Texas Originals, a co-production with Humanities Texas

John Avery Lomax

Photograph of John Lomax. Originally from the Lomax Collection from Library of Congress. Date and photographer not listed; c. 1930s.
A folklorist whose love of music led to a life’s mission of collecting and recording folk songs performed in almost every state.

JOHN AVERY LOMAX
September 23, 1867 - January 26, 1948

 

Folklorist John Lomax spent his life collecting songs.  According to one writer, Lomax would find the music “around chuck wagons, on levees and railroads, in the saloons, churches, and penitentiaries of the South and Southwest.”

John Lomax’s life-long commitment to preserving folk song began when he first heard cowboy ballads near the Chisholm Trail in Bosque County, Texas. 

He graduated from The University of Texas in 1897 and later attended Harvard University.

Lomax’s first book, Cowboy Songs, was published in 1910 and introduced standards such as “Home on the Range.”  His later books broadened the collection to include prison songs plus African-American spirituals and blues.  Lomax was fascinated by the songs and folklore of those groups at the margins of American society.

John Lomax and his son Alan recorded thousands of songs and helped launch the musical careers of Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, and a Louisiana convict named Huddie Ledbetter, more commonly known as “Leadbelly.”

Although early scholars generally viewed folk music as an unchanging tradition, Lomax demonstrated its creative process.  He highlighted how centuries-old songs became new American stories as singers added extra verses, different melodies, and new plot twists.

Upon his death in 1948, the New York Times quoted the poet Walt Whitman: “If anybody ever did, John Lomax really heard America singing.”

truck
Trunk of car with recording equipment (Library of Congress, American Folklife Center)

 

 

Selected Bibliography

The New York Times, “A Legendary Collector,” July 23, 2002.
Abrahams, Roger D. “Mr. Lomax Meets Professor Kittredge.” Journal of Folklore Research 37 (2000): 99–118.
Christgau, Robert. “Folk Lore.” The New York Times, December 10, 2000.
Filene, Benjamin, "Our Singing Country: John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, and the Construction of the American Past." American Quarterly 43 (1991): 602-624.
Gard, Wayne, “John Avery Lomax.” In The Handbook of Texas Music, edited by Roy Barkley. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003.
Gioia, Ted. “The Big Roundup: John Lomax Roamed the West, Collecting Classic Songs from the Cowboy Era.” The American Scholar 74 (2005): 101–111.
Hartman, Gary. The History of Texas Music. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.
Hirsch, Jerrold. “Modernity, Nostalgia, and Southern Folklore Studies: The Case of John Lomax.”
Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992): 183–207.
Lomax, John A. Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1971; reprint, The Macmillan Company, 1947.
Millstein, Gilbert. “Very Good Night.” The New York Times, October 15, 1950.
The New York Times, “J. A. Lomax, Collected our Folk Songs, 80,” January 27, 1948.
Porterfield, Nolan. “John Lomax and Texas: Roots of a Career.” In Corners of Texas. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1993.
Porterfield, Nolan, Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Reynolds, Horace. “Collecting Our Living Folksong.” The New York Times, March 2, 1947.

This episode first aired on July 21, 2012.