America’s Music Preservationists: The Lomaxes

Did you know many of America's best-loved songs were discovered by a father and son, John Lomax and Alan Lomax, who spent their lives tracking down and collecting recordings?

Born in 1867, John Lomax was captivated by the sound of cowboys singing as they passed near his family’s Texas farm. From childhood, he collected lyrics on scraps of paper. Among his discoveries was “Home on the Range,” included in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910), his first published collection. Home on the Range is also the title of a delightful children’s biography about him.

Eventually, John Lomax became the honorary consultant and curator of the Archive of American Folk Song (later the Archive of Folk Culture), housed at the Library of Congress. He and his son crisscrossed the American South, gathering tens of thousands of field recordings from isolated communities. Their efforts brought the music—as well as some of the artists—to a level of popularity that changed the perception of American roots music throughout the nation and the world. The PBS series American Roots Music features some of the songs and people they recorded.

In turn, the younger Lomax became the archive's director. His career eventually took him around the globe. The excellent Alan Lomax captures his story in detail. 

"The House of the Rising Sun," first recorded by Alan Lomax on a 1937 trip to Kentucky, has its own fascinating history: Chasing the Rising Sun.

Alan Lomax's influence on the folk music scene of the 1950s and 1960s was pivotal. This year's One Book, One Chicago selection, I'll Take You There, examines how the folk and civil rights movements impacted the career of the Staple Singers. 

Happily, Alan Lomax’s archives are available online via The Global Jukebox, a resource created by the Association for Cultural Equity, which he founded.

What's your favorite traditional American song?

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