looked for Nat when he traveled around the South.
When he was about to turn twenty-one, and his legal obligation to work as an apprentice on his father’s farm was coming to an end, Lomax’s father permitted him to take the profits from the crops of one of their fields. He used this, along with the money from selling his favorite pony, to pay to further his education. In the fall of 1887, he attended Granbury College in Granbury and in May 1888, he graduated and became a teacher. He began his first job as a teacher at a country school in Clifton, southeast of Meridian.
Each summer, between 1891 and 1894, he also attended the annual lecture and concert series at New York State’s Chautauqua Institute, which pioneered adult education. According to his biographer, “There he improved his mathematics, struggled with Latin, listened to music that stirred him (opera and oratorios, light ‘classics’ of the day), and learned, for the first time, of two poets—Tennyson and Browning—whose work would soon become an integral part of his intellectual equipment.”
In 1895, at the age of 28, Lomax entered the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in English literature, and undertaking almost a double course load (including Greek, Latin and Anglo Saxon) and was graduated in two years. In his memoir, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax recounts how he had arrived at the University of Texas with a roll of cowboy songs he had written down in childhood. He showed them to an English professor, Morgan Callaway, only to have them discounted as “cheap and unworthy,” prompting Lomax to take the bundle behind the men’s dormitory and burn it. Some professors should be taken behind the dormitory and burnt!
Lomax, continued teaching after graduation but, aware of the deficiencies of his education he still wished to have more formal schooling. So on September 26, 1906, with a teaching fellowship, he attended Harvard University as a graduate student. Here he had the opportunity to study under Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge, two renowned scholars who actively encouraged his interest in cowboy songs. Harvard at the time was the center of North American folklore studies (then viewed as an adjunct of English literature, itself a novel field of scholarship in comparison with the more traditional study of rhetoric focused on classical languages, and geared to preparing lawyers and clergy). Kittredge, in addition to being a well-known scholar of Chaucer and Shakespeare, was the son-in-law of renowned ballad scholar Francis James Child, whose professorship of English literature he inherited, and who continued Child’s work in folklore.
It was Kittredge who pioneered modern methods of ballad study, and who encouraged collectors to get out of their armchairs and library halls and to get out into the countryside to collect ballads first hand. When he met John Lomax in 1907, this was precisely what he encouraged him to do. The cowboy songs Lomax had been writing down were glimpses into a world unknown outside cattle ranch, and he wanted him to follow up on his work. “Go and get this material while it can be found,” he told Lomax. “Preserve the words and music. That’s your job.” Thus began a lifetime of fieldwork and recording, along with promotion of folk music.
In November 1910 Lomax produced the anthology, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads – with an introduction by former president Theodore Roosevelt. Among the songs included were “Jesse James,” “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” and “The Buffalo Skinners” (which Kittredge considered “one of the greatest western ballads” and which was praised for its “Homeric” quality by Carl Sandburg and Virgil Thomson.) From the first, Lomax insisted on the inclusiveness of his collection. Some of the most famous songs in the book — “Git Along Little Dogies,” “Sam Bass,” and “Home on the Range” — he recorded from African-American cowboys. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads soon was recognized as a major collection of Western songs and had created a great interest in research into folk culture throughout the U.S. It also made Lomax a nationally known figure.
Tragedy struck the Lomax family in 1931 when Lomax’s wife Bess Brown died at the age of fifty, leaving four children (the youngest, Bess, only ten years old). In addition, the Dallas bank, at which Lomax was working, failed. In debt and unemployed and with two school-age children to support, the sixty-five-year-old went into a deep depression. In hope of reviving his father’s spirits, his oldest son, John Lomax Jr. encouraged him to begin a series of lecture tours. They took to the road, camping out by the side of the road to save money, with John Jr. (and later Alan Lomax) serving the senior Lomax as driver and personal assistant. In June 1932, they arrived at the offices of the Macmillan publishing company in New York. Here Lomax proposed his idea for an anthology of American ballads and folksongs, with a special emphasis on the contributions of African Americans. It was accepted. In preparation he traveled to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress.
By the time of Lomax’s arrival, the Archive already contained a collection of commercial phonograph recordings that straddled the boundaries between commercial and folk, and wax cylinder field recordings, built up under the leadership of Robert Winslow Gordon, Head of the Archive, and Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division. Gordon had also experimented in the field with a portable disc recorder, but had had neither time nor resources to do significant fieldwork. Lomax found the recorded holdings of the Archive woefully inadequate for his purposes. He therefore made an arrangement with the Library whereby it would provide recording equipment, obtained for it by Lomax through private grants, in exchange for which he would travel the country making field recordings to be deposited in the Archive of the Library, then the major resource for printed and recorded material in the United States
After the departure of Robert Gordon from the Library in 1934, Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, a title he held until his death in 1948. His work, for which he was paid a salary of one dollar, included fund raising for the Library, and he was expected to support himself entirely through writing books and giving lectures. Lomax secured grants from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, for continued field recordings. He and his son Alan recorded Spanish ballads and vaquero songs on the Rio Grande border and spent weeks among French-speaking Cajuns in southern Louisiana.
