I only met Alan Lomax once, 40 years after his recordings trips to the North-East and Western Isles of Scotland in the early 1950s. He was in his mid-eighties then and a lifetime of recording world musical traditions had not lessened his enthusiasm for a song.
Ever analytical, he asked, “How did those African rhythms get into your bodhran playing?” I didn’t have an answer, but there in a nutshell were Lomax’s greatest gifts, never-ending curiosity, combined with an up-front ability to question what he heard. As he said, “My greatest talent is getting people to be themselves in front of a microphone.”
Together with Hamish Henderson and the Macleans of Raasay, through commercial album releases and numerous BBC broadcasts, Lomax brought out the best in people, and brought into the spotlight treasures that local families and communities had long known existed, but which had remained hidden from the public, and commercial, eye. The outsider lent an objectivity, and kudos, to the assessment of Scotland’s native traditions, and brought to prominence such grand singers as Jimmy MacBeath, John Strachan, Jeannie Robertson and Davie Stewart.
In the autumn of 1950, when Lomax arrived in Scotland, there was no School of Scottish Studies, though the idea had been mooted by a group of Edinburgh professors. Several collectors were hired, among them Henderson, Maclean, and the Gaelic poet Derick Thomson, to see if there just might be some remains out there worth recording and preserving. As ever, those who headed into ‘the field’ to collect the remains of tradition ended up deluged with material, such that the School of Scottish Studies archive now boasts more than 8,000 tapes.
In post-war America, Lomax had been part of various left-wing organisations championing the work of singers like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers, along with their agendas for social justice. When McCarthyism brought itself to bear on the workers’ and folk song movements, Lomax accepted a deal with Columbia Records that meant he could live abroad for a few years.
And so, into rationed, post-war Britain came Alan Lomax, a dynamic American with an agenda, and a contract, to record songs and music for the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music. He engaged Maclean and Henderson as his guides, “and,” Hamish later wrote, “as a sort of porter; for his tape recorder came in two massive halves, and took some carrying. But he had the £.s.d. and I had the contacts!”
During his time living in London, 1950-58, Lomax collected in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, with excursions to other countries, but few made the impact of those early visits to Scotland: “The Scots have the finest folk tradition in the British Isles,” he wrote, and the songs and ballads he found were, “among the noblest folk tunes of Western Europe.” This first expedition yielded Volume III in the World Library series, a fine sampler of the range of Scottish tradition.
As with most very successful folk song collectors, tenacity was a key quality. Of course Hamish was there, making people feel at ease and Calum Maclean was there in the Western Isles, interpreting Gaelic songs and stories for him. After one field trip to the Hebrides, Lomax returned to the School of Scottish Studies and triumphantly presented his recordings of waulking songs. The Gaels in attendance laughed uproariously, for the women around the waulking board had been extemporising songs with a wee threid o blue about the American himself.
In the North-East, mainly in Aberdeenshire, Lomax and Henderson humphed the 70-pound machine, visiting bothies, toon hoosies, but an bens, hotels and model lodging houses where they found the extraordinary Jimmy MacBeath, “a quick-footed sporty little character, with the gravel voice and urbane assurance that would make him at home on skid row anywhere in the world.”
For Lomax, folk tradition was a window into a performer’s “strongest and deepest feeling [which] can reveal the character of his whole community”.
In 1953, Lomax met the Scottish singer who, for him, most completely embodied these ‘strongest and deepest feelings’: Jeannie Robertson. Hamish had come across Jeannie earlier that year in Aberdeen and in the autumn Lomax invited this “monumental figure in the world’s folk song” to London to take part in a television broadcast. She was taken ill and ended up staying with Lomax for several weeks while recuperating.
“When I met Jeannie in London in 1953,” he wrote more than 20 years later, I knew at once that she belonged with the great ones… She had a great sense of how to lay a tune along the words to make both shine more brightly, and she knew how to put in the delicate brush of embellishment to make the song come to life in the most important parts. There was nothing like it, nothing like Jeannie’s singing in all Britain.
One of the most interesting genres of folklore Lomax collected was children’s traditions, the ever-varying playground songs, alive with instantaneous parodies of popular songs and the adult world. ‘Children’ make up the only folk group to which we have all belonged, hence its universal appeal: we are all experts, even if the material might lie dormant for many years. Lomax’s recordings feature these songs side by side with big ballads, bothy songs and waulking songs. Children let the folklorist see the evolution of tradition in action.
Alan Lomax’s Scottish work, while monumental in our own context, is but a small part of his lifetime’s achievement. He towers over the collecting of 20th century folk traditions. Part of an American musical and academic dynasty, like the Seegers, he was born into song collecting, holding a lifelong regard for “the wild land and the heart-torn people who had made the song”.
His father, John, was a noted collector of cowboy songs, as sung by those who made and sung them, the working fieldhands of the American west. He made a point of collecting contemporary folk song, one of the first folklorists to move away from the exclusive concentration on retrieving survivals of past. Alan built upon this work, as his sister Bess, and daughter Anna, continue to do. He took it to a whole new level, with the stated ambition to systematically describe the features of accompanied or unaccompanied song around the world (cantometrics) and to set up a ‘global jukebox’, a multi-media tool designed to enable those from any ethnic group to place their own tradition in its world context.
“It took me a long time to realize that the main point of my activity was to redress the balance a bit, to put sound technology at the disposal of the folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas. If it continues to be aimed in only one direction – from our semi-literate western, urban society to all the ‘underdeveloped’ billions who still speak and sing in their many special languages and dialects – the effect in the end can only mean a catastrophic cultural disaster for us all.”
Lomax is not without his detractors, those who criticise his registration of joint copyright with his contributors, or his inclusion of partial versions on the Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland series. Both of these practices are products of their time, long since superseded. On the other hand, the first of these – the royalties on Leadbelly’s Irene – funded the beginnings of the Columbia series. Only last year the Lomax archive presented a sizeable royalty payment to a former chaingang prisoner whose singing appeared, 50 years after it was recorded, on the Grammy-nominated soundtrack of the film, O Brother Where Art Thou?
Fortunately, for present day listeners, the Rounder Portrait Series includes not only full versions of the songs, but, in many cases, extracts from conversations between Lomax and the singers about the songs, their lives, and their cultures. It was through these conversations that we see clearly what he meant when he wrote that, “folk song in a context of folk talk made a lot more sense than in a concert hall”.
His work goes on today through the Alan Lomax Archive at Hunter College in New York (where his daughter Anna works), and through the re-release of an array of field recordings on the Rounder label. As he wrote in 1960, “Each of these ways of expressing emotion has been the handiwork of generations of unknown poets, musicians and human hearts. What was once an ancient tropical garden of immense color and variety is in danger of being replaced by a comfortable but sterile and sleep-inducing system of cultural super-highways – with just one type of diet and one kind of music”.
It is only a few sentimental folklorists like myself who seem to be disturbed by this prospect today, but tomorrow, when it will be too late – when the whole world is bored with automated mass-distributed video-music – our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.
Don’t throw it away. These singers are available in the Rounder and Topic series. Learn a song, or teach a song to someone.
Find out more about the Alan Lomax Archive at www.alan-lomax.com.
Tom McKean is an American folklorist with wide interests in Scottish tradition, particularly the song traditions of the North-East and the Western Highlands. He is a research fellow of the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.Tweet
This is an article from the November 2002 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.