Thursday, January 26, 2012

January 26: Alan Lomax

Within the modern era of music, the idea of a sound or artist being "lost" is almost unthinkable, as technology has made the processes of recording and preservation very simple and affordable to people across the globe.  However, both of these realities are relatively new when one looks at the entire history of recorded music, and during the first half of the last century, there were countless artists that will never be heard due to the limited range that music could travel.  In fact, during the early 1930's, the reality that entire genres appeared to be fading away moved the U.S. government to seek out ways to preserve their musical history.  This led to The Library of Congress taking a far more proactive role in "saving" the music of the country, and it was this that would lead to the first "field recordings" that have received widespread circulation.  Once the government purchased this then-state-of-the-art recorder, they sought out an individual to scour the countryside and document the amazing music that was being created, concentrating on the more roots-based music of the era.  To this end, The Library of Congress hired a man and his son to do the job, and over a four month period in 1932, the pair covered more than eighteen thousand miles, capturing recordings of some of the most important figures in music history.  It is due to his presence on this trip, as well as his continued quest to preserve music for generations to come that makes Alan Lomax one of the most important figures in all of music history.

During this first trip in documenting the music of America, Lomax focused on mostly folk and blues acts, and the latter of these led to many recordings and prisons across the Southern part of the country.  It was during one of these sessions that Lomax came across a prisoner named Huddie Ledbetter, and Lomax would soon head up a small team that would work for his release from prison so he could bring his songs to the masses.  Ledbetter remains today one of the biggest figures in the history of blues music, but during his journeys, Lomax also recorded the likes of Robert Pete Williams, Aunt Molly Jackson, and a young man who went by the name Muddy Waters.  The recordings that Lomax made were all placed into the Library of Congress, and in later years, they would be released in various forms, allowing the entire world to experience these moving, raw performances.  Yet Lomax made similar inroads within the world of folk music; as it was this style that presented the musical compliment to the sound of the blues.  Much as he did in the case of Ledbetter, Alan Lomax is also responsible for the first recordings of the man who may very well be the most important figure in all of music history: Woody Guthrie.  These early sessions remain today as some of the finest in the Guthrie catalog, and as these songs reached the rest of the country, it became the catalyst for massive cultural changes.

As the years progressed, Alan Lomax shifted his efforts to the world of jazz music and many other styles as they developed, and due to his presence and work over the years, one can easily make the case that the remains the most important historian and field-taper in the entire history of music.  In fact, in the late 1930's, Lomax began delivering his efforts via a different medium, as he played many of his recordings on a series of radio programs that would run over the next few years.  As his radio shows continued over the years, it would be his presence and sound that would lead to both the folk and blues revivals that occurred during the 1950's and 1960's, making his early recordings all the more valuable, as well as pointing the spotlight on many artists that had been believed to be "lost."  Yet Lomax also did a great deal of work within the same realm, but on an international level, as he was one of the key editors in the groundbreaking eighteen-volume Columbia World Library Of Folk And Primitive Music, which was released in the U.K. in the 1950's, taking advantage of a new technology: the LP record.  Even today, the Lomax recordings for The Library of Congress can still easily hold their own in terms of quality, and are far beyond anything else in terms of historical importance, and there is no arguing any other person in history as having an even remotely similar level of importance to the development and appreciation of music than Alan Lomax.

No comments: