Lomax, John Avery

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John Avery Lomax

American song collector John Lomax (1867-1948) helped set in motion the tradition of studying and performing folk music in the United States.

Songs that seem to be timeless elements of the fabric of American music—“Home on the Range” and “Git Along Little Dogies,” to name two—actually owe their preservation and popularization to Lomax's efforts. Beginning in the area of cowboy music, which he knew as a boy and continued to study for his entire life, Lomax also studied African-American music extensively, and his books are standards used alike by academic researchers and groups of singers who enjoy gathering around a guitarist or piano player. The archive of some 10,000 recordings he deposited at the Library of Congress remains a definitive core sample of the music of ordinary Americans.

Moved to Texas in Covered Wagon

John Avery Lomax was born into a farm family on September 23, 1867, in Goodman, Mississippi. Although he was born in Mississippi and died there, he was identified strongly with the state of Texas for almost his entire life; his family moved to a farm near Meridian, Texas, in the central part of the state, when he was a baby. From the Old Time Herald Web site, in his book review of Nolan Peterfield's work, Robert Cantwell noted that the Lomaxes were, he sometimes said, “the upper crust of the poor white trash”— he grew up driving a mule team, but his hardworking family mostly avoided the trials of poverty. Lomax's childhood was shaped by a variety of musical influences. He heard the stirring hymns of rural Methodism at camp meeting. And, most important, the family farm was located near a branch of the Chisholm Trail on which cattle were driven from range to rail yard, and he often heard folk ballads and cowboy songs as they were sung by actual cowboys. When he was in his teens, he began to write some of them down.

Lomax's schooling was sporadic, but he took to education enthusiastically when he had the chance, and his schooling was marked by a variety of influences—religious, financial, and cultural. He attended Granbury College (a Methodist school that would be called a high school today) for a year in 1887 and 1888. That was enough to qualify him, in Texas frontier days, to teach at Weatherford College, a new school that evolved from Granbury, and at Clifton Lutheran College. But Lomax was intent on finding upward mobility. In the summers he headed north for further education, attending Poughkeepsie Business College and spending three summer term at the Chautauqua Institution, an adult education resort in western New York State whose lecture series brought in speakers in the mainstream of progressive thought in the late nineteenth century.

In 1895 Lomax enrolled at the University of Texas. His literature professors there frowned on his habit of collecting cowboy songs, believing that he should direct his attention toward the classics. But Lomax's enthusiasm for learning was undiminished, and he finished the coursework for a B.A. in two years and received his degree in 1897. He stayed on at the university as secretary to the president, registrar, and steward of the men's dormitory, with other job duties as needed, for a total salary of $75 a month, and then began teaching at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Texas A&M University) in 1903, remaining there until 1910. Married to Bess R. Brown since 1904, and in the early stages of raising four children, he hardly had time for graduate studies but carved it out nonetheless, receiving a master's degree in literature in 1906, at age 38.

After he received that degree, Texas A&M granted Lomax a one-year sabbatical to study at Harvard University, where he received a second master's degree. The year at Harvard proved to be a crucial intellectual turning point for Lomax, who found faculty members there, principally Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge, fascinated rather than contemptuous of his song-collecting efforts. Between 1907 and 1910 they steered him toward fellowships that allowed him to spend summers traveling through Texas with a notebook and a primitive wax-cylinder recording rig. Lomax placed ads in cattle-industry newspapers soliciting reminiscences, and he haunted nightspots that seemed likely places to find singers. At the White Elephant Saloon he heard “The Old Chisholm Trail” from a group of cowhands. An African-American bar owner and former trail cook sang him “Home on the Range,” and from a Gypsy woman who lived in a car he learned “Git Along, Little Dogies.”

Published Groundbreaking Song Collection

These songs and the others Lomax collected were not well known at the time, but thanks to his efforts they became part of the musical folklore of a country absorbed by the image of the cowboy. They came from a variety of sources, some unknown; “Home on the Range” had appeared in print in 1873. But all had entered oral tradition—and all, with the gradual disappearance of the way of life of the freeroaming cowboy, might have been forgotten if it had not been for the publication of Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. A pioneer publication in a country where the study of folklore was in its infancy, the book was dedicated to President Theodore Roosevelt.

After the book's publication Lomax gradually became recognized as America's foremost authority on the cowboy song. He often gave lectures at colleges and universities, illustrating them with a ringing yodel that, as one friend (quoted by Cantwell in his book review) noted, made the listener “feel the dust, the great grass ocean, the harrowed bellowing steers” of the plains. He landed a post as alumni association secretary at the University of Texas in 1911, but he was fired in 1917 after becoming caught in a political tugof-war between Texas governor James “Farmer Jim” Ferguson and the university administration. With four young children to support, Lomax worked for two years selling bonds in Chicago, but friends helped him continue his research. A second Lomax volume of cowboy songs, Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp was published in 1919.

