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Unearthing Protest

Words:

Edd Norval
April 23, 2018

Alan Lomax was one of those unique characters that lived for one thing - in his case it was music. His proclivity for discovering new artists provided the groundwork for many YouTube music platforms like La Blogothèque and Gems On VHS. It also changed America.

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Music is something with a myriad impact. It can be something that makes you relax, resonates enough as a love-song to soundtrack your wedding or even provokes the will to protest. Documentation of cultures around the world, especially those subjugated to oppression over the last century or so, has been prone to both exaggeration and erasion - music is one thing that has given us a faithful insight into what came before. These traditions don't need to be interpreted - we just have to listen.


Lomax saw the crucial significance of music to better understanding the cultural impact of certain groups in society. Their songs spread jokes, myths, folklore, religious and spiritual guidance and acted as a basis for morality and belief. Even illiteracy wasn't able to stop hands and a voicebox from spreading wisdom throughout generations.


Lomax was an ethnomusicologist, known for his willingness to take to the road and make bountiful field-recordings of artists. His efforts in archiving and documenting have transcended music and given him status as a folklorist, scholar, activist and oral historian. Lomax was there to help people keep the stories alive that didn't make it into the history books.

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Responsible for bringing acts like Woodie Guthrie and Lead Belly to the attention of the public - he recorded all over the world. His partner in all of this was his father John who already collected folk music for the Library of Congress and was there for the young Alan after he took a break from his studies.


In his early-20s he began documenting the culture of folk music, carrying out interviews with the most important acts of the time like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. A documenter of people as much as the music they made, Lomax pioneered the 'man-on-the-street' style of interview - something popularised over the next few years and has since become the norm on television and social media.


His trips around the US were made in a beat-up Plymouth sedan, travelling in 1938 along rough dirt roads with all of his recording equipment on board, he was particularly busy. He was making history everywhere he went, capturing the expressive rural traditions and range of musical styles that define each region. He collected them on over 250 discs and 8 reels of film on that trip. Using this material he was able to spend the following years creating educational videos and evangelising about the importance of folk music.

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After a ten year spell, from 1949 to 1959, spent in Europe continuing his work - he returned home having broadened his perspective even further. His time in Europe, working with Scottish, Irish and English folk music left a mark on the islands. His presence there inspired the foundation of preservation programmes that are still in action today. Back in the US he embarked on another trip in 1959 that unearthed music that was featured as part of the 2002 Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?


Under the influence of a lifetime spent documenting the emergence and proliferation of local cultures, Lomax was an early proponent of what we now know as multiculturalism. His 'one world' idea was likely a result of his experience surrounding by such a vast array of culture - his idea of reciprocal understanding was, in his mind, crucial to the advancement of the human race as well as the maintenence and importance placed on cultures that form locally.


Globalisation is a burning issue in contemporary social discourse. It has existed in some shape or form for hundreds of years, but the rate which it is now happening is exponential - the fallout is more dangerous than ever. His stand was in direct opposition to the rate that 'growth' was occurring. He said, "The stuff of folklore—the orally transmitted wisdom, art and music of the people can provide ten thousand bridges across which men of all nations may stride to say, "You are my brother."" Lomax sees the traditions that we develop in isolation as the key to understand each other in a more connected world.

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The kick for Lomax was that he realised that although developing in isolation, it was when they coalesced that the forms truly flourished. This is indeed at the core of the idea of multiculturalism - that one group of people can learn from others and therefore advance both individually and together. This interplay informed Lomax and his father's trips. It was this nucleus of an idea - fairly radical at the time, that helped him organise live shows where blues artists would perform beside appalachian folk and gospel.


It wasn't all rosy. Rumours of communism (the enemy of the time) dogged him and his work that, although enlightening, was also partly driven by ego - something that shone through at certain moments in his life. Upon seeing a group of prisoners singing in a field, breaking their backs under excruciating conditions he opined that he had "found my folks… the people that I wanted to represent… that I wanted to be with". While he had committed great deeds that helped American society persevere, he was not working miracles. Many people testified as to his growing Messiah-complex.


Lomax wanted to raise the profile of underrepresented artists, but seemingly only if it was going to simultaneously raise his own. Nonetheless, a career spent preserving local customs, placing emphasis on the importance of native cultures and educating people on the values of our differences are what he will be best remembered for. In 1997 Bob Dylan thanked him for introducing him to folk music, and with that - another whole new generation of listeners. It's hard to fully grasp his influence as it was at large through second and third hand sources. His direct impact was certain, but the branching reach that others granted him was far greater. Without Lomax many countries might not have seen the value of their folk customs, art and music. With Lomax there'd be no Dylan.

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