Alan Lomax, the musicologist whose discovery of such folk and blues legends as Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie had an incalculable impact on pop music worldwide, died Friday at 87 in a hospital in Safety Harbor, Fla. Best known for the field recordings he made in the deep South in the 1930s with his father, fellow musicologist John Lomax, he was responsible for preserving and disseminating a musical heritage that helped launch the folk movement of the ’50s and ’60s, the blues revival of the ’60s, and other movements that resonate in today’s music.
Lomax spent seven decades recording the songs and stories of unknown musicians worldwide who played in their native idioms, determined to preserve their music from the onslaught of mass media, which he believed would stamp out regional differences in the service of a homogenized pop culture. The irony of his career is that he used the same mass media to safeguard and popularize these endangered musical traditions, which themselves would transform pop.
His discoveries created the songbook for the folkies of the ’50s, like Pete Seeger’s Weavers (who had a big hit with Leadbelly’s ”Goodnight Irene”), the folk revivalists of the ’60s like Bob Dylan (a Woody Guthrie acolyte), the British Invasion rockers like the Rolling Stones (whose name was taken from a Muddy Waters song), and even contemporary artists like Moby (whose blues and gospel samples on ”Play” came from Lomax recordings) or the compilers of the smash ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which contains two songs originally recorded decades ago by Lomax. In his last years, he was working on a project called ”Global Jukebox,” a multimedia integration of music and dance performances Lomax had preserved from all over the world. Even at the end, he was using the latest technology to save folklore that technology could have buried.