Through a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, Lomax was able to set out in June 1933 on the first recording expedition under the Library’s auspices, with Alan (then eighteen years old) in tow. As now, a disproportionate percentage of African American males were held as prisoners. Robert Winslow Gordon, Lomax’s predecessor at the Library of Congress, had written (in an article in the New York Times, c. 1926) that, “Nearly every type of song is to be found in our prisons and penitentiaries” Folklorists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson also had observed that, “If one wishes to obtain anything like an accurate picture of the workaday Negro he will surely find his best setting in the chain gang, prison, or in the situation of the ever-fleeing fugitive.” But what these folklorists had merely recommended John and Alan Lomax were able to put into practice. In their successful grant application they wrote, that prisoners, “Thrown on their own resources for entertainment . . . still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” They toured Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners such as James “Iron Head” Baker, Mose “Clear Rock” Platt, and Lightnin’ Washington. But by no means were all of those that the Lomaxes recorded imprisoned; in other communities, they recorded K.C. Gallaway and Henry Truvillion. Here is a 1934 prison recording:
In July 1933, they acquired a state-of-the-art, uncoated-aluminum disk recorder (weighing 315 lbs). Installing it in the trunk of his Ford sedan, Lomax used it to record, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a twelve-string guitar player, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly,” whom he considered one of his most significant finds. During the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South. The following year (in July 1934), they visited Angola once again. This time Lead Belly begged them to make a recording of a song he had written to take to the Governor requesting parole, which they did. However, unbeknownst to them, Lead Belly was released in August for good time (and because of cost-cutting due to the Depression) and not because of the Lomaxes’ recording, which the Governor may not have listened to. In September 1934, Lead Belly wrote to Lomax requesting employment, since he needed to have a job in order not to be sent back to prison.
At the urging of John, Jr., Lomax engaged Lead Belly as his driver and assistant and the pair traveled the South together collecting folk songs for the next three months. Then, in December 1934, Lead Belly famously performed illustrating John Lomax’s scheduled lecture of folk songs at a smoker and sing-along held at the national meeting of the Modern Languages Association (chief academic association for English Literature in the U.S.) in Philadelphia. Their partnership continued for three more months until the following March (1935). In January, Lomax, who knew nothing whatever about the recording business, became Lead Belly’s manager and, through a friend, cowboy singer Tex Ritter, got Lead Belly a recording contract with the famous A&R man Art Satherly of ARC records. Satherly had publicity photos made of the singer wearing overalls and sitting on sacks of grain. But Lead Belly’s recordings, marketed as “race music,” failed to sell. During Lomax’s two-week lecture tour with Lead Belly on the eastern College circuit in March 1935 (pre-scheduled by Lomax before teaming up with Lead Belly), the two men quarreled over money and never spoke to one another again.
Lomax died of a stroke in January 1948, aged 80. On June 15 of that year, Lead Belly gave a concert at the University of Texas, performing children’s songs such as “Skip to my Lou” and spirituals (performed with his wife Martha) that he had first sung years before for the late collector.
There are many “cowboy” recipes that I could use to celebrate Lomax but most of them are pretty basic and predictable. I do like the idea (and the name) of Sonofabitch Stew which was reportedly popular on the trail. It’s really nothing more than the organ meats of a cow stewed up with whatever the cook had on hand. I’ve had a number of versions of it in the U.S. South, and I make some concoction like it myself once in a while, being a big fan of offal served in various ways. However, I have chosen an old Southern favorite of mine, pot likker soup. Lomax would have found this soup throughout the South in prisons, shanties, ranches, and farmhouses. It is conventionally thought of as “po’ food,” that is, a dish made from the cheapest ingredients available by poor people. It is still common to eat it on New Year’s Day following the old saying “eat po’ on New Year’s Day, each rich the rest of the year.” The image here is the version of the soup I made this year on New Year’s Day.
Traditionally the base of the soup is the stock produced from boiling collard greens. Collards are very tough, so they must be boiled for long hours. When I was doing my own fieldwork on rural culture in North Carolina I lived in a rural boarding house, and the landlady made collards most days for dinner. She would start after the breakfast dishes were cleared away by packing a big pot with shredded collard leaves, filling it with water, adding a chunk of salt pork, and leaving it to simmer all day until dinner time, around 6:30. She would drain off the “likker” and serve the collards with the salt pork on top. This collard water is rich and flavorful (more so than the greens to my tastes). You can use any greens. I’ve used spinach and swiss chard at times when I could not get collards. As you might expect, this recipe is no more than a set of suggestions; throw anything in you want. Serve with cornbread or hushpuppies (pictured) – that is, deep fried cornbread dough.
Pot Likker Soup
1 lb greens coarsely shredded
4 strips of bacon, cut in small pieces
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in large dice
2 ears of corn, kernels stripped
Place the greens in a large pot with the bacon and onions. Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for 3 hours (8 for collards).
Add the corn and potatoes and cook until tender.