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HOME > Biographical > 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s > WESTSIDER ALAN LOMAX
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Sending songs into outer space


On August 20, when the Voyager 2 spacecraft blasted off for a trip beyond the solar system, it carried on its side a unique record player and a single phonograph record. Included on that record are 27 musical selections that the New York Times has called "Earth's Greatest Hits." If, someday, extraterrestrial creatures play the record and enjoy it, they will be most indebted to the man who chose 13 of the songs — Westsider Alan Lomax.

That Alan's advice should be so highly respected by a committee that spent eight weeks choosing the other 14 songs is a testimonial to his musical reputation. Ever since he became head of the Folk Music Archives of the Library of Congress at age 20, Alan has devoted his life to the preservation and study of international folk music. Following the footsteps of his late father, musicologist John Lomax, Alan has taken his recording equipment to six continents in search of the rapidly disappearing musical treasures of the world.

I finally caught up with Alan and met him for an interview on a Friday evening at his office/apartment on West 98th Street. One room, I observed, was lined wall to wall with tapes and record albums. Another was filled with music books, a third with computer readouts, and a fourth with movie films.

Alan's foremost interest right now is cantometrics — the science of song as a measure of culture. Recently he published a book titled Cantometrics: A Method in Musical Anthropology. Accompanying the volume are seven cassette tapes. The songs are arranged in an order that will teach the student to interpret their general meaning without knowing the language.

"When you learn the system, you can understand any music," said Alan. "We analyzed 4000 songs from 400 societies around the world. Out of that study has come a map of world music." He then showed me a musical chart of Europe, the Far East, and Indian North America. Thirty seven aspects of the music, including rhythm, volume and repetition, had been analyzed by a computer to make a graph.

"Each aspect of the music," said Alan, "stands for a different social style. It's like the guy who says, 'I don't know anything about music, but I know what I like.' It means that kind of music stands for his background and what he believes in."

Alan played a tape for me containing a Spanish folk song, an Irish jig and a song from Nepal, explaining some of the elements as the music was playing. "By the time you've heard two or three tapes," he said, "you get used to the world standards of music. In primitive societies, he added, "everybody knows the same things about everything, so being specific is a bore, and repetition is what they like. You don't impose your boring accuracy on everyone. By the same token, primitive people find it much easier to sing together than, for example, New Yorkers of different backgrounds. In the latter case," said Alan, "everybody starts singing at a different tempo, like six cats in a bag. But if you take people who live together and work together, it's like clouds rolling out of the sea."

Alan was not impressed with the 1976 movie Bound for Glory, about the life of American folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie during the Great Depression. The movie ends with Woody leaving Hollywood for New York to perform in a coast-to-coast radio show. The man who hosted that show was Alan Lomax.

"We collaborated on a number of things," recalled Alan. "It was an enormous pleasure. He was the funniest man that ever talked. And he was so quick. That's what was wrong with the movie. Talking with Woody was like playing a game of jai alai. He was a deeply passionate person, and tremendously gifted. He got up in the morning and wrote 25 pages before breakfast just to warm up."

Though Alan can sing and play the guitar, he does not regard himself as a performer but rather as a "funnel" for other musicians. During the 1940s he helped launch the careers of people like Burl Ives and Pete Seeger by providing them with songs and putting them on the radio. "We set out to revive the American folk music in 1938, and by God we did it," said Alan. "By 1950 it was a national movement."

Alan spent the next 10 years of his life in Europe, where he produced a definitive 14-album collection of international folk music. Then he moved back to the U.S. and settled on the Upper West Side, where he has lived for the past 15 years. His residential apartment is located two blocks from his office.

Besides his research in cantometrics, done in cooperation with Columbia University, Alan is now preparing for publication a study on international dance movement and its relations to society. Energetic, jovial, and looking considerably younger than his years, Alan has no doubts about the lasting value of his work.

"I make my living as a very hard-working scientist," he said. "By using scientific methods, I can absolutely refute the ideas of those who say that Oklahoma doesn't matter, or that the Pygmies might as well be exterminated. Each of these people, we have found, has something for the human future, for the human destiny."

* * *

The Mighty Lomax

from The Westsider, late 1977

It's oldies night on the radio. The d.j. has promised to play nothing but
the greatest hits of the '50s and '60s, and sure enough, here they are —
"Irene Goodnight" sung by the Weavers; "Tom Dooley" by the Kingston
Trio; "Abilene" by George Hamilton IV; "Midnight Special" by Johnny
Rivers; and "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals.

All of these songs reached number one on the charts. And they have something else in common: all are genuine American folk songs of unknown authorship that might have been lost forever if they had not been discovered and preserved by John and Alan Lomax, the famous father-son folklorist team.

The folk music explosion in America that peaked in the early 1960s and continues today owes more of a debt to the Lomaxes than to any performer or songwriter. John Lomax died in 1948 at the age of 80. His son Alan, 62, has been a resident of New York's Upper West Side for the past 15 years. Working seven days a week at his 98th Street office and his 100th Street apartment, Alan has carried on his father's work with a remarkable talent and energy. He has gone far beyond the simple collecting of folk songs, and maintains a dizzying schedule of activities — writing books, catching planes for Europe or Africa, making movies, producing record albums and tapes, and heading a musical research project for the Anthropology Department of Columbia University.

Fathers and Sons

The elder Lomax was primarily a songhunter. His first collection, Cowboy Songs, was published in 1910. It contained such gems as "John Henry," "Shenandoah" and "Home on the Range," which he heard for the first time in the back of a saloon in the Negro red light district of San Antonio.

Alan was born in Texas in 1915. When he was 13 years old his father gave him an old-fashioned cylinder recording machine, and the boy was hooked. He became a full-time song scholar at 18. In that same year his father was put in charge of the newly created Archives of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress in Washington. When Alan was 20 he took over as archives director. The father-son team eventually provided more than half of the 20,000 songs in the collection.

The Lomaxes wrote many books together; they introduced American folk music into the nation's public schools, and through their radio programs in the U.S. and Europe, made celebrities out of such performers as Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

Whereas John Lomax was interested in the music for its own sake, Alan began some time ago to look for the deeper meaning, or social significance, of folk songs. In his many trips around the world he built up a collection of recordings from every continent and virtually every major culture. Along with a co-worker he developed his findings into the new branch of anthropology known as cantometrics.

When the Voyager 2 spacecraft left Earth last August for a jour............
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