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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, July 23, 2007


I've just had a few days' break in southwest France, where the weather was not the total contrast I'd hoped to the wet chill of England, but was, as with many things about life in the land of George W. Bush's cheese-eating surrender monkeys, an improvement. Back here last night, news reports of flooding seemed almost unbelievable... and now that it isn't just poor old Hull, up in the north of England, that's affected, but agreeable swathes of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, the media and the politicians are of course far more interested in it all.

But I digress. An anniversary I had intended to mark but missed while away from my computer (and therefore this blog) occurred last Wednesday: namely, the 5th anniversary of the death of folklorist Alan Lomax, a man about whom it is impossible not to have mixed feelings, I imagine.

Here, working within its usual brief of stressing the Dylan connections of other people, is the entry on Lomax from The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. (One detail I omitted from the entry, for no good reason beyond my own forgetfulness, was the place of his death. It enjoys a name that must always reverberate with sad irony when anyone dies there - it is called Safety Harbor, Florida.)

Lomax, Alan [1915 - 2002]
Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas on January 31, 1915, the son of the indefatigable folklorist John A. Lomax. He was driven all his life by the need to prove himself to his father in the same field - which he more than managed. It is not possible here to list or delineate his unparalleled success as a collector of folksongs and blues in many lands; it must be enough to note that had he not chosen the path he did, our entire understanding of American music would be immeasurably the poorer and our troves of recorded sound vastly less. Everything would have developed differently without him: the Library of Congress would be smaller, its archive of pre-war field-recordings less extensive and less valued; the Folk Revival movement would have supped on a far thinner gruel and the conditions that nurtured Bob Dylan’s career so different that Dylan’s own creative canon could not have been the same.

Lomax was - to mention merely a couple of ways his work concretely affected Dylan’s - a great advocate of WOODY GUTHRIE’s importance (‘No modern American poet or folk singer has made a more significant contribution to our culture’), and a tireless field-recorder, like his father, of men on prison farms (not least in father and son thus first recording LEADBELLY), so retrieving exactly the kind of magical material HARVEY ABRAMS said that the young Bob Dylan was a purist about (‘He had to get the oldest record and, if possible, the Library of Congress record’).

Dylan refers to Lomax directly a number of times in Chronicles Volume One, introducing him first as ‘the great folk archivist’ and a few pages on describing a tangible feature of the Village’s musical topography, ‘Alan Lomax’s loft on 3rd Street. Lomax used to have parties twice a month where he’d bring folksingers to play…. You might see Roscoe Holcomb or CLARENCE ASHLEY or Dock Boggs, MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT, Robert Pete Williams or even Don Stover and The Lilly Brothers – sometimes, even real live section gang convicts that Lomax would get out of state penitentiaries on passes and bring to New York to do field hollers in his loft. The invitees to these gatherings would most likely be local doctors, city dignitaries, anthropologists, but there’d always be some regular folk there too. I’d been there once or twice…’

On January 20, 1988, Alan Lomax was, bizarrely, in the audience during Dylan’s acceptance speech at his induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame; Dylan included Lomax in his thanks, adding: ‘I spent many nights at his apartment house listening to and meeting all kinds of folk music people which I never would have come in contact with.’

Dylan was also taped by Lomax at this apartment, in early 1963 (the tape is undated but has to have been made after Dylan returned from England that January and before the assassination of Kennedy on November 22). The result consists of Dylan singing a rather beautiful version of ‘Masters Of War’, Lomax asking him where he wrote it and Dylan going into a somewhat drunken-sounding monologue about having written it in England where people don’t like Kennedy and then about General de Gaulle and Russian Premier Khruschev. Altogether the tape last around 8 minutes, with the singing running to 4½.

This item was unlogged by Dylan discographers until very recently. The Alan Lomax Archive keeps adding to its online lists, and this item only appeared in fall 2005, though it had been offered to Dylan’s office as an item for inclusion in the No Direction Home movie some time earlier (but not used).

By the time he made this tape, Dylan had also known some of Alan Lomax’s own performing of folksong. The album of sea-shanties he was introduced to by SPIDER JOHN KOERNER back in Minneapolis included, he remembers, ‘Alan Lomax himself singing the cowboy song “Doney Gal”, which I added to my repertoire.’ Indeed he did: he was recorded performing it in his sweetest pre-New York voice as early as May 1960 in a St.Paul apartment. Later, at the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL of 1965, it was Alan Lomax who introduced the PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND with some disparaging comment that no-one can quite remember (it is quoted differently in every account), prompting Dylan’s manager ALBERT GROSSMAN to wrestle him to the ground. Lomax was 50 years old at the time; he had decades of work still to achieve.

As it happened, by this point Lomax had long since impinged upon Dylan’s personal life too: in 1961, Lomax’s personal assistant was one Carla Rotolo, and through her, Dylan was introduced to her younger sister, SUZE ROTOLO.

Lomax’s biggest book, The Land Where The Blues Began, was published in 1993, when he was 78 years old. He had become an eloquent writer about the geography of the Delta, as well as about its music, and equally good on the work song as the main source of the poetry of the blues. By now he was, too, unafraid to make the broadest kind of statement, as here: ‘Singing and making music are a kind of dreaming out loud, pulling the listener into the dream and thus taking care of his deep needs and feelings.’

Alan Lomax was no saint - but since this has not been the place to list his achievements, nor should it be the place to list his faults. He died at age 87, on July 19, 2002.

[Alan Lomax, quote on Guthrie from The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, Harmondsworth UK: 1964. Other works include many co-written with his father, plus The Folk Songs of North America, Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1960 and The Land Where The Blues Began, New York: Pantheon, 1993. Lomax taped interview with Dylan listed at, foot of page, seen online 9 Oct 2005; the tape is Alan Lomax Collection aggregate no. AFC 200404, tape no. T1248. Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One, pp. 55, 70 & 239.]


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