The Legacy of John Avery Lomax and Alan James Lomax

We first became acquainted with the name John Avery Lomax, Sr. when we found a 1942 recording of “Goodbye Old Paint,” which song is attributed to singing cowboy Charley Willis.  The following is a brief overview of the many achievements of John Avery Lomax and son Alan James Lomax.

John Avery Lomax, Sr. was born September 23, 1867 in Goodman, Mississippi to James Avery and Susan Frances Cooper Lomax.  When he was still a baby, his parents moved in two covered wagons to Meridian, Bosque County, Texas where he grew up on the family farm.  James Avery Lomax, his father, had at least ten children by Susan and at least another four by his first wife who had passed away in her early thirties back in Mississippi.

John Avery Sr. graduated from University of Texas in 1895.  While there he demonstrated his interest in folks songs, primarily cowboy songs, although he was not at all encouraged by the reception from university faculty while he was a student.  After graduation, he was employed at the university in an administrative capacity before moving on to Texas A&M where he taught English.  In 1904, he married the former Bess Baumann Brown of nearby Bryan, Texas.  He interrupted his early work as a teacher to earn a Master of Arts degree from Harvard University in 1906 and 1907, after which he returned to College Station.  He held the Frederio Sheldon fellowship for the investigation of American ballads.  Leaving Texas once more, he lectured and toured a number of colleges including Transylvania and Georgetown in Kentucky, Columbia, Lafayette and University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Eastman Business College, University of Vermont, Amherst, Yale and Harvard.

In 1910, he published his first book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.  That same year, he returned to take an administrative position University of Texas.  He and a professor at University of Texas, Leonidas Payne, co-founded the Texas Folklore Society around that time.  The Society began to publish its first works shortly thereafter.

Lomax was terminated from University of Texas along with a number of others at the University during the term of Texas Governor Jim Ferguson, relating to Ferguson’s dispute with the university trustees and leadership.  Lomax had publicly supported the university President Vincent who was opposed by Ferguson.  Lomax was later offered his position again after Ferguson’s impeachment proceedings, but instead he moved to Illinois and took a job in banking and finance for the next decade and a half.  He sold bonds for a Chicago concern for about two years before returning to Texas, taking a job with the Republic National Bank of Dallas.  While in Dallas, the family lived in Forest Hills on San Benito Way, among other locations.

After this, Lomax continued his research in the area of American folk music and was active in adding to his collection of recorded music and assisting the Library of Congress in its Archive of American Folk Song during the 1930s.  Bess having passed away at age fifty in 1931, Lomax and several of his children remained active in gathering, recording and cataloging national folk music.  Lomax married Ruby Terrill in 1934.  He was named honorary curator of the Library of Congress collection including touring prison farms, particularly in Texas, to obtain recordings from inmate artists.  He was also actively involved in recording slave narratives for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The slave narratives made an effort to transcribe the words of the former slaves word for word.  Although some critics assert that they provide a more optimistic view than the reality, these works chronicle the African-American experience during the years of slavery in stories that may have otherwise been lost.

Lomax continued to pursue his interest in folk music until he died at age eighty from complications of a stroke in early 1948.  His published works include the previously noted American Ballads and Folk Songs, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (Alan and John Lomax), Our Singing Country (Alan and John Lomax) and Folk Song, USA (Alan and John Lomax).

The work of John Lomax, Sr. was continued by his son Alan James Lomax (1915-2002), who expanded the collection of southern recordings and also chronicled music of Depression era Michigan.  Alan was born in Austin and lived with the family after they relocated to Dallas while John Avery was in the banking business.  During his early years, Alan attended the Terrill Preparatory School for Boys which later became St. Mark’s Preparatory School of Texas.  Like his father, he attended University of Texas, and graduated with honors despite interruptions for health and other reasons.

Alan Lomax was noted as having been the first to record such artists such as Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and “Lead Belly,” Huddie William Ledbetter.  Alan Lomax brought a significant portion of the work to public attention with recordings such as “Negro Prison Songs from the Mississippi State Penitentiary,” recorded on site in 1947 by Lomax, along with several Leadbelly albums.  Alan was extremely active in the recording business.  In addition, he performed music and promoted artists, hosted radio programs and participated in just about every aspect of the music business.

Alan Lomax retired in 1996 and moved to Florida to live with his family.  He passed away in 2002 at age 87.  Alan Lomax received numerous awards for his many accomplishments.  They include the following:  National Medal of Arts award presented by President Reagan, The National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction for The Land Where the Blues Began, the Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award, posthumous Grammy Trustees’ Award and Library of Congress Living Legend Award.

Representing the immense and significant contributions of the life work of both John Avery Lomax, Sr. and Alan Lomax, the Library of Congress collection included 10,000 folk tunes and 6,000 images as of 2013.  Between them, they labored roughly one hundred years at recording, documenting and preserving American folk music.

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