In the 1920s Lomax worked mostly in banking, becoming an executive in the bond department at Dallas's Republic Bank in 1925. The go-go financial world of the 1920s circumscribed his collecting activities as academics never had, but he did keep in close touch with the members of the Texas Folklore Society, which he had co-founded in 1910. Lomax also made friends with the poet Carl Sandburg and began to correspond with other folklore collectors, some of whom he had directly inspired.

Lomax's first wife died in 1931, and the collapse of the bond market during the Great Depression put an end to his financial career. He turned 65 in 1932, but, at an age when most people would have considered retirement, he instead embarked on yet another new phase of his career, one that was perhaps the most influential of all. Urged on initially by his sons John Jr. and Alan, who wanted to help revive his spirits after his wife's death, he began touring once again as a lecturer. Lomax's two daughters Bess and Shirley also later became involved with his musical efforts, as did Ruby Terrill Lomax, whom he married in 1934. In New York, Lomax pitched the idea for a comprehensive anthology of American folk songs to the Macmillan publishing firm. He then headed for the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., to do research at its Archive of American Folk Song. He offered to travel the country collecting songs for the archive in exchange for the loan of recording equipment. His proposal was accepted, and he was named honorary curator of the archive.

Embarked on Mammoth Collecting Expedition

Several factors came together to produce the remarkable accomplishments Lomax notched over the next several years. One was financial: Lomax was awarded a fellowship by the prestigious American Council of Learned Societies to support his work. Another was technological: sound recording equipment, though still bulky and inconvenient, had advanced dramatically in terms of portability since Lomax's previous collecting trips. In July of 1933 he acquired a 315-pound recording machine that made acetate discs—78 rpm records—and mounted it in the trunk of his Ford sedan, giving him what was in effect a portable recording studio. A third was ideological: Lomax, along with other folklorists, had come to believe that traditional folk arts were under attack from modern recorded music. He saw it as his mission to preserve as much music as he could, and he was especially interested in seeking out locations where he thought there would be music mostly untouched by the outside world. Chief among such locations were prisons and prison camps; others included work camps of various kinds and isolated rural communities.

Although he recorded music of various genres, Lomax brought a new focus on African-American music to his 1930s research. He recorded work songs, spirituals, ballads, and early blues, capturing the heavily African-influenced music that black fieldworkers had carried through the generations since the end of slavery. Again Lomax added songs that became standards to the repertory of American music: “John Henry” and “Rock Island Line” were among the pieces he recorded. He was also responsible for the emergence of a figure who became a major star in his own right: Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly (also spelled Lead Belly), was first recorded by John and Alan Lomax at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. They later arranged tours for him in the northern states after his release from prison, and he became a key figure in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

In all, Lomax logged about 200,000 miles on the road in the 1930s, visiting all but one of the 48 states. He was often accompanied by his son Alan, who continued his research independently, becoming one of the world's foremost authorities on African-American music and expanding his research into such issues as the relationship between social structure and voice production on a global scale. The sum total of his fieldwork efforts was impressive: he singlehandedly added more than 10,000 recordings to the Archive of American Folksong, documenting aspects of the African-American musical tradition that have continued to occupy scholars ever since.

Much of the last decade of Lomax's life was spent assembling the fruits of his research into new publications, all of which sold well and remain fixtures of home and library music collections to this day. With Alan Lomax he edited American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936), Our Singing County (1941), and Folk Song U.S.A. (1947). The Leadbelly volume was the source of enduring controversy, much of which occurred after Lomax's death. Lomax had copyrighted (or part-copyrighted) many of the bluesman's songs, including “Goodnight Irene,” which later became a major hit for the Weavers—and Leadbelly in turn commented in his lyrics on the profits Lomax reaped from his work. After writing an autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (1947), Lomax died in Greenville, Mississippi, on January 26, 1948, just after singing a dirty song called “Big Leg Rose.”


Lomax, John A., Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Macmillan, 1947.

Porterfield, Nolan, The Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, University of Illinois Press, 1996.


Cantwell, Robert, (review of Nolan Porterfield) Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, Old Time Herald, http://www.oldtimeherald.org/archive/back_issues/volume-6/6-4/reviews.html#lomax (December 17, 2007).

“John Avery Lomax,” Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/lohtml/lojohnbio.html (December 17, 2007).

“Lomax, John Avery,” Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/LL/flo7.html (December 17, 2007).

Lomax, John Avery

views updated Jun 27 2018

Lomax, John Avery

Lomax, John Avery, American ethnomusicologist, father of Alan Lomax; b. Goodman, Miss., Sept. 23, 1867; d. Greenville, Miss., Jan. 26, 1948. He began collecting and notating American folk songs in his early youth. He studied music at the Univ. of Tex. in Austin, and founded the Tex. Folklore Soc. In 1933 his son joined him in his research; for the eds. they publ., see the entry on his son. He publ, an autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (N.Y., 1947).


N. Porterfield, Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of J.A. L., 1867-1948 (Urbana, 111., 1996).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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