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American Folk Lord

Music Man Alan Lomax Got to the Heart and Soul of Our Roots

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The multimillion-selling soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? opens with a Mississippi prisoner singing ”Po Lazarus” — a 1959 work song recorded by Alan Lomax. It’s no accident that such an obscure tune has found its way into pop culture a half century later. The legendary collector, who died on July 19 at age 87 after suffering a heart attack in Safety Harbor, Fla., made thousands of recordings of everyone from inmates to Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie.

Lomax approached each undertaking — he was a musicologist, producer, DJ, filmmaker — with a missionary’s zeal. He began traveling the American South and West as a teen with his father, folklorist John A. Lomax, recording cowboys, prisoners, and plantation workers. He produced Leadbelly’s 1939 album, Negro Sinful Songs, among the first commercial folk releases.

But Lomax’s interests were not confined to America. Through his work at Columbia University and Hunter College, he advocated what he called ”cultural equity: the right of every culture to have equal time on the air and in the classroom.” In the 1980s, he began work on Global Jukebox, a sophisticated multimedia database of thousands of songs and dances, cross-referenced with anthropological data. And in 1997, Rounder began issuing its ”Alan Lomax Collection,” a series of more than 100 CDs made in the Deep South, the Caribbean, Spain, Italy, and Britain.

”He did even more than preserve our people’s music,” says modern folkie Ani DiFranco. ”He taught us to respect it. He knew that if America has a soul, it can be found in the songs of her common people.” — Larry Blumenfeld

ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads (Buddha, 2000); Leadbelly, Midnight Special (Rounder, 1991); ”Southern Journey Series” from ”Alan Lomax Collection” (Rounder)